Authors have their say

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In the previous weeks, we conversed with three of the four shortlisted authors for the Gratiaen Prize 2021 and here’s Rizvina Morseth de Alwis – the last of the four – sharing her thoughts on the journey of becoming a writer.

“I grew up in a family where religion, tradition, and modernity inter-mingled; sometimes with ease sometimes with conflict.” Rizvina shared, revealing how the family background has shaped her with lots of experiences, which are quintessential for a writer. Rizvina received her Bachelor’s in English from the University of Peradeniya and a Masters in Gender and Development from the London School of Economics, and then had a long career with the United Nations, starting off as a Gender Programme Specialist.

Later, she went to become the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) Country Representative for several countries in the Asia Pacific region. So until recently, Rizvina’s time has been spent as a full-time development professional and an occasional writer. However, “Now, I intend to give more attention to my writing.” She added. Rizvina has won the Fairway National Literary Award and the State Literary Award for her first novel, It’s not in the Stars.

When it comes to the part of her life where Rizvina gets into writing, she recalls how her writing was inspired by her avid reading from the early ages, reiterating the fact that writing begins with reading. “I think it’s the love of reading that inspired me and an urge to react and respond to the world around me through my writing.” Nonetheless, for Rizvina, writing always has been largely an, “Introspective exercise.

“The decision to share and publish my stories was made relatively recently,” she furthered.

 “Good writing is remembering detail. Most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.”

—Paula Danziger

Going with the quote, Rizvina has caught up the realities related to her recent experiences as a Sri Lankan but often not discussed by many in the society, by recreating the experiences in an artful manner in her book, Talking to the Sky, which ultimately was shortlisted for the Gratiaen award. “I was triggered to write this book by what was going on in the country at the time, the backlash against the Muslims after the Easter attack. So, an award was not the motivator. But when the book was nearing its end, submissions for the Gratiaen Prize also opened up. So, I seized the opportunity,” added Rizvina.

The jury’s citation for the novel establishes the author’s skill in creation of astounding pieces of literature;

“For excellence in combining the political and personal in complex and subtle ways, and for grappling in human term with the pressing issues around Islamophobia and the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, told through the vivid dual voices of mother and daughter; for the skilful manner in which suspense is maintained until the last minute through a non-linear progression of the plot.”

Talking to Ceylon Today, Rizvina also shared a brief overview of the novel with the readers who are anticipating enjoying it. “Talking to the Sky tells the story of a Muslim family caught between modernity and rising conservatism against the backdrop of growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country at the time. It is an examination of faith, family and love, and explores how different characters navigate the changes taking place within a fragmented community that seems to be leaning heavily towards Wahhabism.

“I feel thrilled, and honoured as well. I think it is a great validation and a boost to my confidence as a writer.” Rizvina expressed her true sentiments about being shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize 2021. Although, she doesn’t think that awards are essential for a writer but she claims that they are certainly helpful. “Recognition with an award or with inclusion in the longlist or shortlist can give an author more credibility as a writer and also a wider readership. Regardless of whether one wins or not the exposure is invaluable to writers, especially to new writers who otherwise may not get the spotlight.” She furthered.

Time has been the biggest challenge for Rizvina in writing. “Until recently I was working full time and was very focused on my career, so finding time was my biggest challenge. Apart from that, I think, finding beta readers in Sri Lanka who give candid feedback is a challenge. In a way, it’s understandable because I’m asking people to commit a chunk of their precious time.” She shared her experience. Nevertheless, now since she is hoping to allocate more time for her writing, we can hope for more astounding literature from Rizvina in the near future.

 “Write about what affects you or what you care about the most, even if they are difficult to confront. Like any other craft, writing also needs practice. So keep writing. Never give up.” Rizvina eventually addressed the aspiring writers who read this article.

By Induwara Athapattu