Born in 1954. That's the coincidental connection that seems to unite British-Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera and Scottish poet and artist Imtiaz Dharker. Explore a bit further, and there seems to be more than just the year of birth that's in common between them. Gunesekera was born in Colombo to Sri Lankan parents and grew up in Sri Lanka and the Philippines before eventually moving to England in 1971, where he lives now. Dharker was born in Lahore to Pakistani parents, grew up in Wales and now divides her time between Wales, London and Mumbai.
They are both united by their narratives of displacement, clashing social milieus and the yearning to make sense — in an epoch fiercely flirting with a million possibilities of hope and destruction — of what T.S. Eliot once described as "the still point of the turning world".
Both Dharker and Gunesekera are also part of the brigade of migrant post-colonial writers in the English language who have expanded the scope and parameters of what we can call home, each creating a new landscape for their art and audience.
Both are essentially writers who have gone through the trauma of cultural alienation and invoked the unsettledness of their cultural experience as the foundation for their art. The works of Gunesekera, whose first novel, Reef, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, are rooted in Sri Lanka or sometimes in an unnamed paradise island, but the narrator is always the quintessential émigré trying to reconcile the personae of the expatriate and the native.
Similarly, the poetry and art of Dharker, who is seen as one of Britain's most inspirational contemporary poets and whose works feature in the British GCSE syllabus, resonate with the symbolism and imagery of identity — redefining the boundaries of personal, social and religious existence. But their differences are as marked as their similarities: Gunesekera speaks with a voice that is lyrical, elegiac and nostalgic; Dharker is the candid voice of stark social reality and stinging satire. While Dharker's poetry and art communicate the menace of communal conflict, Gunesekera's novels and stories unravel against the backdrop of separatist warfare and looming violence.
The differences apart, here is another — less obvious — tie that binds Dharker and Gunesekera, at least for UAE residents: Both will be appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai this March.
Excerpts from a conversation with Romesh Gunesekera:
"A writer is someone who builds the bridge between location and experience," Gunesekera says. "But it's important for an author to maintain a critical distance between himself and what he is writing about."
From Reef to Heaven's Edge to The Match, Gunesekera's writings are set in Sri Lanka or an island paradise, often with the voice of an expatriate narrator. More than the intricacies of the plot, Gunesekera's works are almost always centred on cadenced language and delicate emotional realities. But when asked how much of characters such as Marc in Heaven's Edge or Triton in Reef are autobiographical, Gunesekera says: "There's very little of me in the central characters … I believe autobiography is not true art. It's only very early in a writer's career that he might base some of his characters and plots on autobiographical experiences. My novels are born of the invented world that I imagined and acquired, but they, of course, talk about things that were happening around me. You can call it a doorstep experience."
It is his imagined experiences and reflections of a Sri Lankan man that took the literary world by storm in 1994. Reef is a Sinhala man's narration of his life story, from his boyhood to young adulthood. Its publication not only brought critical acclaim but also comparisons to several modern masters — James Joyce, V.S. Naipaul and J.G. Ballard, among others.
I ask him what it is like to be compared to such greats for a first novel. He chuckles. "It's, of course, a great honour, but I don't know what the connection with Ballard is. Maybe it's the language. There have been many writers who have inspired me. When I was very young, I was extremely fond of Graham Greene. And later of V.S. [Naipaul] and his lesser-known brother Shiva, who I think is also a brilliant author. Joyce's use of language is something I have particularly admired," he says.
"I am indebted to [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, especially to his One Hundred Years of Solitude," Gunesekera continues. "Writers of my generation have been hugely inspired by him when starting out with their writings. [Czech novelist Milan] Kundera has also been a heavy influence on our generation, just like the Beatles on a generation of musicians. And playwrights such as Arthur Miller … they were phenomenal influences as well."
So just as Marquez and his magic realism evolved as an escape valve from the despotic grip of Latin American rulers over literature and media, will the violence, turmoil and grimness of the situation in Sri Lanka shape a new literary idiom?
"In many South Asian countries, there's a political reality one is always trying to grapple with. My own writings are not war fiction. I try not to be grim. I didn't really understand the violence in Sri Lanka when I was growing up. When I was about 16, I experimented with magic realism to see if it could find a place in my writings … But the idiom indeed evolves out of the situation, like the growth of absurdist and surrealist art against the backdrop of the Cold War and Eastern Europe," Gunesekera says.
It is also a whole gamut of kaleidoscopic inspirations for someone who grew up in different parts of the globe. "When I was young I wanted to become an airline pilot. But as a boy, I used to read a lot. When I was about 15, I started reading American authors. At about 19, I figured out what I wanted to be," he says.
That choice of career has brought him immense satisfaction and several top-notch honours. His fiction has been translated into many languages, from Norwegian to Chinese, while he has been a judge for a number of prestigious literary prizes, such as the David Cohen British Literature Prize, the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Forward Poetry Prize. In 2004, Gunesekera was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and, in 2005, he received Sri Lanka's highest national honour.
But more than the accolades, Gunesekera is more rapt in the responsibility he has as an artist.
