Out of Sri Lanka (Bloodaxe Books, 2023) shines light upon a long-neglected national literature by bringing together, for the first time, Sri Lankan and diasporic poetry written in and after Independence. Featuring over a hundred poets translated from Tamil and Sinhala, or writing in English, the anthology intends to exhibit poetry as a vehicle of anti-amnesia and of witness to the various political events that have shaped the country since 1948. Edited by Seni Seneviratne, Shash Trevett, and Vidyan Ravinthiran, the book is rich with concrete poems, traditional forms, spoken word poems, and experimental post-lyric hybrids of poetry and prose, all of which piece together Sri Lanka’s history since 1948. Ahead of the book’s release, Sohini Basak spoke to the three editors over email in June 2023.
Sohini Basak (SB): You write in your introduction about how the literatures of Sri Lanka must be understood globally—could you perhaps start with what you mean by that? When and why did you get together to embark on this project? Did it arise out of visible gaps in the field, or did you work in continuation of existing endeavors?
Shash Trevett (ST): Sri Lanka has always been in the shadow of India, and although readers in the UK are becoming more aware of literature from the various Indian languages, there is no real knowledge of the literature coming out of Sri Lanka. The anthology was Vidyan’s brainchild: he wrote to me in February 2020, asking me to help him connect with contemporary Tamil poets writing in English. We didn’t know each other, although, of course, I had read and loved his two collections and had always wanted our paths to cross. Incidentally, almost all contemporary Tamil poets from Sri Lanka write in Tamil. There are several reasons for this, including Tamil-medium schooling and the fact that Tamil poets are resisting the neocolonial mindset of today’s Sri Lankan government, which is actively engaged in erasing Tamil history and culture from the country. The illegal building of Viharas [Buddhist monasteries] in the north of the island, the renaming of streets and road signs with prominent Sinhala script placed above the Tamil, the involvement of the military in Tamil schools in an attempt to “re-educate” Tamil children in line with a nationalistic discourse—all this makes Tamil writers keen to promote their language. Further to this, the government prohibits Tamil people from mourning the dead from the civil war, whether they be civilian or LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] combatants. Memorials are bulldozed by the authorities. Religious ceremonies and remembrance services are banned. This has led poets to turn to words for building lasting memorials. Tamil poets are documentary makers, historians, and witnesses to the civil war, and very few of them write in English.
After Vidyan and I discussed this, he decided to change the scope of the project to focus more on Tamil writing in translation. He asked me to come on board to source Tamil poems in translation, and together we asked Seni to join us so that we could access Sinhala writers and their work. We would be starting from scratch: looking at existing anthologies published in Sri Lanka, some of which were trilingual, while also sourcing poems from the diaspora. We decided to put out a call for submissions from poets associated with Sri Lanka, however removed spatially or temporarily. And so it all began.
Seni Seneviratne (SS): The idea was to publish in the UK the first-ever anthology of twentieth and twenty-first century Sri Lankan verse with a target audience including poets, scholars of poetics and postcolonial literature, and—we hoped (given the increasing prominence of Sri Lanka in the news)—the general reader. As a mixed-heritage poet born in the 1950s and raised in the UK, I sadly did not have any skills in speaking or translating from Sinhala to English. I did, however, have contacts who might be able to help and a strong motivation to promote the work of Sri Lankan poets living in the country as well as in other parts of the world.
Vidyan Ravinthiran (VR): Given Sri Lanka’s history of multiple colonization—by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British—as well as waves of both forced and voluntary migration out of the country, its literatures must be understood globally. An anthology like this challenges literary marketing and literary history, which separate, for example, “British Asian” or “Asian American” poetries from the “postcolonial literature” of the Global South . . .
SB: What were some of the frameworks (because anthologizing can be endless, even with publishing deadlines) that you came up with, individually or as a group? And what kind of an audience did you have in mind while selecting or discarding poems?
