Brunch Talks with Jennifer Rodrigo
It’s probably a universally held belief that children are like sponges, absorbing both the good and the bad they see, hear, and experience in this world, later shaping them into the adults they become.
In this week’s Brunch Talks, children’s author and corporate communications professional Prashani Rambukwella tells me why she chose to explore themes of friendship and hope in her books catering to impressionable minds.
Her books “Mythil’s Secret” and “Asiri’s Quest” follow the life of the character “Mythil” and his discovery of just how strong the bonds of family and friendship can be. The voice in the story is one of courage and adventure as Mythil learns to look within himself for traits he never knew he possessed.
“The fact that there was a limited number of English language story books set in Sri Lanka and written by Sri Lankans for young Sri Lankan readers is what motivated me to write ‘Mythil’s Secret’ and ‘Asiri’s Quest’,” shared Rambukwella, adding that this limitation is something that bothered her even as a child. “After all, we have such a rich heritage of stories to draw on!”
Rambukwella confessed that she wasn’t really thinking about being the voice of hope and friendship when she began writing. “I was just writing for myself.” It was when Ameena Hussein of Perera-Hussein Publishing House liked the then unfinished story of “Mythil’s Secret” and encouraged her to complete it that the road towards publishing became clear to Rambukwella. “The journey has been a joy. If the books have inspired readers in any way, then that’s a bonus.”
I asked her what message she has for Sri Lankan citizens post the most recent time of turmoil, and while she didn’t presume to present any easy solutions through her books, she explained that Mythil’s story revolves around understanding the other. “In my stories Mythil, a human boy, meets yakas – spirits with magical powers – who, over the centuries, have learnt to masquerade as humans. Mythil is the only person with the power to see through their disguise. When he is afraid of the yakas, he is not able to control his power and this puts him in danger. But after he befriends a yaka called Asiri, he ceases to fear the yakas.” That “them” and “us” divide eventually becomes much less, and this empowers Mythil whilst also enriching his friendship with Asiri.
Rambukwella was fortunate enough to attend a very multicultural school where diversity was celebrated. “Apart from festival days, we never even realised the religious or ethnic differences among classmates other than for interval time when lunchboxes would be opened and shared, and there would be a wonderful diversity of food.” Yes, she was aware of the separatist conflict that disrupted schooling but this didn’t tinge the lives of her fellow schoolmates or teachers.
Elaborating the different ways to build peace in a nation when asked about the power of books and the written word in the process, Rambukwella said that activism is one such tool. Another, she said, would be working towards peace in your own circle of friends or family members. “Staying silent is easy. Standing up to the people you love sometimes takes just as much courage as standing up in front of a stadium full of people.”
She concluded that Mythil’s struggles captured in both her books are very personal and that the emphasis is on how you’re likely to be singled out if you’re different – again, if you’re the other.
“But, by the second book, ‘Asiri’s Quest’, Mythil has learned to use his difference to rally the silent people around him and drum up support. While happy outcomes like that don’t always materialise in real life, each of us can make a difference by changing mindsets, one gentle, powerful word at a time.”
Anuradha Roy, whose third novel Sleeping on Jupiter (2015) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, is back with a new tome. In her latest novel, All The Lives We Never Lived (published in Sri Lanka by Perera Hussein), Roy recreates through memory a journey that amounts to some prescient social and political questions. She spoke to Firstpost about writing through history, the anticipation around her books and how the conversation between Tagorean and Gandhian ideas of nationalism must be had.
You write in the book ‘the older I grow, the less certain I am of certainty’. Does the same happen with the writing process? You get a better grip on the craft, but surely you lose a few things on the way? How do you relate ageing to writing?
I don’t think writers spend too much time contemplating their age, they just get on with their work. Every writer, from the second novel on, knows what she is in for — that it’s a long haul, with plenty of work and thinking and reworking — and this does not change whether you are 20 or 50 or 80.
