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
Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey
by Suwanda Sugunasiri


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: 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) < 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).      < …>.

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). <>.

 “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). <>. 

“…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).

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