The 20th anniversary event of the Gratiaen Prize was hosted by Standard Chartered at the Park Street Mews’ Stables on Saturday 4 May 2013. The winner’s certificate of the 2012 Gratiaen Prize, for the best work of creative writing in English, was awarded to Lal Medawattegedera for his unpublished novel ‘Playing Pillow Politics at MGK’. The Daily FT sat down with Medawattegedara to talk about his recent accomplishment, inspiration and his words of advice to aspiring novelists. Following are excerpts:
By David Ebert
Q: How would you describe your book to someone unfamiliar with your work?
A: My book is about the proletariat; the poor people of Sri Lanka. Even my last book ‘The window cleaner’s soul’ which was shortlisted; the themes were similar about people who live on the edge of society, how they negotiate their lives, how they live, how they feel and how they come to terms with their fears.
Q: Tell me about the character Deshan in your book?
A: Actually my novel has so many characters but Deshan, the narrator of the story, is an invalid boy and because he is an invalid he is restricted to a wheelchair and especially at nights no one comes to visit him. So he just stays like that and he relates stories to a CFL bulb hanging above him.
Q: You’ve said that you wrote the book at a time of political upheaval. Tell me about those times and how much did those events alter your views on politics?
A: See, I came to the Government sector from the private sector. I began my career at a newspaper and then an advertising agency as a writer and as you know politics don’t really come into your consciousness when in the private sector. So when I joined the university, things started coming to the fore and the academics were in the midst of a campaign to get the Government to spend 6% of GDP on education. Anyway, coming back to your question, the story was in my head for about two years since 2011 and I had no way of getting it out because I was doing my master’s, so I would work here five days and travel to the University of Peradeniya on the weekends, finish my classes and then get back to Colombo.
I wrote it but it came out in scrambled fragments and I myself realised that this was not happening because it was fragmented and what I wanted to say was not coming out. So in the beginning of 2012 my master’s degree was coming to an end and I started writing because at the time there was a prolonged strike where we didn’t come to work for three months and we were engaging in protest marches and distributing leaflets. During that time I found the time to work from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. almost every day and that was when I sort of intensified and finished it off.
Coming to your other question, as to how the politics of the time would have affected me, I would say that I became more politically conscious during that period; I was reading a lot on the issues at hand. Certain things affected me regarding education and I would say that during that time my political consciousness was very high.
Q: So is your timing in terms of deciding to publish the book now related in any way to the upheaval we see in today’s politics and is there a specific message that you would like readers to grasp from it?
A: Well, no. I mean whatever happened between FUTA and the Government is not directly stated in the book and there are no directly related issues. What you would find is people trying to live their lives when they don’t have a lot of money. If there is one single message, as per your question, I would say it would be how people confront their fears. Fear is one of the things that either shrinks you or makes you run; we need to overcome fear and our fears are the same regardless of your social position. That would be one of the messages. Your other question is very important because as you see when you write a novel the artistic part is over and now the marketing part has to take over and the release of the novel will depend on certain market forces and not exactly political forces.
Q: While you were writing the book, did you ever feel as if you were one of the characters?
A: Your very interesting suggestion can be taken back to the famous novel Madame Bovary. Gustave Flaubert who wrote the book said that the character Madame Bovary was in essence himself. What he was referring to was that she was a lower-middle class French woman who had a lot of dreams of going out and accomplishing them but she couldn’t do it because of her social position. What Flaubert meant was that it was his life that he projected on Madame Bovary. Yes there is a concept like that but I think you are the best person to say so because it may be a bit difficult for me to say so as there are a lot of characters. Maybe some of the things that I felt may have found their way into the novel. You can’t stop that. It’s difficult to give you a black and white answer to that.
Q: One question I would always ask an author is which writers have left the biggest impression in your life as a novelist?
A: That’s a good question. I would say Rushdie, Milan Kundera, the Czechoslovakian novelist, Ismail Kadare, an Albanian novelist, and Andre Kukla. These four have, I would say, left the biggest impression but I wouldn’t say that others have not but these were the books I was reading when I wrote my novel.
Q: So what inspired you to write your first book?
A: My first book just like the second one came out of a strange intuition, some sort of urge to put something on paper. My first book was based on my experience as a journalist which was in my head and I never encountered and sorted out. So I think my first book was mostly about my experiences and what I noticed during that period. My second book also came off some intuition like that but it combined a lot of things from my work as a journalist, an advertising writer and an academic.
Q: Tell me about your introduction to literature?
A: Well, what happened was that I was a reader for as long as I can remember and somewhere down the line it changed where I got involved in a lot of sports which distracted me from my reading. Then I had an accident which made me unable to continue sports. It kept me as a relative invalid for quite some time and that was when I started reading again. My first language is Sinhala, so it was initially Sinhalese books and then gradually on to English books and it never stopped after that.
My parents always had a lot of important books including a lot of Russian literature and a combination of various books always available at home. They had this thing that if there was an important book out, they had to have it but they never found the time to read it; so when I had the accident I just cut through them before ever going to a library.
Q: Is there a specific bit of advice you would give to an aspiring author?
A: I would tell them that they need to read a lot because the textual space is a beautiful space where a lot of things happen there and it is a very powerful space. You define your world through text. I wouldn’t want to make a general statement but I think there is a serious drop in creativity due to the visual medium so that is not going to help you unless you read a lot. Also you need to be honest with yourself. You write something and you need to have a little bit of an expert opinion but mostly you need to listen to your heart.
Pix by Sameera Wijesinghe