The character you mention is speaking in a specific context, but he is making the general point too: that when you are older you often clearer in your head that there are no absolutes and that every situation can be viewed in different ways.
Anuradha Roy. Photo by Christopher Maclehose
Your latest novel is anchored in memory. How different is it to construct the past while writing? Does the process change, from how you write of the present?
If what you mean by “anchored in memory” is that the book is set in the historical past, then the construction of it presents the same problems as for any other piece of fiction writing: how to create an imagined world that is a living, breathing thing for the reader. This challenge is the same whether the novel is set in the past, present or future, as with sci-fi. You need to get the details right of course, when a book is set in the historical past — at the same time, you can’t allow yourself to be oppressed by the burden of authenticity.
Having awards linked to your previous books surely helps one way or the other. But does it also create anticipation, the kind you may not want? Are you a writer who likes the anticipation, the pressure maybe, and wants to therefore deliver? Or can it at times be an impediment as well?
I don’t know how awards affect people generally, I can’t speak for others. But I do know that when I am writing a book, I am not thinking of awards. Writing fiction is all-consuming, the book-in-progress takes over your life.You are writing the novel because you are possessed by characters and stories that won’t let you go. You are wrung out by the process of translating an imagined world onto a page. I don’t know of any pressure other than my own internally-generated one: to write a good book.
You have set a previous novel in Ranikhet, and others where the narrative sprawls across places and timelines. How important is it for you as a writer to explore the possibilities of characters both where you live and those far away? How does a writer get inside the head of both?
The geographical distance is not relevant. A chunk of All the Lives We Never Lived happens in a fictional town and another chunk in Bali of the 1920s and 1930s. The imaginative energy I needed to recreate that Bali is different only to the extent that I had to research to get the details right, as far as possible.Other than that, it is a question of empathy and imagination, whether it is past or present, fictional place or actual.
You have never shied away from writing about violence. We live in a time where its political stakes have become normalised. How have you over the course of the last few years reacted to the news, the things you must be reading? Do you follow what is happening regularly?
There is very little explicit physical violence in my books — except in Sleeping on Jupiter, which had child abuse as one of its themes. When I think about it, all my fiction is (in one way or another) about power; all four books are about characters who are fighting against being coerced by structures of power that play out within families and societies.
As for following the news, I would like not to, but it has a way of forcing itself into your life.
How crucial is it today to have a conversation about Gandhian and Tagorian ideas of nationalism? To fully contemplate the two ideas was it imperative to stretch the novel across decades, both pre and post-independence? How difficult does it make to hold a novel together, when it travels such a length?
During the non-cooperation movement in India, Gandhi advocated suspending artistic activity and cutting off all contact with the West until the battle for freedom had been won. This was opposed by Tagore, who saw humanity as one, nationalism as a narrow ideology, and art as the sacred duty of the artist. What should be your response, as a writer or artist, when your country is in a crisis? Should we turn into activists or freedom fighters and cut ourselves off from our creative work? Or is our role one of translating our political concerns into our own creative sphere? These ideas are central to this book.
Holding a novel together when it travels through swathes of time and place: well, yes, I went through quite a number of notebooks creating the architecture of this novel. It is like building a big house where earlier there was only a bare patch of dust. In the end, when you are in the house, you can’t quite believe it’s standing there, on its own.
Sam Perera, along with Ameena Hussein (see interview here) began the Perera Hussein Publishing House, a niche publisher based in Sri Lanka known to publish some of the most compelling contemporary writing in English.
Sam, who thinks of all things, he is a farmer at the beginning of the programme opens up the conversation with reforestation. The link to the world of publishing lies in that fact that, as a private initiative, PH Publishing House plants at least one tree per book they publish in Puttalam. Noting that PH Publishing House was established to publish stories by Sri Lankans for Sri Lankans, Sam’s rather interesting take on what he does is that the local consumer / reader doesn’t necessarily want literature, but stories that are written well – of course judged by none other than Sam himself. When pressed on what he considers good or great literature, Sam points to Randy Boyagoda’s writing, and says that even though he is Canadian, he writes about Sri Lanka very well, which encouraged PH Publishing House to bid for and get the local publishing rights for his latest book, The Beggar’s Feast.
