Creating a True Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry

by Manan Kapoor

Out of Sri Lanka: Tamil, Sinhala, & English Poetry from Sri Lanka & Its Diasporas (Bloodaxe Books) is not the first anthology of Sri Lankan poetry. It is, however, according to its editors, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Seni Seneviratne, and Shash Trevett, the “first true anthology of Sri Lankan and diasporic poetry.” To readers unfamiliar with Sri Lankan history, the word “true” might sound at first like an aspirational claim. That, however, is not that case. Tamil, Sinhala, and English have been in contention in Sri Lanka following independence from colonial rule in 1948. While linguistic segregation—exemplified by the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, which replaced English with Sinhala as the official language of the nation, leaving Tamil out—has been central to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, this anthology refuses to categorize work based on either language or location; it resists the temptation to cave to the politics of nationalism.

During the Sri Lankan civil war, fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sinhalese-dominated government from 1983 to 2009, numerous Sri Lankan poets were forced into exile; some even refused to identify as Sri Lankan after they left the country. The work of these diasporic poets, which forms a substantial part of the anthology, reveals their complex relationships to a home lost to conflict and reflects on the ever-shifting nature and meaning of the word home. On the other hand, the work of Sinhala, Tamil, and English poets who remained in Sri Lanka sheds light on what it means to live through a civil war; how the lines between “good” and “evil” are, more often than not, blurred; and the importance of bearing witness to violence. In their introduction, the editors note that they chose “an alphabetical ordering that creates serendipitous connections” to allow “poetries from different subject-positions [to] find a way of living alongside each other,” which also erases the possibility of a biased selection or order.

The trueness of this anthology lies not just in its celebration of Sri Lanka’s multilingual traditions, but in its recognition that poets writing about the country in various languages and from different locations can converse and, at times, speak as one. As we move from one poet to the next, we come across disparate voices that draw from and challenge literary traditions going back as far as the Sangam period. The freedom that arises from the lack of categorization allows for an interweaving of various timelines and trajectories. Out of Sri Lanka forces readers to experience the effects of Sri Lanka’s colonial past and its post-independence civil war like a tonal montage.

In “Don’t Talk to Me about Matisse,” Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, who writes in Sinhala as well as English (although he considers writing in English “cultural treason” and so aims to make his writing “entirely immoralist and destructive”), reflects on colonial subjugation through Henri Matisse’s “Odalisques” and Paul Gaugin’s portrayal of his “native” wife Teha’amana:

Talk to me instead of the culture generally—
how the murderers were sustained
by the beauty robbed of savages: to our remote
villages the painters came, and our whitewashed
mud-huts were splattered with gunfire.

In “Luis de Camoes,” Wikkramasinha excavates Camoes’s 1572 epic “Os Lusiadas,” which celebrates Portugal and the discovery of the sea route to the Indian subcontinent by Vasco da Gama—one of the narrators of the poem—only to bury it again:

de Camoes! A poem contains nothing
but the bones of the dead.
& the bones of the dead, my friend,
do not last forever.

The next poet we encounter is Richard de Zoysa—born to Sinhalese and Tamil parents and murdered for his association with Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a Marxist militant organization. In “Animal Crackers,” using the motifs of lions (which represent the Sinhalese people), tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam was the militant separatist group fighting for Tamil liberation) and references to the hunter, naturalist, and colonial officer Jim Corbett, he writes about Black July, the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983:

‘Draw me a tiger.’
Vision of a beast
compounded of Jim Corbett yarns
and Blake
stalks through my mind, blazing Nature’s warning, black bars on gold.

You turn and draw the gun
on me, as if to show
that three-years-old understands force majeure and as you pull the silly plastic trigger
all hell breaks loose: quite suddenly the sky
is full of smoke and orange stripes of flame.


In the course of three poems, we sift through five centuries of history. The absence of linguistic or chronological categorization takes us beyond the poets’ identities and invites us to read poems based not on the poets’ political or linguistic affiliations or their backgrounds but on how they bear witness to violence and the ways it echoes through the ages.

Most literary anthologies are shadowed by their conscious or unconscious exclusions. The editors of Out of Sri Lanka acknowledge that the volume is not “a full and comprehensive survey of poetry out of Sri Lanka since 1948,” but some of their omissions are deliberate. They have excluded poems that involve “cheerleading violently for one side or the other: boosting, that is, either Sinhala majority governments, or the LTTE.” On the other hand, by including poems that have been out of print and others, like the poems of V.I.S. Jayapalan, which have been translated from Tamil and Sinhala for the first time, Out of Sri Lanka fulfills an important, and sometimes overlooked, function of poetry anthologies, which is recovering works from obscurity.

Out of Sri Lanka also makes space for those who arrived in Sri Lanka after Independence. Anne Ranasinghe is a poet who, after fleeing the Holocaust, migrated to Sri Lanka after marrying a Sinhalese and found a home after losing one. In “At What Dark Point” she bears witness to the events of 1983, as well as those that took place four decades earlier in Nazi Germany, and speaks of the inescapable, cyclical nature of violence and the anxieties that haunt those who survive:

I know
That anything is possible
Any time. There is no safety
In poems or music or even in
Philosophy. No safety
In churches or temples
Of any faith. And no one knows
At what dark point the time will come again
Of blood and knives, terror and pain
Of jackboots and the twisted strand
Of rope.
And the impress of a child’s small hand
Paroxysmic mark on an oven wall
Scratched death mark on an oven wall
Is my child’s hand.

Out of Sri Lanka features a wide variety of verse forms. Pireeni Sundaralingam’s “Times Two” is a “found poem based on reports on Sri Lanka from The New York Times and The Times (London)” while in “Neruda’s Last Word(s): to the woman who collected his shit,” S. Niroshini uses language from Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs where he describes raping a “Tamil of the pariah caste” between 1929 and 1930:

It was the dutiful ceremony                            of an indifferent queen
an ignoble routine never repeated          she was right    to despise me
The most beautiful woman                                   yet seen in Ceylon
completely unresponsive                          it was the coming together
of a man and statue                          her eyes wide open all the while

Sahanika Ratnayake’s “Case Study #1: Vocabulary Lesson” is an example of her “memoiristic” verse:

Once upon a time, there was a man with a self like a house frame of dark wooden beams. High ceilinged and sparse. I did not know what the years, or life, had done to make such a thing of simplistic beauty, sunlit and holy.

I did not know then that it was possible to maim oneself like this.

There are the things we do to ourselves. The things that are done to us. The things that are.

Outside the works of Michael Ondaatje, Sri Lanka rarely features in discussions in Western literary circles, and its literature has been largely neglected in the West. In recent years, however, there seems to be a newfound interest in Sri Lankan literature—Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North and Shehan Karunatilaka’s Seven Moons of Maali Almeida are a testament to that. Out of Sri Lanka puts in conversation Tamil, Sinhala, and English poets from the country, as well as poets in exile and those writing from the UK, America, Canada, and Australia.

The anthology challenges our assumptions about national literature and envisages a time when voices from all these loci will perhaps get the attention they deserve. Poetries of the Global South are “often read reductively—not as art,” write the editors, who add that there are “multiple creativities on show here, often in poems that simultaneously challenge and pleasure the reader.” This anthology invites us to read these poems for what they have to say and also to take pleasure in their eloquence, eccentricities, and vigorous and masterful experimentation—to draw from these poems all they have to offer.

Published on December 5, 2023