Magical realism is not unfamiliar in Sinhala literature - Mohan Raj Madawala | Sunday Observer

Magical realism is not unfamiliar in Sinhala literature - Mohan Raj Madawala

25 April, 2021

Acclaimed, popular novelist Mohan Raj Madawala’s new novel in Sinhala I.D., published by Biso, was launched for the past BMICH book fair, and unlike his other novels it deals with a contemporary theme identity in a fast moving world. The Sunday Observer spoke to him to discuss his novel and the issues with regard to book publishing. Mohan Raj who is a journalist in profession, has published six novels including this and, three collections of short stories.


Q: This book deals with the contemporary life unlike your other novels?

A: Yes, my other novels set in historical background. At this moment, I think, our way of life has been changed so much that we cannot do our day-today activities without the mobile phone, especially facebook social media. So this book based on the life started from 1970s to the date.

Q: You, especially, focus on the role that television and mobile phone play in our life?

A: When we look back, at the 1970s we only have Black and White television. Then comes the Colour tv, and then FM radio comes. Subsequently, in late ’90s we receive mobile phone and the computer. In 2000s we have Laptop and in mid 2000s, receive Smart mobile phone. Consequently in 2010s we receive Facebook and WhatsApp. So our life, our identity has been changed completely for the last fifty years because of the technology. Thus, I describe this life evolution in this novel.

Q: The title of this book is in English?

A: Yes, it is I.D. ID means identity. We have Identity Card issued by the government. We call it not identity card, but ID. We always call it ID, and consequently ID applies to other areas such as our identification too. This is why I named it ID. Today our ID, our identification has almost been lost. Isn’t it?

Q: This book was published in last September. What are the reader’s responses?

A: You know, I have a readership, they always keen to read my books. So a substantial number of copies is been sold every time I publish a book, and here is also the same. And many readers call me and praise. But I am happy if more highbrow readers read it and tell their ideas about it.

Q: You are mostly criticised for your sexually explicit fiction. What is your response for it?

A: You cannot ignore the theme of sexuality when you discuss life. And I think, I can explore the subject more deeply if I write it in a magical realistic form. So sexually explicit is an essential characteristic in my fiction. But it is not unfamiliar in Sinhala literature. For instance, Kav Silumina, a classical Sinhala poetry book, discusses the sexual relations overtly. There are other books too that discuss the theme more openly.

As for my form of fiction, I don’t consciously follow the magical realism. It naturally comes to my writing when I write. Besides, magical realism is not unfamiliar in Sinhala literature. Saddharma Ratnavaliya and Jataka Stories, classical Sinhala prose works have also some magical elements.

Q: Sexually explicit descriptions are more frequent in this book ID. Is there any reason behind it?

A: Today’s life is more complicated than we think, and one can have a sexual relationship without meeting a man and a woman. With mobile phone technology you can have that experience in separate beds, separate rooms, separate countries too. Especially with the Phonography or phone sex or Live Sex websites you have this experience. When you write a fiction based on this interaction, you cannot ignore this explicit description.

Q: The task of fiction is generally regarded as enlightening the reader or make understand him the subtly of life. In Sanskrit, this is called Anandayen Prgnawa or to Wisdom from Delight. Do you believe in that you can take reader to wisdom just overtly describing the sexual relationships?

A: It is not the theme of sexuality that is in my fiction. For instance, this novel I.D. has the theme of identity. I described sexual relations too when I explored the theme. All my books are like that. They have life themes, not sexual themes. But one can categorize them as sexual novels or obscene fiction if he is reluctant to read sexually explicit texts. And I don’t believe in definitions of fiction too. I only accept the idea that fiction should enlighten the reader.

Q: Is there any books that influenced your form of writing?

A: Saddharma Ratnavaliya and Jataka Stories influenced me immensely. Other than that, folklore, myths and rituals of our people have also affected me. When I read foreign classics such as novels of Garcia Marquez, Issabel Allende, Paulo Coelho and Haruki Murakami with the knowledge of that Sinhala literature, a kind of different art of fiction was formed in me. That is what I believe about my art of writing.

