Kanchana Amilani is a multifaceted creative being. She is a poet, short-story writer, a journalist, blogger, and photographer. In this interview with Women Talk, Kanchana talks about her journey of storytelling, her Sinhala poetry and short-story books, how her blog Thinkland inspires and proliferates her creative writing across the cyberspace, her work as a features writer, and her engagements with technology and creative platforms in disseminating poetry and short-stories.
You are a poet, a short-story writer, a journalist, a blogger, and a photographer, involved in diverse creative platforms. First of all, how were you inspired to become a storyteller?
I loved listening to stories as a child. My father told us a lot of stories, among those were mainly fairy tales. The fairy tales he told us were new stories, which he had adapted. We did not know what the original story was. So, in school, when I was asked to tell stories I related what my father had told me. The entire class was very attentive. The teacher used to question me about these stories I was telling. I say that my father told me the story and I tell the name of the story. My teacher insisted that I was telling the wrong stories and they had also send a message home to my father. Afterwards, my father used to tell us the ‘correct’ story as well. I realized that, although the ‘true’ story was there, we could make another story out of it. When I was growing up, I used to add more elements to the story along with what my father had added to the narrative. I think that was how I was triggered to become a storyteller.
I began to write from a very young age, which continued throughout my school days. I first began with writing poetry. By the time I was doing my A/Levels, I was extensively writing poetry. I did not initially have an interest in writing anything else other than poetry.
When did you begin to pursue writing as a profession?
After I began working as a journalist, I started writing more seriously and in a professional capacity. My degree was on computer applications and I studied at the University of New Delhi. That was a very different subject and I did not write during that time. I came back to Sri Lanka and taught computer for about eight months. During that time, as if by chance, I got an opportunity to join the Lake House as a freelance writer. Only then did I realize that I had missed a major part of myself. I began to reflect on why I was even teaching in the first place. I decided to write. Then I became a more serious writer.
Your blog Thinkland or Hithanalanthaya is a space where you constantly express through poetry and short stories. How did this engagement with the cyberspace take place?
In 2010, I started my blog, also out of chance. During this time, using Unicode for blogging was not very popular. Unicode had not developed much, as an input for blogging. Then once Unicode was introduced I saw other using it for blogging in Sinhala. The main platform was Facebook. Sinhala poetry forums emerged on Facebook. I began to understand that something different was happening and developing in the cyberspace. I felt the need to be involved and I initiated the blog.
I did not have a clear idea where to start but I began with poetry. I first wrote in my blog that I discovered Thinkland (hithanalanthaya). Thinkland was a country that I found. In that country, the things I do is writing poetry and short stories.
A Sinhala blog that only contains poetry usually does not get many hits. The readership is limited. But I found that the daily hits for my blog was rapidly increasing. I achieved 1 million hits within a short time of about a year. I did a video and asked my readers, why are you reading my blog? They stated different reasons. Previously, I thought that they were visiting my blog to read short stories. But they had not visited my blog for short stories. They were after my poetry. I began to understand that something was happening with the poetry that I was writing.
What drew you towards the paper and journalism?
I joined Lake House in 2003, as a features writer of the Dinamina newspaper. I wrote on various topics from literature to science and technology. But I preferred to write on literature and films. I am also maintaining two broadsheet pages on science and technology. I have continuously edited a poetry page for about 13 years now. Apart from that I am doing various assignments for the paper.
As a features writer, what I like most about my job is that I get to meet and talk to people. I also get to observe various events and write about those. I like to write in such a way so that I am taking my readers on a journey. I am also going on a journey and I am showing what I see to my readers. My intention is to show what I saw to someone else. I think that is what a features writer needs to do. If I see certain beautiful things about this world I like to show those to someone else, even if it is by force. So, the way I think about feature writing is a bit different.
Does that style differ when you write for the cyber audience? What sort of a form of expression is the blogosphere?
I think it is completely different. When we work for a paper there are certain boundaries that are followed. That is the usual way. We cannot write whatever we want. I think I get the most freedom, as a writer, when I am writing for my blog. That does not mean that I am not bound by any principles and that I am free to write what I want. What I can do is write what I like in anyway I want. So, there is a big difference in me writing as a professional and me writing for myself.
With the blog, I truly came out as a writer. I started the blog after a short while from joining the paper. I wanted to do something different and bring out my writing on a different platform, outside the paper.
