Sri Lankan Women Writers Finding Space Within Political Turmoil: Punyakante Wijenaike, Kumari Jayawardena, Nira Wickramsinghe, Rosemary Rogers & Thisuri Wanniarchchi
Dr. Shamenaz Bano, Allahabad, India
Sri Lanka is a country which has witnessed tremendous political upheavals since ages. Although now, peace has been restored to the lands still there are many issues which have to be sorted out. Though an under develop country, but Sri Lanka was the first country to have given the world first woman Prime Minister, Srinivaso Bhandarnaike.
Women writing in Sri Lanka began in 1928 when Rosalind Mendis published her first novel, The Mystery of a Tragedy published by Arthur Stockwell of London. The novel was not so successful and it did not pave the way to inspire other women to take up writing as a career. Women writing did not flourish in Sri Lanka due to many reasons but over the last three decades, it has witnessed a new wave of women writers trying to carve their niche in the world of English writing as there has been tremendous flow of women writers. Vijeta Fernando writes, ‘a half a century long drought followed before creative writing, especially by women, could take root and flourish in the island country.’ So the writing culture including both men and women developed in Sri Lanka in the postcolonial period.
Keywords: Sri Lankan Women Writers, Post-colonial period, Political turmoil
Now, we see that the Sri Lankan women writers are even surpassing the male writers in all spheres. We find women writers in Sri Lanka churning out the best form of writing, providing the readers with interesting and high quality works by beating the men writers in popularity and fame. Their works are getting international attentions through nominations for many awards & prizes around the globe. Even they are able to satisfy many critics. As Sri Lankan writer, Carl Muller views, “Women have become the standard bearers of Sri Lankan writing in English in the past 50 years.”
Literature in Sri Lanka has seen tremendous change in the recent years in terms of themes as compare to some decades back especially regarding women writers. Earlier in the fifties both men and women had focused on different subjects in writing. Critically both felt- “that women wrote only about ‘womanly’ subjects, limiting themselves to domesticity or particular womanly experience.”However now we can find myriad themes which colours the works of female writers of the island country.
The dark side of the lives of an individual living in a country which has seen many political upheavals and unrest forms the basis of writing of many individuals. Barring these, they are exploring the dark side of human lives like, homosexuality, lesbianism and sexual aberrations in their writing. So now they are focussing on a broad spectrum of themes and exploring the entire of social and political happenings in their works.
Vijitha Yapa, a famous journalist turned book publisher ascribes this change to the changing economic condition of the country, the liberation of economy, and the influx of investors resulting in women emancipation in almost all the fields. This has led to raising the status of women writers by expanding their horizons and experiences. Yapa is herself a very famous publisher of English language books in her country. She sees a, “a new generation of women writers exploring social issues through novels, the short story, drama and verse. Publishers now have a wide array of choices from women writers instead of a few limited manuscripts. Quite a few of our publications of women’s work have won state literary and other awards.”
Different people have different views regarding the growth of women literature in Sri Lanka. As S. Sivakumaran, the famous critic and the columnist of Tamil literature believes that the increased scopes and possibilities of a University education have created a positive and favourable atmosphere for better creative writing by women. He opines:
It could be that their discipline in university education makes them more attentive to the craft, characterisation and language in their writing than men. Women are also naturally observant and better at description than men, He further adds to his remark: Look at the number of women expatriate writers’ today, who are making a mark in the international arena. We have Michelle de Krester, Yasmine Goonaratne, Chandani Lokuge and several others. I don’t seem to be able to bring any men’s names into this list. (web)
Whatever maybe the reasons but the outcome is that the women writing in Sri Lanka is flourishing and Sri Lankan women writers are gaining international attention day by day. Credit goes to their hard work, perseverance, courage and experiences. These women writers are giving voice to the common women of their country to move forward, oppose injustice inflicted on them, to raise their standard, to become emancipated, to fight against all kinds of injustice. On the contrary we can say that women writers are leading from front and are marching towards progress.
