Kamala Wijeratne

Kamala Wijeratne is an educationist in the field of English and a creative writer. She has wide experience in ELT curriculum design, teacher education, and materials design. Her specialization is teaching literature in TESL-TEFL situations. Her poetry is well-known and she was awarded the State Literary Prize for poetry in 2004 for her anthology entitled Millennium Poems. She has published six volumes of poetry and two anthologies of short stories. She is currently a visiting lecturer in the Department of Humanities Education, of the University of Colombo. In 2012 she was awarded both the prestigious Godage Prize and the State Literary Prize for her latest anthology of short stories..


Building Trust and Reconciliation among Youth through Literature
Kamala Wijeratne
Visiting Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

1.0 Introduction
The think tanks of the SAARC Literary Festival, which would be held in Dhaka next February has singled out the theme – Beyond Borders : Towards Trust and Reconciliation and this to be done through literary creativity and literary communication. To the hard grained, mechanized and money oriented world of today this might seem inane, even simplistic or naïve. In such a context even literature seems to need redefinition. The term has been clouded by new theories of language and attitudes to literature itself. There is talk of literature with a big ‘L’ and literature with a small ‘l’. (Carter and Long, 1991). The instructional manual for the operation of the refrigerator and the gas oven is also termed literature. All writing is pushed under the carpet and called literature. While there may be a kind of factual sense in this sweeping generalization, it reduces literature to the level of the pamphlet and the advertisement. What is meant by literature in this paper is the original idea – writing that has beauty and gained eminence, expressing powerful emotion, communicating a central truth of life. Taken in this sense literature has certain attributes or core features.

2.0 Core Features of Literature
One can argue that the core features of literature/ or that it comprises
(a) Love
(b) Imagination
(c) Philosophy
(d) Experience
(e) History
(f) Wisdom
accumulated over the centuries. Perceived in this grandeur, one can see how it has earned a place in human civilization like other forms of art created by the human mind. It even surpasses other forms in that it is a living, germane force that can sweep humans to ecstasy or depression.

2.1 Literature as Love
Firstly literature is the expression of human emotions, whether it be the soft or the hard. The bulk of creative writing over the years, nay aeons is about love. Even the great epics which are thought of as depicting courage and heroism are at the core love poems. The tale of Odysseus is the love story of Odysseus. It is the love story of Odysseus and Penelope- the constant, unchanged and abiding love that survived an absence of twenty years. The Iliad which complements the Odyssey is a series of love stories. One of the greatest love poems that was ever written – The Meghadutha is a love poem. The greatest romantic poem or maha kavya written in Sinhala – the Kavsilumina is a love poem.

The very foundation of literature is humanity or compassion, which is love in its foundational form. Shakespeare’s dramas in their entirely are about love – ranging from the darkest passions that the human heart is capable of, to the most superficial and pretentious. Othelo is at all times paralleled by Falstaff. This compassion embraces both man and beast – the space that one lives on as well as the universe.

2.2 Literature as Imagination.
Literature is a human construction, the product of interaction between the human mind and the human heart. Certain humans for some reason – maybe to communicate a divine purpose, or to serve a divinely selected purpose, or to serve fellow human beings are invested with the power to create beyond rational thought. What results is image and event. At the very beginning of human history, individuals who had that power were looked upon as seers and visionaries. They constructed tales in both prose and poetry. While entertaining those who labored on with the daily chores of hunting and gathering or ploughing and herding, the creators, those who had the fanciful thoughts took them to the heights of profound experience. With the development of civilization and learning, the creations took such stupendous forms that they challenged the reality of life. Literature created its own world and its own reality. Every poem, every drama and every story – short or long – is a universe by itself. It has its inhabitants, who voice their thoughts and feelings and carry the reader to a unique experience.

2.3 Literature as experience
One sees the dichotomy – that literature is both fanciful construction as well as lived experience. Those who create literature interact with the world around them and with what they write. The writer creates new realities. The writer’s reality – what he has experienced – is turned into literary experience. The raw experience nourishes and triggers off the fancy, stimulates the imagination and generates feelings which result in an aesthetic product, far more overwhelming than the experience itself. The two events are complementary. One cannot be separated from the other. Mathew Arnold’s words in Dover Beach seem so pertinent here. His experience of the tide at night:

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin
make him think not only of the vagaries of the human condition but also of another great writer, who also seemed to have been affected by his environment:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
of human misery.

