Life lessons from a poet

In conversation with Jean Arasanayagam

Ours was an “affair” that started almost 10 years ago. I wrote to her asking if I could write about her, and she responded with the grace and elegance of a bygone time that instantly had me hooked.

We became “pen pals” and have corresponded since, on various matters – from writing, and each other’s lives, to life in general and the values of family. For someone jaded by the laconic nature of modern correspondence, and also awed by the humility of a woman who has accrued so much adoration to her name, this “pen pal” was special.

The recipient of my affections? Jean Arasanayagam – poet and writer of fiction and non-fiction, whose most recent accolades include the “Sahityaratna” lifetime award for invaluable service towards the advancement of the field of literature in Sri Lanka at the State Literary Awards, and the Gratiaen Prize in 2017 for her book “The Life of a Poet”.

“A poet who is human” is how she defines herself, and I can’t find more suitable words.

“I discovered my private enclave wherever I wandered – in the paradisal garden my father created in Kadugannawa where my earliest recollections began, and that abandoned tea estate on the hill behind the house I climbed every day, alone and unattended,” she reviewed her childhood, when I asked her to share her story with me one more time. She speaks fondly of her parents, who, she said, “with their love and caring, so greatly sacrificial in their generous giving of themselves, cocooned me yet gave me the freedom to grow.” And grow she did, into a writer whose words – unpolluted and poignant – capture everything from her colonial heritage to ethnic troubles.

Below are excerpts from the most recent chat I had with her.

Q: Of your early days, Jean?

My father was a strong heroic figure, my mother a beautiful human being who sang to me, songs which I still remember, and a great storyteller…
I had an older sister and brother, both very talented, with whom I shared a life when they had the time and inclination to spare for me. I adored them both. I was surrounded by a wonderful array of aunts, uncles, grand-aunts, grand-uncles, cousins as well, and I do recollect my paternal grandfather, W.H. Solomons, that complex individual who was the Headmaster at Richmond College, Galle, and then moved on to practice law in Anuradhapura.

I was surrounded by friends in Kadugannawa and Anuradhapura and spent hours happily in play – the English and Scottish daughters of railwaymen in Kadugannawa, Joy Salvage and Heather Macdonald, and the Burgher children of railwaymen in Anuradhapura, the Sinhala children with whom my sister and I played on the playground (“the green”) in Kadugannawa – they were the children of the railway workers who lived in the railway workers’ quarters at the bottom of the hill where our home lay.

One of my greatest, most loving carers was Mungo, my ayah, who came from a small pocket of habitation nearby – she tended and nurtured me, spent hours playing with me, told me folk tales, rhymes, crooned lullabies as she lulled me to sleep, took me to view the aftermath of the Bali ceremonies near our home…Even to this very day Mungo is an everlasting memory that appears in my writing.

I remember the war years (the Second World War), the English/British Tommies, the black-outs, food rationing, War Babies, The Pink Elephant Pub in the heart of the town, houses being commandeered to house troops.

I remember my father’s friends to whom he offered hospitality – the army officers from England, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, the American GIs, concerts and variety entertainment for the troops at Trinity College Hall…so much and so much, but, yes, I have to go back, back in time, back to Kadugannawa and the great earthquake that took place in the latter part of the 1930s.

My mother, my sister, and I sought protection outside our house at midnight and my mother held our hands in her firm grip as the earth tilted and heaved and I felt that the stars, so dazzling in the sky, would fall from the heavens on our frail, puny bodies…

My father was out on the engine with the night mail full of precious human passengers. He stopped the engine at Sensation Rock, averted tragedy, and saw that all his passengers were safe. The train, manned by my father, stood unmoving and safe at that precipitous spot, prevented by my father’s expert and skillful manoeuvering, safe from falling over the precipice.

Q: Enigma of a Left-Behinder won the State Literary Award. Tell me about why you wrote the book.

The reasons are complex. Living within a politicised landscape and having to withstand the historical past which endangered me and my kind, I’ve had to think long and hard on the legitimacy of those colonial inroads made by the colonisers; the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and the living legacies they left behind.

I grew up completely unconscious of those historical ventures so questionable, so open to query in the acquisition of trade and commerce and territorial expansion in that acquisition and conquest-seeking. Growing up in Kandy, there were memorials and monuments that dominated the landscape of the township. I was all unaware of the reasons of that overwhelming and overpowering dominance of those larger-than-life statues of British governors and soldiers mounted on rearing, snorting horses; bronze statues in the heart of the town, the naming of streets with alien names, the churches, the cathedrals, the missionary schools and colleges – an amalgam of that complex relationship between conqueror and conquered.
I did not wholly understand the implications of breaking away with the granting of independence to a historically beleaguered island.

Repercussions followed, inevitably. Divisiveness. Ethnicity. Majoritarianism. Minoritarianism. The remains of the symbols of imperialism had to be effaced. Understanding had to take place.

