Monthly Archives: November 2014

Five Things I Liked About UNTOUCHABLE WOMAN’S ODYSSEY

I have been having wonderful email discussions with Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri about his novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. The story is simultaneously simple and complex, and the characters are well interwoven into each other’s lives so as to be interdependent. Moreover, the novel is genre-blurring and could be classified as post-colonial fiction, Buddhist fiction, mythic fiction, hybrid fiction, the list goes on. And yet the novel is a true chronotope, to use a Bakhtinian term, and works as a world unto itself.

During the course of our conversations, it was playfully suggested that I develop a list of things I liked about Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. So instead of the usual author interview (because these can be terse), or review (because I don’t want to give away too much of the novel), I’m following his suggestion! I will interweave bits of our conversation and snippets of story from the novel as I go.

Counting back from five, then:

5. Coconuts!

The novel is set in post-colonial Sri Lanka and the author helps set the scenes in the novel with descriptions of streets and sounds, local flora and fauna, the ocean, and with descriptions of food, especially tea, fish and food made with coconuts and a great variety of spices. It all sounds so delicious, but more importantly I am reminded of how food practices are cultural markers and a part of our identity construction.* So I enjoyed the initial character and narrator we meet–Swadesh–who had immigrated to Canada but returned to visit his homeland and his friend Milton. As an expatriate character, Swadesh seemed very happy about the meals he was eating during his visit back home, meals made with fresh local ingredients. Later in the novel, THE untouchable woman of the title, Tangamma, now known as the Buddhist nun Venerable Karuna, is described while eating the single daily meal of a renunciant. She is further described drinking tea out of a coconut bowl later that day. The descriptions of the Ven. Karuna eating and drinking are markedly different from other descriptions of practices surrounding food and drink in the novel; these descriptions are more meditative in tone, and show yet another aspect of food practice that is a cultural marker and part of identity construction, that of a Buddhist nun. This is but one example of the way in which Dr. Sugunasiri’s writing is simple yet complex.

4. Transnational literary influences

Right from the contents page of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, it was clear to me that the novelist had many literary influences from the West, from traditional Buddhist literature, and from his homeland. I asked him to comment on his literary influences and whether these were mostly Buddhist.

SS: “Undeniably. As you’ve already noted, some parts of the novel falls back on the Jataka story – present story, past story and linking the two. But as you correctly note, it is not entirely along the Jataka lines. The narrator is not the ‘omniscient one’ but Swadesh, the on the ground Canadian expat who visits his home country after a quarter century.

Another influence that can be seen in the novel is the Beast Fable. This has been taken to be a genre of Hindu/Sanskrit literature, the Pancatantra and Hitopadesa being examples. But my latest research finding is that it is, in fact, the Buddha that is the initiator of the Beast fable genre (see the Appendix in my work Dhamma Aboard Evolution). So there then is another form of Buddhist literature that has guided my hand.

But there may be the inspiration of Sinhala literature itself. I couldn’t help but be impressed by what has been said to be the world’s first blank verse (about 500 of them, 6th to 8th c.), written on the ‘mirror wall’ (a slab of rock with a sheen) of Sigiriya (castle of King Kasyapa). Here’s one of my favourites:

Budal [name] I am.

Came alone.

Everyone writing poetry,

I didn’t!

(see the UNESCO publication Sigiri Graffiti, by Prof. Senarat Paranavitana, and Sigiriya by Canadian Professor Siri Gunasinghe.) And there are, of course, other classical works of Sinhala literature, between the 11th and 15th centuries – both secular but some of religious orientation.”

While there are many cultural and literary influences that can be discerned in the novel, it is writtenl in such as way as to be readable by anyone, from anywhere. When I asked him who he wrote for, who was his audience, Dr. Sugunasiri wrote this:

SS: “Frankly, I wrote the novel for myself. . . The story just came to me. Just as in poetry, when whole lines, or whole verses, even nuances appear on my mind’s screen. Not in all its refined form, for sure, but bits and pieces. Mind you, I enjoy writing. Perhaps I’m not market-savvy, or income-conscious, which is why I thought of the audience only after finishing writing.

