I was delighted when my friend Jean Solomons, now Arasanayagam, won the Gratiaen Prize for the best work of creative writing in English in the year 2017. Double glory as this award celebrated its 25th anniversary, founded in 1993 by Michael Ondaatje with the money from winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient. Jean won the prize for her book of poetry titled The Life of The Poet, published by Sarasavi Publishers.
The prize winning book
Jean courier-posted a copy of the book which I received on Thursday ( May 31), so I will not attempt commenting on its content. I have read much of Jean’s earlier poetry and find she is truly poetic, her poetry being deep in significance and poetic excellence. Whatever the content matter, her poems come across strongly evocative, their effect on the reader always definite, oftimes stunning. Her language is crisp and one single line may encapsulate a whole spectrum of meaning coupled with rich imagery. Her poetry on Jaffna and the civil war, and on discrimination whether racial or religious, are sharper and actually breathtaking in their effect.
I quote one example from the first poem in her prize winning volume:
The life of the poet is made up of fragments
that create a mosaic patterning of words
on the walls of temples, sanctuaries, cathedrals
filled with the symbolic language that only the
initiate can decipher, a sacred map that guides the searcher on…
… the tortuous mazes and labyrinths of history.
The book contains 46 poems whose themes and subject content range widely. She writes of her father who was a Ceylon Government Railway employee in The Fiery Furnace–
I watched my father’s tall muscular frame feeding
That voracious appetite within the cavernous steel belly
Shoveling the coals igniting the turbulent fires
My father’s fireman stood beside him, both of them
Votaries of Vulcan, now that I envision that past,
Vulcan, the Roman god of war
Many of the poems are reminiscences; she deals with death in a few.
At the end of the book a very interesting transcript of an email interview Anshita Deval of the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, had with Jean is included. I will not give even the gist of what Jean had to say (and she had a lot to say!) to five questions asked which included
“…you still never present yourself as a victim”; “… what are the effects and changes…” of war; “… after the closure of war do you get a fleeting glimpse of Sri Lanka as your Edenic paradise from childhood or are the fault lines still deep-set…”
Friend from childhood
That last question brings me to an intimate aspect of the poet. Jean and I were playmates even before we became classmates in Baby Class at Girls’ High School Kandy. We continued as classmates until Form IV when our paths diverged in studies; Jean opted for Arts subjects while I with three other guinea pigs were thrust into the science stream by the Principal and teachers with us having to follow Chemistry and Physics at Kingswood, there being a dearth of local graduates. I fell by the way, Jean proceeded to being an internationally recognized writer; and thus the divergence of our life’s paths. In Standard Five our close playmate life was broken by my becoming a boarder in the school hostel, my mother giving up our Kandy home.
Jean’s mother and mine were both rather particular about whom we played with, particularly invited home, and very fortunately they both approved of each of us. Thus every evening I would scamper to Jean’s home just four doors away down Peradeniya Road, Katukelle, with two saris frisked away from Mother. We would doll ourselves up, paint our faces with her sister Rosemary’s makeup and end up totally grotesque, but delighted. Jean had lots of toys so it was making tea for her dolls and teaching them. Her father was a volunteer in the armed forces so interval time saw us pitching in surreptitiously to a tin of corned beef or biscuits and imported cheese.
When we were in kindergarten, we would walk to the school playground in the evenings (allowed then), and while she and I poured over our notebooks writing essays, poems or very short stories, Carmen de la Motte was made to climb the hill at the back of the school to fetch us sour guavas. Jean selected the topics I sweated over and her writing was always better. KHS’s senior essay competition proved the point. I well remember the topic I selected: Beware, gossips at work! Jean chose a subject calling for imaginative writing. Miss Allen, our former Principal, returned from furlough in Ireland, was requested to judge the essays. She decided on two joint winners. But Miss Paul, Principal, insisted on one, and so I lost by half a point to Jean. The defeat was taken with total magnanimity, we knew so well to be sporty and non-strongly competitive. Misses Paul and Allen however, bestowed kudos on me as a near winner though a science student with no English literature immersion!
We met infrequently after we left school, at the British Council and much later at GLFs, but Jean, settling down in Kandy met oftener my siblings. Recently we re-connected and marvel that after all these decades we still have strong friendship ties and deep affection for each other. Hence my great joy that Jean beat four short listed, younger writers and was awarded the Gratiaen Prize, the three judges recognizing her skill, talent and yes, superiority in creative writing.
Jean the Winner
The honours and awards won by Jean are very many. As the final page of her prize-winning book and an Asian Tribune article states: “Jean Arasanayagam is one of Sri Lanka’s most prolific and foremost writers. She has published fiction, poetry, drama and creative non-fiction and has approximately 50 books to her name and her writing has been translated into Danish, Swedish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Sinhala and Tamil, She has been International Writer in Residence at the University of Exeter, International Writer at the Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio, International Writer in Iowa and presented her work and held book launches in India and Europe. She received the Doctor of Letters awarded by Bowdoin College, Maine, and the Premchand Award granted by the Sahitya Akademi India. She has also won many local awards including the lifetime Achievement Award, Sahityarathana 2017.” She is a painter too.
As she mentioned to an interviewer after her winning the Gratiaen, she is busy with five different manuscripts. However, she is never too busy to email this old friend of hers and spend time with her family of two daughters, one married and in Canada, and her husband Thiyagaraja Arasanayagam awarded the 2015 Gratiaen Prize for his poetry. We wish this prolific and excellent writer more inspiration, (which she seems not to lack at all) and time (which she makes for herself) to write more.