We also go into what to Sam is an authentic Sri Lankan voice, comparing the writing of Michael Ondaatje with Carl Muller and the challenges of publishing in English for what is a very small market in Sri Lanka. We also talk about access to international markets for a publisher based in Sri Lanka and how exchange control regulations and other systemic problems bedevil growth and expansion. Later on in our conversation, Sam flags just how small the English reading market is by noting that on average, one would be lucky to sell 250 copies of an English book. He also notes that post-war, discretionary spending on books hasn’t really improved.
Sam often calls PH Publishing House ‘cool’ and I ask him to define what this means, and how this has helped him bring out books that in his own words command instant name and brand recognition. We talk about the challenges of publishing in Sinhala and Tamil, and how these markets, in interesting ways, differ quite significantly from the English language market. As a publisher, I go on to ask Sam what kinds of books and issues he would not published, and also what kind of writing he would like to see more of, which also takes Sam to describe in more detail the kind of writer he likes to work with as well.
We talk about the shift to ebooks (Kindle based for example) and Sam’s take on this is pegged to the rising price and scarcity of real estate, which will he thinks over time drive the public to digital books which require no physical storage space over actual printed books, which unsurprisingly he says he is partial to given their tactile feel, smell and presence.
I ask Sam how PH Publishing House goes about selecting a manuscript for publication – whether both Sam and Ameena read the same manuscript and then come to a decision, plus what they do if they disagree on the merits of a manuscript. Sam also has some revealing insights into the standard of English in schools, and differences between government and private schools. We end with Sam answering a challenging question posed to him on what, if anything he can do to improve English reading, and reading of literature in general, in Sri Lanka post-war, where we arguably have more space for quiet reflection.
By Indu Bandara
Author of “Flower Boy”, “July” and now “The Lament of the Dhobi Woman”, Karen Roberts gives us insight into her third book, as well as the stories that she feels must be told, especially about Sri Lankan society and its inner workings. A participant at the 2011 Galle Literary Festival, she tells us about her favourite writers and what Literature and the Arts mean to her country and its future
Tell us about your latest book/work
The title “The Lament of the Dhobi Woman” is a metaphor for dirty laundry. The book is about the relationship between a wealthy Colombo family and a young, village girl who comes to work for them as an ayah. She forges a strong, almost maternal bond with the young girl she cares for, but ultimately falls victim to the sophistication and guile of the upper class Fonsekas. It is ultimately a story about growing up.
What inspires you to write? What/who have been your influences?
I am inspired by social and cultural issues, but also by Sri Lanka in general. My first book was begun almost as a hobby. Its success motivated me to write more and that too becomes inspiring – the fact that my readers look forward to what I put out next. My family has always been encouraging of my writing and that helps too – knowing one has that kind of unstinting support. My influences have been Garcia Marquez, Harper Lee, and Dickens – they are some of the great storytellers and that, ultimately, is what we do. Tell stories.
Why do you write? Is there a particular message that you aim to convey?
I write because it is as intrinsic to me as reading. I began my first book and found I loved writing. I have ideas in my mind and stories that demand telling. I don’t have a particular message except the one that takes hold of me at the time – I find I write mainly about social issues, class divides, relationships and their challenges. This isn’t deliberate – it seems to be what comes most easily.
You are taking part in the Galle Literary Festival 2011. Why do you think this festival is important and how does it contribute to Sri Lankan society and the Arts?
I think the GLF is a huge step forward in promoting literature and the arts in Sri Lanka, and also in putting Sri Lanka firmly on the world’s literary map. The organizers have done an incredible job in attracting real international talent to Galle, and also helping encourage and launch some serious local talent. The festival, combined with the efforts of local publishers like Perera-Hussein Publishing has done wonders for local writers and Asian literature.