It is perhaps when in this frame of mind that it occurred to me that, as it appears on the cover, it was going to be “My 75th year gift to humanity”. So in a literal sense, my audience is all of humanity.

However, it is possible that this wider audience was in my mind in writing the novel. Despite the fact that critics have located my novel, correctly of course, in Sri Lanka, there’s not a name that sounds Sinhala, or Tamil for that matter. I use them in translated form or have adapted them to bring out the flavour of the character. This was to specifically keep the novel from being attached to one or the other ethnically, which would immediately shut out a wide spectrum of readership. So for that reason I made the novel ‘generic’, or rather ‘non-ethnocentric’. The story is one that can take place in any society, at any historical time. In other words, it is generalized, even though, of course, it has to happen in some human society or the other. So the story being located in Sri Lanka should not take away from the generality.

But ‘humanity’ is a vast concept. So there has to be, for pragmatic reasons, a narrowing. So, while it is generally for the English-speaking literary world, including, of course, Sri Lanka, since I have been living in Canada for nearly five decades now, the Canadian reader can be said to be the primary audience. After all, the narrator of the story, Swadesh, is a true blue Canadian!

Of late, I’ve come to think of the younger generation readers as a possible and fruitful target audience. Thanks to colonialism, and other factors, the present generation of students of Sri Lanka seem to know pathetically little of the country, just as in the case of Tangamma. And there’s now a large number of Sri Lanka students going to private English schools in the country, and of course, there are the ones in the diaspora. So I thought they might well benefit from the novel.

Ambassadors may be another interested group of readers. Given that the novel covers a period of over 2500 years, could there be a more enjoyable way of learning about the country without going to history books written by academics?”

As indicated, Dr. Sugunasiri’s novel is not only transnational but is also trans-temporal, bridging 2500 years of history through re-imagined and retold myths and traditional stories. This is, perhaps, why he hopes that in the long term, the novel will be readable “for all people at all times, turning it into a universal classic.”

3. Quotations

Have you ever picked up a book about Buddhism in the “Eastern Religions” section of a bookstore, opened it, read a portion and thought “which sutta (sutra) is this from, because I know it is from a Buddhist sacred text but the author doesn’t provide the reference?!” Such lack of references really rankles me. So imagine my delight when, in a fiction novel, I find well referenced quotations! Each section of the novel begins with a quotation from the Dhammapada, and he even provides the verse number. For example, “Book the First: Growing” bears the quotation:

“Ah, so pleasantly we live/ Without affliction among the afflicted./ Among humans with affliction/ Do we dwell without affliction. – Dhammapada, 198.”

There are many more types of quotations or nods to literary works throughout the novel, and each one is referenced in some way, either directly, through dialogue or narration. And every quotation or reference to a real piece of writing is woven into the storyline so well that the reader experiences the intricate embedding of real events and texts into the fictional story in a seamless way.

2. Language Exploration

In keeping with his goal of writing a novel that has universal themes and appeal, Dr. Sugunasiri explores language in a universal way as well. Not only are names made familiar to English-language readers, but names of individual characters are changed with the character’s transformation. So, for example, Tangamma is the original name of the untouchable woman at the heart of the odyssey, and she is referred to lovingly as Tangi by her husband. Then, when she becomes a Buddhist nun, she takes the name Venerable Karuna. Likewise, Tangamma’s husband and the central character of the story, Milton, changes his name to Milinda with his developing nationalism.

Further exploration into language is plain in the story, since the main theme of the novel is “personal transformation in the context of a changing post-colonial society.” Many of the characters use English, the colonial language, as their means of communication because they have not learned the traditional de-Leonese or de-Andhrese. But the best example of language exploration in the novel is through the character Milton, who made his living as a writer in English and as a literary critic of European works. As Milton transformed into Milinda, he found himself wondering why he never learned Sanskrit or Pali. At one point in the novel, Milton says:

“I can’t live with my conscience any more, Tangi. In my blindness to monkey English, I forgot what my father stood for. Equality of the languages. I pushed back from my memory that he earned unequal pay for equal work only because he did not speak the colonial language. I thought that was the price to pay for progress” (page 219).

