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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Monday, January 29, 2007


Another session I greatly enjoyed was with Professor Emeritus Yasmine Gooneratne. We exchanged several emails before our session and I almost felt like I knew her before I met her. It helped that she gave me a spontaneous pat on my back by saying "I was a fine moderator" during the session itself. Usually, such words, should they be merited at all follow in subsequent emails. But Yasmine has spent a life-time grooming people - students and writers alike. And just like her writing, her real life has taken on many forms. A University Professor, literary critic, editor, bibliographer, award winning novelist, essayist and poet, she has published 20 books so far.

She has won several awards for her distinguished work. These include the Marjorie Barnard Prize for Fiction, India's Raja Rao Award for outstanding contribution to the Literature of the South Asian diaspora and the Order of Australia for her services to literature and education. Many of her books have been commended internationally and 'The Pleasures of Conquest' was shortlisted for the 1996 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Despite her busy schedule, Yasmine hasn't just stopped at writing. She runs 'Guardian Angels' (more on it in the interview) and together with her husband, Dr Brendon Gooneratne, she established 'The Pemberley House' in Haputale, on a tea plantation 4,000 feet above sea level. The House which was inspired by their stays at some writers residencies also hosts 'The Pemberley International Study Centre' which opens for Residential Scholars from June-August. Over they years, Yasmine tells me how this labour of love has played host to writers, poets, musicians and just about anyone interested in the creative arts.

Strangely or not quite, all Yasmine ever wanted to do was to be a Cordon Bleu chef. That's till she expressed her thoughts to her teachers. They ensured the knives would be laid to rest, her bags would be firmly packed and life would point in the direction of a literary career. So cooking's loss, has been writing's gain. Most of this is from an email interview and I've added what I can remember from the session. Trouble is, we got lost while getting to Lunuganga. I barely made in time to get this session started and in the flurry that was marked by pulling the tripod, fixing the camera, yanking the tapes, I forgot thee most important thing - the battery. Not all is lost though since I still have the email interview with Yasmine. Here are the excerpts:

Q : You dreamt of being a chef and ended up being drawn to the world of writing and teaching. How did the best laid plans change?
A : Due to the influence of two English teachers, and the University Arts Scholarship, awarded on my Finals at Peradeniya, which took me to Cambridge University rather than to cookery school in Paris or London.

Q : And absolutely no regrets about the shift?
A : None at all.

Q : Can you still combine dream cooking with writing?
A : Yes. A character in my new novel (Latha) does this too.

Q : How big a role did your family, your school and your teachers have in helping you discover your creative self?
A : An essential role. My husband, especially. My family are all great readers, and wide reading is, after all, the foundation of good writing.

Q : You have always been quick to express your gratitude about growing up in Sri Lanka - "the biggest influence on my writing as regards to
subject matter has inevitably been the fact that I had the good fortune to have been born in Sri Lanka, and to grow up and be educated there at a "golden" period in the island's cultural life." So much has changed in the island, how does it reflect in your writing?

A : One cannot expect life in the island - or anywhere, for that matter - to stand still. But I have discovered that I can recapture and recreate lost Edens and Arcadies through writing fiction. That was a really happy discovery, especially when I found I was able to 'recover' people I had loved as a child, and give them a permanent life in my book 'Relative Merits'.
(In 'Relative Merits' nostalgia, research, detail are matched by the charm and intimacy of personal reminiscences. Delightful anecdotes bring to life an array of eccentric uncles and the rest of her family.)

Q : Given such a rich and varied up-bringing, it is no surprise that you have a multi-faceted professional life. How do you combine all these roles?
A : Teaching, research and creative writing have all dovetailed satisfactorily in my experience. I think I've been very lucky in this.

Q : You've said and I quote: "To write poetry, you have to be pushed into it by some deep emotion - it could be love, happiness, despair or dislike, but it has to be strong enough to resonate in your poetry. " What pushed you to it?
A : A death in the family. My father died in 1969. I was his youngest child, and we were very close.
(Her father's death led her to pen a poem called 'Review' and she ended up writing poetry almost non-stop resulting in the first volume of poetry 'Word Bird Motif' in 1971.)

Q : When you wrote to me, you mentioned that you never consciously set out to be a 'writer' or even a 'teacher'. What other experiences shaped your writing?
A : Travel, expatriation, and a love of reading 18th century English authors and 20th century Indian authors are three of them.

Q : What was the point when you stopped thinking that 'fiction was for other people' to write?
A : When I wrote my first story that was entirely set in Australia.

Q : A dear friend and a writer whose work I admire a lot - Meira Chand - discovered her writing self when she moved to India and there was no stopping her after that. You moved to Australia and discovered you could barely write any poetry. What was that period like?
A : A barren desert. Fortunately, it didn't last very long. My enjoyment in teaching carried me through it.

Q : How did being in Australia impact your writing?
A : Australia provided a new perspective on life, introduced me to people from a variety of backgrounds, and removed me from what had been a somewhat confined society in Sri Lanka.

