I thought it best to introduce these poems by telling a little about myself. To do this I’ll expand on my answers to some questions posed by a researcher from a London university who was doing his dissertation on Sri Lankan English language poetry.
Who or what are your influences?
My influences are entirely local. Poetry (in my Sinhala language, kavi) was very much part of people’s lives where I grew up: the ordinary people, whom I referred to in one of my best-known poems as "The anonymous people". I have no connections to anyone who may be called "somebody". It is very important to say this. Writing in English, it is usually presumed I must come from a family of long-time English speakers and therefore have little connection to ordinary people. Worse still, it is also presumed that such a connection is unwanted. This is a big problem for a person like me.
I say "ordinary people", coming from a common Sinhala term, sanannya minissu. This is different to "poor people". Villagers had their ways of living and their own houses; they did not consider themselves poor. Their profound local culture consisted two parts: a deep sense of rejection and a deep sense of belonging. I believe that both these evolved from many centuries-old habits of isolated living. Their poetry expressed their lives. The tones were usually rough but sentiments expressed were very refined. This ethos I grew up in influences my poetry.
Though poetry that people sang (poetry was sung, not recited) was learned at schools or by listening to others, mostly it was spontaneous: men and women would suddenly sing while engaged in work. I have usually written my poems spontaneously, and in most instances hardly anything has been changed from the original. Local people’s simplicity may be described as a form of arrogance; they disdained artificiality and were very direct in speech and action. Their poetry, though often deep, was also direct. I believe that I have inherited this characteristic from them.
Until about fifteen I knew hardly any English and my reading habits in English started later still. Growing up in a tropical village I could not much appreciate English writing, as the content and imagery was alien. Winter was something I could not understand, and so were habits associated with winter, ways of dressing or making houses to suit conditions. I believe that there is lot of pretence among those Sri Lankans who claim to understand English writing and ways of life in the West.
I have read quite a lot of English poetry: British, American and other, including English translations of poetry from other languages. Recently I have had the opportunity to listen to English poetry on audio tapes. I very much enjoy listening, and yet I cannot claim that it has influenced me. In the early seventies M. I. Kuruvilla, a well-known English literature teacher, critic and himself a poet, told me that my poems bore a similarity to those of Emily Dickinson. Much later I found her poems and now I have audio readings of them. I like her poems, and Robert Frost’s, among others. I find Seamus Heaney very stimulating. Now I feel a deep inner understanding of what they write about, despite lacking experience of the circumstances under which they have written. As I have some understanding of history it helps me to appreciate the ideas in those poems.
Why do I write in English? It was mostly an unconscious decision. After I lived outside my original ethos, I began to withdraw into myself, as the people of my village used to do when they faced any hostile circumstance. Other than the distance from natural milieu, there were other reasons that forced me to withdraw. One was the use that Sinhala language was put to during the sixties and seventies. It was beginning to be employed both chauvinistically and ideologically—the words were getting overloaded. The chauvinism was caused mainly by propaganda activities of right-wing political parties. The ideological colourings came from left-wing groups, big and small, which saw everything from supposedly Marxist points of view. Ordinary and simple expressions had no place; every expression became confused with real or pseudo political meanings. When your language defeats you, you go through a crisis and you must examine options. That is how, I think, I opted to write in English. The ideas inside me did not coincide with the meanings words were acquiring in their day to day political usage. I needed a new language to express my thought spontaneously; English thus became my secret language, as most of my writings were to be kept as a private record. With encouragement, I published a few poems; the first was in New Ceylon Writing. Kuruvilla, who had been shown some of my poems by a friend, encouraged me to publish my first thin volume, A New Era To Emerge.
What issues or themes do you like to address?
I am coming to agree more and more with the view that death and love are the main themes of poetry. Death and love take different meanings in times of war and social crisis: "Evelyn, my first friend" deals with a younger sister’s death; "Yet another incident in July 1983" with four deaths during a riot; "Just Society" with many deaths; "Age four revisited" with the killing of a butterfly by a child thinking that it is an act of heroism to do such a thing; and "By the wayside" with people whose deaths and burials take place secretly. Then there are many poems about my father; contemplation of a loved one who is no more.
Death is an absurdity imposed on life. We cannot do away with it, so the only rational thing is to distance it. When society breaks down, this absurdity becomes clear. A social crisis removes the possibility of distancing death by a great deal; it is all about lack of consent to distance death. I never saw and do not see the Sri Lankan crisis as an ethnic crisis: it is something much deeper, a fundamental breakdown of meaning within the society. The father in "Yet another incident in July 1983" opted to take his two children with him rather than allow them to watch their parents burned to death. How would these children’s meaning systems have changed if they were to watch that? But this is what every one watches, inside the country and outside, happening to "other" human beings. Does the fact that most victims are not known personally make a difference?
