By Isha Alexandri.
She is a historian, an academic and an author who has contributed to diverse genre in the industry. Currently she is affiliated to the Department of Western Classical Culture and Christian CultureIn the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. Professor Kamani has been teaching for last 30 years contributing enormously to nations growth. Today she reveals her unparealled life that was not often unspoken about, as an author .
The Asian Review welcomes you to the Interview Series “Literary Speaking”, that features authors around the world!
1.We would love it if you could tell us a little about yourself and your writing career.
At present I am a Senior Professor in Western Classical Culture at a state university in Sri Lanka. -University of Kelaniya. Both my parents were academics. My father a professor in Sinhala and my mother an editor in the Sinhala – English dictionary. I am the only child in the family. I would not say that they forced me to pursue any special branch of interest in my childhood days. The total freedom I had, made me observe and imagine many things in life. It was a wonderful world I traveled to in my loneliness. My parents took me to England when they went for postgraduate studies. I entered a school where the teachers used to read to the kids who were interested in literature after school. Well, I never waited. I was one of the naughty kids who went to the park and played or watched TV at home.
Yet writing would have been in my blood all along. For it was much later that I discovered the lyrics that my father had written in the form of love letters. And the diaries that my mother had kept while being a newly married couple in India, as students in the Cucuta university – in mid 1950s.When there was a lot of social and political turmoil. The way he had described the harthals, train journey to Sri Lanka and how farmers brought cows on to the pavement to sell fresh milk to their customers were things that caught my imagination. Mother had returned to Sri Lanka to give me birth while father was still in India. -These I have edited in to my book -The Indian Connection, along with sketches that my father had made on the spot and black and white photographs.
I had this habit of writing down in verse form what I felt about certain things and events. Experiences that took my interest. Especially when I put myself in other people’s shoes. This made me react and feel what others would be feeling in such situations. I cannot remember studying or organising when I wrote. I did not concentrate on the writings -they were my own thoughts, the way I felt, my own feelings. Yet later I found that my mother had collected these scraps and published them as a book! I was shocked. And I was ashamed. The book was in Sinhala since I took pride in my ability to use it in a flexible way, after my stint in England.
Later I came to recognise the power of the word. I started to write books for children. With a special purpose. The aim was to teach them the ‘Ahimsa’. Since my relationship with dogs were quite close and I had observed their behaviour well I related to their feelings and encouraged others to do so as well.
Once I entered university, I realised that the subject that I studied was quite useful and bemoaned the fact that there were not many in books in Sinhala. There were many fields where the readership would find useful as well as interesting. Hence the Sinhala books on ancient Western Literature, Literary Criticism, Philosophy, and Histography. These books would be provoking the thoughts of readers. ‘Sthri virodhi’ is a drama I have written and produced as a young lecturer. The script is published as well.
My Ph.D thesis was on Ancient Greek Tragedies on Sri Lankan Stage. The study paved way to about four books in English.
Meanwhile right through my studies I had not neglected my creative writing. I wrote short stories and published collections of short stories in English. And won the State Literary Award for Creative writing in English.
This was followed by an unfortunate stint in hospital, where I honestly thought I did not have much time. So it was poetry I turned to, This time in English. I recovered, and continued writing. Mr. Godage was kind enough to publish all my books. I also won four Godage awards given for English short story and The Life Time Award for the Contribution to English literature.
2.You are an academic and a creative writer: where do you belong the most?
Most definitely, I would like to be accepted as a creative writer. I write Academic books with a purpose. But Creative writing and the productions are my life – heart and mind combined. But it would be unfair to say that the study of the Classics did not have its influence on me as well, in subject and in style. The thoughts of Longinus-the Roman literary critic have a deep influence on me because I fully agree with him in the use of language to portray emotion. I feel that I had followed his teaching even before I had read him! Even in the Classical Dramas the weight the writers had given to emotion and how they had portrayed man in the universe is awe inspiring and has a universal value transcending all boundaries. I believe my studies have had an imprint on my character. Of how I conceive things, which is what I express in my creative works. As Longinus says, I put myself in the shoes of the character I represent and undergo emotionally what he feels. maybe this is one of the reasons some criticise me for exposing my own life in my creative writings. To this the answer is a definite ‘NO’. It is just that I make the emotions I represent my own while keeping my mind alert what I am writing. This is a gift I had worked on for years.
However, some are my own experiences. In my collection of short stories ‘The Balloon factory’ in the story of ‘Labor Lost’ I have described the agony of giving ‘birth’ to my daughter who was a still baby. I strongly believe that it was this story that won the State Literary award in that year.
