Internationally famous, the Ondaatje family is also a big name in the promotion and encouragement of Sri Lankan English language literature. Credit must go to the Gratiaen Trust, named after Doris Gratiaen, mother to the Ondaatje siblings.
The Trust has operated since 1993, dedicated to the support of English language creative writing in Sri Lanka. It is funded by Canadian Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winnings for The English Patient.
From over 50 manuscripts submitted annually for the Prize, there is a short list event with readings in April, followed by announcement of the winner in May. Over 200 people attend the party to talk about reading and literature in a celebratory atmosphere.
As long time Canadian resident of Colombo, School Principal (The Study), Jill Macdonald, says, “it’s a far cry from the initial musing aloud in 1993 when Michael Ondaatje in the company of a few people talked about getting the prize going”.
The Trust’s prize of Rs 200,000 is not enormous but its impact matters in terms of visibility and credibility. The process is highly competitive and brings the author into the company of previous winners, many of whom have important followings.
A particularly successful winner, The Road to Elephant Pass, by Nihal de Silva, had eight editions and was made into a popular movie. Other well known Gratiaen prize winners include Carl Muller and the beloved children’s author, Sybil Wettasinghe. Gillian Ratnayake, Michael and Christopher Ondaatje’s sister and former trustee of the Gratiaen Trust, has her own favourite Tissa Abeysekera’s Bringing Tony Home.
Besides its founder, the Trust has other Canadian connections, including that current Trust Chair, Professor Walter Perera, is an alumnus of the University of New Brunswick.
The Three Wheeler Publications, inspired and funded by Michael Ondaatje, funds trilingual translations of Sri Lankan literature.
Michael Ondaatje’s speech when launching the Gratiaen Trust acknowledged the difference money and visibility could make to a national literary capacity. He spoke of the need to have a “voice of a country that is not English or American” recognizing that there was a need to “find our own place” so that “we are no longer invisible” and the “self is doubled”. He recognized that this surely happened in other countries and cited the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salmon Rushdie as examples. Canadians could argue for their own home-grown authors too.
Gillian Ratnayake points out that “the arts are not like politics where the winner takes all; the arts are a true democracy”. Being a Gratiaen Prize nominee is nearly as important as being a winner for book sales and readers.
Galle Literary Festival – Canadian content
Perhaps there is a causal linkage between the Gratiaen Prize and the annual Galle Literary Festival (GLF) founded in 2007. One of the Festival’s aims is to put Sri Lankan writers on a better footing vis-a-vis their international counterparts.
In 2010 and 2011 the GLF was curated by award-winning Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai, himself Sri Lankan born. The author of Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea used his Canadian connections to ensure a strong Canadian contingent attended the GLF, including Randy Boyagoda (The Governor of the Northern Province and Beggar’s Feast), whose Sri Lankan parents emigrated to Canada a few years before his birth.
Royal Ontario Museum – South Asian and Sri Lankan content
A Canadian friend, newly arrived in Colombo and hearing about the Gratiaen Prize of Michael Ondaatje made the observation that the family is remarkable for having given culturally both ways, to Canada and to Sri Lanka. Not only is Christopher Ondaatje an author who has written stories set in Sri Lanka and others drawn from his experience working in Canada and abroad, but he is perhaps better known as an arts benefactor. The Sir Christopher Ondaatje South Asia Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has received generous funding to educate Canadians on South Asia’s diverse communities. Gifting seems to be in the family blood.