Forty nine year old Malinda Seneviratne is the winner of this year’s most coveted award for creative writing [in Sri Lanka] – The Gratiaen Award. Down- to–earth, practical Malinda writes intense poems for pleasure. One of those collections of poems over the twelve months of 2013, published as The Edge has won this year’s Gratiaen Award (Rs200,000) for its outstanding literary attitude and sensitivity to human emotion. We had a quick chat with him.
Q: How does it feel to have at last won the Gratiaen Prize?
A: Winning any prize feels good. The Gratiaen is special because it is the most prestigious prize for creative writing in English in Sri Lanka. It is extra special to me, naturally, because I had been shortlisted on four other occasions.
Q: You said in your acceptance speech that you thought that you might either end up as the person who has been short-listed five times for the award if you did not win. How many times did you actually apply for the award?
A: What I said was that 29 years from now I would be one of 50 winners, but had I not won I might be the only one to have been shortlisted as many as five times. The implication was that the latter might be better remembered in the long run. In the last seven years, I submitted six collections of poetry and was shortlisted five times: ‘Threads’ (2007), ‘The Underside of Silence’ (2008), ‘Stray Kites on Stringless Days’ (2010 – not shortlisted), ‘Some Texts are Made of Leaves’ (2011), ‘Open Words are for Love-Letting’ (2012) and ‘Edges’ (2013).
The winning entry, ‘Edges’, was published by Surasa Publishers in December last year. The other five collections were published by Ketikatha Creatives last week.
Q : Were your entries for the award always a collection of poems?
A: Yes. Apart from ‘Threads’ the other collections were essentially the poetry I had penned during the particular year.
Q: What is the theme behind this year’s winning collection of poems?
A: The introduction to the book might explain it best.
There are things in this world that are clearly defined. Things named and names agreed upon.
We see them and we know what they are. We hear their names and we know what is being referred to.
This world is also made of scramble. There is amalgamation and there is scattering. Everything can be brought together and can also be dismantled to constituent part or smaller pieces.
If we listen carefully enough, if we gaze to the point of discernment and beyond, it seems to me that even approximation is an inadequate word in the matter of naming and description.
But then again, there are lines at the perimeter of definition which, when crossed, turns this into that. It is a line, I like to think, that is product of human error or inadequacy and as arbitrary as anything else.
Still, those demarcations are also points of vantage, I have found.
It is water between solids where slippage is the state of being. It is not an easy place to keep feet firmly planted. Dance, however, is possible there. Indeed, if one doesn’t want to slip on sound and silence, dance one must.
That movement yielded words in particular configuration. I transcribed.
Q: Do all your poems usually have the same theme?
A: No. Inspiration naturally comes from multiple sources and thought provoked can have many trajectories. So I write about different things.
There is a larger philosophical frame and that is the Buddhavacana or the doctrine of Siddhartha Gauthama the Buddha.
Q: When did you start writing poetry?
A: I was about 11 years old when I wrote my first poem.
My father played what he thought was a tune on the piano, a single-finger effort where he went up and down the keyboard.
He spelled out to me the thought that he believed he had expressed on the piano and asked me to write it all down as a poem.
It was called ‘A wisp of smoke’. I lost it decades ago!
Q: How instrumental was your family in writing?
A: We grew up with and around books. My father, Gamini Seneviratne, is a far better poet than I could ever be. My late mother, Indrani Seneviratne, taught English Literature. My sister, Ru Freeman, is now a novelist whose work has been translated into many languages. My older brother, Arjuna, blogs a lot and if he put his mind to writing, I am sure he would put me to shame.
Q: How did your passion for English writing develop, more specially passion for writing poetry?
A: I don’t know if there was ever ‘passion’. I had things to say and I found writing easier than speaking. I wanted to become an academic and read Sociology for a doctoral degree (which I never completed). So I had to write. A lot. Poetry was always one of those ‘something else’ one does. Maybe I took to poetry because I read a lot of poetry and was strongly influenced by the poets I read, especially Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib and Sufi poets such as Rumi and Shiraz.
Q: Who inspired you to write this latest collection of poems?
A: I did not set out to write ‘a collection of poems’. They were written over a period of around 12 months. It was not that any single person or ‘thing’ or ‘thought’ that inspired this collection, therefore.
Q: What were you doing before you became the Editor of the Nation (Sunday Newspaper)?
A: I was a freelance writer, contributing to the ‘Daily News’, ‘Sunday Observer’, ‘Sunday Island’, ‘The Nation’, ‘Daily Mirror’, and the ‘Sunday Lakbima News’.
Q: Do you use your poems in your newspaper so that audience can get a sampling?
A: Not at all. I never put my name or even my initials to the poems I write in order to decorate a photo essay, for example.
Q: All three books shortlisted this year were a collection of poems, what do you think was special about your collection of poems?
A: That is something you might discover in the comments of the panel of judges. I haven’t read Chamalie Kariyawasam’s submission. I am acquainted with Inosha Ijaz’ work. She writes exceptionally well and is undoubtedly the best poetic talent we have of her generation.
Q: How many awards have you won in total, for your literary works? Please name them.
A: I won some literary prizes when I was at school. I was the H.A.I. Gunatillaka Prize (2011) for the Best Translation, also offered by the Gratiaen Trust for the English translation of Simon Navagaththegama’s novel ‘Sansaaraaranyaye Dadayakkaraya’. Then there’s the Gratiaen Prize.
Q: Now that you have finally won the Gratiaen award, what are your plans for writing in the future?
A: I write for a living. What more ‘plans’ can there be?
Q: Any plans for a novel?
A: I’ve thought of this now and then. I actually started working on a couple of ideas. For various reasons, they didn’t proceed beyond a few pages. These days I am focusing on completing my translation of Mahagama Sekera’s ‘Prabuddha’.
Q: Whose writing do you admire the most?
A: Apart from those mentioned above, I like the work of Jayatilleke Kammellaweera, Ariyawansa Ranaweera, Udayasiri Wickremaratne, Ru Freeman and Eduardo Galeano.
Q : Do you like writing in Sinhala/ or English better
A: Depends on the writing, I suppose. I enjoy good literature in either language.
Q: What is your favorite time of day to write poetry?
The ‘neketha’ for writing poetry is not determined by the movement of the earth around the sun, is it?
Q : Your opinion of the Gratiaen award in one word.