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The Galle Literary Festival – Myopia or Ignorance?

by Shyamalee Mahibalan


Close the door of words that the window of the heart may open - Quote Runi


(January 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In a country with two official languages how should a literary festival promote literature?

This is not a usual rant on the boycott of the festival by Noam Chomsky and Arundhathi Roy. This is about the failure of GLF from its first launch to recognize that there are two more languages in Sri Lanka and there are people who do write in these languages. Why does politics seep into every aspect of our lives? Even a literary event is not spared.

How did the English speaking elites of this country simply forget that literature of Sri Lanka does mean Sinhala as well as Tamil? After all this is a literary festival not an English only literary festival. Or is it our colonist mentality that has skewed our judgments? If one walks through any literary festivals in a country with vernacular languages you would certainly see it showcased. I cannot think of a Canadian Literary festival without any French work. Can anyone imagine a Singaporean Literary festival without any Chinese or Malay works? Great poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and Jalaluddin Rumi were written in their native languages of Bengali and Parsi. If not for English translations we never would have had the opportunity to read such wonderful work of history. Today Rumi is the most widely read poet in the United States and widely read on the internet. Literature and arts is a stage that unites people across language, boarders and barriers. This year’s Jaipur Literary festival has shed an example by promoting its vernacular writings across India’s twelve languages with special emphasis on promoting its classical literature. Well, we got just two languages and we simply are unable to handle even that. According to media reports on the net the GLF did come under criticism from certain section of the media. The reason for that could be because the journalists know that they have to work beyond the perimeter of language. Basically, they have an instinct to read the future. Language is only a metaphor of expressing creativity, thus creativity survives despite language, vividly moving beyond words to reach our senses. Can anyone simply think of Sri Lankan literature without the work of Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s play Maname , Mahagama Sekera’s Thunman Handiya, Simon Nawaghtthegama , Monica Ruwanpathirane and host of others.These great works do require translations so that it can be appreciated across language barriers. Being trilingual some of us have the pleasure of appreciating literature across three languages. Wonderful Tamil poetry of Murugesu Ponnambalam, Shanmugam Sivalingam and M.A Nuhuman, a lecturer at the Peradeniya University who has immensely contributed to this country’s literature can be considered as some great works. The GLF missed out a great opportunity to showcase great literary works of this country and promote literature across languages, beyond ticket sales ,luxury hotel stays and media hype.Do not also forget the youth uprising of the south in the 70’s and 80’s in this country were mainly motivated by socio economic and language barriers. It was mainly a class struggle, just as it was in the north and east. It’s a pity that the GLF couldn’t figure this one. Literature is not only for the Colombo’s English writers and elites; aspiring writers live beyond the fringes of Galle fort across the country. Who aspire to be Martin Wickramasinghe, Mahagama Sekera, Murugesu Ponnambalam or Nuhuman.

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