What particular stories about Sri Lanka and its society do you think need to be written, which have not been done yet?
There are so many – we have a rich, colourful history, we have a checkered political past, we have wonderful ethnicity, all contained within a small country. There is much fodder for fertile minds! I also think we have many interesting individuals who have shaped our past and present in many ways – their stories need to be told too.
Who are your favourite authors (Sri Lankan in particular), and why?
I love Shyam Selvadurai for his courage – writing about being gay in a relatively conservative society isn’t easy but he did it with grace and humour. I love Yasmine Gooneratne – her work has an elegance and eloquence I admire and shamelessly emulate. I also love Carl Muller for his railway saga. He writes with historical and cultural accuracy, spins wonderful yarns of a group of people who were such a vital part of the Sri Lankan story, and does it with a marvelous combination of humour and pathos.
Do you think the fields of Arts and Humanities have proper exposure in Sri Lanka? What needs to changed or improved, in your opinion?
I think we are on the right road. Sri Lanka has always encouraged the arts. We put on some of the best productions and have produced some incredible talent. We need more of this in schools – events like the Shakespeare Drama Competition help expose our kids to literature early on and we need to keep fostering this on an on-going basis.
What can up and coming Sri Lankan writers do to get their work recognized on a national/international level?
Compete on an international level – think local and act global. Make sure your work is fresh, that your writing is good, get opinions, accept constructive criticism – in other words, make sure you have the goods. Then don’t be afraid to approach international literary agents and publishers. They are constantly looking for talent from smaller, more exotic countries and we have a definite advantage. Some of the recent winners of the Pulitzer and the Man Booker have been Asian writers.
What advice would you give to young people pursuing a career similar to yours?
Keep writing, be relevant, be concise, be topical, and don’t let rejection demotivate you. Some of the world’s greatest writers were rejected over and over again before being published. Keep at it.
Anything else you would like to add.
One can write a great book, find a great agent and publisher, but eventually for a writer to be successful, he or she needs a following, an audience. I’d like to thank my readers for staying with my work; for the great feedback and reviews. Please keep it coming – we need to know what we’re doing right. Or not.
This interview first appeared in The Colombo Spirit http://spirit.lk/cathome.php?nid=20101109121031&cid=7&aid=2&scid=20
Tell us about work.
I have been working on a trilogy the last fifteen years or more. The idea of a trilogy came to my head only during the writing of the second book, “Theravada Man”, and I just completed the final part, which is the middle part dealing with Ceylon since Independence and ending with the mutation leading to the ‘72 Republic. Basically my books are extremely political, extremely sarcastic, and full of humour. I believe we Lankans have a ‘lightness of being’, which is not found in many cultures, certainly not in India hence I tend to prioritize that.The first book, “Theravada Man”, is set in the absolute backwaters of Wayamba during colonialism and begins around the 1920s and ends with the Second World War. It is the tale of a pious Theravada ‘iskolemahathtaya’ who on contemplating a tingling desire for a woman (which he tries to substantiate in marriage), is suddenly thrown into a world he did not know existed. It is the world known as the Greater Dharma. In involves the world beyond the rational Theravada piety and its ethics. It is a family tale of a marriage, which is not easy with a pious Theravadin who is strict, pedantic and lacking the trivial that gives life the joy of human existence.
The next book, with the subjective title “Sinhala Only”, begins with Svabhasha and the end of the war and independence. It deals with the rising of Sinhala only militantism and ends with the JVP insurrection of 1971. It deals with the mistakes made by our politicians whose sacrificial lambs are the nation’s youth.
“Monsoons and Potholes” the last of the trilogy, which has been selling since the last five or six years, begins in the 1963 and ends with the ‘83 riots. It’s an urban book where the protagonist is a young girl, born in ‘63 who relates the political idiocies with the characteristic humor of urban irreverence and irrelevance.
