raja rao annual award 2001

 

Citation presented to Yasmine Gooneratne as the recipient of the Raja Rao Award, 2001, for an outstanding contribution to the literature of the South Asian diaspora

Click here to view the acceptance speech by Yasmine Gooneratne

One of Yasmine Gooneratne's early books is titled Diverse Inheritance (1980). It deals with literary texts from different regions of the world - but the title also happens to describe the rich plurality of traditions that have gone into her own making as a writer. A poet, a novelist, a literary critic and a social historian, Gooneratne combines in her work the intellectual and creative energies of a number of cultures that have shaped her, directly and indirectly. Born of a father who belonged to a distinguished Sri Lankan family and a mother who was a diasporic Indian from Trinidad, Yasmine was educated at the University of Ceylon as well as at the University of Cambridge.

After teaching for ten years at the University of Peradeniya she moved to Australia in 1972 where she has lived since then. Her eighteen books - four volumes of poems, two novels, one immensely readable personal memoir of a family, one fascinating biography (written in collaboration with her husband) of a colourful Englishman - a diplomat and master-spy - who came to Ceylon in the nineteenth century, in addition to a number of critical works on individual authors like Jane Austen, Alexander Pope, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, studies of the literature and culture of Sri Lanka and essays on other Commonwealth and Postcolonial writing - testify to her wide range of interests.

Like all Sri Lankans of her generation who studied literature, Yasmine Gooneratne's formal education exposed her only to canonical texts from Britain. But after receiving a first class Honours degree from the University of Ceylon when she went to Cambridge on a Ceylon Government scholarship in the late nineteen fifties, she chose an area of research that was off the beaten track, and was not considered trendy at that time. Her thesis on Sri Lankan Writing in English may well have been the first Ph.D. awarded by Cambridge University on a topic outside its Eurocentric orbit. A pioneer in a field that was to gain academic viability much later, first as Commonwealth and then as Postcolonial Literature, Yasmine Gooneratne has since then gone on expanding her fields of inquiry, researching on the works of Indian, Australian and West Indian writers . Her fictional work dwells on notions of diaspora, hybridity and transcultural negotiation with humour and subtlety.

But after receiving her Ph.D. in 1962 when she came back to Sri Lanka to teach, she first concentrated on British literature, mainly to examine satire and irony, elements that have turned out to be important in her own critical and creative writing. Her two elegant and incisive books on Jane Austen (1970) and Alexander Pope (1976), both published by Cambridge University Press, continue to be in print even today. Her study of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, titled Silence, Exile and Cunning (1983) also foregrounds her fascination for irony as a narrative mode. She continues to be interested in satire, and has recently won a prize awarded by an Australian journal for a satirical verse on an Australian politician well-known for her racist remarks.

In 1972 Yasmine Gooneratne moved to Sydney to join the English Department at Macquarie University, where she has stayed - teaching , researching and writing - for almost three decades now. In 1981 Macquarie conferred on her its first ever higher doctoral degree of D.Litt., based on her research record and published work. In 1988 she became the Founder-Director of Macquarie's Centre for Postcolonial Studies and in the early nineties she was appointed to a Personal Chair in English. When she opted for early retirement in 1999, the university made her Proessor Emeritus. She has spent nearly half her life in Australia, and in recognition of her distinguished service in the fields of literature and education she was honoured with the Order of Australia ( AO) by the Government of Australia in 1990. But her links with Sri Lanka instead of weakening, have strengthened over the years. Even while teaching in Australia she continued for many years to edit an occasional journal called New Ceylon Writing which she had started in 1970 while living in Kandy. In 1999 she became a Founder-Trustee of the Pemberley International Study Centre in Sri Lanka, a unique institution that offers residency to selected writers, scholars and other creative people. Since her retirement she has been able to spend more time in Sri Lanka than she could earlier, and apart from being busy with her third novel she is presently engaged in two literary projects, both related to the country of her birth: one, the preparation of the first scholarly edition of Leonard Woolf's novel set in Sri Lanka, The Village in the Jungle; the second, the documentation of women's creative writing in English in Sri Lanka from 1948 to 2000. With Sydney as her home base, she has travelled extensively, lecturing, attending conferences, and being a Writer in Residence. She has been visiting Professor at the universities of Yale, Princeton and Michigan in the U.S.A., Jawaharlal Nehru University in India and the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

