Gratiaen Trust aims to promote Sri Lankan literature in English – Neloufer De Mel | Sunday Observer

Gratiaen Trust aims to promote Sri Lankan literature in English – Neloufer De Mel

25 October, 2020
Neloufer De Mel
Neloufer De Mel

Gratiaen Trust, a non-governmental literary organisation founded in 1992 by the internationally renowned writer of Sri Lankan origin Michael Ondaatje, recently launched a Children’s Day literary event at The Sarasavi Bookshop at the One Gall Face, Colombo.

Many children showcased their talents in story time program which included dramatised readings, a workshop on the craft of story-telling presented by the Gratiaen prize winning children’s authors at the event.

The Gratiaen Trust launched another event themed literary weekend on September 26 and 27 at Bentota Beach Hotel. There were solo sessions with this year’s Gratiaen Prize winner Andrew Fidel Fernando, a panel discussion on literature, sport and being Sri Lankan with former Prize winners and Sri Lankan cricketing legend Kumar Sangakkara, readings from Arun Welendawe Premathilleke’s plays and a conversation with Vivimarie Vanderpooten and Prashani Rambukwella on writing as women at the event.

All these programs were conceptualised as avenues to showcase Sri Lankan creative writing in English to readers. The Sunday Observer met Neloufer De Mel, Chairperson of the Trust and Professor of English at the University of Colombo to discuss their literary programs and issues of readership and literature in Sri Lanka.


Q: Could you elaborate the Gratiaen Trust’ literary programs first?

A: We have many programs. We award the Gratiaen Prize every year for the best submitted work of literature in English written by Sri Lankans. We hold a ceremony at the BMICH, though this year, we limited the event to an online digital ceremony because of Covid-19. We have workshops. In January, we held a workshop at the University of Jaffna. That was for creative writers. Shyam Selvadurai, an internationally renowned writer of Sri Lankan origin conducted that workshop. He spoke about points of view, editing and different aspects of writing. Last year, we held a workshop with the participation of Fiona Shaw, a well-known Hollywood actress. She took a master class with Gratiaen writers who had won the Gratiaen prize for drama. That was held at the British Council. We held an editing workshop with publisher Rithu Menon from India.

Q: Were these events paid events?

A: Not at all. They were free of charge. It is difficult to get funds to launch these types of programs, but we have no intention to charge people, because the participants are mostly readers and writers.

Q: There are many internationally renowned writers, such as Paulo Coelho, Arundathi Roy, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk whom Sri Lankan readers are keen to meet with, discuss and participate their readings. Do you have any idea to bring them down to Sri Lanka?

A: Many internationally renowned writers used to come to the Galle Literary Festival. Unfortunately, that was stopped due to lack of funding. It is very expensive to bring them down. We try to do it with the master class we do, that’s the only event where we can bring writers.

However, for the moment, we are trying to get more exposure to our own writers with international publishers. We could do that with Shehan Karunathilake who won the Gratiaen prize in 2008 for his novel Chinaman for instance. Nevertheless, this year with Covid-19, we have not been able to get any writers down.

Q: You talked about the difficulty of getting funds for these events?

A: Funds are a big problem. If we have funds, we can get more people and hold more festivals. There are other groups which are also interested in literature and arts. Get them all together means a planning and organising in a bigger scale. So, funds are a big problem.

Q: What are your plans to develop funding?

A: We have to look for variety of sponsors to develop our funds. For example, some media come on as our visual and print media partners. Some companies offer money for the Trust. For the Children’s Day event, we were also supported by the Sarasavi Bookshop too. So, we are seeking more funds through companies.

Q: Didn’t you try to get the state sponsorship?

A: For the moment, we have focused on the private sector’s financial support. If we can have the state sponsorship, it’s a great boost for our literary programs.

Q: You held a workshop at the University of Jaffna in January?

A: We planned to hold a series of workshops in universities. The program began with the Jaffna University workshop held in January. People of Jaffna participated in the event. Our next workshop will be at a university in South, but with Covid-19, all our plans have been postponed. But the next year, we will hold an event at a university where university crowd as well as writers from those regions could participate, such as Universities of Sabaragamuwa, Ruhuna and Peradeniya.

Q: You have started a translation prize too along with the main prize in the Gratiaen Prize?

A: The Trust decided to award a Prize for translations named the H.A.I. Goonethilake Prize for translation in 2003. We accord a prize once in two years for translations. It is for a translation from Sinhala and Tamil literature into English. We will call applications for this year’s prize soon. It is through the translations that we could get Sinhala, Tamil and English groups to meet.

Q: You said you held an editing workshop with a well-known publisher Rithu Menon?

A: Yes, it was a very successful one. Editing manuscripts is a problem in Sri Lanka, because we are not used to editing at all. The result is publishing books with grammatical errors, spelling errors and also content wise. When you write a story, it can be sharpened if it is edited, but authors don’t work with editors. I think publishers should come forward to change this bad book culture. If they keep editors as their resource persons, that editing culture will develop.

We can go a long way by developing literature of all three languages in Sri Lanka. As the Gratiaen Trust, we are also trying to develop literature through our programs. The Children’s Day event was our prime program in that aspect, because starting with young readers is a future investment with regard to developing literature.

Q: The main readership in Sri Lanka is in Sinhala, but your programs are mainly in English. Do you have any plan to widen your programs to cover Sinhala and Tamil readers?

A: The Gratiaen Trust was started by Maicael Ondaatje in 1992 to promote and recognise Sri Lankan literature in English that is written by Sri Lankan authors in the country. It’s a great inspiration for Sri Lankan writers in English. We have to focus on other literary spheres too if we are working for a true literary culture. We presented the stories in Sinhala too at the Children’s Day event. We can also reach other spheres with our translation prize. However, our primary focus is on Sri Lankan English crowd.

Q: What is your next event?

A: We will hold our workshop in January or February. It will be held at the South of the country, mostly at a university. The event will be publicised in social media and the Gratiaen Trust website.