Sunday, May 17, 2015

Gratiaen 2015: The Final Cut

I have not been to the Gratiaen Awards. Nor do I follow it like some of my friends. I have however read and assessed those who won or made it to the shortlist. Winner usually warrants comparison with nominee and in this regard the Prize seems to encourage both. Some like it. Some don’t. A few will or indeed can call it "supreme" when it comes to literature here, but there's a crowd that does that as well. As for me, it’s more or less a curtain-raiser. Always has been.

This year's shortlist was announced last Monday at the British Council. If at all, it raised that curtain a little higher. For me at least.

The event began with the judges: Jehan Aloysious, Dinali Fernando, and Sonali Deraniyagala (who was absent). Dinali spoke about the shortlist. She was honest. She claimed that despite the daring choice of subject-matter (with fantasy being a picked on genre this year), the submissions were marred by flawed characterisation, melodrama, carelessness stemming from a know-all attitude, and lack of awareness about setting and theme.

Now these are what judges in contests like this suffer at some point. Dinali didn't mince words when talking about them. Not that there isn't a reason for this. The Gratiaen is coveted, yes. But it celebrates writing in English. That's esoteric in a way, naturally, and explains much of what had to be weeded out from the submissions. Especially in light of the criteria which the judges used to assess the submissions, fidelity to experience and depth in particular.

The nominees were read out. Sandali Ash ("Rao's Guide to Lime Pickling") was a new face this year, not only because she wasn't nominated before but because this was her first book. Sean Amarasekara did a good job with "play-acting" an extract from it, though I don't think it represented the entire book.

Sandali's piece caught me, however. It caught me because she's from Colombo and the story's set in the North. It is not entirely about the war, true, but still a slice of life from another setting. As she mentioned the book was an "accident", written to please an examiner who had wanted something more than just a field report.

Quintus G. Fernando's Celibacy Factor and Santhan Ayathurai's Rails Run Parallel were novels, different in tone from each other. Fernando's book was more light-hearted. It was funny and yet didn't go overboard, depicting a friendship between a priest and his "little girlfriend" (a nine-year-old). Ayathurai's book was more nuanced, rooted in a time period commencing in 1977 (he mentioned that the ethnic riots of that year play a part). Vihanga Perera's Love and Protest, a collection of poems as brash as they were tongue-in-cheek, also made it to the final list. I can't comment on either. Not yet.

There are those who tend to "pick on" the Gratiaen. More often than not, the reasons cited are the politics of the judging panel, the submissions assessed, and that it caters to a cross-section of the reading public here. These are not unjustified claims, but that does not devalidate the event itself. Gratiaen celebrates writing in English, but this year at least the judges emphasised more on fidelity and being true-to-life in their criteria. Commendably.

There are also some who claim that the event celebrates a language inaccessible to many here. That's debatable. It is true that no one writing in English here can stand up with the best writers in Sinhala and Tamil, but that this means shrugging off every attempt to encourage writing in that language is taking things too far. There have been nominees in the past who didn't attempt at all to validate English in relation to home country. But these have been exceptions.

Politics gets scripted into every event of this sort and Gratiaen is no exception. Lack of emphasis on the political may be what sheds light on Gratiaen at times, but then again as Vihanga Perera shows there are texts which go beyond naturalism and engage with themes less explored. In this sense the shortlist this year certainly stood out.

It was five-time nominee Malinda Seneviratne who had this to say about the Gratiaen last year (when he won): "Writers are vain creatures as Ashok Ferrey pointed out a couple of years ago; we think we write very well and when we are young we even think that we write better than anyone has ever written. This is why I will never sit on a Gratiaen panel of judges." Malinda has on several occassions spoken about Gratiaen and its language-politics. He usually calls a spade a spade and my guess is that his quote describes not just the Prize, but the entire literary landscape in the country as well.

Malinda was not nominated this year. He didn't write. Four others did, however. They are on the list. The competition looks tougher than last year, because while I may have my preferences over who should and shouldn't win, I have to admit one thing: Jehan's criteria make my choice as hard as it's going to be. The final call will be made on June 12. That's next month. We'll see who wins. In the meantime, I'll have to wait.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 17 2015