The Gratiaen announces 2019 shortlist, goes digital

We extend our warmest congratulations to the shortlisted candidates of the prestigious Gratiaen Prize. The shortlist which was announced on 20 June includes Andrew Fidel Fernando for his published travel log “Upon a Sleepless Isle”, Praveen Jayamanna for his published adventure tale for young readers “The Double Doorway”, Upali Mahaliyana for his novel in manuscript “Tom-Tom Boy”, and Vihanga Perera for his entry in manuscript “Sentimental Pieces/The Private Funeral/Classic War Poems”.

The shortlist narrowed down a long list curated following 54 entries received in a variety of genres – lyric poetry, travel writing, autobiography, and fable.

The Gratiaen Prize is an annual literary prize awarded for the best literary works of English language writing. In its 28 years of celebrating creative writing, literature, and publishing, it has proven to be a great presence in Sri Lanka, playing a role in the growth of its creative writing community.

Founded by Michael Ondaatje – a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist – with the prize money he received from the Booker Prize for his novel “The English Patient”, as a result of his generosity, the Gratiaen Prize has been a great gift for Sri Lankan English language writers.

The Prize has been awarded for a variety of submissions over the years, with last year’s winner being Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke for his stage script turned novel “The one who loves you so” – a work of fiction that seemed almost semi-autobiographical, about a gay man in Colombo and his journey of self-discovery and experience. There have been notable winners over the years; Jean Arasanayagam for “The Life of the Poet” in 2017, Shehan Karunatilaka for “Chinaman” in 2008, and Nihal De Silva’s “Road to Elephant Pass” in 2003, just to name a few.

Going digital

Considering the current circumstances, The Gratiaen Prize has moved its regular proceedings online this year; all announcements were made via Facebook livestream through their media partners and a complete announcement event is now viewable on the Trust’s website.

As this is a somewhat of a new attempt for The Gratiaen, and after the public having witnessed its efforts to provide an experience not second to what we have come to expect from the annual awards ceremony, we reached out to the Trust to ascertain their thoughts on going digital and how they hope to proceed.

Nisreen Jafferjee, on behalf of The Gratiaen Trust, stated: “The Gratiaen Trust is very excited about taking The Gratiaen Prize shortlist and main event onto a digital platform. While the decision to go digital with the events is in response to the current situation, and the ‘new normal’, it also opens up many possibilities, especially by expanding our audiences.”

As for the audience they wish to reach by creating a presence on a more accessible platform, he shared: “In the recent past, The Gratiaen Trust has constantly endeavoured to reach out to new audiences by seeking new writers to attend our workshops, running events outside Colombo, and inviting students to attend our prizegiving ceremonies. By going digital, we hope that more viewers from these groups will be part of the events. We have shared links to the events on our Facebook page and through our key sponsors, John Keells Foundation and media partners. Apart from this, we have communicated the details of these events through mainstream media and our databases.”

The judges

The panel of judges as per tradition includes a creative writer, an informed reader, and an academic. This year we see academic, creative writer, and current Professor of International Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK Minoli Salgado, Chair of the 2019 Gratiaen Prize Jury; Tara Coomaraswamy, our informed general reader on the jury; and local theatre practitioner and performance artist Jeff Oorloff, the creative writer on the jury.

Writers’ thoughts

The shortlist event also featured addresses from the long-listed writers as well, which included, for the second time in the prize’s history, an extended total of seven candidates;  excluding those shortlisted, they were Nadishka Aloysius, Shashikala Assella, and Ruchini Abayakoon.

The Gratiaen Trust Chairperson and University of Colombo (UoC) Department of English Chair and Senior Prof. Neloufer de Mel, while congratulating all the candidates, pointed out how the Prize has created a community and sustainable growth within a society of numbered English language readers; he spoke about how Mahaliyana was shortlisted last year and how Perera has previously won the Prize, thereby showcasing the lasting effects of The Gratiaen, he shared.

The candidates, sharing their thoughts on being creative writers, spoke of their role in society and how the writer’s role is ideally to bring joy and excitement; they believe they have a responsibility to share and spread ideas. They also shared about what would often inspire them – primarily, personal experiences.

Perera, interestingly, spoke of how writing is a commitment he had made to himself, stating that it is a journey he takes and “if there are readers who wish to tag along, they are most welcome”.

Aloysius stated that she is most honoured to be considered and that The Gratiaen Prize, to Sri Lankan writers, is like “climbing Mount Everest, getting to the peak – this gives them the boost to improve further”.

This reverence for The Gratiaen comes not only form its annual recognition of literary excellence but its round-the-clock dedication to its growth in the island as the Trust has dedicated itself to improving Lankan creative writing with programmes of training and education, masterclasses, and editing workshops.

One of their first masterclasses, which was held in December 2019, featured famous actress and theatre director Fiona Shaw. They also held editing workshops, emphasising the importance of good content editing, as opposed to simply spellcheck and grammar; one of these workshops was led by Ritu Menon of publishing firm Women Unlimited, while another workshop in Jaffna was conducted by Shyam Selvadurai.

The Trust expressed their gratitude for the support of the John Keells Foundation, acknowledging their activities from October 2019 onwards.

What’s next?

The Gratiaen Trust Chairperson de Mel announced that on 27 June at 6.30 p.m., they will be hosting a question and answer (Q&A) session with the shortlisted writers. The main event, during which they will announce the winner of The Gratiaen Prize, on 4 July, will be available for viewing via Facebook through the platforms courtesy of their media partners, @Gratiaentrust, or @JohnKeellsFoundation.