Those who have created great literature presumably are those who have experienced much. Chaucer was scholar, soldier, courtier, lover and traveler. Shakespeare must have played all the roles demanded by the Elizabethan theatre- beginning perhaps as handyman and working his way up as actor, scribe, editor and ending as great dramatist. The Brontës did not experience much of real life in the raw but still experienced it through the books they read. What is experienced – grim or pleasant – finds its way to the creation. Dostevsky’s dark experiences of pre-revolutionary Russia, resulted in some of the darkest literary creations the world has known. They have the power to prick the deepest recesses of the human mind. This pricking of the human conscience has given literature tremendous power. Thus writers have been at the forefront of social events; political, economic and cultural. Gorky and Checkov inspired and gave leadership to the revolution in Russia, Naidu and Tagore romanticized the freedom movement in India. Neruda stood firm and steady against oppression and social injustice. In our own time, Susan Abulhawa has projected the tragedy of the Palestinian people, in her novel, Mornings in Jenin. It conveys a different view of modern history.

2.4 Literature as Philosophy
Literature is the acquired and accumulated wisdom of humanity and can be considered a philosophy. The fact that literature foregrounds the human condition – that its creators, those who have gained eminence consider both good and evil as part of life and look at sorrow and joy with equanimity qualifies literature to be looked at as philosophy. Great works of literature leave behind an idea, a concept and a communication. The Odyssey leaves behind the appalling cost of war. No one actually wins. The Trojans are decimated. The Greeks are thrown adrift – their lives disarranged and the most heroic of them like Achilles have kissed the dust. Shakespeare makes us aware of the darkest depths that the human mind is capable of but also leaves behind the idea that human nature is such that one has to look at tragedy dispassionately. The words he puts into the character of Jacques in ‘As you like it’ – a truth relevant for all peoples, all the time : ‘The World’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and entrances.’

Great dramatists like Euripides and Aristophanes make us aware of the nobility as well as the degradation that man can rise up to or sink into. Goethe’s Faustus while striding the universe as a colossus, reveals what greed and ambition can lead man to. Omar Khayyam offers a philosophy of joy and delight – the measure of manhood is to fulfill himself. Each era of literature fashioned a philosophy of life. The Romantics’ philosophy was grounded on nature as creator, mentor and modifier. The classical era launched forth a philosophy based on logic, rationality and decorum. The modern era fashioned a philosophy of equality- that man and woman are equally empowered and need to be treated alike; that empire was oppressive and colonial people have a dignity of their own. One cannot separate literary creation from the framework of human reason.

2.5 Literature as history
Since literature is experience, it also constitutes human history. History records events and characters, offers hypotheses and draws conclusions from evidence on the ground. Literature is sometimes defined (Concise Oxford Dictionary) as the writing of a period or periods. There is a body of texts which comprises the political, economic, social and cultural experience of a particular group of people of a certain period. The literary works of pre-revolutionary Russia and the pre-independent India make one feel the pulse of the people. Literature is a mirrored image. It mirrors the events of life. The characters and events though fictionalized reflect the contemporary scene. The setting very often convey the political or social scenario of these peoples and cultures which have become extinct like the American Indians. Their oral literature – their songs and folktales – reflect their history. The narrator or the poet has magnified it or modified it but it gives insight to ways of thinking and ways of living.

3.0 The Possibilities of Literature
The discussion above make one draw the following conclusions about the nature of literature.
(a) that literature is writings of value – it has passed the test of time.
(b) that literature gives value to language : that literary creations are constructed in language that is unique.
(c) that literature has a deep emotional impact which other writings do not have – that it has power to move humans to great passions.
(d) that it constitutes the experience of peoples of different eras, backgrounds attitudes and feelings;
(e) that at its most profound, it leaves behind wisdom and insight.

4.0 The Thesis
How can this body of experience, beauty and wisdom impact on the youth of SAARC? SAARC is a diversity of races, languages, religions and cultures. This diversity created conflicts, in the past and even bloodshed. The traumas that split the sub-continent are gradually moving away, although within nations there are conflicts. As expressed by Sivaramani:
While a gun
aims at society’s
umbilical cord,
the dreams of a butterfly
resting delicately
on the tip
of a fragile flower
are merely
an occurrence

Sri Lanka has come though a thirty year old bloody war and the scars still remain. The tensions in Nepal seem to be well behind them. But there are others as voiced by a young Nepalese poet: the choices before him – the destruction of the world he knew and respected and the world that is emerging which seem to challenge everything he knew and loved :
The foundations of the Holy House
Laid deep in ancient Faith
Faith in nature’s education
Faith in undying love for flora and fauna
Faith in mercy, pity peace and love
Are quaking fast, very fast.

Although the Maldives are comparatively free of ethnic, religious and cultural differences they had political ordeals which they seem to have surmounted. Perhaps the SAARC region is the most diverse in terms of human composition. This diversity is both within and without. While most member nations seem to have left their tensions behind them, understanding and reconciliation has not been arrived at still. The older generation who were responsible for the tensions and the conflicts have not made attempts to heal and soothe. There are open wounds in certain places, in others seemingly healed, the sores fester deep within. Can literature which is love, which contains the wisdom of the ages, which constitutes a philosophy of understanding and detachment offer an alternative to conflict and confrontation? Can literature bridge the gap between hatred and love, suspicion and trust, rejection and acceptance? Since literature has invented the process of analysis and synthesis for its very existence that same process could be applied to the current human situation.

The SAARC Region is rich in literary creativity which has become manifested in the first language as well as the second, which is mostly English. There are regional literatures as well as national literatures; those that express the problems of different local peoples as well as those that express the problems of the nation as a whole. Exchange and study of these literatures will give insight to the problems a particular nation – people or a community – faces. Premchand’s stories reflect the plight of those deemed to be low caste and the authoritarianism of the administration. Raja Rao shows an India which is only seen minutely by Narayan – The poetry of the Napalese poets reflect their particular concerns which are both universal as well as particular. The Sri Lankan writing of today reveal the trauma caused by war as well as other concerns like corruption, maladministration, poverty and man’s cruelty to man. Those last concerns are shared by the entire SAARC family.

5.0 Building Trust and Reconciliation among the youth.
The youth is our future- the region’s future. Apparently there are new threats. At this point it is important to reflect on what youth constitutes – the changes in the biological world as well as those in the psychological field. Youth is a time of zest and zeal, of tremendous activity of, a time of seeking truth and justice, of honour and self- respect. In most nations of SAARC there are hangovers – patches of mud and blood left from the past.

The past was not pleasant to many. Territorial claims, border wars, internecine warfare, intra-nation conflicts caused suffering and bitterness. It is time to forget and heal and literature has immense possibilities. As was mentioned in the previous section sharing the literature will make the youth see the commonalty of the problems of the region and understand the other. Love and empathy will result from the experience. Suspicions arise because of the lack of understanding or knowledge of the other. Exchanging, reading and analyzing one another’s literature is the first step. This should be facilitated. There must be mechanisms to arrange for exchange – to meet, to read, to listen and buy books written by fellow writers. The SAARC Literary Festival like the Commonwealth Heads of Governments must have a special forum for youth – for young writers, those who have emerged and those who are attempting to do so. There should be other opportunities and outlets to express their creativity. These are outlined below:
(i) A Forum for young writers.
(ii) A Youth Journal
(iii) Readings
(iv) Workshops and Training Sessions
(v) SAARC Literary Prize/s.

6.0 Forum for Young Writers
This could take the form of a festival by itself or a parallel movement where the youth of SAARC- high school students and university students read and appreciate their work. The forum could comprise seminars, workshops, recitals, dramas or just sit togethers where they get to know each other. The writings could be formal published work, also computer printouts, broadsheets or scribbled work. The important thing is they get to meet and appreciate each other.

6.1 A Youth Journal
Another way of building amity is to initiate a journal for young writers. Most young writers face the problem of publishing their work. Some have their own blogs, but they remain isolated pockets. The ambition of any writer is to see his/ her work in print. The journal could be multi-lingual, entertaining translations as well. The mother body of the SAARC Literary Festival could launch it at the beginning and let the youth manage it afterwards. The journal will become a cross border publication reaching out to young members of SAARC.

6.2 Readings
When Charles Dickens was struggling to get established as a writer, the U.S. invited him to read his work. That gave him the break and the confidence. Cross border reading and writing events will bring the youth of SAARC together. These journeys will become cultural exchanges where the young writers interact with their peers in the SAARC family. Inroads must be made into areas and places hitherto unnoticed. These encounters will make borders disappear.

