“Mirrored Images” focuses on Sri Lankan poetry written since 1948, in Sinhala, Tamil and English

In 2007, the National Book Trust brought out “Bridging Connections”, an anthology of Sri Lankan short stories edited by Rajiva Wijesinha, a member of the Sri Lankan Parliament, and a distinguished writer and academic.

Spurred by its success, they considered bringing out a companion anthology of Sri Lankan poetry. After hesitating initially, Wijesinha agreed to edit this volume as well. Launched recently in the Capital, “Mirrored Images” contains selections from English poetry as also translations from Sinhala and Tamil poetry into English. It includes works by some of the island country’s most respected poets, such as Cheran, Jean Arasanayagam, Richard Zoysa, among several others.

Having been associated with literary journals, and edited an earlier anthology of English modern Sri Lankan poetry in English, Wijesinha was dealing with familiar territory when it came to poets writing in English. But since he was keen on having a selection that spoke for all of Sri Lanka, he relied on the “assistance of friends and the extraordinary kindness and enormous erudition of strangers”, especially for the sections that deal with Sinhala and Tamil poetry. Each section is accompanied by an introductory essay which traces the major currents of writings in that language.

While the traditions of Sinhala and Tamil poetry go back several centuries, English poetry in Sri Lanka is a modern phenomenon. The first collection of Sri Lankan poetry in English was published as recently as 1988 by the British Council. The reason for this, according to Wijesinha, is the indigenous language policies, pursued by all political parties, often at a great cost to society.

“Sri Lanka is the only country that gives a good secondary school qualification, that doesn’t demand a second language…In India you have to have two. In Sri Lanka you can pass with only Sinhala or only Tamil. It’s appalling,” says the writer. As a consequence of this, writing in English, for a very long time, invited stigma. Things started to change after Michael Ondaatje instituted The Graetian Prize for writing in English, after winning the Booker Prize for “The English Patient”

“From the 1950s to the 1990s you were looked down upon if you were writing in English…Now it’s less looked down on, but the problem is when it’s become less unfashionable, the market has dropped because most youngsters don’t read in English. So the present spate of Graetian prize winners is very esoteric, they deal with Colombo high society, and are not accessible to readers in the rural areas. Although there’s no stigma now, there’s much more of a class barrier,” he says.

The focus of the collection is on poetry written since the independence of Sri Lanka, in 1948. “Though I have included a few very recent poems, I have tried in the case of all three languages to highlight trends, and this has meant greater concentration on particular periods in which there were significant developments in the different fields,” he writes.

Upheavals, in the form of the youth insurrection of 1971, the ethnic tensions of the 1970s and 80s, have nourished literatures in all languages. Wijesinha has himself authored a trilogy of novels set in the conflict. Along with responses to the political developments, however, the poets in the anthology also explore a whole spectrum of emotion.

The anthology is a literary exercise, but in its scope and selection, it is also a political one. “I hope that this volume contributes to the development of a common Sri Lankan identity, which can appreciate and celebrate differences whilst enhancing mutual understanding,” Wijesinha notes.