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is a fine example of how the languages we use to communicate with the world around us are powerful pieces of our identity construction and serve as points of orientation in the many cultural contexts through which we all navigate.

1. Men writing the feminine

I am always impressed when men write in the voice of women, and Dr. Sugunasiri has done just that. He has created a very likeable female character, Tangamma, who goes through many transformations in her life, from an untouchable to a wife and mother, to a student, to a Buddhist nun (Venerable Karuna). In part of our discussion he spoke about the development of this character as a form of Buddhist practice.

SS: “Writing Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey could be said to be, in hindsight, a form of Buddhist practice on my part. It’s a novel, again as noted by critics, that offers Buddhism as a paradigm for peace in society (see Review by Prof Emeritus of English, C. K. Seshadri of Baroda University). Critics have also noted how the heroine Tangamma is a model of peace, and calm (meaning level-headed), though bubbling in life. As sharply observed by a Sinhala woman critic, Tangamma is not the classical unhappy wife seeking freedom from it all. She dons the robes not because she is unhappy with life or with her husband, but because she can see the qualitatively deeper happiness and calm of the higher religious life. In that sense, she’s the model Buddhist woman. And she’s also the wife that has earned the respect of a husband in a Buddhist society. She is as well the caricature case study that speaks to the Buddha’s words, “Not by birth is one an untouchable”. She’s the untouchable pragmatist (using ‘untouchable’ here to mean ‘unstoppable’), untouchable smarty pants, untouchable culture buff, untouchable language learner, untouchable husband-transformer, untouchable self-emancipator. So in many ways, she speaks again to the next line “ … by action alone does one come to be of nobility” (Brahmin).

So I suppose such a character coming to be created by my hands could be called Buddhist practice. For it upholds womanhood, as in the Buddha’s model: ‘mother and father’, and not the other way around. Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey also speaks to the respectable way women are treated – by husbands, family and society, in Buddhist-Sri Lanka . It was no accident, for example, that the world’s first woman Prime Minister was Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka.”

—————-

So there you have it – my top five things I enjoyed about Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri’s novel Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, a truly “extraordinary first novel” in the words of Professor of English Chelva Kanaganayaka of the University of Toronto [review is here]. If you have a chance to read the story yourself, I would love for you to add to the list! And if you want to read more about the novel, you can read other reviews of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey posted on my last blog post.

* My friend and colleague Rachel Brown, Ph.D. Candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, is currently working on a dissertation focused on Maghrebine Muslim transnational food practices. Because of recent discussions with Rachel, I am becoming more aware of the interconnections between food practices and religious experience.

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Currently Reading . . . UNTOUCHABLE WOMAN’S ODYSSEY by Suwanda Sugunasiri

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey (2011) is a first novel by Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri. I have been meaning to post about this novel since it was first published, and am only now able to give it the attention it deserves. Why do I think it deserves attention? Well, it could be the author: Dr. Sugunasiri is a pillar of Canadian Buddhism, a cultivator of Buddhist ecumenism in Canada and founder of the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, Toronto, and Member,  Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College at the University of Toronto. It could be the fact that Dr. Sugunasiri waited until he was at a ‘mature age’ to tackle his first novel, having already written and published poetry, short stories and academic works. Or it could be that in email discussions with Dr. Sugunasiri about his novel, he has suggested that it be read in one sitting vice over a longer period of time, so as to keep intact the myth-like feeling of the narrative. I like the idea of an author’s ‘prescription for reading’! But the primary reason I am so interested in the novel is because it is both a work of Buddhist fiction and a work of post-Colonial fiction (or, Asian-Canadian fiction). This novel bridges too many genre categories to list.

