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That's it...

No more changes
Prashani Rambukwella. Pictures by Dushmantha Mayadunne

When Prashani Rambukwella won the Gratiaen prize for Mythil's Secret, it drew a plethora of responses. For some it indicated the inevitable deterioration of literary standards. Some observed it as a positive trend: the young talent is recognised. And some looked down on the judgement: how can a fairytale book clinch the Gratiaen attention? Whatever said and printed, that is now history. In this litchat, Sachitra Mahendra inquires her about other literary matters.

Q: Why do you write?

A: This is a difficult question to answer. I suppose I write because I have stories zooming around in my head and they won't stay still unless I pin or write them down - so I suppose I write to have some peace of mind. I also write and try to convince others to write because I don't think the world has enough Sri Lankan stories by Sri Lankans in English that talk about our experiences. When the story of a boy who thought he could see yakas popped into my head I knew I had to start writing. And when I finished the first book - Mythil's Secret - the characters didn't go away. They stayed on and I knew there was a second book swooping around in my head. That's what turned into Asiri's Quest. I think there's a third story gliding around too but I am in no hurry to start writing it just now. It is only just testing its wings as yet.

Q: What is your muse?

A: My muse is the person who is different. The little girl who gets big red crosses on her dictation book because she was too busy dreaming to pay attention in class. The boy on the fringe of the circle hoping he won't be the last one to be picked for the game - again. The young woman in office who despairs when her team vetoes her idea - and then praises her male colleague who makes the same suggestion five minutes later. The main characters in both Mythil's Secret and Asiri's Quest are people who look at their communities from the outside. They're inspired by people I meet and situations I find myself in.

Q: What kind of books do you like to read most?

A: When I was growing up I couldn't get my hands on a lot of good young adult (YA) fiction. Today it can be a lucrative niche for a writer - as long as you're not a Sri Lankan writer, writing in English! So I quite enjoy dipping into YA books - I think in some ways they are more imaginative than books for adults. I also like magico-realist books and fantasy fiction. In years past when I had more time on my hands I wasn't very selective about the kind of books I read but these days I have to be simply because being a full-time mum in full-time employment doesn't leave you with a lot of time for reading.

Q: What are your favourite books?

A: Generally I am quite omnivorous when it comes to books and it is difficult to pin down favourites. Some of the books I have been reading or rereading recently are by Cornelia Funk, Diana Wynn Jones, Jonathan Stroud, Sally Prue and Ursula le Guin but this is an incomplete list. If I had time to kill I would not be bored if I had Turn of the Screw, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Sam's Story, God of Small Things or Unhooking the Moon with me - again, not an exhaustive list of favourite books by any means.

Q: What have you got to tell the worst critic of yours?

A: Please first read my books - don't just judge them by their covers. Now tell me how I can do better next time because I do really want to know. Constructive feedback is very important to me. Before both Mythil's Secret and Asiri's Quest were published (in 2009 and 2013 respectively) I first sent the manuscripts to a trusted inner circle of friends and experts for their comments. Then I sifted through the feedback and made adjustments based on what I felt were valid points. No matter what profession you're in I think there's always more to learn - more the world and its weird and wonderful inhabitants can teach you.

Q: Looking back, do you wish if you could edit your first book a little more?

A: I am forever fine-tuning the copy when it is in manuscript form - until the publisher says, 'That's it! No more changes!' But after that I consciously avoid looking at it critically. My thinking is -I can't change it any more after it is published so I might as well let it be. The only way to move forward is to write a better second or third book! Mythil's Secret won the Gratiaen Award but in many ways the second book, Asiri's Quest is a more complex story involving two narrators and a step back in time to 1940s Ceylon.

Q: What is your opinion about literary awards?

A: I think they are fantastic and necessary simply because they get us thinking about what makes a good book - or at least that is what they should be doing. If we're just rooting for a book that was written by someone we know or we're angrily denouncing a book because it was written by someone we didn't know we're defeating the purpose of an awards festival. I think Michael Ondaatje said it best. He envisioned the Gratiaen Awards as an opportunity to, "...celebrate and test and trust ourselves. To select and argue about the literature around us. To take it seriously, not just to see it as a jewel or a decoration."

Q: Out of the award-winning books and popular books, which category do you prefer?

A: There are many award-winning books out there that I love and others that I really can't get into - not because I think they were ill-judged but simply because no two people see the world/a story in exactly the same way. So I enjoy stories that are award winners, best-sellers and also obscure and unheard-of - stories that resonate with me.

Q: Have you got any special reading habit -- like reading while eating?

A: When I was younger I had a habit of slipping a storybook into the middle of a text book so that it looked like I was studying... but other than that no special habits I can think of. Reading Enid Blyton books always made me hungry. She would put so many details about the kind of picnics or midnight feasts her characters were having (of course she was writing during and immediately after WW II when good food was scarce so this was understandable) - that I found it impossible to read without some kind of snack. But books like Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye or Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Jude are so bleak that no matter how compelling they are I just want to read through them quickly. I read when I can. Sadly I cannot read in a moving vehicle as it makes me feel quite sick, so I enjoy the scenery instead.