Sunday, September 11, 2016

On shortlists and the Fairway Award

Books are celebrated. So are authors. Awards, however, rarely are. There are reasons for this, of course. Like the selectivity that goes into rewarding merit. Or the rubbishing of merit and the inflation of other dubious factors. Or the fact that, at least in the context of literary awards doled out by private establishments in Sri Lanka, there’s next to nothing that’s dished out in the name of recognising, affirming, and rewarding talent in the vernacular.

Not for nothing, after all, do writers, critics, and others concerned with our literary discourse lament the lowering of the bar when it comes to the Colombo literati. Now’s not the time to indulge in that, but suffice it to say that, as a friend of mine told me the other day, there’s enough and more in contemporary Sinhala and Tamil literature that dwarfs their English counterpart, whether in terms of output, subtlety, nuance, or sensitivity to culture.

That is why, when a major private establishment that sponsors arguably the largest gathering space for the aforementioned Colombo literati decides to recognise talent in both English and vernacular literature, there must be applause. And praise.

It all began about a year ago. Fairway Holdings, one of the leading companies driving growth in real estate in the country, had become the sponsor and de facto patron of the Galle Literary Festival. The Festival was launched in 2007, and eventually became the gathering space for the literary cosmopolitans it is today. It was by default organised as a symposium on literature. Something, however, was missing.

That something was an opportunity to reward our writers. Fairway must have doubtless realised this, because before the Festival was organised for 2016, it was decided that an award would be launched and given to create that opportunity.

And so applications were called. By the time Fairway announced the shortlist for each of the three language categories in December last year, quite a number of submissions had been received: 69 in Sinhala, five in Tamil, and 16 in English. Not surprisingly, the Festival held about two months later gained colour, memory, and of course a yearning for more when it “shortlisted the shortlist” and lavished accolades on final winners.

That was a year ago. Fairway decided to continue what it began. On the 30th of last month, after a great deal of cutting and chopping and weeding away the not-so-good, a panel of judges announced their shortlist for this year’s award. Together with critics, writers, journalists, and other concerned individuals, they all gathered at JAIC Hilton, where for more than an hour they reflected on the importance of writing with sincerity, as well as their hopes for the current literary discourse in the country.

The judges were unblemished enough. There was Dharmasena Pathiraja announcing the Sinhala language shortlist. He reflected on those experimenting with language, the effects of postmodernism on them, and how, with almost all the novels submitted this year, he and the rest of his panel (Krishantha Fredricks and Professor Piyaseeli Wijemanne) found it difficult to separate the author and the reader in terms of assessing their intrinsic worth. Pathiraja added that the themes that the Sinhala applicants had chosen this year – the urban/rural divide, the left/right political dichotomy, and the conflict in the North (and South) – amply reflected this.

He then raised an interesting question. Given the fact that a work of art must be reconciled to the ambition it sets for itself, what is the point of bringing up other factors that are at best extraneous? Interesting. Brings to mind what the inimitable Harold Bloom once observed: that aesthetic value (be it in literature or elsewhere) is autonomous or independent of moral and political content.

All in all, the Tamil and English judges opted for the same tone. Professor Sitralega Managuru spoke for the Tamil entries. Dr Vivimarie VanderPoorten spoke for the English entries. VanderPoorten in particular raised an interesting point. She argued, correctly I believe, that despite the fact that newcomers had indulged in experimenting with literary devices, they opted in the end for themes so hackneyed that they trivialised whatever they would otherwise have achieved in their work. I’m not sure, however, whether what she said there holds true for the English literati only.

There were others who spoke. Kavinda Dias-Abeysinghe, Deputy Chairman of Fairway Holdings, reflected on how the literature of a country eventually becomes its cultural signature and how, if we are to moor the present and future in the past, we shouldn’t let talent go unrecognised or unrewarded. He could have added that this doesn’t hide the fact that despite the one or two works of art that decorate the history of a culture, there would have been a great many others which, owing to mediocrity or sheer bad luck, pass away unnoticed. That’s not just tragic, it’s inevitable. In a context where merit appears to be sidelined in favour of other more dubious factors, therefore, the least we can hope is to preserve the best and praise the rest.

Given all these reflections, I believe I can say this with certainty: what Fairway has done in the name of recognising merit (with 100,000 rupees awarded to each shortlisted candidate and 500,000 rupees to each of the three winners) must be called for what it is: laudable.

We will be waiting, hence. And watching. For next year.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, September 11 2016