VR: As anthologists of an emerging national and transnational literature attuned to the events and repercussions of the civil war (1983–2009), we had to make difficult decisions. Should poems approaching the sheer notation of atrocities be included if—despite their aesthetic nullity—they have played a central role in how people understand the conflict? These are hard questions with no easy answers. We have not included poetry cheerleading violently for one side or the other: boosting, that is, either Sinhala majority governments or the LTTE, “whose brutal violence,” writes Suvendrini Perera, “was directed not only against the Lankan state and Sinhala civilians, but also at the Tamil and Muslim populations in the areas that it claimed as its homeland.” In selecting poems about the conflict by diasporic writers, we chose those that engaged with mixed feelings of survivor’s guilt, separateness, and the understanding that as a person overseas, one must investigate one’s own relationship to such material.
We also recognize, as anthologists selecting and discarding poems, that the application of Anglo-American literary standards—by a trio of poets based, now, in the UK and the US—to global literatures, even those to which one is personally tied, raises questions. But since poetries of the Global South, and postcolonial poetry, are often read reductively—not as art—let us also insist on the multiple creativities on display here, often in poems that simultaneously challenge and please the reader. There are poems in this anthology whose accents of sentiment and accusation, whose vehemences of yearning and mourning, as well as technicalities of diction, rhythm, imagery, and lineation, may jar sensibilities shaped (or straitened) by creative writing workshops and mainstream review culture. There are also poems that will immediately delight anyone who is eager to explore poetry from beyond their shores but unsure where to begin. Lovers of poetry will, we hope, enjoy these works employing both traditional and open forms; the anthology offers concrete poems, spoken-word provocations, and experimental, post-lyric hybrids of verse and prose.
SS: We wanted the anthology to be as inclusive as possible, which meant being mindful of potential divisions between and within communities as well as balance in terms of gender and representation of LGBTQ+ poets. We were also clear that we didn’t want to compromise on the quality of the poetry, which meant we had to make difficult decisions: to leave some poems out of the book because they were either poorly translated—“better for a poet to be absent than have their work represented by a translation which failed to sing,” as we write in the introduction—or, in the case of poems originally written in English, because they were not sufficiently crafted for publication. At times, our relationship as editors to the poets in this volume transformed beyond the usual duties of the anthologist to include mentorship and editorial input.
Sometimes we felt overwhelmed by the importance of the task we had undertaken and the level of work it required, but it was a project close to all our hearts. As three writers of Sri Lankan heritage who grew up in different decades and with different life experiences, we committed ourselves to a process of dialogue and debate that was uplifting, challenging, and supportive in equal measure, and through which we all had the opportunity for growth, learning, and change.
ST: I think Seni has answered this question brilliantly. To add to that, we were mindful not to erase the authentic “Sri Lankan English,” which, being a throwback from colonial times, could sometimes sound awkward to our ears. The use of English in Sri Lanka is often a marker of class or educational elitism. We had to be careful to include poems that, though sometimes sounding archaic in their use of English, were a genuine product of their class and time, while rejecting those that seemed to unnecessarily wallow in “antiqueness.”
Further to this, Tamil and Sinhala poetry are both written using short, (usually) five-syllable lines. Tamil or Sinhala poets writing in English, or translators translating Tamil or Sinhala poems, often write using similarly short line lengths. This could often lead to very long, very thin poems. We had many discussions about line lengths and line endings: where does the Sri Lankan way of writing English poetry hold back a poem, and where does it flow naturally? Where do we step in as editors and either edit or discard a poem, and where do we step back and allow a poem to “just be”? Seni was great at relineating poems, in partnership with the poet or translator, and it was also useful that there were three of us. Often it came to “majority rules,” and I think it’s fair to say we all won some and lost some using this system.
Also, when reading anthologies published in Sri Lanka or India, we had found it curious, and slightly off-putting, to see the books divided along linguistic lines. So, we decided to alphabetize our poets instead, allowing for the mingling of languages and generations, which sometimes led to surprising juxtapositions.
SB: Much of your work was done during the pandemic years. Over and above the challenges that COVID-19 brought to society and to individuals, Sri Lanka saw a massive public uprising against the government during a period of great economic upheaval. How did such national events affect or disrupt your anthologizing process?
