Jean Arasanayagam: ‘A voice of conscience, wisdom, hope’ | Sunday Observer

Jean Arasanayagam: ‘A voice of conscience, wisdom, hope’

Jean Solomons Arasanayagam, the much renowned poet, who wrote the Sri Lankan Contemporary English Literary Scene is no more. Known for her highly acclaimed literary work, she’s an author of nearly 50 books, both fiction and non-fiction, some of which have been translated into many foreign languages such as French, German, Danish, Swedish and Japanese.

Born into a Dutch Burgher family on December, 2, 1931, she was brought up and spent her life mostly in Kandy. She is a past student of Girls’ High School Kandy, and graduated at the University of Peradeniya and later obtained her MA in Linguistics at the University of Stratchclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Being a passionate, loveable teacher to thousands of students in many institutions in Sri Lanka, she was also a visiting Fellow at the Faculty of Arts, Exeter University, UK. Jean was married to a Jaffna Tamil and often dealt with multiple cultures and traditions, which may have moulded her ethnic consciousness and identity.

The 1983 riots which led to the decades long civil war in the country was often the main topic in most of her poetry. Subjects relating to gender, post-colonialism and human relationships were also captured in her creativity. Jean received numerous local and 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. She was widely recognized in most of the local literary awards and won many state awards as well as the much coveted Gratiaen Prize 2017 for her collection of poetry titled, The Life of the Poet.

She received the honorary doctorate in letters from Bowdoin College in 2013. The citation included the following words - a poetic witness to social and political history. As a poet whose works are read as part of the school syllabi for English Literature as well as the 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.”

Jean Arasanayagam, the celebrity of Sri Lankan English literature, undoubtedly had been an inspirational, veteran Sri Lankan writer whose literature has inspired many local and international writers and readers across generations.

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Beautiful memories of Jean’s poetry

The Sunday Observer talked to artists and academics who have had beautiful memories and positive impacts because of Jean’s poetry, literature and because of her presence in their lives.

“The loss of Jean Arasanayagam is much more than a loss of a single person. It is the quiet disappearance of a valuable Sri Lankan perspective. Her complex, courageous and colourful writing was mirrored by her choices in life. An artist, a woman artist, a Burgher woman artist married to a Tamil man… she witnessed and experienced the incremental breakdown of this country and continued to engage, reflect and write well into her senior years. She collected the wisdom of a lifetime into the words she left us. But she also left us in a country much different to the one she was born in. We mourn more than the passing away of a remarkable woman. We mourn the loss of something that used to be the Sri Lankan soul.”

Ruwanthie de Chickera,
Playwrite, Theatre Director

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“Arasanayagam’s voice, incisive, eloquent, and poignant, spoke from Sri Lanka to the world.” –

Prof.Pradeep Jeganathan

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Jean’s demise leaves a vacuum in Sri Lankan writing in English. She was one of the pioneers of Sri Lankan writing in English who took our writing to the world and helped place it on the global literary map. The singularity of her personality and poetic vision will remain unmatched. Her passing away also marks the passing of a generation that experienced 1983 as a defining moment in the postcolonial history of this country and a generation that was mature enough to craft an enduring literary-cultural legacy out of this trauma. But knowing Jean Aunty, it is not with solemnity and somber reflection she would want to be remembered – rather it would be with the exuberance of her Kindura-like hybrid life.

Prof. Harshana Rambukwella

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Jean Arasanayagam somewhat brilliantly portrayed the Eurasian, of minority experience in post-colonial Sri Lanka, through her novels and later in poetry. In her early literature she didn’t specifically deal with her Burger experience but later after her personal experience in the 1983 riots she began to focus on minority experiences. In most of her novels her focus was on rural experience which is very unusual in Jean’s poetry. Her ‘outsider’ point of view made her uniqueness in poetry. Until she was extremely feeble, she was very much active at almost every literary gathering in Kandy. Her death is a great loss for the literary community in the country.

Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi

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For me Aunty Jean was an older citizen in the English literary scene of Sri Lanka. Hers was a very kind, nurturing and encouraging voice from that generation. She always encouraged writers, celebrated their work and made us want to write more. Her personality was very much wholesome. She had a positive outlook towards life and shared nothing but positive vibe.

Malinda Seneviratne – Writer/ Journalist

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I first met Jean Arasanayagam through her writing when I was an undergraduate. It was a rare voice because nobody touched the topics she has been writing by then. It was about the war which was led by the 1983 riots. For me, her unique, amazing piece of writing helped to understand what it really meant to belong to a minority. She had an amazing personality and even without knowing her in person, I would totally embrace her through her personality.

She’s full of laughter, and light, even while talking about terrible things the smile on her face never fades. She was a beautiful example for someone who has gone through harshness in life but it did not affect them to be bitter. She had so much of love and warmth within her.

Through the years when I was having a life battle with cancer, even without knowing me personally, she reached out and sent me a letter of support and encouragement. It touched me a lot. Thereafter we became much closer and I made it a point to meet her whenever she was in Colombo. At every meeting she left me with something to think about but in the lightest possible way. Sri Lanka should be proud to have such an amazing poet who will be missed for another hundred years or more.

Ameena Hussein – Writer 

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