Quality of literary criticism has declined- Prof. Harshana Rambukwella | Sunday Observer

Quality of literary criticism has declined- Prof. Harshana Rambukwella

8 November, 2020

Prof. Harshana Rambukwella is a Trustee of the Gratiaen Trust and Professor in English and Director at the Postgraduate Institute of English, the Open University of Sri Lanka. He has also been a member of various literary panels, including the SwarnaPusthaka, Gratiaen Prize and the State Literary Prize for a number of years. As he has experience in Sinhala and English literary panels and literary criticism, the Sunday Observer spoke to Prof. Harshana Rambukwella to discuss issues regarding literary awards, criticism and Sri Lankan literature.


Q: Harshana Rambukwella was first known in the public sphere with the SwarnaPusthakaand Gratiaen Prize jury panels?

A: Yes, I first sat on the Gratiaen Prize' literary panel in 2012. In 2013, I joined the Swarna Pusthaka jury panel. The invitation to join Swarna Pusthaka came to me through a book publisher whom I knew for some time through various literary activities I participated in. The Book Publishers’ Association at the time wanted a change in the constitution of the jury panel for the SwarnaPusthaka awards. That's why I was contacted by them.

When I joined the Swarna Pusthaka panel the first year, the panel comprised persons, such as Gamini Viyangoda, Dr. Sunil Wijesiriwardhane and Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri. I was already known to some of them because I had done research on some aspects of Sinhala literature, particularly the relationship between literature and nationalism, and some of this work had been published – though I was not in Sri Lanka from 2004 to 2011. It was a rewarding experience to me to work with them in judging Sinhala novels.

Q: How about your Sinhala language skills with regard to judging Sinhala novels?

A: I sat for the Advanced Level examination in the Sinhala medium in the arts stream in 1994. My subjects were Geography, Political Science, Logic and English Literature. I attended Dharmaraja College, Kandy which is a Sinhala medium school. Growing up atWatapuluwa and Gurudeniya in Kandy, Sinhala was the language that I used predominantly. Therefore, my Sinhala was always quite good. When I entered the University of Peradeniya, I did Geography, Social Science and English in my first year – though from the second year, I switched to English as I did an English literature Special degree.

Q: Tell us your postgraduate studies. Are they connected to literature?

A: After my first degree, I worked at theInternational Water Management Institute in Colombo from 2001 to 2004 as a science writer and editor. During this time, I was looking for postgraduate opportunities. I got a chance to do an Mphil degree at the University of Hong Kong on a full scholarship which I later upgraded to a PhD. During my first year in Hong Kong, I received another scholarship to attend a summer seminar at Cornel University, USA.

This summer seminar is an annual event held in summer called the School of Criticism and Theory where many of the big names in literary theory participate and conduct various sessions and interact with students over two months. For instance, the year I was there Homi Bhabha, Robert Young and Torl Moi were at the School.

The turning point in my academic career in terms of moving from a ‘standard’ postcolonial literary studies orientation to a broader cultural-theory-oriented approach which could also accommodate Sinhala literature was a fortuitous meeting with Dr. Liyanage Amarakirthi who was teaching in the Sinhala program at Cornell University at the time.

Over that summer, we became good friends. He urged me to shift the focus of my post graduate studies to bring in some of my Sinhala literary and cultural knowledge.

Since my focus was on the relationship between nationalism and literature, Dr. Amarakeerthi’s suggestion made sense.

From that point, I began to look into the historical conditions under which writers, such as Martin Wickramasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekara emerged and what role that historical moment in Sinhala literature played in the formation of Sinhala nationalism and nationalist discourse.

Through Amarakeerthi, I also got to know Dr. John D. Rogers, a historian who specialises on Sri Lanka and the Director of the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies. This enabled me to have a kind of dual supervision arrangement with John advising me from the US while I continued with my PhD in Hong Kong.

Q: Have you published any book?

A: I published a book titled the Politics and Poetics of Authenticity. It was published by University College London Press in 2018 and is loosely based on the work I did for my thesis. I have also published a number of scholarly articles and book chapters on subjects ranging from history, cultural criticism to literature and sociolinguistics. But I have not attempted a Sinhala scholarly work.

If I am to publish a book in Sinhala, it will be a critical work, because I do not see myself as a creative writer.

Q: You said when you were at Cornell University, you were looking at the relationship between nationalism and literature. What's the connection between the two entities?

A: Literature and culture have always played a significant role in nationalist thinking – they are what I would call mutually constitutive discourses. This is a fairly new area of study in Sri Lanka. This is one reason why I thought of researching this area for my postgraduate studies.

Q: Literature is judged by aesthetic value, not by cultural or political value?

A: The aesthetic is also political. There is what you may call politics of the aesthetic. Hence the title of my book which is the Politics and Poetics of Authenticity. In Sri Lanka (and in other parts of the world), there are many awards for novels, such as SwarnaPusthaka, Fairway, State Literary Prize, Godage Literary Prize and Vidyodaya Prize.

