‘Writers Are The Conscience Of Sri Lankan Society’
A Sri Lankan writer and translator explains why he believes art has impact and how literature is key to reconciliation and lasting peace in his country.
Author A.M. Riyaz Ahamed has published several books and many short stories in Sri Lanka. He is a firm believer in the idea that reading can affect transformation and in particular, in Sri Lanka, that it can help bring about peace and reconciliation. The writer and translator, originally from Batticaloa, explained why in an interview with The Catamaran.
The Catamaran: You seem to be confident that peace can be attained through literature and through the arts and culture. But how?
A.M. Riyaz Ahamed: Peace cannot be brought about by force and it begins with mutual respect; respect for the other. That connects with respect for the dignity of people of different cultures, ideologies, castes, ethnicities, genders, educational levels, and sexualities.
I believe that in Sri Lanka everything should be in three languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Literature contributes with writing about these other people because a good work of literature allows people to travel in another’s shoes. This journey gives them knowledge about other points of view. The reader will be strengthened by this, as will their character.
Literature has the potential to change people’s minds, minds that have perhaps not been changed for decades. It enlightens us.
The Catamaran: In 2006 you were involved with an event called Peace Through Literature.
Ahamed: It was a one day event sponsored by Eastern University and a Canadian development organisation. Many important authors spoke about attaining peace through literature. There was a great exchange of ideas and opinions even though the country was experiencing civil war at the time.
The Catamaran: You are from a Muslim-majority village but you chose to study at a Tamil-dominated university, and at a time when ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka were peaking. How did you deal with this?
Ahamed: I was not unusual. It was the same for many others. And I didn’t think about it that way. There were many teachers who helped me read widely. I also respected the culture and customs of the Tamil people, as well as their literature. And they respected mine in return.
Because of my involvement in theatre I had to travel a lot and I attended temple festivals and village parties. This led to even more mutual understanding, even at the very peak of the conflict here.
The Catamaran: And why do you think that translation helps achieve peace?
Ahamed: It helps facilitate communication, so that we can better understand others ideas and opinions. A good translator has empathy for the author and the author’s language.
Translation can help to move toward accountability and reconciliation because it gives others the opportunity to know about other ways of living, and other societies.
I believe that in Sri Lanka everything should be in three languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English. Sometimes authorities get involved in deciding what should be translated and what should not and this is negative.
Writers are the conscience of society. When their works are translated, it makes it possible for people to understand what others are thinking. It is then that hearts and minds can be won over to long term reconciliation.