2009 Gratiaen Prize Winner – Prashani Rambukwella

"My grandmothers were hugely influential in getting me interested in the craft of story-telling. They would spend hours telling me stories from their past and reading to me. When I like a story I have this habit of imagining myself into the action as a peripheral character or re-imagining the story the way I want it to be. When I was too young to write I would direct my neighbourhood friends in acting these stories. But as I grew older I started re-imagining and writing the stories down. Of course these stories weren't very good because they were still mostly other people's stories. But the writing process was so exhilarating that I was hooked. I kept at it and while I now have stacks of useless or half-finished stories, Mythil's Secret was one of the few that I felt had a spark of life in it because it passed my test."

That was Prashani Rambukwella replying my interview questions. She won the 2009 Gratiaen Award for creative writing in English for her book about a child and his adventures with yakkas, other jungle livers and even imagined poachers. She beat 53 other contestants and reading Mythil’s Secret one understands why. It is creative, written in faultless English and very much Sri Lankan.

What is the test she refers to? Prashani replies thus:

"When I write the first draft of a story it's an intense emotional journey. It's easy at that point to think this is the best story I ever wrote. But then I put it away for 3-6 months till I've forgotten about it. When I read it after this time if it still inspires or excites me then I

know there’s something in it. That’s how it was for Mythil’s Secret."

Why a children’s story? Is it really meant for children? were my next questions. I am relieved; Prashani did not counter me with "Why not!" She gave me a full explanation which I pass on.

"When I was growing up I felt there weren't enough stories set in Sri Lanka for Sri Lankan kids. The stories I read were wonderful but imagining myself into them was like imagining myself into alien worlds - they were set in foreign lands and usually in the past. This is why I was keen to do a modern story for Sri Lankan children.

I've never grown out of reading children's literature. 90% of the leisure reading I do today is of books written primarily for older children. Like many such books, The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien for example; also appeal to adults. And when I was writing Mythil's Secret I had to ensure that it appealed to me as an adult, otherwise I knew it would just bore younger readers. In fact all but one of the people I sent the early draft to for comments were adults. So to answer your question, yes, my main audience is the pre-teen to early-teen age group. But the story has several layers to it - like the interactions of the adults which don't always make sense to Mythil but will make sense to an adult reader. So

Mythil’s Secret was written to appeal to adults too."

I agree with Prashani after glancing through the book and reading a quarter of it. Mythil’s Secret is a book for children, but can be read with pleasure and appreciation by the adult. I know many adults read Tolkien and even more J K Rowling. The Harry Potter books are so well crafted and written that adults seem to enjoy them even more than the very young child. I say they are lucky readers, the adults I mean who enjoy the Potter series. I am one of the unlucky ones – I’ve skipped being led to Hogwarts by Rowling! Give me an adult love story any time! My grandson and my daughter-in-law have urged me to join them in their immense delight in getting into Harry’s wonderful magic world and outwitting Voldermort, but not me, thank you.

To get back to Prashani, she is a meticulous writer and that is a good trait. Writing at speed a piece of creative writing – a collection of short stories or one long piece of fiction - is no good. I have realized this. Remember Michael Ondaatje took seven years to complete his Booker Prize winning English Patient. Prashani has gone one year better; she took all of eight years to finally submit her manuscript to the publishers – Perera Hussein who got the book out in their Popsicle Book series.

"Well, I wanted to make sure that the story would be as good as it could be. In addition to the publishers I had a group of 10 or so close friends who I sent the early drafts to for comments. Waiting for them to read the drafts and then going through their comments, deciding which ones to use and which to disregard, and then editing the story took a lot of time. But I think it was worth it." That’s how the author explained the eight years.

Prashani studied at Methodist College, Colombo and then was in the University of Peradeniya. It is here that Ms Wijesinghe met her future husband, Harshana Rambukwella. She has been married seven years and is now the mother of a nine month old daughter, born just a month after her book was published in August 2009.

Asked how she got into writing and who encouraged her, she answered the questions thus: "From around the age of 6-7 I knew I wanted to be a writer. So at school I studied in the Arts stream under some great teachers. I then did a Special Arts degree in English Literature at the University of Peradeniya and again was blessed with some truly great mentors. I was one of the founder editors of the school newspaper. At university two one-act plays I wrote were performed, one at the annual inter-university drama competition and the other at the University of Peradeniya's inter-hall drama competition.

I have been a cub journalist and a corporate writer."

My family encouraged me. My parents gave up their dream of me becoming something sensible like a lawyer or accountant and allowed me to follow my dream of being a writer. I had a lot of pressure from uncles, aunts and cousins to come up with poems and stories for their birthdays - and this was very encouraging too."

Prashani says the stories she heard and read inspired her. Just like Mythil has his maternal archchi who relates stories to him, the author acknowledged the fact of her grandmothers filling her pre-reading childhood with stories. Also maybe in her life too there was a cookwoman like Seeli who pumps the young hero in her book with tales of the occult.

She makes a moot point to be noted by creative writers in English: "The fact that I couldn't find the kind of books I wanted to read inspired me to write them myself." So she was not satisfied with Tolkien and Rowling and earlier – Blyton and Roald Dahl. Maybe she wanted local colour so she’s written a book with plenty of that ingredient!

She also expresses a wish in reply to my question: any thoughts on creative writing in English in Sri Lanka? "I'd like to see more that's written for younger audiences; stories that take their young readers' intelligence seriously and don't preach to them."

Her answer to my query about future writing plans is: "There are definitely a few more adventures for Mythil... but at this point they're safely locked in my head. So we'll have to wait and see." She adds that she wishes I "could say something more about the book." Maybe I will. I am enjoying reading it at the moment.

We wish this young woman writer the best in the future and much more power and grist to her writing wrist!

www island.lk

Copyright©Upali Newspapers Limited.

Hosted by


Upali Newspapers Limited, 223, Bloemendhal Road, Colombo 13, Sri Lanka, Tel +940112497500