In all these prizes, the novel is given pride of place. Why is the novel as a literary form given so much prominence when there are other fictional forms? Here we have to look at the work of political scientists, such as Benedict Anderson who published a fascinating study in 1983 called Imagined Communities.

Anderson shows that the emergence of nationalism in European societies in the late nineteenth century was made possible due to what he calls Print Capitalism. Two of the main genres of Print Capitalism he identifies are the novel and the newspaper.

The form of the novel allows people to imagine themselves as belonging to the nation or a national community. It's a complicated argument, but basically what he shows is that nationalism is closely connected to literature. And then of course, you have the Marxist tradition.

There you see Marxist critics, such as George Lukacs who also showed that the novel had a strong relationship with nationalism. And even in Sri Lanka, for instance, in Gunadasa Amarasekara's writing, particularly in his long essays, such as Abuddassa Yugayak and Anagarika Dharmapala Markswadeeda he argues how important the novel is for the nationalist project. Literature and politics are more closely intertwined than we generally think.

Q: Isn’t it difficult to believe Gunadasa Amarasekara's ideas on novel?

A: Many people find Amarasekara’s ideas controversial, but if you look at the 1950s, most artistic productions in Sri Lanka at that time were heavily shaped by cultural nationalist thinking. In literature, art, theatre and cinema, it is visible at the level of thematic content and the forms that artistes experimented with. It was a new nation looking for a new form of cultural expression and a new cultural idiom. It was primarily an aesthetic endeavour, but it was also connected to politics. This is what I try to explore in my book.

Q: If you read the ancient Sanskrit criticism, you can understand that aesthetics and politics are separate entities?

A: I am not arguing that aesthetic is always over-determined by politics. There can be aesthetics independent of politics. But there are many instances when politics shape aesthetics as well. There is a relationship between the two entities. I am not trying to go back to the old Marxist argument which says all aesthetic production is determined by the economic base and therefore, is political. My argument is that literature is never free from politics, because writers are also a part of a society, they cannot escape from it.

Q: You were working with the Gratiaen Trust when you joined the Swarna Pusthaka?

A: Not ‘working’ with the Gratiaen Trust in the sense of being employed by the Trust, because it is a voluntaryorganisation. I was invited to join the Gratiaen judging panel in 2012, and subsequently, I joined the Trust in 2013. I accepted the invitation primarily because it is the longest standing Prize for English literature in the country.

The trust was founded by Michael Ondaatje, an internationally renowned writer of Sri Lankan origin, who donated part of the money that he received from the Booker Prize for his novel, the English Patient to set up the Gratiaen Trust in honour of his mother Gratiaen Doris.

Q: Do you see any difference between the Gratiaen Trust award and the Swarna Pusthaka award?

A: If you look at the Swarna Pusthaka, it is only for published novels. But the Gratiaen Prize is an open prize where any kind of creative writing in English is accepted. The Gratiaen takes books in any genre, such as novels, short stories, poetry, travel writing, nonfiction, creative autobiography and memoir. It also accepts manuscripts. For instance, this year, the prize went to a travelogue titled Upon a Sleepless Isle by Andrew Fidel Fernando who is a well-known cricket journalist working for ESPN Cricinfo. Therefore, a direct comparison between the two awards is not possible. The problem in Sri Lankan English writing has always been that the quantity of writing has been limited, because the number of people who read and write in English is limited.

Therefore, each year, we don't see more than sixty submissions for the Gratiaen Prize, and out of that, the number of serious writers is quite limited, may be 20 or 30, whereas in Sinhala literature, the numbers are much greater. When you look at the Swarna Pusthaka, you probably get more than 150 submissions or close to 200 submissions per year. But the problem is that there has been a qualitative drop in Sinhala writing over the years.

The number of Sinhala writers in the ‘60s and '70s may have been less, but the quality was better. Now, people can easily publish books as technology is readily available, but these publications are lacking in quality in comparison to those at earlier time.

One area that Sinhala literature needs to improve is in literary criticism, such as reviews of books. The critical industry has declined. This applies to English as well.

The quality of the literary discourse has declined. If you take a publication, such as the London Review of Books in the UK, you can see the difference in quality. Even in India, in Hindi, you can see much more vibrant literary discussions. There are many high quality publications in literature, which we don't get in Sri Lanka in Sinhala or English. One reason is that our publishing industry is weak.

A serious writer in India or the UK will be signed up for a contract which is one to two years, during which time, an editor works with the author producing the book -- this does not happen in Sri Lanka, either in Sinhala or English.

Q: What are your suggestions to improve the situation?

A: I don't know why our publishing industry unable to invest in this. I don't know enough about the economics of the publishing industry.

But the Gratiaen Prize has facilitated the emergence of some good writers, because when there is a prize out there, people aspire for it. This is the same for SwarnaPusthaka and other Sinhala literary awards. We don't have a good critical industry. We need good book reviews in newspapers and magazines. We need good editors.