The Sunday Times / Writers

Shyam Selvadurai: Many Roads Through Paradise

There are 54 in all – some names you will know, others you will not. The author whose seminal novel is described as the ‘starting point of Sinhala literature’; the poet, disappeared in the last phase of the war, who imagines her own ‘fearless death,’; there are the writers who stand astride multiple cultures, born into, married into, or simply willing to embrace diversity; there are the voices from the diaspora, looking homeward and those who have never left yet who struggle with the very notion of home; There is the laughing pioneer of Sri Lankan English and the poet who was the official bard of the LTTE; there are those, much translated, critically acclaimed, who are showered with awards, and those few know of outside their own linguistic community. Side by side in the same book, they confirm that there are ‘Many Roads Through Paradise.’

Beginning with the writers of the 1950s, just over half a century of Sri Lankan writing is collected in the anthology. For editor Shyam Selvadurai, his new anthology is as much a labour of love as it is a source of personal inspiration. Shyam tells the Sunday Times in an email interview that when Penguin approached him with the idea he “jumped at the chance.”

He has since made interesting choices in creating the scaffolding that would hold all the pieces together. For instance he chose to divide the entries into themes rather than deliver them chronologically to the reader: ‘The Chariot and the Moon’ (i.e class and class conflict), ‘No State, No Dog’ (i.e displacement both internal and external), ‘Love in the Tsunami (inspired by love and desire) and the last, ‘Healing the Forest’ (dedicated to writing around the civil war). “I felt that they covered all the areas of Sri Lanka that interested me,” Shyam says of his categories, explaining that the broadness of the titles allowed him to fit everything he wanted to in.

An introduction by the editor prefaces each section and prose and poetry are given equal weight; the transitions between the two give the collection a lovely rhythm, easing the reader from one page to the next. “I wanted the arrangement of the work in each section to build to a sort of climax and all of them to build towards the civil war section. It was clear to me fairly soon that I wanted that last part to be mostly poetry because somehow I felt the poetry really got to the intensity and diversity of the war.”

A reader cannot help but agree. Where an excerpt may struggle to do justice to the vast emotional canvas of a novel, a poem is a swift punch to the gut and the collection celebrates some of the Island’s most accomplished poets with a selection of emotive, poignant work. Here is poetry as protest, as remembrance, as hope and reclamation.

Shyam anchors the collection in its Sri Lankan context – religious, political, historical and social. “An anthology is always put together in the context of its time and now that we are in a post-war situation, though with a lot of issues unresolved, the anthology naturally bends in that direction or rather is shaded by the current moment in our history,” he says. “However, having said that, there is a lot in the anthology that has also nothing to do with the war. Some of it is just fun and funny and some of the poems are there just for their beauty alone.”

Contrary to expectation, translations weren’t always hard to find. Shyam simply approached the handful of people he knew who did these well. “What was difficult to stomach was how what is available in good translation is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the literature out there in Sinhala and Tamil. There is so much more and I can’t even read it!” he says. Whittling down the book, which began as a collection twice its size, was inordinately stressful. “I kept adding and taking out things so much it made me practically nauseated in that way one feels when one is contemplating something too much.” With the help of his editor at Penguin they were able to bring the book down to a length that the publisher was willing to take on.

In an introduction that combines his insight into the country’s literary history, with an exploration of his own personal trajectory, Shyam notes that the language policies of the 1950s “resulted in three solitudes across which there are hardly any connections.” To him, the anthology is not just for readers but for writers as well; an attempt to start a conversation among the three literatures of the country in the post-war period.

Explaining that working on the collection has broadened his own sense of what it means to be a Sri Lankan writer, Shyam says that the work has produced one other tangible result. At the helm of the ‘Write to Reconcile’ project, Shyam has been working with young writers from across the island. Over the course of their workshops, he remembers having to struggle to provide his students with examples of Sri Lankan work they could look to for inspiration and guidance. “This year I am finding that I have all this at my fingertips,” he says. “It is so thrilling to be able to direct a student who is writing about a soldier’s widow to the Kamala Wijeratne poem in the anthology called ‘A Soldier’s Wife Weeps’; or to direct a student writing about displacement to Isankya Kodithuwakku’s ‘The House in Jaffna’ or Cheran’s poem ‘Cousin’.”

For Shyam, the primary aim of the anthology is simple even if it is madly ambitious – to present a “composite picture” of Sri Lanka post-independence. He sees literature as a powerful canvas upon which to create a portrait of Sri Lanka that is diverse, multi-cultural and splendid in its diversity. “Given the recent trends towards denying this diversity, it is very important to assert this diversity over and over again, if we are to protect what is so lovely about our country,” he says.

 Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 8 June, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Shyam Selvadurai. 

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