The Gratiaen Trust in affiliation with Standard Chartered Bank: Engendering creative writing in Engl

Saturday, 3 March 2012 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It’s that time of year when literary attention is directed towards the annual Gratiaen Prize, in affiliation with Standard Chartered Bank, which is awarded to the best work written in English – published or unpublished – by a resident Sri Lankan. The prize, initiated in 1993 so now in its 19th year, is intended to encourage creative English writing in Sri Lanka.

Standard Chartered’s Chief Executive, Anirvan Ghosh-Dastidar, on the bank’s support of the awards, said: “The Gratiaen Prize recognises the best work by a resident Sri Lankan author and Standard Chartered has been involved since its beginning. We are delighted to support the award with literary excellence as its sole focus.”

Furthermore, this year’s Gratiaen Awards includes the HAI Goonetileke Prize for translation, initiated in 2003 and awarded every other year to strengthen the Gratiaen Trust’s mandate of promoting original writing in English by recognising those who provide English readers access to the rich literature of Sinhala and Tamil. The value of both prizes is Rs. 200,000.

In January, the three-judge panels for each prize started their deliberations. There were 47 entries for the Gratiaen Prize, a mixture of novels, short stories, poetry, plays and memoirs, 13 of which have been published, and seven entries for the HAI Goonetileke Prize, four of which have been published. The panels’ decisions regarding those entries shortlisted for both prizes will be revealed to the public on Monday, 2 April 2012, with the support of the British Council. The award of the prizes will take place on Saturday, 26 May 2012.

The Gratiaen Prize is named in memory of Doris Gratiaen, Michael Ondaatje’s mother. Ondaatje, a joint-winner of the Booker Prize in 1992 for his novel The English Patient, instituted the award in the same year with the Booker prize money. Since then it has been a major event in the island’s literary calendar. Over the years its recipients have included both first-time authors as well as well-known authors.

The first winners of the Gratiaen Prize in 1993 were Carl Muller (The Jam Fruit Tree) and Lalitha Withanachchi (Wind Blows over the Hills). Subsequent winners include Prashani Rambukwella (Mythil’s Secret), Shehan Karunatilaka (Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew), Vivemarie Vander Poorten (Nothing Prepares You), the late Nihal de Silva (Road from Elephant Pass), Elmo Jayawardene (Sam’s Story), the late Tissa Abeysekara (Bringing Tony Home), Sybil Wettasinghe (The Child in Me), Rajiva Wijesinha (Servants), and Punyakante Wijenaike (Amulet).

Many of the works stand out. Muller’s Jam Fruit Tree was the first in a number of ground-breaking books exploring the Burgher identity and experience; Nihal de Silva’s Road from Elephant Pass was not only a worthy best-seller but also made into a popular feature film; Prashani Rambukwella’s Mythil’s Secrets, although supposedly a children’s book, proved to have an appeal for older readers, like Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.

Among them Shehan Karunatilake’s cricket saga, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, which was unpublished when it won the 2008 Gratiaen Prize, deserves special mention. It was hailed by the judges as “one of the most imaginative works of contemporary Sri Lankan fiction”. Michael Ondaatje, who prefers to remain as invisible as possible and rarely comments on the novels that win the prize he founded, was moved to describe Chinaman as “a crazy ambidextrous delight”.

After a fruitless search to find a sympathetic agent or publisher, Shehan used the Gratiaen Prize money to self-publish the first edition in March 2010, and then left Sri Lanka to work in Singapore. He was determined to see the book published internationally and contacted regional publishers. Random House India responded with enthusiasm, and in February 2011 published it in an edited version in the Subcontinent and launched it at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival.

Subsequently Chinaman was published in the UK and US, was selected by the major UK and Europe book retailers, Waterstones, for inclusion in Waterstones’ 11, “Our pick of the best first novels of 2011,” and long-listed and then shortlisted for the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. To cap it all Shehan won this prize, worth $50,000, in recent weeks.  The HAI Goonetileke Prize is named after Ian Goonetileke, Sri Lanka’s most renowned librarian, national bibliographer, and researcher extraordinaire. His labours resulted in the publication in Switzerland of the 5-volume A Bibliography of Ceylon (1970-1983), undoubtedly the most important work on the history of English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka. Initially, the Gratiaen Prize was administered by HAIG (Ian) Goonetileke, but later this task was handed over to the Gratiaen Trust, which was set up for the purpose.

Previous winners of the HAI Goonetileke Prize were Nandithiya as the Chameleon, author Sunethra Rajakarunanayake translated by Vijita Fernando; The Hour When the Moon Weeps, author Liyanage Amarakeerthi translated by Kumari Goonesekere; and Sedona, author Eva Ranaweera translated by Edmund Jayasuriya.