I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Gratiaen Prize 2016 Shortlist

(Introductory comments made at the British Council, Colombo on 3rd April 2017 via video at the announcement of the shortlist for the Gratiaen Prize - 2016)

Colleagues and friends,

Good evening. My apologies for not being with you in person today. But I am sure my colleagues, Chandana Dissanayake and Ruhanie Perera who are the other partners in this 'impending crime' would more than adequately make up for my absence. I referred to this process as an impending crime’, because in no competition, judges are ever popular people. Often, they have very few ‘friends’ at the end of a judging process, and are equally as often seen by many as people who have committed a crime. We will not be any different. But we will take all this in a stride, as something that comes naturally with the territory.
Photo courtesy of Chandana Dissanayake, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka
This message comes to you virtually because technology has made it is possible, cheap and accessible. And more importantly, because my two colleagues thought I should mark some kind of tangible presence this evening despite my long-term displacement beyond our borders. 

I will make some brief comments as a matter of ritual, and let my colleagues from the panel of judges as well as the Gratiaen Trust carry on with the rest of the evening. 

For the record, for this competition, 55 entries were received by the Gratiaen Trust.

Of these, 15 were withdrawn by the Gratiaen Trust for not fulfilling basic criteria. We read the rest.

Among the 40 that we read, there were many genres of writing, either in published or manuscript form. These were:

1) novels, 
2) short stories, 
3) poetry, 
4) poetry and short stories, 
5) poetry and essays 
6) drama and
7) memoirs. 

At a certain level, it shows the kind of variety we had to deal with, and the enthusiasm of those who write in English in our country. Also, I was personally quite touched to see very different kinds of people writing today: retired people with different kinds of professional and personal experience; young professionals; students and established as well as budding writers.

But at the same time, as a group, we also had a number of anxieties, which I think previous judges also might have felt in different ways. I think it is best that we outline these. 

This is an award for the best work of creative writing in English. It is this broad definition and the relative lack of similar schemes in our country along with the reputation the Gratiaen Trust and its scheme have acquired over the last 25 years, which explains why this many people send in their entries each year. And obviously, this is a scheme of reckoning that needs to continue its role in the field of English language writing in our country. 

But in our opinion, this broad definition on writing does not do as much justice as it could to the judges, and more importantly, to the competitors. We recognize that genres of writing do at times defy clear categorization. Biographies can be written like novels, and very short novels can come close to short stories. But this is usually the result of conscious decisions of individual writers. It should not be the result of an accident in time and circumstances, which might nerveless be stylishly post-structuralist – but by accident. 

To consider such a wide variety of writing as we have done, and many other judges before us, under the banner of ‘creative writing in English’ for a single award is extremely difficult – to put it mildly.

As the Gratiaen Trust begins to celebrate its 25th anniversary, it might be a good idea to explore the possibilities of diversifying its award scheme to more specifically include separate awards for poetry, novels, short stories, biographies and memoirs, mixed writing and so on, on the same lines that a separate award has already been instituted for translation – The HAI Gunatliake Award. We know quite well that all this is easier said than done. But this is not impossible if we are willing to make associations with other entities who share similar ideals. Challenging as this may be, it is our collective thinking that this is a worthwhile direction to think about. 

But this is for the future. And for the Gratiaen Trust to consider.

Let us now come back to the present. 

Given these kinds of issues, we have looked at each of the entries within each category separately on their own terms, to come up with the short list. That is, we have looked at short stories on their own, novels on their own, poetry on their own and so on. We believe that we have looked at the material we received in the most rational and reasonable way in which it could be done. In doing so, we had a number of core questions, which guided all of us. We had a table where we entered all the entries and made our notes, our choices and our decisions. We shared this with each other once the process was complete. We worked on our own in our respective locations – in my case across Sri Lanka’s national borders. This was not difficult given the internet and digital-based technologies were easily at our disposal -- making distances in cartographic terms immaterial in what we did. There was remarkable overlap in our thinking and considerations, and minor and negligible deviations. 

The shortlist constitutes of texts over which our consensus was clear and absolute. There were no confusions. There was no debate. This will be read to you by Chandana or Ruhanie in a short while after which, the other performances and rituals of the event will continue as tradition dictates.

We will do our best to come up with the finalist over the next month or so in the same way we have worked so far.

Let me wish all the competitors good luck for the future, and suggest that they continue to write. And let me wish the folks in the short list, the best of luck. 

Thanks for your time. Have a very nice evening.

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