3.Your work spread across several themes such as history, culture, poetry etc: What is your opinion about the importance of cultural awareness for a writer?
It is very important to be mindful of the cultural environment that the writer represents. I believe that one should be aware that a writer, specially a creative writer usually is a representative of culture. But what exactly do you define as culture? Some even mix culture with various forms of racism! I come from a somewhat conservative family who had been exposed to other cultures. They respect the traditions etc. yet in a broad-minded manner. I have studied Western Classical Culture and have come to realize that the fundamental thoughts of one culture does not necessarily contradict another. In the modern context some even believe that the dress codes exhibit one’s culture. When I was young, I wore a sari and had long hair. Now when I am getting on in years, I have to be practical. I wear trousers and wear my hair short and coloured – due to the grey!! But could one sensor this as going against culture? I wore unfashionable clothes and long hair when entering University since my father was a professor. -I did not want to be thought snobbish and definitely wanted to avoid ragging. Hence when returning my first tutorial the kind lady asked ‘Is this your own work?’. During the recent pandemic, despite the restrictions to travels, many roamed the country to exchange sweetmeats. Instead they ended up by sharing the illness!
4. With your interest and profound knowledge of ancient cultures and history, how do you see modern literature compared to that of the past?
My opinion is that it is not so much regarding the past and the present (modern), It is more of the difference between how the West and the East handled literature. Here I feel I am not competent to comment that freely. But from what I do know, Modern literature of the East has gone back to what the Ancient Greeks had done in representing emotions plus the realities of life (mostly one and the same). That is tackling human emotions for what they are. Earlier in the East many had couched emotions in fine frills of language and tactics. In the West the concentration was more on the harsh truths – almost working on shock treatment. Though the transformation might be distasteful to some, my opinion is that it has become closer to reality. A welcome change.
On the other hand, only a few of the past writings have been handed down to us. We are compelled to form our opinion on the works that have travelled the test of time. But modern literature is plentiful and could be divided into many fractions. They are not from a single country; the writers are different and their opinion diverse. Some are of a good quality, making us proud yet some seem to be addressing a completely different audience with an aim at a lucrative value. This is a pity.
Next comes the entertainment value. People in the modern world have many choices of entertainment to distract them from reading, while the ancients only had the bards and the dramatists. Most ancient literature was read out to a listening audience hence the sound and rhythm were important. It was a form of addressing a mass audience, (mass communication) As for example Greek tragedies entertained while purging the emotions of the public which had been till then bottled up while making the audience go home and think, even ponder on the philosophical arguments that the stories on the dramas had presented. In ancient Greece, the Old comedies were referred to as comic papers which made the people laugh. The laughter that had been subdued in real life can be openly expressed in the auditorium. The subject matter was largely contemporary politics and the society. Where now the reader could read from his cozy home. Specially regarding Ancient Greek drama, the response of the audience was immediate.
When reading most of the novels published today I find them disappointedly lacking when it comes to the conclusive chapters. They have a good beginning; an interesting development yet seem to leave the reader in want at the end. They consist mostly as a what we could call a ‘deus ex machina’ which refers to a god coming on stage as a sudden solution to a complex situation (mostly used in ancient Greek tragedies)
The aim of the writer should be to transport the reader through his emotions evoked and not so much conviction of the mind. This leaves the reader in a disadvantage since that is beyond his control. The writer had to be in a passion and like the first ring attached to a magnet. The reader would be the last iron ring attached, where the magnetic power would be equal. This described by Plato and the main reason for him to distrust creative writing. (the magnet he describes are the Muses of song and far above normal humans.)
5.“The young generation is detached from philosophy” as a person who had done several notable works in philosophy, what is your opinion?
First let me humbly correct you. What I have done is discuss and analyses Ancient Greek philosophy. Nothing more than that. In one book I have concentrated on discussed the philosophies of the Greeks where the ideas developed somewhat similar to those in the East. Provoking the readers to ponder on the separate, isolated yet definitely profound connection with the ideas presented by each other- at times contradicting and at times being influenced. the other is a discussion and an analysis of the ‘dialogues’ of Plato, and how he had used literature to put forth philosophy.
Coming back to your question, some of the young do not have time to even think on necessary daily needs since they are running a race on such a fast track. They do not even have time to understand the traditional religions their parents have handed down! To them religion is only a ritual. Of give and take. ‘I give so you may give back!!’- some psychological dependence on a higher force.
The next is the problem of some youngsters who are attracted by ‘sham philosophers’!! They pose as teachers to the interested youth. Hence the youngsters mixed with society at random and they themselves believe they are superior to others. If they had selected a guru, that person’s opinion might be different to that of others, who claim their methods and achievements were superior. They should realize that the dress code, mostly consist of a white robe, a neckless and a staff would not make them philosophers.