Basically the three books, though they have a strong political strand, the protagonists are different and the viewpoints are different. In the last book the protagonist is a missionary school educated girl after Sinhala only. In the second book the protagonists have a varying background. One is an Anglican, the other is the iskolemahathtaya’s son, and then there is a Jaffna Tamil and Colombo Tamil.
My books deal with the pluralistic culture, a tolerant society, heaps and heaps of humour and the absurdity of politics. With its myopia or deliberate megalomania begins the demise of civil society, that probably would function perfectly normally if they would not interfere.
What was the hardest part of writing your books?
The hardest part of writing is that of functioning outside the book. I tend to carry my characters around with me all the time, no matter what I am doing and since I have another profession and commitments other than writing (which I do for joy more than anything else), it is sometimes hard to concentrate on other dimensions when a book is waiting to be written. It consumes a lot of time and since I do not have so much time, I have been disciplined in the last fifteen or more years waking nearly daily at about 4 or 5 am and keeping a disciplined routine.What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? How have you overcome this?
I do not know if I have a challenge like that. I do not categorize myself as a writer. Writing to me is like women who remove their ear studs and wear glittery dangly earrings when they go out. It is an ornament which I rejoice in.
What made you start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
NO. God knows how I started. I was always an avid reader and I think when my first child was born I needed some compensatory mechanism for not losing myself in the eternal lamentations of motherhood. I saw it as a quotidianal task but was surrounded with women who made a PhD thesis out of it. I guess I started writing in order to not sink into the same well. And needless to say, I married a man who thought I should sink in milk bottles and diapers and I revolted.
You are taking part in the Galle Literary Festival 2011. Why do you think this festival is important and how does it contribute to Sri Lankan society and the Arts?
I think the festival in extremely important for we do not have a (creative) reading or writing culture in the country. We tend to love impersonating others, rather than searching out our own worth, and finally we are an island cut away from the trends of societal buzz. Hence I believe the festival succeeds in opening us to other currents and for a short sojourn in our geography, taking from us the frog in the well mentality. I think this is a perfect opportunity of the uniting of languages, ethnicities and cultures and like I said earlier, we have linguistic nationalism more than any other kind of nationalism in the country. A festival like this is good for the agglutination of the people and making is (islanders) realize that we are more similar than dissimilar (due to geography for history has been created by those who had an interest in hegenony).Who are your favourite authors (Sri Lankan in particular), and why?
Ameena Hussein and Shyam Selvadurai. I love their styles, their simplicity and their clarity. They write in a way I just cannot, and I enjoy reading their books for that reason. I am burdened with a million things, their literature on the other hand give priority to the marvel of human creation; language.
What books are you reading now?
Oh god, I read about three books simultaneously. The three books right now are ‘The Age of Faith’ by Will Durant, ‘History of the Bible’ by Karen Armstrong and a biography of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan populist leader.If you were not a writer, what might you be doing?
I am an alternative medical practitioner. I work with acupuncture, homeopathy, pranic healing and hypnosis.
Who do you consider a mentor? What inspires you to keep writing?
Life is my mentor. I rejoice in it. Every time I take one step and fall, I get up and walk three steps. But the person who made me appreciate the written word was one of my professors at University. She taught Spanish and she took me into the world of magical realism whose gods are the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And, Marquez is undoubtedly my all time favorite in fiction
What advice would you give to young people pursuing a career similar to yours?
Don’t give up. Trust yourself. Be honest with yourself. There is a lot of jealousy and introspection in the world. Listen, take what you have to, and leave the rest and progress. Write, write and write. Talent is the small detail, and the rest is just hard work. If you have a dream pursue it, don’t expect anyone else to give it to you.
This interview first appeared in The Colombo Spirit http://www.spirit.lk/cathome.php?nid=20101103135031&cid=7&aid=2&scid=20
Q: How do you feel about the win?
