promoting literature

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Many Languages, One Literature

daya dissanayake

Listening to Namita Gokhale, the Member-Secretary of Indian Literature Abroad, the thought came to me that we are far behind India, when it comes to promoting Sri Lankan Literature Abroad. The irony is that our publishers are unable to find distributors even in India, our neighbour and big brother.

Namita Gokhale, the Indian writer, Publisher and Festival Director was speaking on 'Many Languages, One Literature', at the Center for Contemporary Indian Studies. She mentioned Ondaatji and Shehan. Ondaatji because he won the Booker and he lives in Canada. Shehan, probably only after his Chinaman was published by Random House, even though Shehan Karunatilake won the Graetian in 2008, and was first published in Sri Lanka in 2010. Karunatilaka himself had told the Guardian, "If you are a Sri Lankan writing in English you can't expect to be published outside Sri Lanka".

The ILA Project, has been initiated by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, "to support and facilitate translation and promotion of literary heritage and contemporary literature from the Indian Languages into major foreign languages."

Sri Lanka is more in need of such a project than India, to encourage our local talent. Our literature in Sinhala and Tamil could easily be on par with international literature today. India has to deal with 22 scheduled languages, 122 regional languages, four classical languages and over one thousand mother tongues. Yet they have several advantages over Sri Lanka. First is the size of the population. Indians, from all wakes of life, still like to read books. Indian books, even in their native languages, have a vast readership abroad. The Indian diaspora read, discuss and popularize Indian literature wherever they live.

In India, there are over 250 million Hindi speakers, about 85 million speaking Bengali, 75 million speaking Telugu, 75 million Marathi, 55 million Urdu, 65 million Tamil, while in our own country we have only about 15 million speaking Sinhala and about 5 million speaking Tamil. It is a very sad situation, even with a 15 million Sinhala population, our publishers consider printing only 1000 copies of a novel, and they are happy if they can sell it within about two years. The average print of an English novel is 500, and today most publishers do not accept books by new authors. Our poets, writing in both Sinhala and Tamil, face even a far worse situation. They have to publish their books on their own, and there is hardly any support even from the established poets, for the young writers.

With such dismal figures, perhaps our priority should be to promote Sri Lankan Literature in Sri Lanka, before we could venture abroad. We have September as the Literary month, and October as the Reading Month, and we have an International Book Fair, drawing about one million visitors, but very few visitors are interested in fiction. They come to buy text books and stationery. The F&B stalls perhaps earn more profits than the booksellers. The publishers and booksellers have not heard of marketing, of promoting their products, of attracting customers.

At India House, Namita Gokhale told us about her life as a writer, about her first novel published in 1984. 'Paro: Dreams of Passion', a sensational novel which had been considered as pornography by some sections of the society, because of its 'candid sexual humour'. Yet the book is still popular even with the present generation, which speaks for itself. She posed the question about Sinhala novels, if our writers are free to write without prudish restrictions. Someone in the audience mentioned Karumakkaryo, by Gunadasa Amarasekara. And also his Yali Upannemi. No one in the audience suggested any other novels. Are our writers still confined within victorian girdles or is it because our Sinhala Buddhist readers are serious observers of the Third Precept about what is called 'sexual misconduct'?

Namita has written several novels, the most recent is 'Priya: In Incredible Indyaa'. Sri Lankan readers know Namita Gokhale from her non-fiction work, which she co-edited with Malshri Lal, 'In Search of Sita, Revisiting Mythology. (I wrote about Namita and Sita in this column last year on May 4th, 2011. )

Namita also told us about her other life, as an event organizer, of how she and William Dalrymple initiated and developed the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, from small beginnings into a mega event with over 125,000 attending the festival this year. with Nobel prize winners and unknown Dalit writers mingling together. The Jaipur Festival, held in the Rajasthani capital Rajpur, has been called the Kumbh Mela in India, and accepted by the international literary community as the largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific region.

'Many Languages, One Literature' is in reality a very far off dream, which someday would be achievable once we develop instant translators. Languages have been created by man, and due to various reasons, even in one country, people developed different tongues. We built one more barrier between us, and it is up to us to break down the barriers, and unite once again to speak in one tongue, or to get the aid of machines to translate from one tongue to another.

Till such time we have to do our own translations, not as a business venture, to sell books and earn profits, earn royalty or become famous. We have to do it to share our creativity, our culture and our thoughts with our neighbours, with the rest of the world. Each country, each culture should take the initiative to take their literature abroad, across geographical borders and across man made barriers.

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