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Women writers in Sri Lanka come of age

Jun 18, 2009

In 1928, Rosalind Mendis became the first woman from Sri Lanka to have ever written a novel. A half-a-century-long drought followed before creative writing, especially by women, could take root and flourish in the island country, writes Vijita Fernando.

Colombo: Women writers from across the globe have been making the headlines in recent years. Just last month, Carol Anne Duffy was appointed Britain's Poet Laureate, the first woman ever to hold the royal post in its 341-year history.

In 2007, at 88, Doris Lessing was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Literature. Irish Anne Enright had won the Man Booker Prize earlier that year. Indian writers, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai are the notable Booker winners from the Subcontinent.

Over the last three decades, Sri Lanka too has witnessed a surge in creative writing in English by women authors.

After a long drought

In 1928, Rosalind Mendis was the first woman to write a novel, The Mystery of a Tragedy, which was published by Arthur Stockwell of London. That was 80 years ago.

Unfortunately, the book didn't turn out to be the harbinger of a flowering of literary culture, where Sri Lankan women were concerned. A long drought followed, until creative writing by both men and women began to flourish in the post-colonial decades.

Today, it seems that women have outdone the men in churning out varied, interesting and high quality fare for readers. So much so that it prompted critic and award-winning Sri Lankan writer Carl Muller to observe, "Women have become the standard bearers of Sri Lankan writing in English in the past 50 years."

The themes and concerns picked up by women have changed over the years. In the Fifties, critics – both men and women – felt "that women wrote only about 'womanly' subjects, limiting themselves to domesticity or particular womanly experiences."

Exploring the dark side

Now they are basing their works on a broad spectrum of themes and exploring the gamut of social and political experiences. Though they are more open to exploring the 'dark' side of life, many still fight shy of mentioning homosexuality, lesbianism and sexual aberrations in their work.

Journalist-turned-book publisher, Vijitha Yapa attributes this change to the liberation of the economy and the influx of investors, which has helped widen women writers' horizons and experiences.

As a very popular publisher of English language books, Yapa sees a "new generation of women writers exploring social issues through novels, the short story, drama and verse. Publishers now have a wide array of choices from women writers instead of a few limited manuscripts. Quite a few of our publications of women's work have won state literary and other awards."

S. Sivakumaran, critic and columnist mainly of Tamil literature, feels that the increased possibilities of a university education have created a conducive atmosphere for better creative writing by women.

"It could be that their discipline in university education makes them more attentive to the craft, characterisation and language in their writing than men. Women are also naturally observant and better at description than the men," he says.

"Look at the number of women expatriate writers today, who are making a mark in the international arena. We have Michelle de Kretser, Yasmine Gooneratne, Chandani Lokuge, and several others. I don't seem to be able to bring any men's names into this list!" adds Sivakumaran.

Exposing double-standards of men

Sunethra Rajakarunanayake, a prolific, award-winning bi-lingual writer and translator, boldly exposes the double-dealings and double standards of men and women in political and social arena in her novels and poetry.

She has overcome plenty of criticism for exposing societal ills and writing about extra marital affairs, sex, and gay men and their exploits in her fiction. "I expose reality through creativity," she says.

Besides professional criticism, Rajakarunanayake has also been charged of devoting more time to writing than looking after her home and family.

She refutes this, believing that her being busy with writing has made both her son and daughter more independent.

"Anyway this problem was never mine, as my husband and family are always behind me in whatever I write. The problem has been with some sections of society," she says.

Sicila Cooray, who writes poetry, says that she is able to write only because her husband and grown up son give her the space to do so.

"I am a 'moody' writer, in that I write only when something moves me and that can be every day or once in a while...whenever it is I always find the space and their support. That, I suppose, is what makes me tick!" she says.

"Looking at women's writing as a whole, it is quite clear that the charge that women's writings are limited in experience, non scientific, 'womanly' and semi-autobiographical does not hold water any more," says Eva Ranaweera, bilingual writer, who also edits Voice of Women, a quarterly magazine in English for women.

Dealing with wide range of issues

"Women no longer feel pangs of guilt over devoting time to writing," says Yasmine Gooneratne, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

A writer herself, Gooneratne has helped put Sri Lankan women's writings on the international scene throughout her teaching years at Mcquarrie University and has also edited and published collections of Sri Lankan fiction single-handedly.

The war, those displaced by war, the killings, the suffering of parents who have lost their children in the fighting, and many other aspects of the conflict find an outlet in women's works these days. Social problems like female migration, drugs and women being used in the insidious business of storing and distributing narcotics, the sexual abuse of women and children, and domestic violence are also explored.

Over the years, several Sri Lankan literary women have been honoured. 'Anoma', a harsh comment on incest by Punyakante Wijenaike. won the Commonwealth Award for short fiction in 1996.

She is also the winner of the prestigious annual Gratiaen Award for creative writing and six state literary awards for her fiction. The Gratiaen Award is named after the grandfather of the Booker Prize winning Sri Lankan-Canadian author Michael Ondaatjee and is the country's most prestigious award. It is given annually to the best piece of English writing by a Sri Lankan living in the country.

Regarded the foremost novelist and short story writer in the country today, Wijenaike novels are 'dark'. Yukthi, Missing in Action and The Rebel deal with aspects of the ethnic conflict and the insurgency of 1988 and 1980 and the youth rebellion of 1971.

"It is often said that women write more or better because they have more time than the men do. I don't go along with this view, as many women have to find time, juggling with housework, childcare, caring for aged parents and full-time jobs. So what makes them write? Their sensitivity to what is happening around them, their understanding of pressing social issues and their attitude to life which is different from that of the men," concludes Yasmine.

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