Yasmine Gooneratne belongs to the large and influential Dias Bandaranaike family which dominated the social and political life of Sri Lanka for several generations. She wrote an account of the elegant and westernised lifestyle of her ancestors with amusement and gentle irony in Relative Merits (1986) a book that cannot be categorised very easily. It has the meticulousness of a researched social history but also the charm and intimacy of personal reminiscences. Her gift for comedy that would make her two novels famous a few years later is already evident here in the delightful anecdotes that bring vividly to life an array of eccentric uncles remembered with humour and affection. The book ends with a nostalgic description of a harvest festival where the family shared an open-air feast with the farming community that worked on their land. Such a festive occasion was never to be repeated because the country's legislation was soon to change the landlord-tenant relationship. At a conscious level the author does not regret the change because the new system would be more equitable, but an unspoken sense of loss pervades the chapter: "Return is impossible, denied us by our education, our interests, and the currents of social change. Except, through literature, and the power of the written word." This book as well as some of Yasmine Gooneratne's poems is thus an attempt to salvage fragments of the past through the preservative magic of the written word.

Her poems are collected in four volumes, one of which, The Lizard's Cry, is written in the style of the traditional Sinhala Sandesaya long poem. The other volumes: Word, Bird, Motif, 6000 Foot Death Dive, and Celebrations and Departures, capture not only memories but present experiences as well. By the time she comes to write her two novels by which she is most widely known today - A Change of Skies (1991) and The Pleasures of Conquest (1995), nostalgia is left behind. She is ready to take on the new postcolonial world of shifting cultures and migrant people with wit, sophistication and an analytical understanding. Both the novels have been short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize , and the first one received the Marjorie Barnard Literary Award in 1992. A Change of Skies is apparently the account of the relocation in Australia of a young Sri Lankan couple who had known that country so far only vaguely in a map: "a blank pink space shaped like the head of a Scotch terrier with its ears pricked up and its square nose permanently pointed westward , towards Britain" . Despite its effervescent comedy and a hilarious description of how Navaranjini became Jean and Bharat became Barry - by the end the novel turns out to be a serious reflection on the deeper levels of change, identity and belonging. The Pleasures of Conquest is a more ambitious and a more scathing venture - its satiric barbs aimed at different aspects of global academia, the cultural, sexual and environmental politics of neo-colonialism and much else. The novel is set in a country called the Democratic Republic of Amnesia fifty years after its independence from British rule. At the heart of the novel is the famous New Imperial Hotel which might bring to mind the Galle Face Hotel to anyone familiar with Sri Lanka, but the author wryly describes the five-star hotel as "... older than the Raffles grander than the Great Eastern ... more beautifully located even than the Galle Face in Colombo." This postcolonial tale of new buccaneers coming to reconquer the old colony in insidious ways is interwoven with that of an old colonial Englishman of a previous century whose passionate relationship with a local woman poet who wrote in Sinhala provides a core of mystery and a lyrical dimension to the novel.

The biography of Sir John D'Oyly (1774-1824) was to follow in 1999, the man who inspired her to create the fictional civil servant D'Esterey in The Pleasures of Conquest. The Sinhala poet who figured evocatively in the novel now appears as a real writer whose work survives to the present day. This biography was written in collaboration with Dr. Brendon Gooneratne who, apart from being a physician, is a historian with other books to his credit as well as an environmentalist. His rigour in factual research and her imaginative recreation of an ethos combine to make the book a vivid cross-cultural study of an individual as well as a period in the past.

There is a continuity in everything Yasmine Gooneratne has written so far, whatever be the genre. Fiction and history get woven together, poetry permeates her prose, and as a literary critic her attempts to explore histories of exile and expatriation, the effects of imperial domination, and its aftermath encapsulate the concerns of postcolonial experience. Born in Asia, partly educated in England, having settled in Australia , she can rightly claim "The raw material for what writers of our time are presenting as fiction is, in fact, our life-experience, and the 'colonial' past they evoke is our family history."

This citation has been prepared by Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee.