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Author of Chinaman on Sri Lankan Literature and International Success

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On April secnd, Sri Lanka takes on India in the final for the ICC World Cup. What better day on which to think about Shehan Karunatilaka's debut novel, Chinaman, which has been described as being "ambitious, playful and strikingly original, [a novel] about cricket and... the story of modern day Sri Lanka through its most cherished sport." Indeed, cricket-mad Indian reviewers have flocked to sing his praises, calling it "improbably potent and toothsome."

The novel was released by Random House, India in February, 2011, but before it did, it had already won the top award for literature in English in Sri Lanka, the Gratiaen Prize, endowed by none other than Sri Lanka's most famous literary native son, Michael Ondaatje, in 1992. The annual award, named after Ondaatje's mother, Doris Gratiaen, is given to the best work of literary writing in English by a resident Sri Lankan. Here is a little gush in January from RandomReads, the Random House blog:

The Jaipur Literary Festival starts this Friday and our hottest young writer there is Shehan Karunatilaka whose novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew, about an alcoholic sports writer and his obsession with a spin bowler called Pradeep Matthew, is creating waves everywhere. In Sri Lanka it has been hailed as the "great Sri Lankan novel", Waterstones, UK's big bookstore chain, has picked the book as one of their top debuts of 2011, and Michael Ondaatje has called it, "a crazy ambidextrous delight."

That Waterstones eleven includes some familiar names including Mirza Waheed, Johanna Skibsrud (winner of Canada's most prestigious literary prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize), and the New Yorker's 20 under 40-lister, Téa Obreht. It is very likely that as soon as Chinaman arrives in the US market in June (Jonathan Cape, a division of Random House), Karunatilaka's book will end up on a series of long lists, but he will have to temper some of the buzz with the more mundane business of attending classes and reading an even longer list of authors who hail from the American literary canon: he enrolls in the fall in one of several highly rated American MFA programs that have offered him admission. I sat down to talk to the 36-year-old author, whose public portfolio still references his work in advertising -- quite as though the novel was an afterthought and plays no great role in his daily life -- about some of the reviews that have appeared about his book and his thoughts on the literary scene in Sri Lanka.

RF: You won the Gratiaen in 2008. To what extent did the prize change your career as a writer? Journalist Malinda Seneviratne writes, "From its inception, the Gratiaen has encouraged a lot of writing. A lot of second-rate writing has been short-listed. Chinaman, by sheer class, gives us eyes to separate the real article from the mediocre. It is a benchmark, certainly, in English writing in Sri Lanka." While it would be pompous to agree, do you feel that the Gratiaen ought to set a higher standard to encourage diligence and talent?

SK: I have to be grateful to the Gratiaen cause it got me to the Galle International Literary Festival,where I made some valuable publishing contacts. The exposure was great, though I do agree, the standard of the shortlist hasn't always been as great.

I hear a similar argument amongst Sri Lanka's advertising fraternity. That our local ad award shows need to stop awarding mediocrity. I'm not sure it's the Gratiaen's fault. Maybe Sri Lankan writers should take it on themselves to put in more work and unearth better stories.

RF: When I met you in Galle in 2009, you had already won the prize, but there wasn't enough buzz about the book. What changed between 2008 and 2011? Do you feel that the festival furthered your work, your approach to publication/writing in any significant way? If you were in charge of organizing a festival like the GLF, what changes might you make and why would you choose to make them?

SK: The festival got me talking to other writers and making contacts. It even introduced me to the Gratiaen judges and allowed me to bribe them. (RF note: insert smiley face here)

I am the last person who should be organizing anything. I have enough trouble getting make-believe people to do what I tell them. I think Sunila (Galappatti) did a great job with it when I took part. If I was in charge I'd have more outdoor events and more bars.

