Authors have their say

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“You don’t make art to win prizes or tick a box. You do it for the plain damned satisfaction of creating something, for the nourishment it gives you – and other people vicariously through you.”

– Ashok Ferrey

In the first part of the series featuring shortlisted authors for the Gratiaen Prize 2021, Ceylon Today spoke to The Lanka Box author Ciara Mandulee Mendis. This week, we got in touch with the author of The Unmarriageable Man, Ashok Ferrey, to learn more about his journey and his thoughts on being one of the few shortlisted authors.

Beginning life as a pure mathematician with a degree from Oxford University, Ferrey ended up working on building sites in London. He returned to Sri Lanka, right before his 31st birthday, turning to designing and building houses. “Somewhere along the way I began lecturing unsuspecting students on the history of architecture, and for a couple of years I had my own TV show, The Ashok Ferrey Show. I also became a personal trainer.”

He discovered writing totally by accident, when the stress of looking after his father became too much, he shares.

Recalling the first time he found himself pouring out his thoughts and feelings through words he says, “It was such a stressful time; I remember bringing my father back in a tuk-tuk from the cancer hospital in Maharagama, putting him to bed, then going into the next room. I found an exercise book and pencil, and the first story I ever wrote poured out of me in a matter of half an hour.”

When asked if he had any idea of competing for the Gratiaen Award when he started writing the book, he says, “Not at all. It’s a cliché, though nonetheless true, that you write for yourself and only yourself.” He also furthers that if you ever succumb to the temptation of playing to the gallery you will ruin the book, “The truth is that people read your work to get a piece of you; ‘the truth of you’ is what they’re after. If you have something like the Gratiaen in your mind, you will attempt to write the sort of book that pleases critics and wins competitions, and it will be a disaster. Writing a good book is like building a good house; you do it from the inside out, never the outside in.”

Since Ferrey has been writing for almost a quarter of a century, we asked if he had won any awards, to which he says, “I had been nominated for eight awards in various parts of South Asia, and never won a thing.” He further notes, “You don’t make art to win prizes or tick a box. You do it for the plain damned satisfaction of creating something, for the nourishment it gives you – and other people vicariously through you. If you then happen to win an award, that is the icing on the cake. I have to say that this particular cake has never been iced! But you know me, I love my cake.”

When questioned about what he thinks of the awards and if they are essential, he confesses, “They probably are,” because they drag little-known authors into the limelight. “They might encourage young people, perhaps, to pick up a pen. They are also society’s way of showing that it cares about art and artists; that what we do matters, in however small a way. This has never been more important than now, when the whole country is up in flames. It is hugely important for art to fly its flag, to remind people that they don’t live by bread alone. Then there is the incontrovertible fact that most art is a solitary occupation, practised by hugely sensitive people, with hugely fragile egos! A little compliment, a little validation never hurt anyone. And that is what an award bestows.”

Now that he is among the few authors who had been shortlisted, he says he is, “Hugely thrilled,” It is a very high-powered long list this year; two former Gratiaen winners, three former nominees, “So if this is as far as I go, I am utterly happy!”

Don’t write just to tick a box, or to gain university admission, or because you want to be celebrated as a writer, Ashok advises. “Write because there is a physiological need inside you to write (you will only know this if you have it). Oh, and you need to have the stamina of a marathon runner, to be prepared to run for 22 years without anyone taking the slightest notice. But hey, just remember; if this idiot can do it, any idiot can!”

By Induwara Athapattu and Khalidha Naushad