6.You are a Sri Lankan, historian, author and woman. Do female writers have equal opportunities and acceptance in Sri Lankan society?
Yes, I am a Sri Lankan, a woman and a writer, but not a historian. What I have written is again, a discussion cum introduction on Greek and Roman historians in two separate books.
Hitherto I have had no problem in finding a publisher – Mr. S.Godage has always been very corporative. I am speaking from my own experience. Critics have been kind to me. readership receptive. the subject related books in Sinhala have been largely appreciated by students studying subjects such as drama, fine arts and philosophy. They have approached me for interviews and discussions. And even at present many ask me to write on the subject.
As to my creative writing, I have received one State Award and five National awards. My creative writing is all in English. I am aware that the readership in English may be lesser I have even received letters of appreciation. The university has given me three gold medals for bringing honor to the university through my writing. I do not presume a gender difference there. I humbly believe I have not been slighted. Nor have the other woman writers. but many critics seem to be overly conscious about what suits our culture.
My close friends have warned me that as I am a woman that I should not be so bold in subject matter and expression. This is I believe that when reading my writing I make them feel that it is me, expressing and exposing my own life. That is exactly what I want to do. Since I am an Asiatic woman, and living in Sri Lanka they say that readers might feel that the writing is autographical! I feel that this in other words, I have been successful in what I set out to do.
7. Almost all of your works are non-fiction: what is your opinion on fiction and fiction writers?
Let me humbly correct you. I have written books on Western Classical Culture in Sinhala and in English. True. The purpose of writing in Sinhala is to introduce the subject to the readers. I believe I have achieved this to a certain extent. the English books are on the research I have done for my Ph.D. These I would like to translate but it is difficult to find time.
I am a creative writer who wants to be recognized and referred to as one. What I ‘create’ is real life situations+ feelings. In my work you will not find any fairy tales or misplaced magical realities that can be used in a very effective manner in a suitable situation. I find that some do use it to add a ‘modern twist’ to their fiction. Hence as the Roman Critic had said it stands out as a ‘purple patch’ on a dress – this would be inappropriate. Times change ad with it Fiction which is a product of it.
Personally I love fiction. I use them as a mode of releasing stress. One feels one needs ‘a good book’ frequently. I enjoy all forms of fiction in English as well as in Sinhala. In the modern day many are written with a purpose. The message is hidden in the story. The method of delivering is varied. They are needed and should be appreciated. Some could be symbolical or with direct association to society or politics. I have written around forty reviews on novels that I had read and thought they needed to be discussed. These have been published in local newspapers, in Sinhala and in English.
8. What can your readership expect in the near future? Can you tell us a bit about it?
It is kind of you to ask this question. I have completed a collection of English poetry. Yet I have some problems in selection for I am normally in the habit of excluding what I feel is weak or inappropriate. The book is to be titled as ‘NUTS’. The poems cover many subjects of human interest. My juniors, Sathsara and Dinushika are helping me out with the editing. Mr Godage has asked me to send it as soon as I finish.
As to subject related books- nothing. But I did complete two study guides for my students. I have composed study guides for almost all the subjects I lecture on.
9.Are there any authors you admire deeply, and why?
This is a very hard question to answer. I have been reading since I was a child. Authors were admired from time to time as I grew up and my choice underwent changed. However lately I did some serious reading since I had not much time to do so. Among the books I read of late, there is an author I could really admire. He is Mr Gamini Kandepolla by name. Among many novels I read I found him handling the subject matter and the style with superb efficiency. The other books had defects such as the manner of conclusion. But in his books, it the exact opposite. I have earlier conceived him as a feature’s editor and a journalist. The book that introduced him to me as a novelist was ‘Ira vara vara’. Theme of the novel is the conflict between ‘civilization ‘ and the ‘wild’. The human inhabitants in the village earlier had coexisted with the jungle and the animals. Yet when the artificial ‘development’ stepped in both suffered the consequences that followed. This is something that the whole country is experiencing now. Each day we find humans being struck by elephants that used to be the had been their habitat before it was invaded. Elephants are killed for their own safety. This so called ‘development’ is the efficiency of greedy business men backed often by politicians. The novel is beautifully handled. And it appeals to readers with diverse tastes.
