Academics / Writers

Madhubashini Dissanayake-Ratnayaka: “Being a writer is like floating on air”

Madhubashini Dissanayake-Ratnayaka is on the run. Her colleague is on the phone with a question related to work, her younger daughter is waiting for a ride (they’re late for chess class), her elder daughter will need to be picked up soon and her usual parking spot was taken. The mother of two wouldn’t usually expect to find a journalist trotting alongside her on her many errands, but the news that Madhu’s first novel ‘I Have Something to Tell You’ was the winner of the 2011 Gratiaen Prize is still fresh. Now Madhu must squeeze a session of basking in the spotlight somewhere into her overflowing calendar.

People who know something of her demanding schedule can seldom resist the temptation to ask Madhu, marvelling, ‘how do you find the time to write?’ For the author, however, the crucial question is a different one – how could she not find the time? “I live half my life in the car,” she tells me. She is constantly composing paragraphs in the notebook in her head – waiting in traffic and washing dishes are prime writing time, each strangely akin to meditation. She is a voracious reader. Offer her a few minutes off and Madhu will reach for a book. It’s a family joke that she keeps her library in her car – currently Junot Dias is nestled in the space under her windshield. “Every life has to have a meaning and for me that meaning comes because I am a writer,” Madhu says. Her whole being is caught up in her young family but her private, literary life is as essential, albeit in a very different way. “I have my dark days when everything gets onto my head, but reading and writing is like my pressure valve,” she says.

Madhubashini: Taking a break from her busy schedule.

‘I Have Something to Tell You,’ a large, somewhat intimidating manuscript had a gestation of nearly three decades. Not that she was writing all that time, Madhu hurries to clarify – but that she encountered some of her characters early on and found that they needed more pages than she could spare at that time. “It was exhilarating to watch it come together. I have been living with those characters and exploring those ways of thinking and being for a long time,” she says. Her first publication ‘Driftwood’ (1991) won her the State Literary Award for the Best Collection of Short Stories in English. Years later, she would follow on that success with two books in quick succession, both of which would make the Gratiaen shortlist – ‘Tales of Shades and Shadow’ (2002) and ‘A Strange Tale of Love’ (2004) were collections that equipped Madhu to take on the challenge of constructing a full length novel.

Now, she knows the finished product needs a little more work – readers have told her that ‘I Have Something to Tell You’ was perhaps over long and that they’re never sure whose story they are actually following, as her numerous subplots only gain in intricacy as the novel progresses. Madhu, who agrees with much of the criticism levelled at the work, would like to explore ways of reorganising the book rather than reconceptualising it entirely. She is fiercely determined to retain its complexity – believing that the reader should have the issues she is presenting to them couched in a luxuriantly detailed context.
The one line description of her novel is that it is about “seven characters growing up in the latter half of the 20th century”. Her characters are young people for most part, about to undergo the test of their idealism. As a writer, Madhu finds their youth provides a rich vein for a story teller to mine.

“We’ve all been young once. We remember the intensity of their passions. Cynicism hasn’t set in yet, usually, and cynicism is such a dampener when one is writing,” she says, explaining that she and her characters become entangled with issues such as “the financial inequality that exists in Sri Lanka, social class, the English language, the politicisation of Buddhism, music and ownership of the language it speaks.”

Her characters and their concerns often reflect Madhu’s own preoccupations. “Whatever happened to this novel, it was in a way healing the rifts within myself,” she says, conceding however that she is yet to find any answers. “Writers create more questions than answers,” she confesses ruefully. That Madhu has begun to see herself as such i.e. a ‘writer’ is in itself noteworthy. Becoming one was a cherished childhood ambition, but Madhu has resisted claiming the title for years. As the Head of the English Language Teaching Unit at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, she has a job that stimulates and challenges her, but secretly, she’s always felt that writing was what she did best.

It was why, when closing in on her 40th birthday, she decided to take up a Fulbright for a Masters in Creative Writing at NYU. To do so, she had to leave her current job, abandon a Masters she was pursuing locally and uproot her family. The gamble paid off. Living in New York, surrounded by other writers, she was in the company of kindred spirits. Still, she was different from her classmates, many of whom had yet to see 25. “I felt old but that wasn’t a disadvantage at all,” she says, explaining that she chose not to socialise much outside class but that she didn’t feel lonely and nor was she excluded. “When you’re 40 you feel free to do your own thing.” Very hearteningly, she also found an agent based there who was very enthusiastic about her work.

Her book progressed apace on her return, thanks to all the reading she had managed to do: ‘New York is a wonderful place to be if you want to research your own country,’ she says talking of libraries overflowing with books written by and about Sri Lankans.

Now the Gratiaen win has provided a much needed boost in confidence. “When you want to be a writer – it’s like floating on air,” Madhu says, explaining that many people she has encountered cannot quite understand how having no fixed hours, no boss, no office and crucially, no guaranteed pay check at the end of the month, could possibly constitute having a job. “In Sri Lanka when someone asks you ‘what do you do?’ and you say you are a writer, they repeat the question – ‘but what do you do?'” All things considered, now Madhu should finally have the confidence to refuse to change her answer. She is, to her own satisfaction, a writer.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on June 3, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatte.

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