Interview with Janaka Malwatta


Janaka MalwattaAlthough Janaka Malwatta has lived in Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom and Australia, his work is often set in the country of his birth, Sri Lanka. We have previously featured Janaka’s work as a part of the Peril Poetry Map, which you can check out here, for its beautiful evocation of home and renewal. For this edition, however, Sarah Gory connects with Janaka to explore his current “passing though” home state, Queensland.

I suspect many of us define home in different ways: the place where you reside; the place where you grew up; or the place of your dreams. In prosaic terms, home is currently inner west Brisbane, because that is where I return to every day. But I think each of us carries a sense of home around with us, which is linked to a sense of comfort and belonging. In that sense, home will always be Sri Lanka. Queensland is a place I’m passing through. I enjoy Queensland, and it has been good to me, but it’s not home on that deeper almost spiritual level.

People are the buildings blocks of societies, communities, and nations. Just as no individual is unidimensional, no place, no community, no nation is unidimensional. As with our friends, we have to accept the positive and negative aspects of our communities. The beauty of Brisbane and the ugliness of Brisbane are indivisible from each other.

The poem ‘Road to Chinchilla’ is a direct reflection of the contrast between the impact of European colonisation and the indigenous relationship with the country. I don’t wish to romanticise the Indigenous versus the European experience of managing the land, and I am aware that the Indigenous community played a significant role in the extinction of megafauna, but that contrast is huge. For example, we were in the Atherton Tablelands recently. It’s salutary to realise that the entire area was rainforest until a couple of hundred years ago. Huge tracts of rainforest millions of years old have been lost forever. I do wonder what the traditional owners felt, watching it happen in front of their eyes and unable to stop it. Living in Queensland has taught me that the powerful sections of a community treat with the less powerful sections of that community on their own terms.

I think poetry is a vehicle for expressing an understanding of belonging that has already organically taken shape, rather than exploring an understanding of belonging. The core of my cultural identity is pretty well entrenched. Any changes occur at the peripheries. I now have a tepid preference towards Queensland in the State of Origin. And I do have a fondness for inner west Brisbane, for the steep hills and the stately Queenslanders of the area I live in. I hope that comes across in the Brisbane poem. I would agree that poetry is a means for exploring my understanding of place, as evidenced by the Brisbane poem and ‘Road to Chinchilla’.

Although I spend a lot of time in Sri Lanka, I’ve yet to experience it as anything like a retreat! My countless family commitments and our property mean we spend our time haring around Sri Lanka from the moment we arrive until the moment we leave. The deadline for this project occurred while I was in Sri Lanka, so I did set some time aside to write while in Sri Lanka on this trip, which is very rare. It actually worked very well. The project asked me to reflect on my relationship with Queensland, and the geographical distance was very useful in doing that. I find that I tend to write about events, which are distanced in time. I find my responses to events need to percolate for a few years before I write about them. For example, I’m just finishing a couple of poems about the 2011 floods in Brisbane. I don’t respond very quickly to events as a rule, so I don’t think it matters where I am when I write. The geographical location rarely provides immediate inspiration. If it can provide a bit of peace and quiet, I consider myself to be ahead of the game.

Our identities are the prism through which we interact with the world. Those interactions also serve to mould our identity. In Buddhism, it is said we are all a collection of mind-moments. Mind-moments are every interaction we have with the world around us using our six sense organs (the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and the mind). We are indivisible from our interactions with the world. I don’t set out to write as a Sri Lankan, as a Buddhist, as a man; but those identities bleed subconsciously into everything I do, including writing.


Sarah Gory

Author: Sarah Gory

Sarah Gory is a reader, writer, and cultural producer. She is the Director of Queensland Poetry Festival, and has previously worked with Queensland Writers Centre, National Young Writers Festival, and Oxfam Australia. She has had short stories published in The Lifted Brow and Stilts.