Sunday, June 21, 2009

China Bay Blues by Afdhel Aziz

I have two favourite Sri Lankan poets. Vivimarie van der Poorten (whom I have reviewed earlier) is one and Afdhel Aziz is the other. In this book of poetry, Afdhel Aziz crams a staggering 93 poems and one short story into his first collection of poetry. Interspersed with interesting photographs by Shehani Fernando (though if you took the photographs out, you wouldn’t have missed them), the poems are light, deep, frivolous, tender, passionate, imaginative, jazzy … let me stop there, or else I would run out of adjectives. So, what do I like about this book?
I like that China Bay Blues is modern, snappy and yet there are poems that turn my insides to water. I like that China Bay Blues has love poems written by a guy, is patriotic without being Sinhala Buddhist, and male bonding is between father and son. I like that China Bay Blues finishes with prose in the form of a short story that is to me still like a long poem.
Afdhel Aziz uses language that he is comfortable with. Don’t look here if you want village lasses, odes to ancient kings or chaste love poems. Instead you have raw sensuality: For instance:

Your naked body is silhouetted against
The bare boards of the wooden floor
as you tread softly to the window and
look at the quiet square below the window.

The line of your back
as you lean out, hiding
your skin with the curtain

Now is the time to live. (Quartert, Kandy)

It is like a scene from a movie. I can imagine the scene. And that is perhaps what I get out of each of his poems. Strong imagery that creates such a vivid scene, I can say almost say: I was there! The best part of it, is that his poetry speaks to me. It says what I want to say to lovers, parents, countrymen – just better than I could ever do.
The poems address a multitude of topics. His poem titled Patriot has this great line:

‘So will you die for your country?’
Surprised, I counter
‘Surely it is better to live for it?’

What a great concept? It takes the idea of patriotism that has been traditionally thought of in one way and turns it on its head. With Sri Lanka currently poised at the crossroads, perhaps its worth to take such an attitude towards our countrymen.
Afdhel Aziz is perhaps one of our truly modern poets writing in English. He takes everyday objects and traces the multiple lines of historical meaning. He writes about the hummingbird, about a secret garden, a tattoo, a light house, a radio song. He is obsessed about jazz. And reading his poems on jazz have made me aware of the sounds, the rhythm, the feeling:

Sweet soulful song
from shiny brass horn
fingers moving like hydra
as the notes sound high up
to the heavens

like butterflies hovering
around the wings of a sail
curved in the breeze

pursed lips, brow furrowed
in concentration, as
cheeks puff in prayer

air turns to gold
and the wind sings along
the memory of home
the echo of jazz
when Miles plays . . . (Miles away)

It has been too long since Afdhel gave us another collection of poetry. Afdhel Aziz, I await.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Colombo Streets by Thisuri Wanniarachchi

A recent trend in Sri Lanka is to start writing books at a young age. A few years ago, a fourteen year old boy wrote a thriller. It was well written if somewhat gruesome and disconcerting from one so young. The latest book in this trend is from a fifteen year old school girl. Colombo Streets, has a catchy title and a distinctive cover. The production of the book is good and inviting to the casual reader. And after seeing the launch in the newspaper I was intrigued and picked the book up. But I was soon to decide that if there is any reason to ban children from writing books, this is it.
After having read the book, and expressed my displeasure to my friends, I honestly had no intention of reviewing the book, as I thought this blog had dealt too much with bad writing and was looking around for a good book of Sri Lankan literature. But after reading the interview that Thisuri Wanniarachchi gave to the Nation newspaper, I felt that I had to write a review on both her interview and her book.
First the interview: She claims that she doesn’t like to read much and she hates reading. She implies that reading is a waste of her time and she may as well spend that time writing. Here is a piece of advice: You can’t be a good writer, unless you are a good reader. She has the audacity to admit that she has a weak vocabulary because she doesn’t read much and that people have called her writing style ‘simple’. She is under a misconception. Her writing style is not simple, it is simply bad.
Her interview goes on to say much more that is silly and trite and I wont dwell much more on that. Now onto the book.
The gist of the book is as follows: A young Tamil girl from Kilinochchi is adopted at the age of ten by a Sinhala grandmother who lives in Colombo. Favoured by the grandmother, cheekily called J- Lo, her Sinhalese adopted sister Sarah feels jealous of Indeevari. Sarah, a champion swimmer begins to feel ill and to everyone’s shock and disappointment she is diagnosed with cancer. She moves to Singapore for treatment and after some time she is sent back to Sri Lanka with no hope for recovery. Eventually, after being introduced to a charismatic Buddhist priest she is healed.
It should have been a feel good book but it wasn’t. Why was this?
According to Thisuri’s interview the ultimate message of the book apparently is to leave people with cancer a message of hope. But there were so many other messages found in the book that reduced her primary message. For instance, there were many complicated situations that needed to be handled delicately – the issue of displacement, cancer, ethnic conflict, generation gap, adoption etc. The book seemed to breeze through not tackling any issue with the sensitivity and delicacy that was warranted. In fact, the book almost trivialized all the issues it dealt with.
Unevenly handled, the book glosses over Indeevari’s situation of displacement, conflict, and adoption. The book also handled the subject of cancer carelessly, which is a disservice to those stricken with cancer and who know first hand what it is to go through a serious illness.
I would like to end on a positive note, therefore I would say that Thisuri’s use of language was modern and young and reflective of the age of the narrator.
A word of advice to indulgent parents: Encourage your children to read first, buy them books, rather than publish their book. They will thank you for it, when they are ready to write their novel as adults.