A: I’m just over the moon and I hope that it will encourage more of us to write for our children. At the same time, I should add that the judges were keen to stress that they didn’t consider this a children’s book because of its appeal to adults. They called it a story that was written from the perspective of youth. But I’m still enthusiastic and hopeful that this won’t discourage other children’s writers. The beauty of writing for older children is that you don’t need to leave your adult readers out in the cold. If you look at classics like The Hobbit and even Harry Potter they were written primarily for children but took the adult world by storm. I’m not comparing Mythil’s Secret to these books – just trying to point out that if you write for older children in a way that isn’t too preachy or moralistic you can straddle the divide between children’s and general literature for grownups.
Q: What got you writing children’s books?
A: The books I read as a child were set in Britain and America. Even the fantasy stories I read were western-inspired. I treasured these stories. But at the same time if I tried to imagine myself in them I had to change who I was. I couldn’t enter those worlds as me, a Sri Lankan child, because I knew I wouldn’t fit in. I longed for Sri Lankan stories or stories written for older Sri Lankan children. Stories that were modern, complex and exciting. Not moralistic tame stories about good children who always did the right thing. I couldn’t find many so I thought I’d write some myself. Mythil’s Secret has been a good start.
Q: What age group of kids are we talking about?
A: The pre-teen to early teen age group – during the writing process I depended on a group of friends to give me feedback and all but one of them, Shehan Peiris, were over 18! So while I know it appeals to adults, I am hoping it will appeal to the 9-14 age group too – I’ve yet to hear back from them.
Q: You started work on Mythil’s Secret 8 years ago, what took so long?
A: Well, I’ve been scribbling stories practically all my life and even though I always got excited about each story they never stood the test of time. Three or so months later it would either bore me or I’d think, ‘oh hang on a minute this plot is almost identical to something else I read’. But when I applied the same test to Mythil’s Secret I wasn’t bored by it. I think it’s important to take time over a book. For me anyway. Because when I’m writing it’s an emotional experience. I’m not always looking at the text critically. That needs to happen after I’ve put the story away and almost forgotten it. Once I had a draft I was happy to show people. I showed it to as many trusted friends as I could blackmail into reading and reviewing it. This takes time too. Badgering them. Waiting till they read it. Waiting till they think about it. Waiting till they write down their comments. And then more time for me to read their feedback and decide which to act on and which to ignore. All this means several rewrites; several drafts. Also I didn’t have money to pay for publishing this book. Ameena and Sam of Perera and Hussein Publishers decided it was worth investing in. So we worked on the book in between their regular publications. They asked all the tough questions that I wouldn’t have thought of and again this process took several drafts too.
Q: Who inspired Mythil’s character?
A: I don’t know. He just appeared on the fringes of my imagination. I didn’t even know his name. But he started telling me his story. It was just the barebones of a story at that point. It only took 36 pages when written down. Looking back now I think there’s a lot of me in him. But in the end he turned out to be much braver than I ever was at that age.
Q: You touch on a range of family issues; is Mythil and his family a reflection of today’s average Sri Lankan city family and child?
A: I don’t know what the representation of today’s average Sri Lankan child would be like but I do think that in a nuclear family where both parents must work and a child has no siblings or other family members to interact with he or she could get quite lonely. Mythil is bored at the start of the story because Archchi is asleep, his parents want a private moment to talk and Seeli is busy with her chores. But when Archchi is awake he’s not bored at all – he enjoys spending time with her – even if it’s making wattakka pudding together. Archchi and Mythil are the best of friends. And I think it’s important for a child to have a family member they can trust and spend quality time with.
Archchi is the only adult who does not make Mythil feel as though something must be wrong with him. Even when she advises him (when she tells him he has a better chance of defeating yakas with his intelligence rather than the traditional iron) she doesn’t judge him.
Q: Do you think our local folklore has the potential to grab the imagination of our slightly westernized kids?
