Text and pix by Samantha Wickramasinghe Ceylon Today Features
The creative process involved with writing poetry and prose is sometimes overwhelmed by the ultimate achievements or shortcomings of the writer. Before the final draft gets into shape, a fair amount of cutting, chopping and editing has to be done. Ideas do not always come so swiftly to writers and they suffer from blocks and other forms of hindrances which makes the creative process difficult and prolonged.
In 2014, Vihanga Perera won the prestigious Gratiaen Award for his book of poetry, Love and Protest. Perera has written poetry, short and long fiction, blogs, essays and critical analyses and he continues to produce creative work on a regular basis. According to Perera, blocks are "perfectly natural" and they occur "all the time."
"When I was writing my novel Fear of Gambling, it worked out quite smoothly until chapter fifteen. There onwards, I had a block for about eight months. I had to wait until the block un-blocked itself." Perera said.
Writing is something Perera does every day. When he writes, there are moments where ideas come to his mind as though they come from the 'clear blue sky' without any planning involved. A planned approach works when he has a basic idea and a structure in mind to keep expanding on. The traditional image of writers, whose hands are infused with ink, is not applicable to Perera who has cultivated the habit of typing. Unlike in the past where writers used pens to scribble their ideas on paper, nowadays many writers have converted to typing. They use electronic media to aid their respective creative processes.
"Writing by hand − contrary to typing − is more engaging and creative. When you type there is a greater tendency to cut and paste and do more experimenting with your writing." Perera said.
Once an artist decides to put his or her work on their websites or on social media, there is an apparent risk involved. Unlike hand-written copies, digital copies could be easily stolen and misused. Nowadays, with the rapid expansion of the internet, people have the chance to post their work on social media, blogs and so forth. According to Perera, using the web to promote his work has both pros and cons but the pros outweigh the cons. The open channel of communication created by social media allows him to share his or her work with a larger community without a price tag. Perera observes this as a positive tendency but he will get angry if his work gets copied or stolen although in retrospect he is more ready to come to terms with it and move on to the next thing.
"Whether you want to hold on to your work depends on your attitude. I do not really want to hang on. I move on to the next thing. It is not the end of my career." Perera said.
Moreover, Perera argues that the idea of 'owning' a certain work of art is a capitalist notion. He mentions about certain folk tales and historic tales such as Odyssey written by Homer as not the work of one person although ownership is attributed to one person.
"Professors and intellectuals in Sri Lanka write Sinhala folk stories under their name but it does not mean they own these stories." Perera said.
When it comes to reviewing other people's work, Vihanga Perera believes in critiquing what he genuinely finds to be interesting. He feels that Sri Lanka does not have a culture of serious literary criticism. Much of what we have in Sri Lanka he feels is "scratching each other's back." At times Perera's reviews are not taken favourably by others. Regardless he continues to do comprehensive critical analyses. He posts his reviews on his blog In Love with a Whale.
"People should not take my views seriously. They should understand that it is just a view. There are times when people are not very happy with my criticisms. What I am saying is what a hundred other people will not tell. I sometimes recognize certain shortcomings in work which others miss out." Perera said.
As a writer who writes in English in Sri Lanka, Perera feels that he is part of "an elite minority." Although there is greater focus given by the government and private entities to teach English, Perera questions the quality of education provided by these institutions in terms of cultivating skills of creative writing and creating extensive English readership. Although literature is taught in schools and universities, working full-time as an author is not a common choice. Perera holds the view that not only literature but the field of humanities as a whole is facing a crisis.
"In Sri Lanka, everyone is focused on becoming a doctor or an engineer. There is a disregard for social sciences and humanities. Most people study English extensively to become teachers." Perera said.
There are certain advantages that English writers, who produce creative work in Sri Lanka, have that no Sinhala or Tamil writers would have and that is the ability to avoid censorship according to Perera. He feels that those who have difficulties in expressing their views should write in English. English poetry readership in Sri Lanka is "very limited," according to him. Those who are interested in writing poetry about sensitive subjects such as war, murder or rape writing in English would be a great alternative.
"When you write in English no one touches you. When people write about controversial issues in Sinhala or Tamil they get into trouble. It is important to create a context and a discourse to talk about these things. The silence will only add to political dominance. If you are a writer who writes in English, getting into trouble would be a good thing." Perera said.
Perera feels that the future of English writing in Sri Lanka has little to no chance of developing by a larger, national or social scale since it works out within a limited scope. He takes history as an example to predict the future. Perera says "What we will have in the future is what we have today. What we have today is what we had ten years back."
In a much more political sense Perera feels that the present day student movements based on universities are out of date. According to him, the student unions have not been able to evolve with time because they are still using the methods of the '70s."
"Look at their slogans, have they changed at all? They get tear-gassed by the Police. Have they come up with a tactic to tackle this? Maybe they can take their own water bowser or tear gas containers." Perera said.
While studying at the University of Peradeniya Perera was also a part of the anti-rag movement. He is still involved in the movement at a different level. According to Perera ragging is one of the major factors that make it difficult for the student movements to develop cadres around them to battle various issues of their concern.
"I am personally against ragging because I do not want to compromise my human dignity to a subversive force." Perera said.
These days, Perera works as a full time writer. He is rereading the Indian writer Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope and reading the American writer Kurt Vonnegut's 1987 novel Blue Beard and he is also excited to present his new experimental novel Music.Death. which is available to be purchased by interested readers.