Q : In fact, it was during this period that you wrote your first short story wholly set in Australia - 'How Barry Changed his Image'. What predicament were you trying to portray through this story?
A : The predicament of immigrants who find they must change themselves in order to settle comfortably into a new and unfamiliar society and participate fully in it. It's a challenge that demands a great deal of the newcomer, and not everyone can meet such challenges, or wants to do so. Many immigrants prefer to retreat into the safety provided by numbers, live a ghetto existence, and dream of returning 'home', not realizing very often that 'home' has changed, and is no longer what they once knew.

Q : That story became Chapter 15 of your first novel 'A Change of Skies' (1992) - did it inspire work on the novel?
A : The opening sentence of the story, 'My husband was having problems with his image', spoken by my narrator, a young and pretty young woman who comes to Australia from Sri Lanka, was the starting point of the novel.
(The novel won the Marjorie Barnard Literary Award for Fiction that year. It has since been reprinted several times and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.)

Q : It is never easy to write about family. Often readers love such books, but there will be at least one person in the family who will be invariably unhappy. At the Ubud Writers Festival, Michael Ondaatje had narrated this hilarious incident from 'Running in The Family' where an aunt had to be in an 'either, or' situation due to pressure from the family. Did you experience anything like that when when you wrote 'Relative Merits' (1986)?
A : Not at all. On the other hand, editing it was not easy - there was so much marvellous material ready to hand, and I could not use all of it. So some things had to go. But I was - and still am - very happy with the result. And no one has sued me yet for libel!

Q : Your third novel - 'The Sweet and Simple Kind' has some real life parallels - what did you hope to capture through it?
A : I wanted to capture - or recapture - the 1950s, a period on which I look back as a kind of Golden Age in Sri Lanka.

Q : Through your writing you have delved into so many issues of our times. Do you think the future is still filled with possibilities?
A : I think you are referring here to political issues. If so, you have got me wrong - I don't write about political issues, I write about human issues, and human personalities. As for the future: where writing is concerned, there are always possibilities, if one keeps an open mind.

Q : Being a Professor you are constantly interacting with students, you are in a public space as it were, what happens when you have to do your serious writing. How do you isolate it from your real life role or is there no conflict of sorts?
A: I am not conscious of any conflict or difference at all.

Q : You are an author of studies on Jane Austen, Alexander Pope, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Leonard Woolf among others - what drew you to their work?
A : In each case, excellence and sincerity. Pretentious writing - what is sometimes called 'beautiful writing' - turns me off. But I read and re-read the writers I admire: Austen, Pope, Jhabvala, Leonard Woolf. There is always something to discover and to learn.

Q : Apart from these authors, which other author/authors work has inspired you?
A : R.K. Narayan, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Scott, Dr Samuel Johnson. Among Sri Lankan authors, I believe that by writing and publishing 'The Jam Fruit Tree' Carl Muller liberated Sri Lankan writers from convention and hypocrisy. I'm personally very grateful for that, and I think the first two books of his 'Burgher Trilogy' should be required reading for beginning authors.

Q : Criticism isn't always easy to handle - so whose advice do you take most seriously?
A : My family are my first readers and my most reliable critics. But I have two or three close friends outside the family whose advice and criticism have always proved worth taking.

Q : You are also an avid traveller and movie buff, which places have had the maximum impact on your writing?
A : India, most of all. America provided good material for satire. And Australia and Sri Lanka, of course.

Q : Have movies been part of your text?
A : Yes, indeed. I have had the pleasure of teaching Ruth Jhabvala's novels to third-year and Honours students in Australia. (In fact, I put her novel 'A Backward Place' on my text list long before she won the Booker Prize with 'Heat and Dust'.) Part of my interest in her work focuses on her ability to bring her screenplay-writing technique into her writing of fiction. Her novels 'A New Dominion' and 'Heat and Dust' are especially interesting in that regard.

Q : Ever experienced the dreaded writers block?
A : Never experienced it, I'm glad to say. But if I ever did, I'd turn to work of some kind that doesn't engage the emotions - tutoring, editing, compiling bibliographies and activities of that kind - and wait for the inspiration to start flowing again.

Q : I shouldn't even be asking this, but what's next?
A : Who knows? Maybe I'll go back to my first ambition, and write a cookery book, as one of my characters - Jean - does in my first novel, 'A Change of Skies'.

Q : And before we wrap this up, let's hear about another project that's been keeping you busy - 'Guardian Angels'.
A : Yes, I find literary editing a very satisfying activity. It's also very restful to focus on someone else's writing; and after completing 'The Sweet and Simple Kind', which went into over 600 pages, I've needed a rest. I have gained a great deal myself from the help given me by Australian literary editors when I was writing my first two novels, and I'm very much aware that writers in Sri Lanka don't have the benefit of such expert assistance. I really love making someone else's writing sparkle and shine; and if I think highly of a work, I'd be ready to spend a lot of time and effort on it. I felt like that about Nihal de Silva's book 'The Road From Elephant Pass', and also about the little sketches about a village boy and his friends that he wrote for The Sunday Times. I suggested the issuing of the Paduma stories in the form of a children's book.

See related posts on Nihal here:

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