By Ishita Jha
Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Sri Lankan writing has always been a sort of footnote to Indian writing, a minor and marginalized activity. However with the efforts of dedicated authors and critics it has begun flourishing in the recent past.
With a large number of both diasporic and “local” writers emerging now, problems of reception, response, authenticity and canonicity have surfaced. Critics like Arun Mukherjee and Cyril Dabydeen have criticized Ondaatje for socio literary offences that include remaining silent about his experience of displacement or dearth of concern with issues relating to the immigrant population. Sugunasiri in her paper “Sri Lankan” Canadian poets examines the validity of these criticisms as she defends Micheal’s paucity of consciousness towards the upheavals wrecking Sri-Lanka and experiences of displacement. Ondaatje who left the country at the tender age of 10 could not have been aware of the wider social class or even his community as a whole. So when he says “My mind a carefully empty diary”, he is, according to Sugunasiri doing exactly what Mukherjee accuses him of not doing: recognizing his cultural baggage. He simply did not live long enough in his country to grasp its society in all its complexities and intricacies. Ondaatje for Mukherjee is a person given to navel-gazing and preoccupied with self-reflexivity. Recently I read Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’. I would like to read out a few lines before I link the text with my article.
‘Gradually we became nation less. I came to hate nations. We are deformed my nation states. Madox died because of nations.’
Especially , Almasy the English patient constantly spoke about how the deserts had fulfilled his painful desire to erase his name and the place he had come from. This love for desert was because of this unburdened feeling he experienced of not belonging to any nation or ancestry and to be free to adopt any identity in its shadowed coolness.
Almasy’s attempt to destroy or ignore his national identity is related to Ondaatje’s situation. I can’t give a specific reason for Ondaatje’s unwillingness to write about his country and cultural identity but that’s what my point is about. Why should I give a reason? Maybe like the English patient living in a world where taking sides have become so important, that he wants to break away. His desire to not talk about the pain of his homeland, to not take a particular ideological or political stance is his free choice and not a fact we can blame him for Robin S Ngangom’s “Poetry in a time of terror” betrays his inability to talk about anything but the cruel violence of his land. It is different for every person. Of course texts are supposed to be a reflection of contemporary culture. But why place a burden on the writer to be its reflection? Or even worse, why confine him to reflect a particular culture, nation or ethnicity and criticise him for not showing enough concern?
Mukherjee’s views show the importance some people might give to the need of placing texts within a discursive field. A burden of forceful recognition of one’s culture, tradition and civilization seems to have been placed upon the writers in the name of context. Rienzi Crusz , another writer who has been placed in the awkward position of being extolled by a critic for being authentic in showing the struggle about a black man’s life and condemned by another critic for not being Sri- Lankan enough. Mukherjee praises Crusz for his awareness of the predicament of the immigrants in Canada and consciousness of his homeland that he has left behind. But Sugunasiri who feels that Crusz unlike Ondaatje had a university education in Sri Lanka had the opportunity to understand fully the ethnic, religious, social and political conflicts that his country was hosting. Being a witness to political and cultural tumults, his works do not at all reflect any of the developments. So while Crusz may have been beautifully identified with black and addressed the status of immigrants he remained uprooted in his alienation from his country which is seen as the bourgeoisie who fled the revolution. We see how the works of authors came to be seen as a commitment to or a betrayal of certain indefinable cultural values. Chelva is right when he describes the confusion that seems to prevail as one tries to decide whether the author is a patriot or a deserter, an essentialist or authentic. As we delve into the these opposing views based on reading of texts done along nationalistic lines we see how writers are being allotted to certain assigned camps.
