Winning the Gratiaen Prize: Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

Jun 04 2024.

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Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe has been honoured with the prestigious Gratiaen Prize for her debut novel, Father Cabraal’s Recipe for Love Cake. This compelling work explores the profound influence of the past on contemporary lives, exploring themes rooted in colonialism, the extraction of resources, and the trade in goods and humans.

Jirasinghe’s narrative weaves together fictionalised accounts of lesser-known historical events, such as slavery in South Asia, the experiences of African individuals and Arabian traders during colonial invasions, and significant contemporary events in Sri Lanka. Through her evocative storytelling, Jirasinghe sheds light on the enduring legacy of these historical forces and their impact on modern society. A writer in her spare time, Jirasinghe’s award-winning novel traces its roots to 2009 when she submitted an entry to the Orange Prize by the Guardian newspaper which called for writers to submit an opening paragraph of a fictional novel called The Letting Go.  Her paragraph won the joint runners-up prize. From that came the novel and ultimately the Gratiaen Award.

Q WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THIS NOVEL? A competition in a UK newspaper.

Q WAS THERE A PARTICULAR EVENT OR IDEA THAT SPARKED ITS CREATION? Yes, there was. It was the Orange Prize event where the Guardian newspaper in the UK wanted authors to send in an entry to this competition in 2009 The competition asked for the opening paragraph of a fictional novel called The Letting Go. The paragraph won the joint runner-up prize and after that, I began mulling over the possibility of turning it into a novel.

Q CAN YOU SHARE THE JOURNEY OF HOW THIS NOVEL CAME TO BE, FROM INITIAL CONCEPT TO FINAL PUBLICATION? As I said above, the first paragraph won a prize, and from there I had the character and wanted to create a longer story out of it. The setting was also there, and in the end, during lockdown, I found the time to write it out. After 15 years!

Q WHAT ARE THE MAIN THEMES YOU EXPLORED IN YOUR NOVEL, AND WHY ARE THEY SIGNIFICANT TO YOU? The central theme of the book is the hold the past has on people’s lives in the present. It draws on colonialism, its extraction of resources, its trade in goods and humans, and the mark this has left on countries such as ours today. It also fictionalizes several less-discussed historical events, such as slavery in this part of the world, and the lives of African people and Arabian traders who got caught in colonial invasions, as well as contemporary events from Sri Lanka.

Q ARE THERE ANY PERSONAL EXPERIENCES OR OBSERVATIONS THAT INFLUENCED THE THEMES AND CHARACTERS IN YOUR STORY? The book would never have been possible if I were not living in Sri Lanka. Living here, with all its chaos, violence and beauty gave me a rich backdrop to the novel.

Q HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR CHARACTERS? ARE ANY OF THEM BASED ON REAL PEOPLE OR COMPOSITES OF INDIVIDUALS YOU’VE KNOWN? No, they are not based on any people I know, certainly not the main characters. Maybe some of the minor characters are based on traits that people would have when they are in a particular profession.

Q WHICH CHARACTER IN YOUR NOVEL DO YOU RELATE TO THE MOST, AND WHY? I have tried not to do that because then the whole thing becomes, semiautobiographical and the characters also lose the chance of growing into well-developed individuals on the page.

Q CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WRITING PROCESS? DO YOU FOLLOW A PARTICULAR ROUTINE OR HAVE ANY SPECIFIC WRITING HABITS? Different forms call for different routines, at least in my case they do. Poetry takes less time but needs strong bursts of energy. Longform fiction takes a longer time and needs staying power. So, the simile of the sprint and the marathon is quite correct here. For a novel, I have to spend about 4 hours at a time every day, while juggling my professional work and family responsibilities. So invariably that means early in the morning or late at night.

Q WERE THERE ANY CHALLENGES YOU FACED WHILE WRITING THIS NOVEL, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM? The biggest challenge was getting the motivation to sit down and start writing. The only way to overcome that was to just get down to it.

Q HOW DOES IT FEEL TO HAVE YOUR DEBUT NOVEL RECOGNIZED WITH THE PRESTIGIOUS GRATIAEN PRIZE? I feel honoured, humbled and extremely grateful. It is an incredible recognition to receive.

Q IT HAS ONLY BEEN A FEW DAYS SINCE YOUR WIN. HOWEVER, WHAT IMPACT HAS WINNING THE GRATIEN PRIZE HAD ON YOU? There is a personal impact to start with. The outpouring of genuinely warm wishes is moving and overwhelming. There is also the recognition of the writing, which is also important for any writer.

Q HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR NOVEL CONTRIBUTING TO SRI LANKAN LITERATURE AND CULTURE? I hope it might contribute in some way to the body of Sri Lankan literature in English, but I won’t be presumptuous to think that it will. As for Sri Lankan culture, I think we writers take a lot from it, but I hope at least something as mundane as love cake will become associated with Sri Lanka after this.

Q WHAT DO YOU HOPE READERS, BOTH IN SRI LANKA AND INTERNATIONALLY, TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR NOVEL? The novel is set in a fictional country that can be most developing countries with a colonial past. So I hope readers will get to read about a fictional world that they are familiar with (if they are from countries that have been colonized) or enter one if they are from countries that haven’t been colonized. 

Q WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING WRITERS IN SRI LANKA AND BEYOND? Take writing seriously and be dedicated to your craft.

Q LOOKING BACK ON YOUR JOURNEY, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED WRITING? Yes. That writing is a long, tedious and backbreaking business, with very few rewards or little compensation. Still, if you want to write, you end up keeping at it.

Q ‘FATHER CABRAAL’S RECIPE FOR LOVE CAKE’  DID NOT HAVE A PUBLISHER. WHY DO YOU THINK THIS WAS THE CASE AND SINCE YOUR WIN HAVE YOU FOUND A PUBLISHER? It’s very hard to break into the international publishing arena. Publishers will not take on a book if they are not sure that a book will sell a set number of copies. Am trying to figure out what to do with this manuscript.

 

COMMENTS BY THE JURY

ANGELINE ONDAATJIE - The level of creativity and writing displayed in these submissions is truly outstanding. It is a testament to the thriving English writing community here in Sri Lanka despite the many challenges we may face.

RUVANI RANASINHA - The entries provide insights into our diverse communities. Others revisit recent political conflicts and crises and invite us to broaden our understanding of contemporary Sri Lankan history. Collectively they tell engaging, illuminating and well-written stories about post-colonial Sri Lanka


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tina Edward Gunawardhana

Tina Edward Gunawardhana is a journalist specialising in travel, fashion, lifestyle, cuisine and personalities. She is also the Deputy Editor for Hi!! Magazine. An intrepid traveller, she likes to show readers the world through her eyes and experiences. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram - tinajourno [email protected]

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