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Lankan women writers breaking barriers

Mar 18, 2010

Young writers from Sri Lanka, free from stereotypical ideas and philosophies, display diverse writing skills reflecting their unique perspectives in style and language. While getting a work published often requires more than mere creative craft, most writers are finding new ways to carry their own visions and values.

Colombo, Sri Lanka: Young Sri Lankan women writers in English display diverse writing skills reflecting their unique perspectives in style and language, says Ameena Hussein, 38, a talented creative writer and publisher herself.

In fact, Ameena is part of the contemporary breed of young women who are making a mark in the literary world. Ameena's recent novel, 'Moon on the Water', was listed for the Man Asia Literary Award, 2009. Her collection of short stories, 'Fifteen', had earlier caused something of a stir for its honest look at some Muslim customs and traditions with a bearing on women.

Commenting on the growing strength of her peers, Hussein makes special mention of 'Mythil's Secret', by teenager Prashani Rambukwella, who explores the genre of adventure and magic realism in her work.

Elaborates Hussein, who runs a publishing house with husband Sam Perera, “We have already published several books by very young women. They depict a fresh perspective on young adult issues.”

So what is the reason for there being more women writers in Sri Lanka? Popular Sri Lankan writer Ashok Ferrey thinks it is because “women are more committed to their craft and take greater pains to improve their skills.”

He adds, “This is true also of the emerging younger writers...But I would like to see emerging young writers tackle more diverse issues and styles. Detective stories, political satire, humorous stories. I am sure none of these are beyond the capacity of any of our young women writers.”

Sri Lankan born-Australia based author of 'The Hamilton Case', Michelle de Kretser, is of the opinion that, “there is a great temptation among Sri Lankan writers to pander to a western audience by exorcising our world.” While western readers expect this and will accept nothing less, Kretser believes emerging young writers in countries like Sri Lanka Kretser should not “fall into this trap.”

“It is difficult for a western reader to believe that there isn't a sniper at every street corner in the Capital...” acknowledges Ferrey.

Fortunately, emerging women writers show no sign of being hemmed in by topics intimately familiar to them, such as home, family and their immediate social milieu. The economic recession, the war against terrorism, natural disasters, the tsunami, female migration of domestic labour and the growing number of women going to University offer a wealth of ideas.

Some post-colonial women writers had already explored taboo subjects as homosexuality. 'Giraya' by Punyakante Wijenaike, one of Sri Lanka's best known writers of fiction, is one such example. “There is a new generation of women writers exploring social issues through novels, drama, poetry and mainly short stories,” says Vijitha Yapa, a popular publisher of award winning English language books.

Yet, only a few female writers touch on taboo realms of lesbianism and sexual aberrations in their works. One such rarity, bilingual prolific writer Sunethra Rajakarunanayake, who has ventured into fictionalising extra-marital liaisons, gay men and their exploits, says  “Exposing these things that are so common in some sections of our society gives me a sense of achievement, although I have plenty of critics and get poison pen letters.”

Other 'new' areas that younger women writers are looking at with a discerning eye are the victimisation of female migrants and sex workers; and the insidious deployment of women for storing and distributing narcotics, mainly in slum and shanty towns.

Parvathy Arasanayagam, 35, who also teaches English, has explored the areas of gender, social and ethnic discrimination and cultural themes and other 'burning' questions of the day, as she calls them, through her short stories and poems. “I am a witness to my times,” says this serious-minded young writer, who reiterates that she is “not confined to stereotypical ideas and philosophies.”

Celebrated Sri Lankan author, Carl Muller, had once observed that women writers were the “standard bearers of writing in English in the past fifty years.” In the first decade of the new millennium, Muller views remain unaltered. For he says, “Young, emerging women writers are rapidly filling Sri Lanka's literary treasure chest.”

Yet, getting a work published often requires more than mere creative craft and Muller acknowledges the travails experienced by emerging writers in getting their work published. He speaks of the “hard nosed approach of the publishing circus” in the country where ‘unknown’ writers are a ‘publication risk.’

As he put it, “Young writers with stars in their eyes are called upon to pay for publishing, launching their work and distribution. Most of these [tasks] are beyond the resources of many young writers, but they carry on doggedly...I have found that most young writers find a way to carry their own visions and values, despite the long, hard road ahead. Many new writers wait in the wings or if they have affluent parents, have a source of assistance.”

However, several young women writers, all in their twenties and thirties, have traversed the hard road and as emerged winners. Muller named some of these dedicated authors: Writers like Rachel Rajadurai, author of ‘When Courage Beckons;’ Irangani Fernando, who has written ‘Patchwork of Dreams’; 'Kathleen Fernando with her 'Dewdrops'-a collection of stories and poems; and Sundari de Mel, author of 'Dreams and Realities'.

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