A: Folklore has stood the test of time so, yes, I think there’s lots of potential there. Our local tales certainly fired my own imagination. I can’t quite remember how I first heard of yaka lore but I’ve always been fascinated by myths and folktales – Greek, Russian, English, Sri Lankan – it didn’t matter where they came from. They’re all such great stories!
Q: Did you grow up with tales of yakas?
A: Not really, although these stories were in our Sinhala Literature text books. Yakas weren’t part of my imagination as a child, nor did I have a Seeli in my childhood to tell me scary stories.
Q: How perceptive do you think today’s Sri Lankan children are to local folklore?
If you’re asking me to speculate I would imagine that our city children would be more familiar with Harry Potter and Ben Ten than Mahasona or the Reeri Yaka but that’s just a guess. Is the story too alien to Sri Lankan children because there aren’t many stories about yakas in English? I don’t know but as I said I’d really like to hear from younger readers themselves through the Mythil’s Secret blog. The yakas in Mythil’s world have evolved with the times, so they’re quite different to the yakas we have come across in old folktales. Hopefully today’s young readers will find them intriguing.
Q: What books did you enjoy as a child and what authors do you enjoy today?
A: Stories that featured families. Adventure stories, mysteries, folk tales and fairy tales. Authors I enjoy today are the same authors I turned to as a child like Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton and E Nesbit, as well as more modern writers like Jonathan Stroud, Diana Wynne Jones and Jacquelin Wilson – to name a few.
Q: Tell us about the path to publication
A: As I said the book took 8 years to write so yes, there were times when I was discouraged and frustrated. I wondered who I was fooling. I wondered whether readers would just hate my work. That’s why I turned to my friends to get their opinion. But the one person who’s been my strength throughout the whole process is my husband Harshana. He’d push me to finish a draft over a weekend. He’d talk me into believing in myself and chasing after my dream again. I couldn’t have done it without him. One thing I didn’t have to worry about was rejection letters from publishers. My ‘machang’ Ruwanthie de Chickera introduced me to Ameena Hussein and she and her husband Sam Perera read that early draft and decided to invest in the book. If it wasn’t for Ruwanthie I don’t know whether I would have believed in myself enough to speak to other publishers.
Q: What perspective does being a parent give you in writing children’s literature?
A: My daughter was born one month after Mythil’s Secret was published. So I wasn’t a parent while writing the book. I guess I’ve always been a child at heart so this book was written from the perspective of the child and not his parents.
Q: A lot of writers struggle with rejection, mixed reviews and their own insecurities; have you ever had to deal with any of the above and if so, how?
A: I’ve been blessed with a very supportive family and friends so that was one hurdle I didn’t need to overcome. After the book was published it was discussed at a book club in Colombo and I was very nervous about what would be said about it because this was the first time that people I didn’t know were reviewing the book. One of the readers, an adult, said it was boring and my heart sank. Another said it was far too scary for children. The other adults had mostly good things to say about the book although they felt that the tying up of loose ends towards its close took too long. But then the only two children in the club spoke up and said they’d just loved the book and I just sighed in relief!
Q: What are your goals for the future? Got another story on the boiling pot?
A: At least two more yes but at the moment they’re safely locked in my head. So perhaps in another eight years?
Running a publishing house is no easy task; a flood of manuscripts and eager would-be authors, desperate to get their books on the shelf can be overwhelming to say the least. But for Sam Perera and Ameena Hussien it’s all in a day’s work. The duo run PH Publishers and they eat, sleep, live and breathe literature. They set up what they call a ‘small press’ in 2003, and have to date been involved in and collaborated on over 50 books, having published 40 and distributed many other self-published and small press works.
With 3 imprints, Ph (general fiction), Popsicle (for children) and Bay Owl (genre free) and over 30 active authors, this ‘small press’ has achieved much in such a short period. Not only have they nurtured young talent, they’ve given Sri Lankan (English) literature a look and feel it can be proud of thanks to quality writing and printing. They average nearly a book a month, and have flourished in a reach that’s strictly local and that gives local authors a platform on which they can shine.
