Extract from a speech by Michael Ondaatje at the first ever presentation of the Gratiaen Prize in 1993.
The prize was shared by Carl Muller and Lalitha Wittanachchi.
I want to begin by saying how I became of literature in Sri Lanka when I was child. It was a very specific moment on the boundary line of the cricket pitch at St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. I was an 8 year old, and I saw Father Yin pass by, and someone whispered, “his brother is a writer”
At the moment every other teacher at St. Thomas’ fell away into a mist, (except for Father Barnabus who continued to beat us daily for no reason at all). But Father Yin was now spoken of in hushed tones. His brother turned out to be Leslie Charteris, who wrote all the Saint thrillers. And so we read them all. This was the closest I ever got to a writer for 15 years.
But the adventures and thrills in the saint books took place in England. Just as most of the music and literature that was in our house at the time seemed to come from abroad. We danced to an imported culture. We saw films made in America. When I was researching Running in the Family about the generation of my parents and grandparents, I realized that there was hardly any written fiction. Or even journals or memories, written in English that
was set in Sri Lanka. If we had stories we wanted to circulate we told them or heard them during dinner party conversation. Culture seemed stuck within the oral tradition
It was not until I met Ian Goonetileke in my thirties, who aimed me towards writers like Lakdasa Wickremesinghe and others, that I saw a true literary mirror of this place. This has also happened when I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, I recognized for the first time the voice of a country that was not English or American. I recognized a place that I had never seen represented in a book before. Rushdie had doubled that size of the English language by allowing in as Asian dialect. This was literature that existed alongside us, was not just a distant mirror.
I think, until that moment in publishing, people really did believe that significant literature would always come out of London or New York. It was the end of the supposedly pure Western canon. The empire had struck back. We now know that the Naipauls could write rings around the Amises. And further more they had a new story to tell.
This is what the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda says:
There are rivers in our countries which have no names, trees which nobody knows, and birds which nobody has described… Our duty, then, as we understand it, is to express that is unheard of. Everything has been painted in Europe, everything has been sung in Europe.
Nothing is as exciting for us as to find our own place, or our own stories, in a book. When that happens the self is doubled, we are no longer invisible.
The Gratiaen Prize is an attempt, on the level, to share the wealth. I was lucky. But more important it has been set up to test and trust and celebrate our selves, to discuss and argue about the literature that grows up around us, to take it seriously, not to just see it as a jewel or a decoration.
Books are there to un-censor ourselves and if there are enough readers we can un-censor governments. And as we all live in this same landscape, with more that is similar than different, translations can be an open window on each others cultures.
While the Gratiaen Prize is supposedly an award for the best book, we must also realise one important thing – that in a serious culture there is no winner or “best writer”. The arts are not like political elections where the winner takes all. The arts are hopefully a true democracy. No one writer creates a literary culture. Several people, essayists and poets and
novelists and critics and publishers and thereby readers, do.
A person writing today, whether he or she knows it or not is the result of people like Lakdasa Wickramasinghe and Sarathchandra and Ian Goonetileke and Dhamma Jagoda. Just as the art of Gabriel and Deraniyagala have formed our aesthetics. There is a constant link between the photographs of Lionel Wendt and new photographs on exhibit at Gallery 706. These wonderful self-portraits of art – which might be the gardens of Geoffrey Bawa, or the films of Lester James Pieris, or the dances of Chitrasena – influence us, not just as ‘art’ – something to be bought and hung on a wall, but as a way to live. Just as a storyteller or a crafts-person or a historian or an archaeologist make their subjects and organic part of society.
It is an ambitious wish to represent a culture fully and truthfully, and to be that vehicle of communication, between ourselves, as well as between who we really are and other countries. The great gift of our time in translation. Imagine our image of Russia or South America without their authors. So imagine the portrait of Sri Lanka abroad without its
artists. If we don’t support and take these real artists seriously we are in danger of being known only by the clichés of a tourist board and by the nature of our politics.
We live in a time when books are set on fire – so here’s to the book, that small strange object that can be an alternate government. So here’s to the writer.