Jean Arasanayagam: The new milestone of the poet | Sunday Observer

Jean Arasanayagam: The new milestone of the poet

10 June, 2018
The Gratiaen Award-winning book
The Gratiaen Award-winning book
The poems, “Dutch Bay I” and “Dutch Bay II” speak of an underlying need within the poet to see that her own ethnological heritage of the Dutch Burgher legacy is no longer in conflict with the ‘national ethos’ of a country that was quite blatantly oppressed by the marauding westerners who came to our shores as buccaneers pregnant with intention to pillage and plunder 

The canon of Sri Lankan literature in English begins with the advent of colonialism and flourishes with notable robustness in the postcolonial era. Jean Solomons Arasanayagam is a figure that is integral to the ‘roots’ of the growing stream of Sri Lankan writing in English. Through her prolific writing of both poetry and prose she has contributed immensely to the identity of our country’s literary discourse in English. A writer who has been honoured and widely recognized both, home and abroad, the latest accolade to be won by this veteran of Sri Lankan writing in English was the much coveted Gratiaen Prize, which was awarded her ceremonially on May 26, this year. The work for which she was bestowed this year’s Gratiaen Prize was a collection of poetry titled The Life of the Poet.

Before commenting on the Gratiaen Prize winning book I would like to cite some notable credentials of this veteran Sri Lankan writer whose journey has been inspirational to writers and readers across generations. Born and raised in the cool climes of the Hill Capital, she attended Girls’ High School Kandy and continued her path of education to become a graduate of the University of Peradeniya, and later she obtained her MA in Linguistics at the University of Stratchclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. And has to date, to her name, 46 books which include both fiction and nonfiction. She is a Sri Lankan writer whose works have been translated into German, French, Danish, Swedish and Japanese. This luminary of Sri Lankan literature has received numerous international honours, among which are the Premchand Fellowship by the Sahitya Akademi of India, the International Writer in Residence at the University of Exeter, and International Writer at the Rockefeller Centre, in USA. She was awarded the lifetime Achievement Award, Sahityarathana in 2017 and is a past winner of the State Literary Award for poetry.

Perhaps, the most noteworthy accolade conferred on her by academia so far is the honorary doctorate in letters from Bowdoin College, USA. When Bowdoin College conferred Jean Arasanayagam with Doctor of Letters, honoris causa on May 25, 2013, the citation included the following words - “a poetic witness to social and political history”. As a poet whose poetry are read as part of the school syllabi for English Literature as well as university curricula for Literature, this literary luminary of Sri Lanka was given due ceremonial recognition at the Bowdoin College convocation with the following words, by the president of Bowdoin College, Barry Mills, - “Yours is a voice of conscience, of experience, of wisdom and of hope. You have given generously of yourself in encouraging young writers, including students enrolled in the collegiate Sri Lankan education program.”

The volume of poetry that won this year’s Gratiaen Prize will surely gain readership in spaces of academia while also being appreciated by lovers of literature in general. A collection that contains forty six poems, The Life of the Poet, demonstrates the observant senses of a soul that speaks with introspection and retrospection.

It is a collection of poetry that brings out a resplendence of imagery demonstrative of the craft of image driven narratives which is quite characteristic of Jean Arasanayagam’s style, as a poet.

The title poem dwells into what the consciousness of how a poet would observe the myriads of human emotions and events of the world around us as part of a journey where the reward is felt in the empathy towards humanity realized deep within, and the nourishment of the poet’s spirit. The poem “Fiery Furnace” brings out a vivid image of how the paternal figure of the father in his might as a provider is seen within the context of his work aboard a steam train. Here the memory of a little girl is brought to life through the erudite voice of an adult. Childhood thus gains articulation through the tools of language at the disposal of the mature poet.

It is a poem of empathy and one that reaches to the past evoking the poet’s own impressions from a childhood memory, giving new life to an experience that has travelled through time.

It is not a poem of fragmented memories, but a fabric of recollection that journeys on in the mind of the poet and will surely create a strong impression on the reader.

“The Menus Have Changed: Elephant House in Colonial Times”, is a piece that serves as a personal record of the days past, recollected from the experience of a little girl who has seen the change in social order from then to now, just like the highly westernized menus of old opulent establishments like the Elephant House in Kandy, have changed in their form. Food and cuisine are integral to understand any culture, and this piece of poetry gives a vivid image of how dining and social order were demonstrated as aspects of power in the colonial times in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon.

The poems, “Dutch Bay I” and “Dutch Bay II” speak of an underlying need within the poet to see that her own ethnological heritage of the Dutch Burgher legacy is no longer in conflict with the ‘national ethos’ of a country that was quite blatantly oppressed by the marauding westerners who came to our shores as buccaneers pregnant with intention to pillage and plunder.

In her poetry that dwells into the past of how her own roots began in the emerald isle of Sri Lanka, there is a silent wound that hopes to be healed for all time. It is indicative of the sensitive humanist within Jean Arasanayagam that dwells introspectively to closely examine her own identity and place in the larger fabric of nationhood.

The Life of The Poet has a diversity of theme and subject matter that will speak to readers at different levels, and speak with various rhythms.

In the wake of this well deserved accolade let us hope that the spirit of the poet that resides in Jean Arasanayagam will awaken to new heights and continue her journey as a writer.