12 May 2015

Vihanga Perera: more poet than novelist

Vihanga Perera has been shortlisted (yes once again!) for the Gratiaen Prize.  This time for his collection of poems, 'Love and Protest'.  The others shortlisted are Sandali Ash (for the novella 'Rao's Guide to Lime Pickling'), Quintus G Fernando (for the novel 'Celibacy Factor') and Santhan Ayathurai (for the novel 'Rails Run Parallel').  This is a comment on Vihanga's poetry published in the Sunday Observer, July 18, 2010.  

A few years ago, I was privileged to be invited to read my poetry at the University of Peradeniya. English poetry. So the crowd was small, naturally.  I read some of my poetry, a poem by Pablo Neruda and a couple of poems from Ariyawansa Ranaweera’s collection, ‘Elimahan kavi saha guha kavi (Poems of the cave and of its outside)’.   I was particularly inspired by the quote from the Dhammapada at the beginning of the book, ‘Asareerang guha sayang…’ (the light is not too far from the mouth of the cave, but it is outside, nevertheless).  I remember mentioning that for economy of word, alliterative power, substance, nuance and rhythm, there is no greater poet (or linguist) than Siddhartha Gauthama. Others also read.  Most of what I heard was pedestrian, including tortuous attempts at turning ideology into poetry by an award-winning author.  There was a high point though.  Vihanga Perera.

Vihaga read out what some might call an unashamedly sexist poem.  The politics of propriety aside, to me it was a brilliant piece of writing.  It was entertaining, dramatic, creative and most important, he kept it to the minimum length that the content demanded. It was not just another one of those prose passages chopped into short 4-7 word snippets so that it looks like a ‘poem’.  I remember telling him that I think he should write plays. 

Vihanga was then a first year student in the Arts Faculty. He graduated and joined the English Department of Sri Jayawardenapura University.  I am not sure if he wrote any plays, but he did write several novels.  His novels were shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize on two occasions.  I know that someone has praised his writing (novels) to the hilt.  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, I suppose.  While a Gratiaen shortlisting is good and encouraging, it could also mean (like in the case of all ‘shortlistings’) a product of weak choices and/or poor judging.  I don’t think Vihanga or anyone else (self included) should make too much of such ‘recognition’ outside of considering it ‘encouragement’.  My point is that Vihanga, while he certainly can write and is capable of weaving a story, is not exactly (as yet) a budding Simon Navagattegama or Garcia Marquez or anyone else that he thinks is ‘great’.  I hope he doesn’t think so either for that would be the ultimate trip that truncates his literary orbit.  

His novels, ‘Unplugged Quarter’ (2009) and Stable Horses (2008), both cited as ‘longer fiction/novel’ in his blog, http://vkper.wordpress.com, and his ‘experimental short fiction’ piece, ‘The(ir) (au)topsy’ (2006), like all of his work poetry included (see ‘Pesticides’, a collection of 14 poems), are, according to Vihanga, are amazing literary works.   He says, for example, that ‘The(ir) (au)topsy’ is ‘one of the most under-rated and under-weighted publications of [his] lifetime’ and of his poetry, opines that they are ‘unarguably the best written by a Sri Lankan in English post Lakdasa Wikkramasinha.’
That’s Vihanga.  Arrogant.  Tongue-in-cheek.  Reminds me of the man who said that if a list was made of all the humble people in the world he would be No 2, and added ‘if I don’t talk about myself, who would?’ 

Vihanga is a young man in a hurry and that’s a good thing for someone his age.  He is a prolific writer, doesn’t give a damn about whose toes he steps on, says his piece regardless and again, typical for those his age, knows everything there is to know in this world.  That all-knowing is what makes (to me at least) his fiction a tad tedious.  Someone who has all the answers tends to act prophet but Vihanga has a few more feet to go to get out of the guhaava, I think.  For now, there’s sloganeering and a tendency to ‘write in’ political preferences.  It harms narrative, sounds raw and steals from flow.  

Having said this, I still think that Vihanga Perera is clearly the freshest voice among those who write poetry in English in Sri Lanka today.  He has the word at his fingertip, one feels, spins it out effortlessly, has a kind of heart-rhythm that is clearly lacking in a lot of things that get the ‘poetry’ label.  Don’t trust me. Go to Barefoot and check the Sri Lankan poetry.  Much of it is rubbish. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten’s ‘Nothing prepares you’ is an exception.  Vihanga’s irreverence gives his poetry a cutting-edge feel.  He is cynical, rude (more so for effect, one feels) and unforgiving, but there is no denying that he has a gaze that can quickly cut through ‘appearance’ and delve into that ugly underside of things and processes which we all know (even if it’s just an instinctive thing) but like to pretend doesn’t exist at all. 

