Bubbles of water boil to the surface,
grains of rice flash in and out of sight;
across the country, at this very moment,
kiri bath, milk rice, is made.
Samba, sudhuru, kekulu hal,
red and white, husked and unhusked,
cups of rice are covered by water
measured out, not by the fluid ounce,
but up to the first joint of the index finger
or halfway up a thumb.
In paddy field huts, in city
penthouses, mothers and fathers
peer into pans or blackened clay chetties,
add a clove or two, perhaps a cardamom pod.
I add cinnamon – half an inch,
no more – the way my father
used to make it.
The clouds of vapour, starch-heavy
and rich, draw up memories of
dragging heavy ploughs
under a burning sun.
It’s time to add pol kiri, coconut milk,
stirring slowly to stop rice sticking to the pan.
Its sweetness will linger on
finger and tongue.
Kiri bath, the first meal of the year, is ready.
The new year begins.
I’m not entirely sure that I can finish this interview.
Not because I’m not interested in profiling Janaka’s work, or sharing with you some of the gentle history and insight of this day-lighting doctor, moonlighting writer – but because Janaka has let me know that his first introduction as a poet, specifically in the performance of his poetry, came with the support of one half of a South Asian performance duo called “D’Archetypes”.
And I’m not recovering from the wit of that pun. In fact, I’m dying to steal it for my I-always-knew-I-could-take-Margaret-Cho comedy routine.
But I digress.
Let’s return to Janaka Malwatta, a Brisbane-based, Sri Lankan writer and poet whose work has a tender elegance, primarily set in Sri Lanka though written in English. Janaka came to poetry through performance poetry and spoken word, while at medical school in the United Kingdom. He recollects:
“On a whim, I went to see a well-established poet called John Hegley. He is a really skilled performer. The range of emotions he evoked and the immediacy of the reactions from the audience pulled me in. I started looking out for spoken word performances. I saw a South Asian duo called D’Archetypes. Their poetry was centred around issues of identity and displacement, which resonated powerfully with me. One of the duo, Shane Solanki, has become a friend. He heard a poem I’d written about a soldier, and persuaded me to perform it at a four hour show he put on, in front of an audience of about 200 folk. That’s how the performing and the writing started.”
As I have often said, thank god for puns. For now we have another fine poet in our midst.
Janaka’s work is strongly centred in the country of his birth, Sri Lanka, and it is clear to him that “the core of [his] identity is Sri Lankan”. When asked if he identified as Asian Australia, he said:
“If I’m being honest, I think Asian is far too broad a term to use. Asia is vast, it ranges from Kamchutka to the Bosphorus. I identify as a Sri Lankan writer, albeit a Sri Lankan writer who writes in English. I do think that’s an important distinction. Even at literary events held in Asian countries, it is English language writing that is promoted. There are obvious accessibility reasons behind that, but there doesn’t seem to be much effort to promote indigenous language writing, even in translation, and that strikes me as somewhat lazy and ideologically unsound. I would love to write in Sinhala, but my Sinhala is nowhere near good enough.
Coming back to identity, although the core of my identity is Sri Lankan, the truth is we all have multiple layers of identity. I’m Sri Lankan, I’m Asian, I’m European, I’m British, I’m a Brisbanite, I’m a Queenslander. I can make valid claims to all these identities. What I find interesting is that the stereotypes for each of these identities is very different, but I can lay claim to all of them. That suggests to me that our stereotypes haven’t evolved as quickly as the identities themselves.”
This ‘evolution of stereotypes’ is challenged by Janaka in a number of ways, particular when he is performing his work for others, “I think the way an audience or a reader defines you culturally is often different from how you define yourself. I appreciate that, when I am performing a poem, my identity can be confusing. There’s a British accent with the odd Australian twang coming out of a South Asian face, talking mainly about Sri Lanka. I have no idea what people make of it. I am very aware that in my writing and performance I am often presenting Sri Lanka and her idiosyncrasies to an audience which may be unfamiliar with the subject matter.”
Bringing these Sri Lankan stories to a new audience is a core motivation for his writing, and it follows that he is comfortable identifying explicitly as a Sri Lankan writer. He goes further to say, “in fact, it is an ambition to be a successful Sri Lankan writer. I find myself being introduced as a Brisbane poet, which is rather lovely. One of the (many) wonderful aspects of the poetry scene in Brisbane is its inclusivity.”
Thankfully, Janaka hasn’t found this categorisation to be problematic, something that he attributes in part to the inclusivity of the Brisbane poetry scene, and in another part “because I’ve been an outsider all my life, so I don’t really worry about how I’m perceived. The outsider’s perspective is invaluable, and is probably of greatest value when writing about Sri Lanka.”
Having moved to Australia via the United Kingdom, Janaka’s work nevertheless centres around Sri Lankan stories and experiences, which are “the biggest influence on me, and most of my writing, prose and poetry, is set there.” This life-long love affair affords him the opportunity to explore elements of his heritage, track down “old uncles and aunties and listen to their stories”, while he feels that there is an “ease and fluidity” to his writing about Sri Lanka. With regards to the United Kingdom and now Australia, he says, “I have now been in Australia long enough to start expressing my Australian experiences. I don’t find that flows quite so easily, it’s harder to write. Perhaps that will flow more easily, as I spend more time here. The UK doesn’t seem to have made much impression. I’ve written very little about my life there.”
Even as writer now based in Australia, Janaka’s relationship to Sri Lanka is fresh and current – he is not looking back to a static, historical experience of his own culture, he is still within and a part of that living experience. About this, he says:
“I have a thirst to find out more about Sri Lankan stories and cultural practices. Whenever I uncover something new, I think I come to it with a fresh eye, which helps the writing remain fresh. I have been most pleased by comments from Sri Lankan friends who tell me they learn something different about Sri Lanka from my writing. Because they have grown up in Sri Lanka, they don’t necessarily question why something is done, or find out about the stories behind our customs. I grew up in the UK, so I have something of an outsider’s perspective.”
Interestingly, Janaka works professionally as a General Practitioner, something that may seem surprising for a poet whose work deeply evokes family, home and rich, layered memory. For Janaka, this “double-identity” is easily held:
“You need raw material for poetry, for any writing. Poetry is capturing a moment, teasing it apart, and finding its essence. Our life experiences are the raw material for our writing, and my work provides fascinating material. I don’t see any conflict between those two aspects of my life, other than conflicting claims on my time. The day job consumes a huge amount of time, and leaves little time for writing.”
“Aluth Avurudda”, Janaka’s contribution to the Peril map, is pinned to his home town – the hill capital of Sri Lanka, Kandy, about the work, he says,
“Aluth Avuruddha came to me while I was stirring a saucepan of kiri bath for the New Year celebrations this April. The room was filled with the heavy scent of starch, mingled with the sweetness of coconut milk. It reminded me of my father. He would always wake up early, and have kiri bath waiting for us when we rolled out of bed. The poem is about the significance of rituals which bind a nation together. It is also about those rituals which bind a family together. For me, the poem is as much about my relationship with my father as anything else.”
I’d love to end here with a pun, but there are no puns – as far as I know – that thank someone for sharing some insight into their writing, their process and their culture – the “rituals that bind a nation” and the humble observation of the same by which we create memory and home.
Oh, and I’ve got to go write a comedy routine.
– Interview with Eleanor Jackson, Peril Poetry Editor