We have to walk outside the "logical" framework of propaganda arguments (what most political arguments are) to see things from the perspective of death and life. That is how ordinary people see things, and there is a much more profound truth in their way of seeing. In my lifetime, my society has lost the ability—or will – to distance death. In this light, the chauvinist claims of every group are hollow; political life has become a festival of lies. But is this only the situation of Sri Lanka, or most of humanity? In several poems this is my theme, particularly "Fiftieth anniversary get together", written on the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (published in an anthology of writings for the occasion by the Dutch foreign ministry).
The other theme is love, which given my cultural background, I would like to call "friendship". More than the Greek eros, the Pali term kalyama mittata – beautiful friendship – expresses our view of love. When a Swedish writer once asked me about my favourite theme, I replied "friendship", at the time unaware of how important kalyama mittata is to Buddhism. I realised much later, through discussions with Buddhist scholars. Buddha once said kalyama mittata is the whole of his doctrine. So it is no surprise that a poet instinctively discovers this fundamental aspect of a culture without being conscious of it. What better friendship than to work towards distancing death and to mourn those already dead? These are tasks for the poet. Coming from oppression, I associate life and friendship with democracy and freedom, and regard dictatorship and suppression as death. In my conception of death and friendship, personal and social are intertwined.
Do you see contemporary Sri Lankan English language poetry moving in a particular direction, perhaps to address its colonial heritage and influences?
I have my reservations about colonial heritage. The influence of colonial powers on Sri Lankans, even those who were close to them, was in my view only skin deep. The Western influence was not powerful enough to alter the consciousness that came from an ancient civilisation. Even among Christians (I am one) the religious influence was merely superimposed on a very strong prior consciousness.
In education, the Western impact was mostly to create a class of people called the "elite", whose main characteristic was to be very intimidated before the collections of books brought by the colonial power into libraries. The loss of self-confidence can be seen by the initial absence of Sri Lankan writing, and then by the only scattered writing coming later. How can a Sri Lankan ever write like English poets or writers? That was the question behind their fears. In fact, the English critics created this fear. Not every critic, of course, but the contribution made by most coming from the university English faculties has been very negative. Reading books seems to de-link academics from their own sources of creativity. One result has been the attempt to imitate. Kuruvilla once wrote that the besetting sin of English writing in Sri Lanka is imitation of British writers. He advised me not to make a formal study of English literature, saying, "It will kill your natural instinct and you will feel it necessary to imitate instead." I took the advice. I once attended a poetry reading session at the British Council, where even the tones were so mute and un-Sri Lankan. I deliberately read my two poems with a heavy Sinhala accent. Some did not feel what they heard was poetry.
I believe the sense of intimidation and the need to imitate will disappear in time; we already have several writers without such fears. One direction writers will take is to be more and more independent and find their own expressions. This does not mean that writers will be narrow-minded or localised. Given the extent to which people travel and are exposed to other situations now, more openness and a greater variety of styles and subjects are likely. I myself have benefited much from travelling in the last ten years that I have been out of Sri Lanka. I have had an opportunity to look closely at Cambodian society and the impact of the Khmer Rouge regime while working as a UN officer there. What I saw was the Sri Lankan situation, extended in scope and intensity. I did not have to sympathise with them, for from the point of view of what our societies have faced I was just one of them. I saw "Yet another incident in July 1983" repeated over and over again. I have travelled to most Asian countries, and to many more than once; I have talked to people from all walks of life. I see similar contradictions and mental conditioning everywhere.
Many writers are likely to bring such experiences into their work. I believe that more important is not to be shy of talking about our local experiences. For example, in South Asia caste is a deep social condition that has wounded minds and spirits, but still there is shyness to talk about it because it is so close to life and the pain it causes remains raw. Another is sexual relations. Sri Lanka is a sexually repressed society, which contributes to the record level of suicides the country is now famous for. While artificial romantic writing is commonplace, there is hardly any creative writing that brings out personal conflict. The violence generated by state institutions is also ignored, yet day to day life is pre-determined by such violence; to leave these things out makes writing superficial.
I am reminded of Lakdasa Wikkramasinha’s poem, "Don’t Talk To Me About Matisse", which I first read many years ago. The words "don’t talk to me" were like a loud shout, as if the poet was saying, "Don’t give me that bullshit!" To understand this one has to recall the cultural milieu of the sixties and seventies, when it was considered very sophisticated to be able to talk about Mattise, Gauguin, Van Gogh and other big names in the world of art. Wickremesinga’s loud protest was against such talk, considered chic by the "elite" of the time. The poet was distancing himself from such pretensions, disgusted by this chatter of his class, which shares the colonizers’ view of the "natives". If and when it feels concern for the plight of non-Westernized classes, it is patronizing and pompous.