ST: Funnily enough, due to the pandemic and Vidyan being based in the US, we have yet to meet in person! COVID was definitely a challenge in other ways, too. For one thing, it was hard to source books during the pandemic. We were reliant on Vidyan’s access to Harvard’s interlibrary loan system, which was unfortunately suspended during the various lockdowns. This brought several temporary pauses to our reading. The postal service in Sri Lanka, too, was disrupted during this time: there was no method of sourcing books from there, which was quite a big constraint as so many of our texts hadn’t really made it out of the country.
Yet the pandemic also opened up new ways of interacting with people. Somehow the world seemed a smaller place, and as we all changed the way we worked with each other, it didn’t feel unusual to be having conversations with poets or translators from the other side of the globe while sipping a morning cup of tea.
One of the biggest difficulties we faced was often being met with silence or suspicion when we reached out to various poets and translators. There are poets we would have liked to include in the book but were unable to because they did not respond to our requests for permissions. Various requests to translate poetry also came to a standstill as either the rightsholder did not respond to our repeated emails or those who had promised to help us let us down. However, the converse is also true. Some people were very generous with their time, putting us in touch with older poets who weren’t available on email or social media, providing us with scans of poems from books long out of print, or generally opening doors so that we could get on with the book.
By the time the protests against governmental corruption and economic ruin began in Colombo in 2022, we had finished gathering our poems and the book was almost complete. We made the decision not to include any poems written during the Aragalaya: as we say in our introduction, “poems splurged onto the page or webpage right after the event aren’t usually good poems (which require time for reflection).”
SB: Seni and Shash, were there poems or aspects of poetry that surprised you while you were looking for translations of the Sinhala and Tamil works?
SS: What struck me most while working on this book was my own sense of loss at not being fluent in my father’s mother tongue and therefore not being able to contribute to the process of translating poems written in Sinhala.
With respect to the Tamil translations, we were fortunate to be able to rely, when necessary, on Shash’s excellent translation skills. It was her networking in the community of translators that helped enormously in sourcing good translations from Sinhala. As we said in the introduction: “It is our hope that in the future, a commitment to translating Tamil and Sinhala poetry might become a priority in the country, with funding, mentoring, and editorial assistance being given to a new generation of translators, who, building on the work of Chelva Kanaganayakam and Lakshmi Holmström, Ranjini Obeyesekere, and Lakshmi de Silva (to name but a few), would keep poems from the past relevant to changing times.”
SB: And while you mention in the introduction that there was “no cross-pollination” when the two poetic cultures developed in parallel post-Independence, would you say, with the advent of the internet, there is now some conversation between the poetry of these two languages?
ST: Yes, certainly the younger generation of poets are reaching across the language divide, often collaborating or translating each other’s work. This is great to see. It is not unusual now to see Tamil and Sinhala poets reading alongside each other at launches or readings.
The translations we encountered were a mixed bag, really. Translators and translation itself need to have a massive rebranding in Sri Lanka—the art of translation needs to be recognized as a creative act on the part of the translator, with them having agency to decide on the direction of their translation.
SB: Vidyan, if I could turn the same question to you: As English-language poetry continues to emerge from the country and its diaspora, have you seen patterns of assimilation or resistance to Tamil and Sinhala poetry? And how is Sri Lankan English poetry evolving against the backdrop of Anglo-American poetry?
VR: The Sri Lankan and diasporic poet who chooses to write in English isn’t doing so (not the ones included here, anyway) out of self-hatred, a yearning to be the colonizer, or to sound and look white. In a sense, canonical English poetry—a set of exemplary texts giving voice to what was once called universal human nature—came into being in the colonies. Gauri Viswanathan observes that “as early as the 1820s, when the classical curriculum still reigned supreme in England […] English as the study of culture and not simply the study of language had already found a secure place in the British Indian curriculum.” Sri Lankans had every reason to feel alienated by the English texts foisted on them, but some came to feel that the language and its literatures weren’t anything they needed to seize or reclaim, but a persisting inheritance.