Dr. Sugunasiri has graciously provided me with press release information about the novel (see below) so that Buddhist Fiction Blog readers can decide if they wish to read alongside me. I will be posting an email discussion with Dr. Sugunasiri about Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey before the end of November.

Press Release Oct 25 2014
REVIEWS & PERSONAL COMMENTS ON
Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey
by Suwanda Sugunasiri

Untouchwoman_Cover-195x300

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey offers both a deeply moving love story of a couple divided by caste and ethnicity, and a brilliant evocation of  the country’s ancient, mythic and religious past over two and a half millennia.  The story comes alive  within a wholly convincing fictional landscape that serves as the stage for a witty and informative dramatization of the modern,  post-colonial struggle for freedom and independence in a country in South Asia.   Frank Birbalsingh, ProfessorEmeritus of  English, York University   (from back cover)

 (ISBN 978-0-9867198-0-6).

(Available on KINDLE or Amazon: https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B005RFUSBY. Distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Books.)

An extraordinary first novel by an accomplished poet, Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey offers a deeply insightful narrative of postcolonial Sri Lanka. Beneath the placid surface lies a tale of the challenges of modernity, the deep divisions of class and caste, and the traces of the past in shaping the present. With remarkable skill, the author moves back and forth in time, linking the present to the past, demonstrating the multiple ways in which Buddhism has shaped the contours of Sri Lankan culture. An inclusive text in the best sense of the term, the novel draws together multiple traditions to explore the pathos, paradoxes and richness of modern Sri Lanka.  Suwanda Sugunasiri’s Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is a major contribution to both Canadian and Sri Lankan literature (bold added).”  Chelva Kanaganayakam,  Prof. of English, University of Toronto.

Here are a few quotations from Reviews:

“An extraordinary first novel” (Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam, Canada). This endorsement by Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam of the English Dept., University of Toronto, Canada was amplified when the novelist was featured at the recently concluded Festival of South Asian Literature and Arts at the University of Toronto (Sept 30 to Oct 2, 2014).

Here, then, is that elaborated introduction from Prof. Kanaganayakam:

“For those of you who are familiar with the literary scene in Toronto, Suwanda Sugunasiri needs very little by way of introduction. Some of you know him as a scholar, as the author or critic who was among a small group that looked critically at what we read, at what we teach, and how we establish standards of canonicity, in literature and in social relations. Others might well have encountered him as an editor, as one who was instrumental, about thirty years ago, in putting together an anthology of Sri Lankan literature for the Toronto South Asian Review.        

            For many of us, however, he has been a notable poet, who, in three volumes of poetry, wrote on a range of themes with insight, balance, and lyrical beauty. This is not the occasion to talk at length about his poetry, but I would like to point out that what you see in his poetry is what I have called elsewhere, a wonderful spirit of accommodation, generosity, compassion and good humor. Let me also point out, long before all this, he was a writer of short fiction and an actor and dancer in Sri Lanka.

            Why, then, did he not write fiction, or more specifically, a novel? That was because he was saving the best for the last. When his novel came out at the end of last year, it was the result of almost a decade of preparation. The sheer scope of the novel tells you of the years of labor that went into this work of fiction, titled Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. It is in many ways an odyssey, although the irony and paradox inherent in the title is difficult to miss. Epics are usually reserved for touchables and untouchables are the subject of tiny asides and inconsequential subplots. Here it is an untouchable woman who is the central focus of a tale that is grounded in postcolonial Sri Lanka but one that is also framed by centuries of history. Gods, mythological figures, ancient religious and literary texts, works written in Pali and in Tamil, all converge in the making of this untouchable woman and this very relevant text.

