Upon a sleepless isle – Gratiaen Award winner | Sunday Observer
Travelogue with a difference

Upon a sleepless isle – Gratiaen Award winner

Andrew Fidel Fernando, this year’s Gratiaen Award recipient joins Youth Observer for a chat.

Q: Upon a sleepless isle is your first book and it won the coveted Gratiaen Award. How do you feel about it?

A: I’m so thrilled about this recognition from the Gratiaen judges and Trust. It’s such a fantastic validation of years of research, writing, editing and eight weeks of travelling. It was always important to me that the book resonates strongly at home, and the reader response in Sri Lanka has blown me away. The award is a fantastic bonus.

Q: What and who inspired you to write this?

A: There were many inspirations – I was reading a lot of travelogues around 2014, when the thought popped into my head that I could write one on Sri Lanka. There were aspects of Freya Stark’s travel writing, or Billy Bryson’s, or William Dalrymple’s or VS Naipaul’s that I tried to weave into parts of Upon a Sleepless Isle. Beyond that, I was inspired by the fantastic anthropological and historical scholarship that exists in Sri Lanka and was desperate to tell some of the little-known stories.

Q: Upon a sleepless isle is a travelogue with a difference. It is very satirical and , tongue in the  cheek  and not the usual tourist hype dished out by both the Government and private sectors. It also links the past and the present, showcases little  known facets of Sri Lanka. What made you do this?

A: It didn’t make sense to me to write a travelogue about Sri Lanka that wasn’t funny. To me, wit and humour is one of the things that defines the culture. We make light of our lives and our political situation, and are sometimes brutally self-deprecating, and we use all that as a crutch to tolerate all the many frustrations that we encounter in Sri Lankan life. That had to be reflected in the book. I’m also a history nerd, and Sri Lanka has such a fascinating past that it seemed obvious to mine that past for stories, and work out how we have been shaped by those historical events.

Q:  Your encounters with foreigners and locals. How far has this enriched the book and your own life?

A: It was fascinating to speak to people from various parts of the world and try and see Sri Lanka through their eyes. Foreigners bring their own assumptions to the island, depending on what they have been told about the place. Sri Lankans are no less likely to let pre-existing assumptions colour their experiences of their own land. I loved picking through those assumptions and learning what they said about us.

Q:  Would it be correct to say that Upon a sleepless isle targets the economy travel sector, for example, the backpackers rather  than the high end tourists?

A:  I didn’t really have a target market in mind, to be honest. I knew I would like the book to be read by foreigners as well as locals, so made sure that there was a gentle introduction to some of the more complex cultural and political phenomena in Sri Lanka. Beyond that, I didn’t have a reader in mind.

Q:  Your journey through your Motherland obviously evoked many memories and feelings in you. Could you please say something about this?

A: I think this goes back to what I said earlier about assumptions. I grew up during turbulent times, when we were sold a lot of propaganda – that is what countries in turbulent times thrive on. Propaganda is the enemy of truth however, and travelling through parts of the country – particularly the north – I had to try and shed all the assumptions I had, and learn from scratch. Apart from that, I was staggered how beautiful so many parts of the country are. And I was warmed by how friendly and helpful people were, to me at least.

Q:  Vestiges of past inhuman horrors and our colonial past have been encountered by you and showcased in the book.How strongly do you feel about ithem?

A: It’s hard not to feel strongly, when you learn not only about how brutal so much of our colonial history is, but also about how we have largely failed as a nation to dismantle the exploitative systems and mindsets that the colonists imposed. Our tea industry, for example, is an abhorrent vestige of colonialism in the way that it refuses even now to pay the labourers that drive that industry a living wage. Seventy-two years is long enough for that to have changed.

Q:  Could you please comment on the writing of Upon a sleepless  isle. For example, did you do it on the journey as well?

A: I wrote bits and pieces on the journey, but not full chapters. I’d write passages, or sentences, or jot ideas down. It was once I got back home that I looked at all my research and really began stringing it together. I was working full time during the writing process, so a lot of this book was written either late into the night or in the very early hours of the morning.

 Q:  What was the rationale behind your chosen modes of transport?

A: I generally use those modes of travel – bus, train, trishaw, cycle – so it was not something I had to go out of my way to do. I also knew that the mode of travel would inform the texture and ambience of the book. If I had gone by car, I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the number of interesting encounters with people, nor would I have had many of the insights I had. If you’re writing a book about Sri Lanka, travelling the way that most Lankans travel is an obvious choice. 

Q:  The book is a gem of a travelogue which can even be read at one sitting. Do you feel you have achieved your goal in writing this? What was the feedback like?

A: The feedback has been almost overwhelmingly good, particularly in Sri Lanka, but also in India, where the book was published. I’ve been a professional writer for eight years now, and there’s nothing I’m more proud of than Upon a Sleepless Isle.

Q:  What are your future plans?

A: There are a couple of big projects in their very early stages. I am playing them very close to my chest, so I’m sorry I won’t divulge any more than that. Meantime, I will keep writing on cricket for ESPNcricinfo.