Yet it is when I read his second novel that realised what an expert writer Kandepolla was. The ‘Degodavarama’ could be referred to a novel that deals with psychological conflicts between the main characters. It deals with the ‘Kalu kumara’ concept (belief)that in rural and not so rural areas. The Kalukumaraya is symbolic extra human force that affects young lonely virgins. A young man in the rural village is called by this name since people wrongly believe that he is ‘strange’ and does not fit the norm. The novel deals with sexual fantasies, incidents and how it affects individuals and the society they emerge in. Yet at no point does he overstep to turn the novel in to a pornographically affective piece of creation. The other doctors who are involved have multiple reactions to the person. One even uses him for her personal research. The incidents do not seem out of place or artificially constructed. At times they seem to transcend the boundaries of reality yet are convincing enough.
What attracts me in both novels is the narration itself. The writer does not use any artificial methods to build up the content. If it did consist of fantasies they beautifully merged with content. He had his feet on the local ground but had reached the universal. And the end was a consequence of the narration, not a ‘deus ex machina’. I have published reviews for both the novels and await his next creation.
10. Aside from writing, what are your interests? What do you like to do to unwind?
In my priorities dogs come first. They have been my soulmates from the earliest times I care to remember. My mother who is a linguist has recorded the steps of my speaking abilities, where the first sentence I had uttered was on the family dog!! ‘Amma!! sabu ate biscuits! ‘meaning the dog had eaten my snack. Since then there had been a lot of dogs in my life. They were always a part of my family. I share my life and emotions with them. Yet each dog when he or she died left me in shatters. Yet adopt, again and again, since I cannot imagine a life without them. The latest is Tikiri, the naughty pup my husband brought home from the fish market. We have become inseparable now. An imp of a creature that can entertain people and at the sometime terrify them.
I also love to go on trips with my husband. From the time a trip is to be arranged my husband takes over. He leaves nothing for me to do. I sit beside him sightseeing and enjoy myself with no responsibilities. After time as the milage lengthens, my mind takes over or rater the creative part in my brain. I need to jot down my thoughts or otherwise I will lose them forever. There are times when i had forgotten to take paper or pen. The he would by them at once. I thank in for letting me ignore him for most of the journey. I do not write about the experiences that I am undergoing but the fresh air and passing scenery would trigger off some hidden fraction of the mind.
11.What is your opinion on the need for people to engage in the creation (or consumption) of the literary arts amidst the ongoing, and rather stressful, COVID-19 pandemic?
The Pandemic came and spread as a shock to all of us. Families came to learn how to exist inside the small space of their abode. Earlier they had to depart-dispense among the outer world. Interact with people and returned at the fall of the day. Since the time they had for themselves was limited, most made optimum use of the time. They awaited the time they could be together. But when the pandemic and with it the ‘lock down’ the situation became an enforced confinement. This became a time tiresome to such an extent in some cases that the ‘storm in the tea cups’ expanded to larger tragedies. Furthermore, watching TV made no effect as stress relief.
I too suffered the ‘writers block’ due to what was happening in the whole world. It was as if a whole curse had fallen on its forward march. But then one day I came out of it in a miraculous way. I decided to exploit to the maximum the opportunity I was given. I was not disturbed in my isolation, there were no demands. So why not make the most of the otherwise negative situation? in this frame of mind I turned to writing. I believe that people prone to art and creative work are blessed in a way. I was able to turn the situation in to a positive one. I started writing what I thought and felt in a creative manner. So can all who want to turn and explore their own potentialities. Doing so would automatically be a mode of stress relief. Writing is a mode of purging the emotions. Or else the stress might lead you to actions that could turn out to be a disaster and make you repent later.
12.What is your message to budding authors around the world?
Be yourself, observe. Train yourself to feel and be aware. Then learn to express yourself. Do not be frightened to be honest, yet know your limits. In this modern world people are not used to expressing themselves. Once I took my students, the undergraduates on a trip to Arugambe almost at the other end of the country. On the way, I passed a note book among them and asked them to say something about the trip. -What they saw and what they felt. ‘Awesome!’, ‘cool!’, ‘fantastic!’ and ‘WOW!!’ were some of the comments!!And it was better than a smiley face-which some did present.
I do realize that the modern world does have all sorts of entertainments. Yet someone who aspires to engage in creative writing should start by reading in whatever spare time they do have. At least they would be influenced by the reading. This is a habit you could cultivate, just as expressing yourself through writing. In composition give priority to imagination and to assume the role of characters you represent.ie – In school, when children were asked to write on ‘ what it was to be a cat’…. this made you to make believe that you yourself was a cat. This is what we call empathy, which is necessary to become a good writer.
Once you have written something do not be in a haste to publish it. Show it to people who are accustomed to reading and listen to their opinion. if you feel that they are useful or relevant, and believe that an alteration is needed then go ahead, do not be scared to have second opinion or delete something that is not suitable. Like in many arts, practice is essential so make a start.