The State & Future of Publishing in Sri Lanka

by Sam Perera

Among bookshops that are closing down, are those that are thriving. Amid unattractive displays, narrow aisles and dusty shelves, dedicated readers linger, browse, ferret around and thumb through an ever increasing selection of new publications. This steady stream of quiet, cultured consumers is the coveted audience of writers, publishers and booksellers alike.

So what are people reading, and in multi-lingual Lanka, in what language? Not surprisingly, the demographic is divided proportionally among Sri Lanka’s linguistic groups with the Sinhala readership grabbing the lion’s share. Poets abound and poetry primes – again, not surprisingly as Sinhala is a witty tongue with which the dullest of us laugh at the direst of situations with wry humour. University Dons turned poets – like Liyanage Amarakeerthi or those who have shown the way like Gunadasa Amarasekera display an enviable mastery of the language and their works are much sought after by readers of the esoteric.  Edward Mallawaarachchi’s novels are liberally rose-tinted and calculated to please an analogous readership to that of Mills & Boon. Like many writers of this genre, he is not alone and his work competes fiercely with authors like Sujeeva Prasanna Aarachchi or Samindra Ratnayake.

Martin Wickramasinghe, the biggest known name of contemporary Sinhala Literature whose adventure novels have been compared to those of Mark Twain was one of Sri Lanka’s most prolific and iconic writers. Many of his books which idealise simple, wholesome village life as opposed to the fast-paced, loose morals of the City are perennially popular and have been translated into English to reach a wider audience.  And yes, with the desire to reach an international readership, more and more writers are choosing to express themselves in English. While a lot of them have achieved local popularity, few of them have truly broken into the international marketplace. Of course, there are Lankan authors who have attained global popularity. Yasmine Gooneratne, Romesh Gunasekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Shehan Karunatilake and most recently Nayomi Munaweera have not only been published overseas, their work has been nominated for international awards.

Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient) who might be better known for the film than the Booker Prize win, established the Gratiaen Prize to encourage Sri Lankan writing in English. The state too, generously does its part by having a book development program that encourages budding authors in any of the country’s three languages with either outright grants or by buying a number of published copies of their work. It also organises a massive award ceremony that celebrates writing in all categories – novels, short stories, poems, children’s literature etc. in all linguistic groups. The Publishers’ Association builds up hype with its Swarna Pusthaka Award that rewards winners and shortlisted authors with a generous cash prize and huge amounts of publicity, turning even shortlisted works into best-sellers overnight.
As elsewhere, Literary Festivals are catching on. The Galle Literary Festival achieved quick global prominence. In a few days, a brand new Literary Festival- Annasi & Kadalagotu – which embraces writers in English, Sinhala and Tamil, will kick-off in Colombo. All of this points towards not only a healthy culture of reading, but also a culture of writing, of stories waiting to be told and of an audience hungry for more. (Source: German Book Office New Delhi)

Sam Perera is a partner of the Perera-Hussein Publishing House, Srilanka, which encourages authors who inspire, provoke and entertain. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. GBO New Delhi does not necessarily endorse the content of the article.