6.3 Workshops and Training Sessions
One becomes a writer because of innate talent, or inborn creativity. But to become a professional one needs skills and technical knowhow as well. Writing is an art and a craft as well. The older writers can provide the knowhow, the guidance and the inspiration to the young. There should be creative encounters between the young and old. The young will benefit from the insights and the skills gained by the old. The old will be enriched by the enthusiasm of the young.

6.4 SAARC Literary Prizes for Young Writers
These could be for the best first publication as well as for the most outstanding publication. Of course the word publication may have to be interpreted loosely as a formal or standard publication demands a certain economic power. Many young writers may not have this power. But the importance of this kind of recognition is seen in the observations made by G.N. Devi (1989) in A Shaping of Connections, referring to a similar movement by the Commonwealth Association for Language and Literary Studies. According to her Arun Kolatkar, Sujata Bhat, Vikram Seth and Keki Daruwalla have achieved worldwide fame after being selected for the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Recognition by the SAARC Literary Festival will open the door to young writers to enter first the Asian Literary Scene and subsequently the World Literary Scene. At this point translation will be needed. Those who do not write in English will emerge into the English writing world and from there on to the regional and the world stage. The messages that the young give and the emotions they express will become current in the world at large.

7.0 Conclusions
It is clear that literature can help to surmount the differences that affect the region. Literature is the voice of the people. Sometimes this voice screams in agony for love and understanding. Sometimes it cries in outrage for justice and reprisal. Yet others plead for patience and detachment. These voices cannot be stilled.

Literature is as old as human history. But the available, recorded literature spans about two millennia. The love it expresses the beauty it exudes, the philosophy that emanates from it could engage the young, and inspire them to think above race, religion, caste and political divisions. And it is clear that they do. Once again to quote a young Nepalese Poet – Shreedhar Lohani :
Every age makes icons
to disguise its follies
and in remorse of sacrifice
Ram and Sita burn a live.

The Ramas and Sitas have set the stage for their progney – an inescapable trap from which they cannot break away. But the young poet is aware of the contradiction: the logic to perpetuate stupidity, and questions it.

Being aware, perhaps the young would be able to create a new world without such traps. Good writing says Rajeeva Wijesinghe in his compilation of poetry from Sinhala, Tamil and English writers of Sri Lanka – Mirrored Images, “shares certain values that transcend differences that are seen as contingencies”. The young members of SAARC countries, whether they are creative writers or not, if tuned in the right direction will overcome old animosities. It is the role of the writers to direct them. It seems relevant to conclude this paper with a poem by a Sinhala Poet (not young of course) but relevant to the theme. The poem is Kalidasa and the Moon by Nandana Weerasinghe.

The poem reads like this:

There was a debate about the origin or ownership of Kadlidasa, the great Indian poet. Various scholars claimed ownership of Kalidasa for their country, city and village. Some claimed him for Ujjain going by a mere description; ‘it is the country of Malawa that is described in it’ Others claimed him for Kashmir because there were descriptions of the Himalayas. Yet another claimed him for Dharbanga. But the moon just rising dissipated this darkness of parochiality and greed.

The last two verses of the poem are self-explanatory. They powerfully dismiss any sectarian attitude to literature. Writers have no borders.

Then the moon appeared
to soften the darkness that had grown and an old man
by then tired by debating
asked a young poet who was there
“Where was Kalidasa born
Where did he live?
To whom should he belong?”
The poet raised his hand to the sky and pointed out the moon
Spreading light and comfort equally in all directions.

The symbolism in the last verse is crystal clear and relates strongly to our theme. It is significant that the truth was understood by a young poet.

No analysis is needed. It suggests the universality of literature and those who create it. They are above, race, religion, caste or creed and the young poet has shows a wisdom that the old scholars with all their years and their learning did not. This is the message of this paper – Let’s hope it is taken up and used by the members of SAARC – both writers as well as readers, young and old, for the benefit of the young.

References :
1. Carter, R and Long, M. (1991) Teaching Literature, New York, Longman Inc.

2. Devi, G.N. (1989) The Commonwealth Literature Period : A note towards the History of Indian English Literature in A Shaping of Connections, Commonwealth Studies, then and Now (ed.) Maes- Jelinek, H, K, Holst Peterson and Anna Rutherford, Dangaroo Press.

3. Wijesinghe R. (Ed) 2013, Mirrored Images National Book Trust, India.