They also plant a tree in the dry-zone for each book title published, reducing that title’s carbon imprint on the planet.
The Sunday Leader speaks to Sam Perera to find out more about what goes on in the world of words.
By Kshanika Argent
Q: What was the first spark that set PH Publishers alight?
A: When I met Ameena, she said she only wanted two things out of life. One was to have a world-class publishing house and the other to grow trees in a deforested area. We’re doing both. Seriously: We wanted to publish books that are written by Sri Lankan authors that looked and read as well as books that one gets in the West. This means that the story has to be told in an interesting way, as well as written well. We also wanted the packaging to be of an international standard. We wanted Sri Lankans to read their own countrymen and to find their own fiction and literature as interesting as what you would find in the West. We dream of a day when you will be able to buy books written by Sri Lankan authors in other parts of the world.
Q: How does it work at PH? Are you a vanity-publishing house?
A: We’ve certainly been called vain. We’re neither the biggest nor the best, but we’re the coolest. And yes, given that we could make a better living doing almost anything else, this is indeed a self-indulgent exercise.
Q: What’s the worst part of your job as a publisher?
A: Saying NO to an author whose work is good but we think won’t appeal to the market or whom we cannot afford to publish. To put things in perspective, the cost of publishing a book in Sri Lanka is often greater than the prize money doled out for the Gratiaen Award. We aren’t funded. We’re small and independent. We have limited monetary resources. If a book sells well, we can use those profits to finance another book or author, but the reality is that we just can’t afford to do everything we like.
Q: Is vanity publishing a good thing for Sri Lanka?
A: Writing is a creative venture. Publishing is a commercial one. When an author is paid for his manuscript, he tends to lose interest in promoting his work, leaving the onus on the publisher. However, if the author has a vested financial interest in the work, his level of participation as well as his monetary reward is proportional to his investment. So yes, from both a publisher’s and author’s point of view, it is a good thing. However, if you think you are a good author, but are in your view impoverished and misunderstood by publishing companies, the Government (Book Development Council or even the Ministry of Culture) will help you financially to publish your work.
Q: Out of your portfolio of authors, who has the most potential to become a star?
A: More than 90% of the writers in our stable are stars. If they were unheard of before they were published, they are certainly basking in the limelight now. A word of caution though: we can’t turn ‘Nobodies’ into ‘Somebodies’. (Kumari Jayawardene, thank you for that wonderful title!) Your writing has to speak for itself.
Q: Any new stories or authors you’re excited about?
A: Yes, we do have some exciting work coming up but we would rather be hush-hush about it for now.
Q: What kind of manuscripts would you be more interested in seeing come through your door?
A: Finished, polished, edited and error-free stories that are coherent, exciting and push the boundaries of story telling. We’d like to see the type of stories that you would like to read (or would pay money and buy). If someone who wrote like Gautam Malkani or Aravind Adiga came my way, I would be deliriously happy.
Q: What do you think are the main setbacks the Sri Lankan publishing industry faces?
A: We’ve participated in the Colombo book fair, where schoolteachers come looking for Jane Eyre, but are unwilling to read a Sri Lankan author. Without detracting from its merits, people would rather read what colonial administrators like Woolf wrote about Sri Lanka rather than contemporary authors like Yasmine Gooneratne (for example) whose book The Sweet & Simple Kind was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers Prize as well as the Dublin IMPAC award. Very few contemporary international authors can claim as much.
Q: If there was one change you could see in the SL publishing industry what would it be?
A: Access to international markets is still very difficult. Although the Government helps the traditional manufacturing sector to send their products overseas, promoting intellectual property and its by-products is still not in their field of vision. It would be really helpful to the whole publishing sector if the state facilitated movement in this direction.
Q: What does the future of SL. publishing look like?
A: As long as we’re in it, I’d say the future looks bright (there goes the vanity thing again).