Jean Arasanayagam: Poet, Author, Activist

Sarah Hannan, in the Sunday Leader, 7 July 2013

arasanayagam-4co copy “We’ll all become spinners of endless sagas which we read in the silence of our eternal loneliness. We inhabit the world of exile, which lies within the Babylon of ourselves” – Jean Arasanayagam.  Dr. Jean Arasanayagam – is a renowned poet and author who has contributed immensely towards the English Literature circuit in Sri Lanka for over four decades. Having written poetry, prose and short stories in English she is celebrated by literati around the world and was recently honoured with a doctorate in letters by the Bowdoin College, USA. Joining In Conversation Dr. Arasanayagam shares her life as a person of letters and art. Having been a voice for the people who silently suffered the hardships of war, the writer asked her, what changes she sees in the society three years into peace and reconciliation under one flag.

She began by quoting some lines from one of her recent poems; poems which deal with her commitment and vision as a poet and writer of various literary genres. “I am constantly reviewing my role as a peace activist in the reassessment of my complex saga through life, writing, radical changes in mind-thought and experiences in the milieus I inhabit,” she said, before reading the poem.

Jean says that she might be seen as a voice crying out in the wilderness with her own prophetic utterance, but it is a voice that has yet to be silenced. As one writer and critic told her recently, “you may not be here but your words, your voice will remain for posterity”. Jean continues to reinvent herself, that “archaic revolutionary of lost causes,” in order to devise a new lexicon shaped from twisted metal – the skeletons of war. Her’s is a voice that does not vociferously scream out rhetoric and polemic but emerges from that great silence and darkness in which identity is in shreds and tatters; where the disposed, displaced and lost embark in a mass exodus to whatever destination that they can reach. “I speak for everyone who has undergone death, bereavement, the loss of hope in order to reinstate a new and transformed self who has emerged phoenix-like from the ashes,” Jean says.

Even nearing the end of her long journey, Jean says she continues not just with this quest; she also puts heart and soul into the act of reconciliation. This she strives to do through the numerous real life experiences she has encountered daily together with themes that require plumbing the depths of a staunch, undaunted spirit. “Writing is not for the celebrity status you place such importance on, it is not for self-glorification but it entails issues that emerge out of our entire surroundings and extends universally,” Jean says. She is a survivor, having survived the vicissitudes of radical movements and revolutions, conflict, war, violence that has rent our country apart with its massacres, extermination, decimation, suicide bombings, disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, marred desolate bombed landscapes, refugee camps, camps for the internally displaced (IDP camps), landmine explosions, a society divided – divisiveness among majoritarian and minoritarian ethnic groups, antipathy and suspicion in society. Yet, she asks, what gives us hope?

Throughout Jean’s life commitment as a writer, she says she has dealt with various themes, apart from the ethnic conflict. “Perhaps at the beginning being a painter as well as a writer, belonging to an ethnic minority (classified like some rare, now almost extinct species – the Dutch Burghers) my life, childhood, adolescence and early adulthood were preoccupied by different imperatives. I was all unaware of distinctions that existed which defined ethnic boundaries and frontiers,” she says. The Burghers had perhaps their own enclaves, but enclaves that were free of racial bias and prejudice. Political change, language change fed to the early migrations of the Burghers in search of greener pastures. Where Jean was personally concerned, her marriage to the ‘other’ a Tamil from a very hierarchical, traditional family, albeit one that had undergone changes through the dual lifestyle in the metropolis of Colombo, education in Catholic college, cosmopolitanism in social relationships gave the family an open minded attitude, derived of divisive racial prejudice.

Jean is currently working on “a collection of poetry lines drawn on water”. This project and title is taken from John Still’s The Jungle Tide. Jean says she especially taken up by a passage from Wild Beasts and Buried Cities in which the author describes how an ancient king of Lanka carved his proud command that the things he accomplished should not be set aside “so long as the sun, moon endure, and birds build their nests,” and his memory nothing remains but this scrap of poetry, now grown wistful; for as he feared might happen to others, so it has happened to him, and his decree has become in his own words, ‘like a line drawn upon water’ (John Still – The Jungle Tide, Chapter V: Wild Beasts and Buried Cities)

“My lines are not chiselled on granite nor have I ever issued a decree or command, Whatever power I have within me will remain in the written word perhaps lines drawn on water for the occasional bystander passing by a rock hewn waterhole, A lotus filled cormorant crowded wewa in the depths of a jungle wilderness or the serpentine crocodile browsing rivers.”

“If you have the urge to give voice to your ideas and thoughts don’t hold back. ‘Grasp the winged joy as it flies’. Write on anything and everything that you feel the urge to write on using whatever innovative techniques you consider important to what you want to say,” she advises would-be writers. “Use all the resources of language, literary stylistics, literary linguistics, descriptive grammar, metaphor, imagery, connotation, denotation, and stream of consciences, climatic moments, and denouncements… all the language skills at hand.”

“Read, read, and read,” she continues. “Revise. Have drafts, notebooks. Write, jot down ideas whenever you need. I have done it in stalled buses or lonely islands, in art galleries all over the world.” Being aware and sensitive of the time, place, landscape, encounters and people is important too, she says, as is avoiding being partisan or judgemental. “Write from the gut, but revise. Go back to what you have written perhaps spontaneously, impulsively and rewrite, recast. Maintain your individual integrity and identity, but be aware of the happenings and events of all the cataclysmic, apocalyptic happenings around you,” she adds, noting that some of her most important poems were written on an exercise book sent with a refugee hand written in 1983.

It is this awareness which have made her words endure, even today.


Filed under cultural transmission, education, ethnicity, female empowerment, gender norms, life stories, literary achievements, performance, sri lankan society, unusual people

2 responses to “Jean Arasanayagam: Poet, Author, Activist

  1. seth

    this page is very critical one….

  2. Grada Stoker

    Hello I was looking for Mrs Arasanayagam.
    We have met on the airport of Heathrow Londen in 1998.
    There was an extra cheque in the airplane. Because I adopted a boy from Sril Lanka we just had a little chat. At that time she came from Germany, both our journey was to Sri Lanka. When the plane left we lost each other. But on our trip to Kandy our car stopped just in front of her house and she invited us for tea.
    I still have her two books Reddened Water Flows Clear and Shooting the Floricans.
    I really like to know if she is well and I give you my email adress

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