2020 Jun 29
Sri Lankan literature has always taken its readers on an enchanting pathway through time, enriched with folklore, culture and heritage. Our local authors have much to offer the world and this read is a celebration of their remarkable penmanship. As the list will go on to show, some of these authors have the ability to breathe beautiful life into their motherland and spin touching tales, sometimes stemming from their own heartfelt experience.
Here’s our list of must-reads by Sri Lankan authors!
1. Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
This touching coming-of-age story follows the life of Arjie- the ‘funny boy’ after which this novel is named. Set against the dramatic backdrop of Sri Lanka’s long suffering Tamil/Sinhalese conflict, this novel was ahead of its time in exploring the themes of homosexuality, racism and how to cope in a world torn apart with unrest. This tale has won various awards for its compassionate storytelling portraying finding one’s own identity in a troubled community.
2. The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons by Ashok Ferrey
This novel portrays a rather cynical, if not humorous, view of Sri Lankan family dynamics. It follows the life of Sonny Mahadewala, a Kandyan son that, despite living in Oxford with the love of his life, has a troubled concept of family that proves evident when visiting his mother in Kandy, whom believes him to be possessed by a demon. The novel explores the existence of both good and evil in individuals and how anyone can be led astray. It also confronts the difficulties in coming to terms with the cross-cultural aspects of a marriage in Sri Lanka.
3. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Sri Lankan born Canadian, Michael Ondaatje is well-known for penning quite a few works, not just limited to novels but poetry and film as well. The English Patient follows the fatefully intertwined lives of four individuals in an Italian Villa towards the end of World War II. This is quite an illuminating novel told using different plot lines as Hana, a nurse, tends to her last patient. Moving back and forth in the form of the English man’s memories, this novel explores the themes of war, self-identity and love and has won several awards including the Booker Prize and has also been adapted into a film!
4. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
This novel is the winner of the Gratiaen Prize, amongst other awards, and follows an alcoholic journalist (close to the end of his life) in his attempt to redeem himself through unearthing the legacy of a great, missing cricketer of the 1980s. However, while centered on the sport, this novel is not a story of cricket. Rather, the author cleverly uses cricket to explore the state of the island during an incredibly tense time (the Sinhalese- Tamil conflict, once again). So this need not only be a read for lovers of the sport alone!
5. The Jam Fruit Tree by Carl Muller
A beloved classic, The Jam Fruit Tree, is an engaging story that focuses on the Burghers of Sri Lanka (descendants of the Dutch, Portuguese and British colonizers). Carl Muller, a Burgher himself, uses the Von Bloss family to hilariously portray a people that absolutely love to have a good time and cannot be contained at any cost! First in the trilogy, this novel tastefully captures Sri Lanka in its glory days with a fair share of profanity to match!
6. The Road From Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva
Winning the Gratiaen Prize and State Literary Award, The Road from Elephant Pass tells a thrilling and descriptive tale set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan war. The novel follows a series of intertwined experiences between two characters on opposing sides of the war: Captain Wasantha Ratnayake and a member of the LTTE Liberation Tigers of Tami Eelam (LTTE), Kamala Velaithan. The haunting romance between them as they venture through the nation’s beloved Wilpattu National Park spins an intriguing tale that keeps readers flipping the page.
7. Reef by Romesh Gunesekera
Reef explores a time right before civil unrest rocked the nation. The plot itself takes place in flashbacks, revolving around Triton (a young chef) that spends the next ten years of his life looking after his master (and marine biologist by occupation), Mr. Salgado. The rumble of violence and impending conflict is gentle background noise until cannot be further ignored which makes this a very gradual coming-of-age novel.
8. A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman
Ru Freeman’s novel tells the dynamic tale of two persevering women as they fight for better lives against the offensive barriers of social class. Latha, a servant that knows she’s meant for finer things in life and Biso, a young mother fleeing an abusive husband, paint two strong female characters that expose the issues of domestic service and caste. Freeman paints a beautiful tale with her words that takes place from Lanka’s enchanting seaside right up to the island’s famous plantations.
9. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
Wave is a compelling memoir that focuses on one woman’s account of the traumatic events of December 26, 2004- the day the tsunami uprooted and killed several lives. Sonali Deraniyagala writes a descriptive and heartbreaking account of how she lost her mother, husband and two sons during the tragedy and how she managed to pick up her pieces and keep pushing on with life. This is a book of raw loss and painful progress that will definitely touch readers.
10. The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
The Story of a Brief Marriage is brief indeed, spanning over a single night and day in the life of Dinesh- an evacuee of a makeshift camp living in numb acceptance of the devastating civil war surrounding him. Until one day, he is approached by an old man offering his daughter’s hand in marriage. Despite any lack of interest the couple has in each other, the marriage is a safety net in times of war. This novel, winner of the 2017 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, is a thoughtful reflection on the need for companionship- the importance of having someone to touch, hold and talk to during a time where you never know when your next breath could be your last.
11. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Join Michael Ondaatje as he explores not only the roots of his Dutch-Ceylonese family in this memoir but also as he re-visits and paints a beautiful picture of his motherland. Readers are intimately guided through Ondaantje’s family dynamics and painted a rather vivid image of Ceylon, in all its topical glory. Essentially, packed with anecdotes from beginning to end, indulge in this memoir for a refreshing read!
12. Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Embark on a mysterious study of the living and the dead with Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist who returns to Sri Lanka after 15 years to investigate severe crimes against humanity. Set in a tense time where mass disappearances were a common occurrence, Anil’s quest to find the truth takes us back and forth. A detective story of sorts, prepare to sift through a fragmented story that delves into Anil’s identity and that of her motherland.
13. Island of a 1000 mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel is a heartbreaking tale of two families on opposing sides of the oppressive conflict that rocked Sri Lanka. Narrated with stunning imagery capable of transporting any reader, the tale alternates between Yasodhara (Sinhalese) and Saraswathi (Tamil). Powerful and graphic, we are introduced to the unbiased portrayal of the senselessness of this war and the hardships it wreaked upon innocent citizens on either side.
14. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Based right after World War II, this novel focuses on the vague upbringing of siblings, Nathaniel and Rachel, left by their parents in the care of a figure named ‘The Moth’ in mysterious circumstances. The first part of this book leaves the reader with many questions about the children’s parents and the motley crew of characters in charge of their upbringing. The second section follows Nathaniel as an adult as he attempts to piece together the mystery of his parents and their involvement in war work.
15. Giraya by Punyakante Wijenaike
Punyakante Wijenaike is well-known for her ability to address women’s issues through her novels. This particular novel based in Sri Lanka during the 1970s takes its name after a metallic nut-cracker. It is a dark and powerfully packed depiction of the psychological torment a recently married young woman undergoes in her attempts to fit into her new home. The novel was also adapted into a teledrama.
16. Tigers Don’t Confess by Visakesa Chandrasekaram
Tigers Don’t Confess is a story that unfolds in the tense political backdrop of the last years of the UNP regime (early 1990s). Written in the style of a drama/thriller, this story chronicles the many suspicious crimes that rock the nation during this time- from the killings of highly influential figures to bombings and also addresses the many injustices faced by wrongful incarceration. The plot itself follows that of Kumaran Mylvaganam, a Tamil university student, harassed and abused under custody under suspicion of being a member of the LTTE. His story mirrors that of countless men and women who endured the same fate during such volatile times.
17. Upon a Sleepless Isle by Andrew Fidel
A witty and endearing travelogue on Sri Lanka, written with a touch of sarcasm and a lot of humour, Andrew Fidel’s debut novel Upon a Sleepless Isle bagged the Graetian Prize for 2019. Await our full review of the book, coming soon!
In a world where there can never be too much celebration of creative work, these Sri Lankans definitely deserve to be held in regard for their vivid storytelling and ability to keep a reader hooked!