Although achieving so much, still they are facing double standards of men in the society. Every now and then, they are facing discrimination on the basis of gender in their society. As Sunita Rajakarunanayake, a prolific, award winning writer and translator had raised this issue in her writing. She boldly exposes the double dealings and double standards of her society regarding the status of men and women in political as well as social scenario in her novel and poetry through verses, dialogues, characters and plot. And for this she has faced a lot of criticism for exposing the ugly truth of the ills of the society. In her writing, she has focused on the extra marital affairs, sex, exploitation of gay men and other such sensitive topics. But she has overcome all the criticism boldly says that, “I expose reality through creativity.”
People have criticised Rajakarunanayake not only for her writing but also for neglecting her home and family and giving more time to writing. But she challenges her critics and proving them false proof that her devotion to writing has shaped the personalities of her son and daughter into strong and independent individuals. These are mere charges framed by the opponents to hinder anybody’s progress which is just the outcome of jealousy. She says, “Anyway this problem was never mine, as my husband and family are always behind me in whatever I write. The problem has been with some sections of society.
There are some other very fine examples of such women writers who are strengthening the role of women in the Sri Lankan society. One such writer is Sicila Cooray, who writes poetry believes that she is able to write because of the support of her husband and her grown-up son who allow her space for her creativity. She says:
I am a ‘moody writer, in that I write only when something moves me and that can be every day or once in a while whenever it is I always find the space and their support. That I suppose, is what makes me tick! Hence the charges against the women writers ignoring their families are totally wrong.
Another bilingual writer, Eva Ranaweera, who is the editor of the famous quarterly magazine in English on women issue, ‘ Voice of Women ’ states that, “Looking at women’s writing as a whole, it is quite clear that the charge that women’s writing are limited in experience, non- scientific, ‘womanly’ and semi autobiographical does not hold water anymore.”
These experiences are moulding the lives of not only of women writers but common women as well and laying the foundation of society where women are strong individuals. These women writers have dealt with wide range of issues in their writings. Yasmine Goonaratne, who is a famous critic of South Asia and Professor Emeritus of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia says, “Women no longer feel pangs of guilt over devoting time to writing.” Goonaratne is herself a writer and credit goes to her in putting Sri Lankan women’s writing on the international arena throughout her teaching years at Macquarie University. She is credited with editing and publishing many collections of Sri Lankan fiction without any help.
The unstable political condition of Sri Lankan resulting in wars had been the themes of these women writers as the wars and its aftermath gives rise to many issues like displacement, killings of your own family and people, the suffering of parents who lost their children in the struggle finds places in their writings. Women are the worst sufferings of any war and their experiences are forms the basis of these women writers. There are many other social problems relating women which are being pen down by women writers in their writings like female migration, drugs, use of women in the insidious business of storing and distributing narcotics, molestation, sexual abuse of women and children, failed marriages and domestic violence and many such acts. Hence multiples problems are being explored by Sri Lankan women writers in their writings.
It is their hard work and quality writing that Sri Lankan women writers have been honoured by various awards and prizes around the globe since many years. Punyakante Wijenaike wrote, ‘ Anoma ’ which is considered as a harsh comment on incest, but it became very famous and won the Commonwealth Award for short fiction in 1996. Not only this, she has also won the prestigious Annual Gratiaen Award for creative writing and some other other award includes, the six state literary award for her fiction. The Gratiaen Award is a famous literary award named after the grandfather of Sri Lankan Canadian author Michael Ondaatjee, who was the Booker prize winner. It is the most prestigious literary award of Sri Lanka given annually to the best piece of work in English writing by a Sri Lankan living in the country.
Wijenaike is considered as one of the most famous and foremost novelist and short story writer of Sri Lanka in the present scenario. Her novels are, ‘ Dark ’, ‘ Yukthi ’, ‘ Missing in Action ’ and ‘ The Rebel ’ are popular. These novels deals with the problems existing in her country, the theme of the ethnic conflict and the dreadful insurgency of 1980 and 1988 and the youth rebellion took place in 1971. We can sum up by Yasmin Goonaratne comments:
It is often said that women write more or better because because they have more time than the men the men do. I don’t go along with this view, as many women have to find time, juggling with housework, childcare, caring for aged parents and full time jobs. So what makes them write? Their sensitivity to what is happening around them them, their understanding of pressing social issue and their attitude to life which is different from that of the men.