His take on the taming of Angulimala is utterly irreverent but telling:

‘While 999 men were killed, their penises cut
Where was this guide, the Buddha:
The worldly compassionate one?
Where – more the question – was the police:
Polishing the interiors of their gun?’

Never mind that the Buddha was not policeman, official or self-appointed.  Vihanga points out that Angulimala changes gear and trade and becomes a prominent player of the Buddhist tradition and claims that his name survives more as the man who shaped husbandless wives.  To me, he’s got it all wrong, and that comes from his ‘all-knowingness’.  Still, one cannot help admiring the word-footwork and dramatic rush in the following (preceding) lines:

‘This was a major serial killer incident,
F****** terrorism spreading
Wherever there were men and men had balls.
Brought down to his knees, on Buddha’s bidding.
His Rest begins. His Desire falls.’

Vihanga is a political statement maker.  As poet he has license to add and subtract, contextualize and de-contextualize.  ‘The Trek for Rights Sri Lanka’  is VK’s overview of things.  He writes of Prageeth Ekneligoda (‘journalist’, according to some; porno-peddler to me, but nevertheless a citizen who has gone missing):

‘We’ve stopped worrying about this Prageeth.
A numbskull, all the same:
Just 46 chromosomes and a bitta knowledge.
Just a family and two shitty kids.
Wife is just another woman.
Some non-mainstream fucking stringer
Some non-patriotic deal.
Time will heal.
People are crazy, making him into a fetish
That human rights are f***ed up.

He takes pot shots.  He sys that his m-f-ing friends, at the height of their patriotism had posted my links on his (Vihanga’s) ‘Facebook’  and that some continue to do so:

‘Some still
Post Malinda, mercenary pen in hand
Aiming his tarot at David Miliband.
Conscience is not his employer.’

Vihanga gets his political knickers twisted a lot, but shhhh don’t tell him that, he ‘knows all’, after all.  That’s not the point here.  He would say the same of me.  The point is that even Pablo Neruda was victim of such wardrobe malfunctioning, especially in defending Stalinism. Even when this happened, as Garcia Marquez points out in a series of interviews under the title ‘Fragrance of Guava’, Neruda was like a King Midas of Literature, that ‘everything he touched turned into poetry’.   Vihanga is not Neruda, no.  I don’t have any unholy fascination with patriotism or any ism for that matter, but even when Vihanga is ill-informed and analytically slothful, he does write well. 

‘I saw Wimal Weerawansa’s hoardings
And I snapped the talisman off my throat
It is not he, it is me
The f***ing talisman of the nation.
He’s a talisman, alright,
But how lousy he mess up the spelling?’

The reference is to Wimal’s election campaign and its signature line, ‘Maubime Panchayudaya’. Biting, yes, but there is an element of elegance here, a clean cut-through that does not leave any frayed edges to be sandpapered away later. 

And it is not all about politics and things related to power.  In ‘In a roomful of Strangers’, he turns into painter:

‘But will your furtive fidgeting of this
Moment’s rhyme
Keep the bloodlines flowing; resist
The test of time?’

He speaks of and to his generation and of others as well.  ‘Bachelor of Arts’ gives perspective:

‘Problem is
Some kids took those lectures seriously.
Tried to unravel and analyze.
Deconstruct and be political. To be
Sensitive to gender; use the ‘his’ or the ‘hers’
Po-co, po-mo, po-Poocault, anit-co, re-co:
Ithin (avasana vashayen), tho ko?’

‘These knowledges,’ Vihanga pronounces, apparently with anger, but to me in brutal honestly, ‘is where the common die; kings hold their shit rag banners high’.

I am coming to these conclusions based on a set of poems I asked Vihanga to email me and which he did. All written in the first few months of this year.  Not all of it is great of course, but there is here something that you will not find in any of the poetry-blogs of Sri Lankans writing in English.  In time, Vihanga will know less, I am sure.  Less and less as time goes on.  His cynicism will become even more lyrical. And he will not depend as much on meter and rhyme for rhythm and melody. I might be dead by that time.  That’s irrelevant, though. 



Yasodhara Kariyawasam said...

Mr Malinda, I'm Yasodhara Kariyawasam, hope you remember me as your friend's daughter. Well, I was researching about Gratiaen Award winners and was reading some of Vivimarie Vanderpoorten poetry when I stumbled upon Vihanga's criticism on her poetry.

I thought I was going overboard with being critical about his already over-boarded criticism. Some of it about VVP, I agreed with, but most I thought felt angry and baseless. Like I said, I thought I was being too critical of the critique for thinking he came across as a bit of a know-it-all, till I found your criticism on his poetry, which I already read through and formed an opinion which resonates yours.

Also glad to know that you are a fan of Neruda as well. I would like it if you read my poetry some time. Would love an opinion! I am getting to know more and more about Sri Lankan poets these days and reading your collection of poetry again as well, which you gifted me some years ago.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

sure. email them to me: malindasenevi@gmail.com