Sugunasiri as she talks about Asoka Weerasingha contends for the title of “Sri-Lankan” poet through reasons such as is his sensitivity towards the political, social and cultural realities of his land and the use of “local” characters, situations, flora and fauna. There are two very grave mistakes she commits while doing the same. Even Mukherjee praises Bhaggiyadatta whom he considers the epitome of the “immigrant Sri-Lankan poet”. This constant struggle to determine the ultimate “Sri-Lankan” poet creates a homogenized label, which is very wrong because the country has now become a metaphor, an allegory, a philosophical idea. The country with all its complicated diversity has been reduced to a homogenous label, which a piece of text can apparently represent. The second mistake was the appreciation showed by Sugunasiri for use of certain local themes and characters which again imagines the country as a set of imaginative references and threatens the abundant multiplicity of Sri-Lanka. This is what makes the label of “Sri-Lanka” inapplicable to the poets not because they were insensitive or ignorant.
Returning back to the issue of reading texts along ethnic, racial or nationalistic lines it is obvious how the need to contextualize writing can be damaging to both literature and culture. Keeping in mind the country’s political violence, it is understandable that even the most liberal of critics will find it hard to obtain an objective stance or appreciate a text in an aesthetic sense and sometimes form totalizing positions about the merit of authors. People from a country that has experienced so many tumultuous changes do come from a cultural milieu in which literature is expected to say something about the contemporary realities. In such cases literary criticism becomes just an expression for personally biased views. There is absolutely no space left for the opportunity to acknowledge assertions, ideas and theories that are ahistorical and purely philosophical when the need for ideological positions that relates to one’s political consciousness becomes so urgent. As we discussed before, the continuous and opinionated use of “Sinhalese” and “Sri-Lankan” indicates that there is something in these vast sublime cultures that can be defined in binary terms. It also clearly and rigidly suggests that if a writer fails to adopt a certain political stance or view , then his writing is obviously is flawed.
This contriving often results in artificial constructs that mimic the essentialist tendencies of colonial writings rather than the realities of nation. An anxiety to tie oneself to indigenous contexts and portray one’s authenticity come into being which leads to the use of themes, colours, flora and fauna that indicate forcefully one’s belonging to a certain culture or civilization.
Apart from the issues of anxiety and the allegorical use of country as a label, preoccupation with ethnicity of texts gives rise to attitudes entrenched and informed by subjective responses to the current political climate. And these very narrow views go on to determine readership, canon and writers themselves. Of course it is naïve to expect that the world would be homogeneous or unperturbed. No environment is idyllic; it sustains many paradoxes and incorporates multiple oppositional reference points. But to be dismissive of one’s work on the grounds that one fled from the revolution for which Crusz is blamed by Sugunasiri creates a binary that is very unfair and intolerable.
We need to be aware of divergences, of the multiple traditions that shape the literature. Aware of fifteen years of ethnic violence, political upheavals and social conflicts which has resulted in a polarization between major ethnic groups making the possibility of a common ground exceedingly difficult. The appeal for criticism to shed the urgent importance for political context is not a plea for homogeneity. To have a whole body of critics think in the same manner is another kind of hegemony. Heterogeneity is important. But the heterogeneity needs to grow out of the categories of nation’s multiplicity, race, class, religion, ethnicity and gender. Criticism based on cultural, political and ideological positions that claim to define the identity of the nation are detrimental to the writing and to the country. Such texts hardly generates a large readership due to unfavourable response by critics. Chelva in a line creates a chilling picture as he tells us that literary criticism determined by personal biases and subjective attitudes could result in the creation of a canon that has neither the energy nor the complexity to hold its own against the literature of the other postcolonial nations.
Ishita is a student of English Literature at Ramjas college of Delhi University. She has an inherent urge to argue and an opinion about everything and anything. She is interested in literature, politics and philosophy and would love to dedicate her whole life to academic research. Usually she can be found in a tranquil corner absorbed in her books. Not only wanting to spend her career pondering over literary theories she wishes to bring about a change in people’s mentality about various cultural and social issues that have become rigid. Very passionate about issues of gender and caste discrimination she is ruthless when encounters outlooks entrenched with ossified traditions. She has interned with Teach for India and works in Enactus Ramjas which helps her to impact lives emotionally and financially. Loves travelling, heated discussions, integrity and opinions backed by research. Can be contacted at Ishitajha07@gmail.com.