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No more an island


ASHOK FERREY: Creating a market for English fiction in Sri Lanka

Mathematician, failed builder, a lecturer on architecture, personal trainer to Sri Lanka's rich and famous, TV show host and the island nation's best-selling author - wearing all these hats with ease, Ashok Ferrey doesn't lack for material to write about. Ferrey's first book Colpetty People (2004) was a rollicking collection of short fiction that gave searingly funny glimpses into Sri Lankan society. It remains the biggest selling book of English fiction by a local author writing in Sri Lanka. His second book, The Good Little Ceylonese Girl (2006) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize that year. Love in the Tsunami, a collection of Ferrey's writing, was recently published in India. The author spoke on the sidelines of the recent Mountain Echoes literary festival in Bhutan.

You grew up in East and West Africa,
finished your education in England, and then moved to Colombo. How do these places show up in your writing?

I am not the sort of writer who can pluck a story out of thin air, or get inspiration from the Internet. What I have absorbed throughout my life gets cooked up in my subconscious and dished out in the stories, quite frequently without my being aware of it. So in that sense my travels have shaped my work. I also think that living in different cultures sharpens your perceptions of human nature - it is amazing how different the picture looks, if you shift your viewpoint even just slightly.

When did you first start writing? What did you write about?

I first started writing up at Oxford, where I was reading, God help me, for a degree in Pure Mathematics. I wrote about Africa (where I was living then). The two lives couldn't have been more different - perhaps the writing was a way of escape from one into the other. I left Oxford with a very bad Third in Maths (I think those days if you managed to write your name at the top of the exam paper they gave you a Third. ) I was supposed to become an actuary, but with my bad degree this was plainly not possible. Added to that, I didn't have a visa to live in England. So I did what lots of young Asians did then - I went underground.

There was a whole sub-culture out there which depended for its existence on the exploitation of young people like me. To cut a long story short, I worked as a builder's labourer, going on to become a property developer during the Thatcher years, came back to Sri Lanka where I designed and built more houses, and then became, by total accident, a personal trainer.

What are the themes, events or milieus you see yourself writing about
again and again?

What continues to intrigue me is the theme of 'the êmigrê' who has lived in so many countries that he is a fish out of water in all of them: there are so many of us in that position, never entirely at home anywhere in the world.

Where, from your viewpoint, does
contemporary writing from Sri Lanka stand today? Which languages do most people write and read in?

There is a renaissance of reading and writing in English today - helped hugely by home-grown writers like Shehan Karunatilleka. Till now, the only Sri Lankan writers 'of note' were ones who had gone abroad to practise and refine their craft. Most people still choose to read and write in Sinhala and Tamil, our local languages, but I hope and pray that this is now changing, and that English is emerging into the limelight. My first book Colpetty People, which holds the record, has sold (I think) 9, 000 copies - which shows you how small the market here is.

In spite of geographical and cultural proximity to India, Sri Lankan authors haven't quite broken into the Indian market - at least not as firmly as, say, Pakistani ones. Why?

I think it is very difficult for any foreigner, let alone an Indian, to get a handle on Sri Lankan society: we are so layered - I've said this before - four major world religions, innumerable castes and races, and quite a deep level of 'Westernisation' thanks (or no thanks) to half a millennium of colonial rule, all in a tiny area. India may have all this, but on a huge scale, much less concentrated. So I think there is a resonance between India and Pakistan, which doesn't exist to such a degree between Sri Lanka and almost any other country. We just look like you, that's all.

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