Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cry for Me a Little: Stories of the Souls by Mariam Riza.

 Its been a long time since I wrote in this blog and its not for lack of reading material, its just that I took a long break from Sri Lankan books. The Gratiaen Prize was last month and Madhubashini Ratnayake won this year but we will have to wait for at most a year until the book is published so that we can see if it is worthy or not a la Shehan Karunatilleke, Vivimarie, Ruwanthie de Chickera etc. But I have in my hands a Gratiaen shortlist from this year. At the shortlist reading at the British Council, the reader of Mariam Riza's work was so amazing that he made it a strong contender for the prize, yet now having read the whole book, I realize he could have read any of the other candidates and made them equally strong.
Mariam Riza has a lot to say and she says it bluntly. No censoring of language or situations, she addresses a multitude of situations - conflict, trafficking, drug testing on animals, and poaching are just a few. The book also traverses the globe - stories on Rwanda, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia and of course Sri Lanka are some of the countries. So it presents itself as being a sophisticated collection for the world reader.
Written in a style that is typically Sri Lankan (sloppy writing, bad grammar, wierd punctuation and capitalization) she addresses topics that are usually shunned in Sri Lankan books in a manner that is in your face. It is a style that might have worked had the author paid a little attention to details that make a book well written and above average. Having said that, I have to imagine that the Gratiaen shortlisted the book more on content and subject matter than writing style.
Most of the stories start well but then end up going nowhere or in a direction I personally did not want them to go to. The story read at the Gratiaen shortlist was titled The Smell of Roses. The direct and blunt rantings of a male gigolo peters out to become a love struck teenage like obsession that has no bite. A story titled Wrongful Imprisonment which flirts with the theme of prisoners in Guantanomo is so weakly written that you wonder what kind of President of a country has such a nincompoop working for him. After reading several stories that dealt with serious themes but failed to deliver, I began to wonder why the author would write about these topics if she didn't make the effort to ensure that the reader was moved not only by the subject matter but also by the writing.
The stories are undeniably powerful and deal with themes that are current, political, social and humanitarian but for me, the experience of reading it was frustrating with the turns and twists that some stories took that rendered them inane, and bad; and unrealistic dialogue that was featured in other stories that made them unbelievable and soppy. To cap it all off the cover, perhaps to reflect the depressing title was shaded grey depicting something I could not quite decipher so I could not even take a break from the writing to gaze at the cover and get inspired.
Mariam Riza has talent but she needs to hone it. As it is a first book a lot can be forgiven but I shall look forward to her second book and hope that it will be a lot better.