There are many other renowned women writers in Sri Lanka like, Kumari Jayawardena, Nira Wickramsinghe, Rosemary Rogers & Thisuri Wanniarchchi to name few.
Kumari Jayawardena (1931) is among the pioneer of feminist movement in Sri Lanka. She is also a leading academic personality of her country. Her work is categorised under the canopy of third world literature and her writing as third world feminism which represents the ideology of feminist philosophies. Her philosophies are native which are unique to non-Western societies and countries rather following the path of Western feminism.
Till now, Jayawardena has written many books, including her masterpiece work, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. It gave her name and fame internationally and she was selected for the ‘Feminist Fortnight award’ in the United Kingdom in 1986 and it was also cited by Ms. Magazine in 1992 as “20 most important books of the feminist decades” (1970-1990). Since then the book is widely used by researchers and scholars in Women Studies programs around the world and contemplated as a key-text of third-world feminism.
Jayawardena in her book, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, has reconstructed the history of women’s rights movements in Asia and the Middle East from previous 19th century to the 1980s, concentrated on countries like, India, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Philippines & Korea. Through her research, she has proved that feminism is not a foreign ideology imposed on the Third World countries by the West but it is an indigenous philosophy of Asia. It has developed in Asian countries of South Asia & Middle East where women have struggled since many centuries for equal rights against the patriarchal norms and against the subordination of women at home as well as in the society.
Jayawardena was born and brought up in Sri Lanka but later she completed her education in London School of Economics in 1955 with a degree in Political Science. She also qualified as a Lawyer from London in 1958. She further completed her PhD on ‘The Labour Movement in Ceylon’ from London School of Economics. She has taught Politics at the University of Sri Lanka and Women and Development Master Courses in Netherlands. She was also an Affliated Fellow of the prestigious Bunting Institute and currently teaches Women Studies Programme at the Colombo University.
Jayawardena has written books and articles in English but due to popularity it has been translated into Sinhala and Tamil. She is an active women rights activist who had played a prominent role in Women’s research organizations and Civil rights movement in her country. Currently she holds the post of Secretary of the Social Scientists Association, who is working on ethnic, gender, caste and other issues. Some of her other books includes, ‘ The Rise of the Labor Movement in Ceylon ’, ‘ The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Rule and ‘ Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia, which she co-edited with Malathi de Alwis.
In The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Rule, Jayawardena re-evaluates those Western women who have lived and worked in South Asia during colonial British rule. The book tells the story of many famous women and also of some unknown women or whose names have been forgotten. As the same time, she also raises some very important issues like race, class and gender which are burning topics for discussion, associated with women organizations throughout the world. American Historical Review says:
The overall conception behind this book is so rich and Jayawardena’s insight... is so valid that the juxtaposition of these women’s lives... makes fascinating. According to American Anthropology says: The White Women’s Other Burden proposes (new materials and new approaches) so clearly and unambiguously ... This substantive, fully realized work calls for our admiration with its lucid narratives style, accessible across disciples without jargon, presenting rarely told stories that individualize yet do not shirk generalization.
Another noted writer from Sri Lanka is Nira Konjit Wickramasinghe, who is a Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at University of Leiden in Netherlands. She is a renowned international academician who has also worked as a Professor in the Department of History and International Relations at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka up to 2009. She completed her education at University of Paris IV – Sorbonne and at the University of Oxford acquiring the doctorate degree in Modern History. Her works include the following books:
Sri Lanka in the modern age: A history of contested identities (2006), Civil society in Sri Lanka: New circles of power (2001), Ethnic politics in colonial Sri Lanka, 1927–1947 (1995), University space and values: Three essays'' (2005) and L'Invention du Vetement national au Sri Lanka. Habiller le corps colonise (2006).
- Quote paper
- PhD (English) Shamenaz Bano (Author), 2020, Sri Lankan Women Writers Finding Space Within Political Turmoil. Punyakante Wijenaike, Kumari Jayawardena, Nira Wickramsinghe, Rosemary Rogers and Thisuri Wanniarchchi, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/931418