Q: In this book there are some characters that are based on real people?

A: Yes, there are famous Sinhala film stars such as Vijaya Kumarathunge, Malini Fonseka too in this novel. I describe the change of our life, our needs and our love in it. You know, in ‘70s and ‘80s, we love by letters, not by phones. If we saw a girl who attracted us those days, we just gave her a piece of paper written our address, and then start to write love letters. Our heroes were also Vijaya and Malini.

We included some songs too in our love letters. Now this pattern has been changed so much that one would not want to see a person in real to love him. That’s why today some of our heroes are foreigners. A recent research has revealed that the first priority of our people now is to have a data card for their phone or laptop, not to take the meal or something. Rs. 100 data card is more valuable than Rs. 100 packet of rice for them.

Q: Though the society or life style has been changed, human values and standards that we value them are not changed?

A: No, it is an old idea. The standards that we use to judge present activities or values have been changed from old standards. Those days we considered as a morally bad thing to sit on a same height seat with a monk, but now that standard has been of no value. One can say that this is a degradation of values. But though it’s degradation or not, we have to accept it. We cannot reject the new values. Once a politician said, we must reject Gmails, but without Gmails we cannot work. We cannot reject technology. We cannot hate science and its results.

Q: Your three books have been published into English. How do you see it?

A: One of my readers in Canada named Somasiri Munasinghe, a former journalist from the Sunday Observer translated two of my books – Loveena and Victoria - and another reader in Abu-Dhabi named Maheshi Weerakoon translated my short story collection. They were done without my mediation. When I participated the launching ceremony of my novels in Canada, I felt that virtually no one in the world knows Sinhala literature. We say we have great writers such as Martin Wickramasinghe, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Simon Nawagattegama, K. Jayathilake, but any of these writers are not come to world literature. Though some of their books have been translated into English, world doesn’t know about us. In my view, it is very difficult to go into the world literature by writing in Sinhala. Initially, I had a feeling that three translations of my books would help to introduce Sinhala literature into the world to some extent. But now I have no more such feeling.

Q: What kind of readers do you have? They are young or old?

A: It is difficult to answer that question. Sometimes young readers who associate popular fiction respond me, and sometimes people aged 70s also call me. Some of them are very highbrow readers who associate old classical literature. It is difficult to categorise them as young or old. I think, on the whole, they attract my different writing style.

Q: You published your book by your own publishing house named Biso Publication. Why did you choose to publish them by yourself?

A: You know, today a writer receive only a 10% royalty for a book when he publishes it via publishing house. But can you survive as an author with just 10% royalty? In this scenario a writer never financially goes up except goes down. This is why I chose to publish my books by myself. But it is a very difficult task as we have a publishing monotony in Sri Lanka.

Some three – four years back we sold our books via big publishers’ bookshops, but now they deny selling our books. If they take other’s books, they are only other big publishers’ books – they have mutual agreement to sell each others’ books. They deny even our bestselling books. So it is very difficult to survive in this publishing world as a small publisher.

Q: Can’t we change this royalty system?

A: I think we should have some monitoring system in the book publishing. We all know that if a writer gives his manuscript to a book publisher, he has no chance to see whether how many copies of his book have been printed. And publishers never inform about the second or third printing of the book too. So this has to be monitored, and an accepted royalty system should have been established for writers. When we take the world stage, we see such a system, writers live and earn only by their books. For instance, Issabel Allende has no other profession other than writing. Orhan Pamuk, though he works as a university lecturer, mainly writes. Garcia Marquez earned only by books. Unfortunately, in our country writers become poorer while publishers become richer. We should establish a system that a publisher maintains the reader.

Q: Do you work on another fiction?

A: Generally, I take two or three years to publish a book. So now I am without work. However, I have some ideas to a fiction. As I normally research for a book, I don’t think my ideas would come out as a book next year or so.