One of my ancestors, Captain Arthur Johnston, invaded the Kingdom of Kandy in the year 1804 and left behind a military narrative of his disastrous incursion. Captain Arthur was my great great grandfather, who left one daughter behind, Susan Johnston, who married the offshoot of another colonial ancestor, Adriaan Jansz VOC; Susan married one of his sons, Adriaan Jansz, and so it went on and on.

I was confounded by the investigations that I was curious about, my ties, indeed my bondage, not bonds, with those colonial forebears. I have no wish to justify or legitimise that ancestry but out of my historical sleuthing I was left with an identity that I had to survive with when almost all my people emigrated to other climes and I was left alone to find my way – I am still trying to unravel those strands, hence Enigma was gestated.

Q: To be a good creative English writer, what are the fundamental necessities, in your opinion?

I feel I must first speak through my own experience. Being Burgher (talking of ethnicity and identity), my first language is and always will be English. However, I am aware of many factors where the use and the practice of English and its habitual use is concerned and that is found in register which differs in both colloquial everyday usage and in the written form.

There are so many varieties of English as a result, not only of dialect English but also the consequences of colonialism, so we do have a conglomeration of really unique forms of English, both spoken and written…Singaporean English, Indian English, Sri Lankan English, etc…unique and distinctive features abound.

There is room for innovation and uniqueness of expression; English, I feel, can face transformation, adaptation, originality, personalised forms of expression – one can manipulate language as long as the manipulation observes the correct grammatical, linguistic rules when writing poetry, fiction, drama, or creative nonfiction.

Control of language in written, literary genres or other forms (documents, official statements, textbooks, reviews of all types of literary works, for example) is necessary – the rules of grammar are essential when it comes to the use of Standard English. Knowledge of the language can be acquired but its usage is complex, necessitates the linguistic techniques – the study of linguistics, grammar, vocabulary – and creative writers need to exploit all the linguistic resources which will enhance every aspect of creative writing.

Moreover, the writer needs to delve into a whole range of figurative language too (metaphor, simile, imagery, alliteration) – all the intricacies in language forms fiction and poetry ranging from epic to elegy, sonnet, lyric, blank verse, rhyme schemes to move away from the stereotypical and mundane; it is a vast area which entails knowledge plus sensitivity.

However, experience the great inspirational powers of individual writers, the potential to exploit all the resources of language. One has to value one’s own personal landscape. Sometimes one needs to break the rules and branch out on one’s own. And one must read, read, read extensively.

Q: There is an increasing trend of youngsters expressing themselves via social media in the form of free verse, mainly. What are your thoughts on this?

I think it is a wonderful opportunity for the expression, much needed, of that burning desire that all of us had, when we too were young, to make the world aware of our voices. Voices we felt needed to be heard issuing from the innermost sources and invisible springs and fountains of latent inspiration.

There are no rigid rules, no restrictions to stifle that utterance.

I only hope the young people, the budding, emerging writers, will preserve whatever they present in social media and create their portfolios with the seminal beginning of their literary work.

I also admire the act of sharing as well as the acceptance from an unseen audience, the sharing of thoughts, ideas, the imperatives, the desires, the conflicts, the querying, and the generosity that accompanies these acts, as it gives encouragement too to those beginning to discover themselves.
Creative writing with its progression to new areas of communication also needs to be preserved, not only for the writer but also the reader, so that it will not be lost in the literary melee. There is great value in the preservation of text. I believe in the value of the Written Word.

Q: What are some of the negative trends in the writing industry in Sri Lanka you’d like to see gone?

I do not see any negative trends in the writing industry nowadays – there is a lot of liebensraum in showcasing one’s work through writing workshops, writing programmes, launches, literary seminars, literary journals, cooperative and helpful publishers, readings that encourage writers (at the British Council, for example), talks and literary gatherings at venues like the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) and British Council; lots of freedom for the writer. Literary awards play an important part in the life of the writer…No, nothing negative.

Q: What are some of the positive trends in the writing industry that should be further enhanced?

As time goes, I predict that there will be numerous outlets that will encourage the talent and abilities of not only emerging writers but also the older generation who desire to move into fresh pastures with up-and-coming publishers who are eager to have an interesting and thought-provoking clientele. Quality, standards of font, paper, striking and meaningful cover design, etc. must make the publishing industry aware of the current and contemporary printing standards.

Editing is of primary importance, especially where the younger generation is concerned, and new voices need to be given every opportunity to be heard.

I stress “quality” in the publishing industry to be forward looking, to reach international standards of presentation.

Publishers need to send their people abroad to study the latest methods in every aspect of printing, and also create a co-operative and amicable relationship with the writers.

Emphasis on translation should be increased, the awareness of literature other than the stress on writing in English. I do know that there is a vibrant publishing in Sinhala and Tamil literature, and my own knowledge of great works of literature by eminent writers has been greatly enhanced by excellent translations. The translators themselves are outstanding; there is a whole compendium of them. I hope the work continues – such gems of translated fiction and poetry are now accessible to the reader.


By Jennifer Rodrigo