To illustrate this by way of an example, immediately after the 1971 Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection a small group of concerned individuals came forward to help in the defense of JVP leaders during their trial. The two who gathered this group were members of the Colombo cultural elite. Several senior lawyers also came forward to help in good liberal sprit. I attended the meetings of this group with two friends who were young lawyers like me. One day a young man whose brother was among the accused expressed the wish to talk about his case with the group. He and I were invited to dinner at the home of one of the two leading personalities. Subtle symbols of social status were in full display in the living room. The genteel manners of our host also reflected the snobbery of this indigenous "elite". For example, after dinner we were served curd and honey (not pudding) in polished coconut shells, not in bowls of imported crystal! The host held forth for hours, covering every conceivable aspect of the world, be it art, literature or international politics. The young man, being a person who knew "their ways" endured all this politely, but his patience began to run out as it was getting quite late. He squeezed my leg under the table and whispered, "Kindly ask him about my brother", which I did. The good man spent two or three minutes on that issue and went back to those other matters he regarded as of greater importance.
Wickremesingha’s poem always reminds me of that occasion. In it, he denounces the Westernized social elites of his day, not the Western colonizers. He is talking to his social peers. The poem is not a denunciation of Western culture in itself, as to think that would be to assume that the poet believed non-Western cultures to be somehow better, purer and less bloody than Western culture. This assumption needs to be critically examined. Both Sinhala and English writings in Sri Lanka (I cannot speak of Sri Lankan Tamil literature because, unfortunately, I do not have a direct knowledge of it) are founded on the notion that non-Western civilizations are pure and non-violent. When one talks about what is peculiar to Sri Lankan writing, what is often presumed is that there is something very pure about the Sri Lankan mind and heart for writers to capture and convey. Sinhala writers in English look for the pure Sinhala essence; Tamil writers in English look for the pure Tamil essence. Yet our histories are full of blood and gore, like the histories of other South Asian peoples. South Asian history has produced some of the cruelest oppressions in human history. As Dr. B. R. Ambedkar pointed out, the very ideals of South Asian society have given rise to inhumane cultural institutions. To this day, very little of this culture has changed. South Asian nationalists find it very easy to criticize the "other", but criticism of one’s own so-called "inner essence" is not only intolerable but is also regarded as treason. English language literary critics in Sri Lanka of the sixties and seventies – Kuruvilla is a notable exception – shared the chauvinism prevalent at the time, though they are quick to deny this.
Kuruvilla came from Kerala, in India, and was very much a representative of his cultural heritage. The vitality of that tradition lies in the ability of its writers to unmask the oppressive character of Brahminism in its traditional and modern forms. In my view the test of a good South Asian writer is the extent to which he or she can expose these devastating effects of contemporary Brahminism. When any one from that background who has not understood this begins to talk about the greatness of his or her culture, one can justly say, "Don’t talk to me."
Do you have reader expectations and if so what are they?
To be frank, at the beginning I did not think of any reader. I just wrote because I had the urge to write and keep my writing in notebooks. To my surprise, I received a very warm welcome after my first publication and some poems from that collection have been published repeatedly. Other than the local welcome, I also received encouragement from people of different nationalities.
One expectation I have is to be able to meet with people in Sri Lanka and discuss poetry and other writing. This is unlikely in the near future, due to the deep social crisis that naturally preoccupies people. Still, I believe creative writing can contribute a different perspective to the way this crisis is being looked at. I hope reader circles will expand beyond the small groups in Colombo, as students and others have an interest in new writing. To some degree, language has adapted to more common vocabulary. Meaningful writing can encourage meaningful social participation. It is only through such a process that we can, as a society, distance death. I see meaningful participation as life-giving, and a true expression of beautiful friendship.
Why did you leave Sri Lanka?
I left Sri Lanka on 7th September 1989. Had I remained a few days longer I would have been dead. I left with only a few days to prepare myself. My wife was three months pregnant with our only child, but I was quick to leave. One of my would-be tormentors, a police inspector, regretted my departure stating "he was quicker than us".
To understand what happened you must understand about Death Lists – marana layistu – a term every Sri Lankan is familiar with. Politicians – and some undercover police – prepared these. They listed persons who had to be "disappeared", a term synonymous with being eliminated. The technique used to cause disappearances was first to create panic, allow it to degenerate, have insecurity spread, then launch a hunt using police units, military and para-military groups, and simple criminals. Most important was to do everything as quickly as possible, which meant not allowing people like me to move, protest, or revive due process. This is what began in 1988, and was in full swing by 1989, when between 30,000 and 60,000 people disappeared.
My name came onto the list where I was living, at the top, I was told. Two government party politicians put it there. I was a pain in the neck as a lawyer not intelligent enough to grasp the realities of the time and foolish enough to believe in due process. I was in their way. The plan was a tiny part of a larger scheme, which their party – the United National Party – had put into effect. (For details, read the Report of the Commission on Disappearances and Forcible Removal of Persons, particularly the section on Western Province. The website