Later, in the 1900s, there was a mid-century shift in how such things were understood. In 1954 (two years before the Sinhala Only Act declared it the official language, and bullies took tar-brushes to signs featuring Tamil or English), Godfrey Goonetilleke argued that Sri Lankan English, “derivative” and denatured, was no good for literature: “a large part of our perceptions . . . and attitudes in our relation with other human beings does not find a natural place in the English spoken by us.” Yet, with the proclamation of the republic of Sri Lanka— no longer Ceylon—in 1972, came the period, writes Rajiva Wijesinha, “in which writing in English once again became respectable in Sri Lanka, after the denigration in the previous two decades that seemed to be a corollary of the attainment of independence.” It was in this spirit that Gāmini Salgādo, possibly the first person of color to become a full professor of literature in England (at Exeter), could write of discovering as a child, in the works of Shakespeare, flora and fauna alien to his own shores, but without feeling alienated: “the lily that grew in the mind may not have been a recognizable botanical specimen, but it was truly a plant or flower of light.”
SB: When I read the poems in the book, I keep thinking back to what you write in the introduction: “This anthology represents a human rights intervention, it is—discussing a country afflicted with amnesia, in denial of its past—a matter of putting things on record.”
In this respect, the figure of the poet is so interesting. You write about the poets in exile, the absent poets you could not include in the anthology; you write about how a vast majority of poets in Sri Lanka were “photographers, government workers, novelists, journalists” who had to become poets in order to be heard. What are some of your dreams for the future poet from Sri Lanka? And who are some contemporary poets the world (and publishers reading this!) should watch out for?
SS: For me, the anthology is groundbreaking as a human rights intervention that puts things on record and breaks the silence “so that the world can never again say they did not know.”
It proclaims the right of poets to speak out and to write on all manner of subjects. I hope that by creating what Vidyan spoke of in an early email as “a coalition of Sri Lankan poets,” we can make connections across all the divisions that have been imposed on us.
ST: There are many poets who are now out of print who it would be wonderful to see back in circulation. One example is Alfreda de Silva, who died in 2001 and whose work is delightful. One of my favorite Tamil poets, Pramil (who died in the 1990s), has not been published in a standalone volume of translation.
I am particularly fond of the young poets who responded to our call, many of whom we would not have come across otherwise. Poets such as Megan Dhakshini, Madri Kalugala, and Samodh Porawagamage (who has just won a publishing contract with Burnside Review Press in the US), who write in English in Sri Lanka. There’s also the young Tamil poet Kasro, whose poetry has been beautifully translated by Nedra Rodrigo in our anthology. The poetry of Sharanya Manivannan, a well-known fiction writer who lives in India, should also be more widely read. In the UK, we were delighted to discover S. Niroshini, Neetha Kunaratnam (whose second collection, Cauc/Asian, has just been published by Blue Diode Press), and Ramya Jegatheesan.
We are also very aware of all that we have not been able to do with this anthology, and we hope that this book is just the starting point from which poetry coming out of Sri Lanka can be explored and discovered by readers. I am already taking notes for a second edition (!), but I also hope that we have begun a process of engagement with the poetry of Sri Lanka that will be built on and improved by others.
Vidyan Ravinthiran was born in Leeds to Sri Lankan Tamils. His first book of poems, Grun-tu-molani (Bloodaxe, 2014), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize, and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. His second collection, The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here (Bloodaxe, 2019), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Ledbury Munthe Poetry Prize for Second Collections. After posts at Cambridge, Durham, and Birmingham, he now teaches at Harvard.
Seni Seneviratne is a writer of English and Sri Lankan heritage. Published by Peepal Tree Press, her books include Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin (2007), The Heart of It (2012), and Unknown Soldier (2019), which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, a National Poetry Day Choice, and highly commended in the Forward Poetry Prizes 2020. She is currently working on an LGBTQ project with Sheffield Museums entitled Queering the Archive and completing her fourth collection, The Go-Away Bird (due out in October 2023). She lives in Derbyshire, UK.
Shash Trevett is a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the UK to escape the civil war. She is a poet and a translator of Tamil poetry into English. Her pamphlet From a Borrowed Land was published in 2021 by Smith|Doorstop. Shash has been on judging panels for the PEN Translates awards and the London Book Fair and was a Visible Communities Translator in Residence at the National Centre for Writing. Shash is a Ledbury Critic, reviewing for PN Review and the Poetry Book Society, and is a board member of Modern Poetry in Translation. She lives in York, UK.
Copyright © 2023 by Sohini Basak. All rights reserved.