New voices in times of change

Shehan Karunatilaka

The winners of the 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ prizes received their awards on 8 June at the Hay Festival, in the UK, from the celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Commonwealth Foundation relaunched its literary prizes this year, scrapping its general fiction award to focus instead on first-time authors and the short story. Commonwealth Writers works with international literary organisations, cultural industries and civil society to help identify fresh talent and create environments in which writers are able to develop their craft.

Shehan Karunatilaka was born in Galle, Sri Lanka, and has written advertising copy, rock songs, basslines and trav­el stories. His book, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (Vintage Publishing), follows the story of a hard-drinking sports journalist determined to unravel the mystery of a cricketer of extraordinary talent whose career suddenly evaporated.

Global: Chinaman is centred on cricket but it’s also about social attitudes, family life, drinking, the role of the media, corruption, Sri Lankan politics and much, much more. Did you have some of these elements in mind when you started on it?

Shehan Karunatilaka: I wanted to avoid the cliché topics of Sri Lankan writing, which of course deal with the war, or corruption, or an ethnic love affair, perhaps, or the tsunami. I chose cricket because I thought I could just write a comic, drunk-detective story quest and not have to deal with these heavy issues. But what happened is that all these other issues that you mentioned sort of crept in and the book became more about the narrator, his musings about Sri Lankan history, and the part that he played and didn’t play in it. All this stuff changed in the rewrites. My intention was to write a very simple, slick, 200-page detective story about this drunk who goes to track down a cricketer, but it ended up becoming a self-published version of about 600 pages. I just found more and more cricket anecdotes and more anecdotes about Sri Lanka, and so the stuff crept in.

When you were writing did you have a particular audience in mind?

I quit my job in advertising in Colombo to write this; I initially took off six months but ended up taking two years, and the truth is if you are writing in English in Sri Lanka, you really don’t expect an audi­ence beyond Colombo, Galle or Kandy. I was looking for a casual or relaxed Sri Lankan cricket fan as my target reader and I wasn’t trying to sanitise the prose so that it would appeal to an international audi­ence. In fact, I went out of my way to mimic the rhythms of these drunken old men who watch the cricket, how they would speak. A lot of the time I did get the grammar wrong and the syntax wrong, but I think [that] was important for the voice, and I kept that in because I knew that a Sri Lankan audience would get it. Then India bought it, but when they made noises about trying to correct the grammar and the syntax, that’s when I resisted because I thought that was impor­tant to get that voice right. It has been quite rewarding to see it appeal to readers who know nothing about cricket, who know nothing about Sri Lanka, but respond to the story.

Would you say the cultural and intellectual environment in Sri Lanka is conducive to young authors, or is it a tough thing to be a writer, whether in Sinhalese or in English?

Well, the thing is, we don’t have a huge publishing industry, we have a couple of local houses. The big international publishing houses are based in India and they might send a few scouts now and again. For people who write prose, short stories and poetry, it is very much a hobby. You don’t expect to make a living from it – pretty much every writer I know has a day job.

I think in Sri Lanka, as a Sri Lankan writer, why we are lucky is that we have had a very colourful last 50-60 years and there are plenty of untold stories there, which is great for writers. But it is hard, it is not something that you can expect to make a living off, it’s not something you expect to get paid good money from but I think there are a lot of Sri Lankans who are writing despite all these things.

How do you feel about the changes ongoing in people’s use of social media, the arrival of Kindles as an alternative way to access books, and the general changes in the modes of publishing around the world? What do you see, for any writer anywhere, are the main challenges these days?

I am what you call a laggard. I listened to cassette tapes right into the late 1990s and it’s [only] very recently that I listened on [an] iPod. I resisted the Kindle for the same reasons that most referred to – the tactile nature of books and so on – but I am in the middle of this book tour and I have been on the road for about six weeks now and I have got 21 books in my bag. I think sooner or later the Kindle will get me.

I self-published initially. After I had tried to find a publisher for about a year, a friend of mine offered to put it on the Kindle and said, “Just give it to me, I’ll put it on for 99 cents and we will get a 100,000 copies sold.” I resisted simply for the reason that the con­servative in me thought it was cheating. I didn’t feel like I would be a real writer if I self-published on the Kindle. I thought that I still had to get a proper publishing deal to feel like I had written a proper book, but these are all prejudices with me because obvious­ly I haven’t grown up with it. I am sure these things aren’t going to be issues for writers or readers of the future but I still do think that [you need] that editing function that the publishing houses offer, and at the moment if you are going direct or digital, you wouldn’t count on that, and that is a crucial part of the process.

That said, yes, if the independents who are working digitally do offer that editing function, then I think that will be a real challenge for the publishers. It’s really interesting because I am still at the beginning of the new book so it will take me a couple of years before it is published and, by then, who knows what the landscape will look like? I think there is always going to be a market for great stories, and there will always be people writing great stories and, whatever the medium, I don’t think it will make a difference.

Interviewed by Richard Synge

About the author:

Commonwealth Book Prize winner


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