            I speak about relevance, because, despite all its allegorical trappings, there is never any doubt in the reader’s mind that the novel is about postcolonial Sri Lanka, particularly during those crucial few decades from the time of independence to the recent past. If you take the trouble to decode the novel – and that can be done very easily, there is a world of social and political history hidden within it. Major political figures and social activists appear and disappear, telling us that this is a novel about a particular time and place. Let me also point out that the novel does not use politics as a peg to anchor the fiction. It has now become trendy for a number of novels to use political events as markers in very naïve fashion to ensure a certain kind of appeal. Such works tend to be predictable and often simplistic. In Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey the political backdrop occurs quite naturally in a social fabric where the political is both necessary and inevitable.

            I mentioned earlier the significance of writing an epic in prose. Typically, epics need climactic moments. With all their digressions and repetitions, epics tend to move towards a culminating point, a battle, an epiphany, or a union of one kind or another. This novel does away with that technique. The lives of ordinary people do not necessarily involve melodramatic moments. I must confess that when I first read the novel I waited and waited for a dramatic turn of events, but that did not happen. The novel works so well not in spite of that, but because of that. Since there is no single moment to draw our attention, we are struck by the entire canvas, by all those moments that cohere and lead to a unity of vision.

            In a review of the book, I call the novel an inclusive text, and I think the adjective needs a word of explication. In the context of Sri Lankan literature, quite often the focus has been narrow. One might speculate about why this has been the case, particularly when the literature deals with a very small country, but the fact is that novelists have tended to stay within certain ethnic frames. The reality is, however, that is not how life operates on a day to day basis. Different ethnic groups and different religious groups study together, work together, live together, and share so much in common. Divisions have been arbitrary, largely motivated by the exigencies of politics. In Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, these arbitrary borders have been erased. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians are all part of the narrative. The novel does not pretend that problems do not exist – ethnicity, religion, and caste for instance matter, such is the wonderful artifice of the novel that it pulls all the strands together in a warm, compassionate and very thoughtful tale. Herein lies its inclusiveness.

            All of Suwanda’s writing tends to have a soft Buddhist halo around it. After all he has written about Buddhism so extensively in his critical writings and is a deep believer in Buddhism. This novel too is very Buddhist in its approach to characters and events. The dimension is part of the artifice of the novel, and it works admirably well to guide the reader through a period of upheaval and uncertainty in Sri Lanka. Ultimately, it does not matter how one labels the novel: Sri Lankan, Canadian, multicultural, or postcolonial. This is a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I am sure you will, too (bold added).

An Unusual View of Life in a Universal and Timeless Narrative” (Prof. C K Seshadri, India) <http://island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article- details&page=article-details&code_title=111468>.

“…portrayal of the rustic, bucolic life in the South is authentic as it could be.” ( Shelton Gunaratne, USA).      <http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2011/05/05/novelist-unfolds-link-of- …>.

Pulsating vibrantly underneath…”; “What is genius? It can be defined in variegated ways, but the utmost genius in the field of writing could surface when an author manages to packet into 366 pages a 2500 saga of his country’s history via a story, melodramatic yet extremely touching”  (Padma Edirisinghe, Sunday Observer , Sri Lanka). <http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/06/26/mon30.asp>.

 “Tangamma is the heroine, the true woman of Asia with a practical mind, adaptable to any situation, to face any hardship, deprivation and also with the strength and the willpower..”   (Daya Dissanayake, Ceylon Daily News, Sri Lanka). <http://archives.dailynews.lk/2011/06/29/art06.asp>. 

“…incredibly cinematic, camera panning from one image to another, then zooming in..”  (Anura Bellana, Media Instructor, Canada).

I’ve just finished reading Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, and what a fine novel it is. Elegantly written, with fine characterisation, and an engrossing story deftly told.(Anthony Frewin, Novelist, UK).

…a natural writing voice, [with] the characters’ voices flowing over one another as effortless as water…. The language is lush and yet not self-conscious, evocative and      … clear.” (Award-winning novelist, on an early draft).

 “…the characters [are] compelling and realistic. The story, too, is very engrossing. Definitely intriguing and moving…a well-woven and well-told story….” (Senior Editor of a Publishing House, on an early draft).