Many writers try to tackle world peace and other such issues in literature, hoping to make a change in a peaceful fashion. The subject is heavy and serious but Ashley Halpè made it very engaging and interesting at the same time during his speech on March 19. Halpè, dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, came to speak on the correlation between Sri Lanka's history of crisis and its poetry. Halpè has written literary criticism, worked in theater as an actor and director, and translated many works from Sinhalese to English. His lecture, entitled "A New Literature in English and the Experience of Crisis in Sri Lanka," addressed the impact of the country's chaotic history on its literature.
Sri Lanka, a small island off the south coast of India, was a colony of Great Britain until 1948. The two major groups involved in the recent conflicts are the Sinhalese, who make up the majority of the population and speak Sinhalese, and the Tamils, who represent a little less than 20 percent of the population and speak Tamil. Their differences increase since most of the Sinhalese are Buddhist while most of the Taimil people are Hindu.
In the past 40 years or so, mass attacks of violence have been carried out by segments of the Sinhalese population against the Tamil. The Sinhalese youth insurrection of April 1971 and the violence which followed finally culminated in riots in 1981 and more severely in the catastrophic destruction in 1983. After the 1983 holocaust, some 2,000 Tamils were left dead and about 100,000 people needed homes, clothes, household goods and food. The violence also left an economic strain of about $300 million in its wake.
Halpe opened his lecture by pointing out that writers have always worked to create a conscience in their people. Sri Lanka, coming from a colonized history to an independent state, is still in the process of adjusting. The national literature reflects these adjustments. Halpè told stories about the riots, framing the talk by saying, "We stagger from crisis to crisis; small problems ferment. When it's your family, the statistics are irrelevant. Experience is intimately real." He went on to give examples of this intimacy with the poetry he read during this lecture and his reading the next afternoon.
Halpe remarked on the irony that as Americans, we see his writing and culture as exotic, while at home, the people there see Americans as the exotic ones. The depth of perspective that Halpè has obtained over his lifetime is manifest in his writing. He has seen the violence in his own country and yet had the chance to be here in the U.S. as a professor when the March on Washington and the first draft for the Vietnam War were current. His passion for the translations of Sinhala poetry began as a task he worked on to help him get more in touch with his own culture and traditions and then it turned into something that he worked on for others.
Halpe's reading showed a wide variety of work. One could see the change toward a more rebellious and sometimes angry attitude with the severity of the writing and the iconoclastic imagery. The extremity of current events in Sri Lanka obviously influenced the writers and their works. Halpè came to explain and demonstrate how reality will affect art and he succeeded.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 18; March 15, 1996
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