RF: Much has been written about the fault lines between truth and fiction in your work. Seneviratne writes, "Matthew is larger than life but utterly fascinating and indeed plausible. Shehan has to contend with a recorded cricketing history, real people, real incidents in real matches, scorebooks and newspaper cuttings. That he has woven a fiction like Matthew into all this is itself an achievement. It has clearly required the author to engage in meticulous research and pick and choose incident and personality in ways that turn a lie into a truth." To what extent is this question of relevance when we read literature from a "foreign" country?

SK: I didn't think the book would be read outside of Colpetty, (a suburb of Sri Lanka). I just chose anecdotes and plot lines that would take the story into interesting places. I did however try to make it accessible to someone who knows nothing of cricket or Sri Lanka. Not sure if I succeeded.

RF: ASH Smyth, in an overwhelmingly favorable review of your novel, refers to the sudden emergence of your chief protagonists, Pradeep Matthew and CG Karunaratne, in various news sources that were, until recently, unavailable; indeed one of the significant premises of your book is that all record of Pradeep Matthews has been expunged. He writes, "It requires some considered application of time and know-how to ensure that a man who doesn't exist -- or at least whom the internet had never heard of until very recently (which these days is the same thing) -- tops the page of half-a-million search results. And it's a tribute, in a sense -- above and beyond being further evidence of the ambition and seriousness of purpose behind the novel. Only in a country this cricket-mad could writing a novel about a cricketer also require one to actually breathe life (albeit retrospectively) into the man." To what extent did you participate in the re-creation of these characters as searchable, Googleable people?

RK: I am computer illiterate, you'll have to ask my friend Garfield.

RF: Richard Simon, writes in his review, that "Karunatilaka touches, without ever making it look like a stretch, upon all the crucial Sri Lankan realities: racism, all-pervasive yet blandly denied; class snobbery; endemic corruption, moral failure and cultural decline; suicide-bombings, alcoholism, paedophile sex tourism, the shadow of the colonial past and the failures of the first post-Independence generation." It has been said that many of us who hail from former British colonies choose to write about the underbelly of our nations -- eg Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, Arvind Adiga's White Tiger -- quite as though we do not have ordinary people living mundane lives in our countries. Do you think that there is hope that more of us will write the kind of character-driven stories that deal with the inner intellectual/spiritual growth of ordinary human beings as writers overseas seem to do with remarkable regularity? Or do you think that too many writers are trapped under a post-colonial yoke that makes us write the stories that native English speakers in Europe and the West want to read and can comprehend, where everything is terrible "over there?"

SK: I guess if you're writing about Sri Lanka over the last 50 years, you can't escape what's terrible. But I wanted to write about an ordinary drunk, watching ordinary cricket having extraordinary thoughts. I didn't set to write about all the things Richard mentions, but since I was writing about Sri Lanka at that time period, all those ugly realities crept in. And they seemed true, so I left them in.

RF: Simon concludes his review by saying, "On p. 163 of Chinaman, my old neighbour W.G. Karunasena reminisces about how he felt 'watching Wettimuny at Lord's in 1984, the first time I realised that a Sri Lankan could be as good as anyone else.' I don't give an all-girl softball team captain's toss for cricket, but I know a bit about writing. Shehan Karunatilaka and Chinaman have made me feel exactly the same." Do you feel that a Sri Lankan writer has to strive to be "as good as" anyone else? What would the markers be for earning that designation? Would they be wholly artistic (the quality of the text), or would that be measured by how much recognition the book gets overseas?

SK: I think the game is just to write a book that you'd like to read. Strive to write something that'll give the reader a rich experience. That takes shitloads of work. Sri Lankan writers should focus on that rather than thinking of international audiences.

There's a phrase "Good for Sri Lanka," that accompanies most informal theatre, concert or book reviews in Colombo. Meaning that it was average, but okay for inferior Lankan standards. Maybe we should get out of that mindset and try to do something that's just simply "Good" or maybe even "Very Good."

RF: If you could wave a wand over Sri Lanka and elevate the many writers who live and write there, what particular change of circumstance would you choose to effect?

SK: More dedicated editors and writers who'll listen to them. More publishers and translators who can distribute books outside of Colombo, Galle and Kandy. Less laziness.