"Great art endures not due to any one aspect of the work or of the situation, but because of its supreme values. The artist in this regard carries a great responsibility," he says, going back to the need for a distance between the author and the object. "That's why the works of greats such as Homer, Shakespeare and Joyce endure."
Our phone conversation is suddenly interrupted by collective cacophony. Gunesekera apologises: "There are so many children playing here, in the hotel lobby." He is in Galle, Sri Lanka, for the Galle Literary Festival, where his latest book Prisoner of Paradise is being unveiled.
So which part of his favourite island is the new book set in, I ask. "It's not based in Sri Lanka. This time, it's set in early-19th-century Mauritus. In fact, I was very interested in the colonial connections between Sri Lanka and Mauritus, and this is a book I've been working on since 1998," he says. Set against the backdrop of slavery, the new book follows the relationship between Lucy Gladwell and Don Lambodar at a time when news of revolts in Europe and the Americas and of a charismatic new Indian leader who will shine the light of liberty ushers change to the island with irrevocable consequences.
Gunesekera is scheduled to talk more about the development of this book at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. It is a festival he will be attending for the first time. "I have an open mind about the festival. I've not really been to this part of the world. But it's a region where a lot of things have been happening of late. It's in the throes of change," he says.
Imtiaz Dharker: ‘We have a million possibilities and personae under the skin'
Imtiaz Dharker's work has been described by critics as "consciously feminist, consciously political, consciously that of a multiple outsider, someone who knows her own mind, rather than someone full of doubt and liberal ironies". Her collections of poems include Purdah, Postcards from God, I Speak for the Devil and The Terrorist at My Table. All of her books of poems also contain her drawings. Weekend Review caught up with Dharker while she was in London.
Lahore, Glasgow and now London and Mumbai … How do you think such vastly different landscapes have shaped the vision and voice of your art?
What you have said about me could equally describe millions of other people in this time of movement and migration. It is not just geographical boundaries, we are crossing and recrossing cultural and social lines in the sand, moving between, say, Indian films and Italian opera, between media, across time — and all of this gives texture to our voices. I think we all have a million possibilities and personae under the skin and the mistake is to define ourselves too narrowly.
When I write a poem, I am speaking to you, but I am also having a conversation with other poets who are dead and gone, Faiz, John Donne, the Bhakti poets. What I have realised over the years is that I can lay claim to all of them, and they untie my tongue. They are my relatives and I am happy to say I am a cultural mongrel. Anyway, poetry makes its own geography.
What were your childhood ambitions? What prompted you to become a poet?
I wanted to be a singer. When I realised I was rubbish at singing, I decided to be a ballet dancer. But luckily I didn't give up the day job: I was scribbling all the time [drawings and poems] and one day, I found William Blake and then Gerard Manley Hopkins. My breath stopped when I suddenly understood what he was doing with words, making them do somersaults.
A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds, said Shelley. But your poetry talks about honour killings, cultural intolerance, displacement, communal conflict, gender politics and so on. How would you define a poet?
I wouldn't define a poet. But a poet does see the world at a different angle, perhaps, always as a kind of foreigner or an outsider ... I think displacement is often a good and useful thing, especially for a writer.
In your first book of poetry published in 1989, you described life behind the veil. From ‘Purdah' to ‘Leaving Fingerprints', it has been a long and intense journey. How do you feel you have changed as a poet during that time?
I think the poems have moved from being hidden tears to a river that is changed by everything on its banks.
What are your expectations from the Emirates International Festival of Literature in Dubai?
This will be my third time at the festival: The first was with a whole group of Poetry Live! poets.
We normally go around the United Kingdom reading to thousands of young people every year: The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke, along with Simon Armitage, John Agard and Grace Nichols. It was an event where we read our own poems, then ended with Darwish's great State of Siege. That was an experience none of us has ever forgotten, and the response from the audience was wonderful.
The next time I was lucky enough to attend the whole festival, and it had already grown and taken new directions: Apart from the huge variety of authors, discussions and opportunities to exchange ideas, there were also readings at schools and a very far-sighted emphasis on involving young people.
The festival gives me the chance to hear voices I wouldn't normally hear — writers from this part of the world where so many exciting changes are taking place. One great thing it does is bring in a large number of interested people to all the events — a big, discerning audience. It is good to see whole families coming in and queues of people waiting to have their books signed. This festival is clearly making an effort to reach out to a new audience and new, young readers.
Is poetry a dying art?
I have found more and more people turning to poetry. When we step out of the daily traffic, stop and listen to each others' voices, we make a still space in the world. That's a space for poetry, and it is needed now more than ever.
Do you think social media such as Twitter, Facebook et al are fuelling an upsurge in poetry and its appreciation, or are they merely adding to the clutter of junk art?
You could say a tweet has the potential to be a poem. It's not the medium that makes junk, it's the user (not Twitter but the tweeter).
What can we expect next from Imtiaz Dharker?
The next poem, if I am lucky. Maybe on Twitter.
Imtiaz Dharkar and Romesh Gunesekera will be appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, to be held from March 6 to March 10 at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City and the Cultural and Scientific Centre, Al Mamzar.