Sachitra Mahendra, in the Daily News, 16 October 2013, where the title is “Not ‘poetry’ nonsense…”
Playing with words is not everyone’s premises. Only a few could make reading a hobby. Writing is confined to an even lesser crowd. When it comes to writing too, everybody cannot do it strikingly. Not every written piece would make waves. Well, everyone cannot be a wordsmith! There is a term for beautiful writing in French: belles lettre. That is why Professor Chandani Lokuge’s narrative style deserves a benevolent gaze. Three novels so far under her belt (and one short story collection), Lokuge does not trek the trendy path. One would easily feel spent to read a few pages of a novel by her. That’s no easy read, of course, it requires reading between lines — patience, in other words. But it is not short of breath, not short of life. That’s all in, brimming with breaths.
Lokuge employs a lot of imagery in her sentences. Which makes them more poetic than prose. Only a few among the novelists adopt that narrative style. This would cost them a good deal of readership. Readers of popular fiction are not in for poetry ‘nonsense’. They need drama, suspense and thrill flowing along each page. That does the trick for many bestsellers.
And poetry, yes, no way!
With poetic prose, it is one tall order to reach a wide readership. But like Roma Tearne or Gillian Slovo, Lokuge accepts the challenge with much ease. Settled in Australia for sometime, authoring novels in English, Lokuge nevertheless accredits her inspiration to local literature.
“Sri Lanka’s literature is largely influenced by India. Our sandesa poetry is an offshoot of that influence. I had been fond of our sandesa poetry. I won’t simply forget the flavour of the Bhagavad Gita and Ravi Shankar too.”
Whereas many popular novelists concentrate on spinning yarns, Lokuge tires herself by manipulating the language to bloom imagery ethos. “I spend a good deal of time in the aesthetics of the language. I need time to make a paragraph perfect. I need imagery to picture my paragraphs.”
Like any other migrant novelist, Lokuge also deals with subjects such as migration, especially hybridization. Uma, her protagonist in ‘Softly As I Leave You’, must be the pinnacle of this fusion. With Uma’s stream of thoughts, the reader sights the iridescence in rivulets. There is so much to bask in. “I spend quite a lot of time in structuring the writing part. For me images beget images. Even among images, the best one has to be sought. The most appropriate sentence, phrase, word, all this matters. It is what is writing for me.”
But then it is not only the orient that matters for Lokuge. “Of course we must not forget the western literary traditions, especially Margaret Duras and Virginia Woolf.” Chandani Lokuge is also among the few English writers who could get their works published by leading publishers such as Penguin. For her, it is being in the right place at the right time. And above all, she believes it is luck – a lot of it! “A manuscript has to meet certain standards. The publishers have their own publishing profiles, reputation and the market status. Anyway in the end, it is the book that gains its own stand in the market.”
Inquired on why Sri Lankan English writers settled in Sri Lanka do not attract migrant readership much, Lokuge thinks migrant writers are more capable of dealing with themes related to migration, on one hand. On the other hand, the English books do not always reach the international market. Lokuge’s characters in all three novels happen to be women, apparently. She would not really appreciate the fact that these female protagonists are cynical towards men. “We are all victims of circumstances. That is something we cannot control. Life just happens. Our own characteristics contribute to the way our life is steered.”
“For instance,” adds Lokuge, “Uma goes to Australia on various grounds. But she has no clear picture of any of them. She marries an Australian-Venetian. Her life gets imbalanced with her relationships with her son, husband and lover.”
With her Australian teaching experience, Lokuge compares the higher education capacity between Sri Lanka and Australia as well. “It is mainly the teaching methods. In Australia, the student can follow up a topic with one lecture. But in Sri Lanka, a student has to focus more on textual analyses.”
Added to her roles as teaching and creative writing, Lokuge also edits for Oxford University Press. A creative writer at the editing job — won’t that sound diametrically opposing? And it would more likely take a toll on creativity. But Lokuge has a different take. “I edit scholarly introduction, textual notes, author biographies, explanatory notes and bibliographies. I believe a creative writer can well do this job, as well as any other, without affecting their creativity.”
Besides, Lokuge explains, the editing process sharpens creativity as a skill. The most important thing is not to let academic research outweigh the creative process. Then it will well affect creativity.