There is a Facebook group called Ewa Balawa Liyawa (come look write). It is a short-story writing group. That is where I first started writing short stories. Those short stories were different. They were concise from length. They belonged to a different genre. During that time, there was also this trend of writing very short stories and intersecting extraordinary incidents into narratives. For a writer, such an opportunity is very valuable. Writing for cyberspace and having a blog that people read is helpful to a writer to develop their writing. With the ability we had to write on the internet and the internet getting closer to people, there was a huge group of writers who came out with that. So, the cyberspace led to the birth of many writers and I believe that I am one of them.
What are the opportunities you have received for your creative work in terms of reception and progress because of your use of the cyberspace?
A blog can reach out to a massive amount of people within a very short time. What we write can get planted in various places through a blog. There are diverse ways that content of a blog gets circulated. One is through syndicators. Some readers bookmark the blogs and read them. It can be also shared through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. The outreach for my work grew with the blog.
A writer’s audience consists of a certain size. I wrote for that specific audience as well. The previous generation who I was able to touch with my writing was less. I don’t know why. Perhaps, they don’t like my style or what I have to say. So, my writing mainly proliferates among a certain limited audience, from the beginning. But I feel that this audience has been with me for a long time, continuously. They also come with that digital print I continue to leave. That is not easy to do but it can be possible for anyone.
An unknown writer, publishing her first poetry book and short story book, receiving an unexpected reception and an unpredicted audience is truly overwhelming. The cyberspace did contribute to that but my writing developed because I was writing for the paper on a daily basis. It is a contradictory thing to say but writing everyday for my profession help develop my writing. But what I wrote mainly got planted in the cyberspace.
Gammiris Kurulla and Premaye Kaarthu are published and launched together, as a short story and poetry book. What was the process that led to their publication?
I was not initially aware that I was able to write short stories. I did not believe that the stories I wrote were good. But after I posted them on Facebook forums and on the blog, I received feedback on them. I got various responses from readers I had not anticipated. Then I began to realise that perhaps there is something in these stories.
I was also undecided whether what I wrote were actually short stories and what would happen if I published them. But with the feedback I got, I was encouraged to pursue writing short stories. I published a large number in the internet. The idea of the book began to take shape in the meantime.
In 2016, I began working with Nilatha Gamage of Sayura Publications on Gammiris Kurulla, my short story collection. While we had completed all the work for Gammiris Kurulla and the campaign for that was in progress, he suggested that I also do a poetry book.
I asked a friend of mine, Himali N Liyanage to select the poems. With the short stories, I had written about 40 stories and 10 were selected for the book. All those were selected by friends.
Then I got Buddhima Perera to illustrate some doodles to accompany the stories. I wanted to let someone else tell another story within these stories.
We also did a Facebook campaign for the book and Gammiris Kurulla came out as kind of like a trademark.
It was a delight to have read Gammiris Kurulla. The stories are very unique. There are talking animals, fish swimming with axes and machine guns in their tails, there is a cat with a ribbon tied to its tail going to work… There is a cross between reality and fantasy. But is it actually about the reality?
This is the way that I chose to tell the story. I felt that it must be really boring for people to have been told the same thing in the same way over and over. I am my own test-subject in most cases. For me, it is boring to read something in a book similar to what I had heard yesterday from someone else also. How can we give the reader some enjoyment, provoke their thinking, or make them laugh? I believe that we have to give some life to the inner-self of readers. I found this missing in most texts. I want a bit of a shock from reading something. I believed that there were others who felt the same way. That is why I chose to tell stories this way.
The main influence for that was the book My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I was delighted to read that book. The way the story was told and the structure; as well as in that book the writer is laughing at himself. But the stories are quite political. He has not hidden it. If you want, you can find that meaning. So, there is a layer upon a layer. There is a surface layer to the story and there is also another meaning. It can be taken in two ways. Someone can also integrate their own interpretation into the story. That is the idea I had when I wrote.
There are also very political contexts, such as in Maalu Hatana (fight of the fish), a story based on a war between a school of fish and their foe that is imagined as an octopus.
In the short story Maalu Hatana, I try to tell a complex political story. If I used humans instead of fish for that story I would not have been able to tell it in a way that can touch readers. When we replace the humans with animals, our inability to laugh by looking at a human or the limits we have for analyzing what they are doing can be exceeded.
When you read that the fish are swimming, hiding axes in their tails, it is ironical. Within that irony, I wanted to tell people about the politics that was embedded in the very simple things in life. How our lives were completely changed because of pathetic things… I tried to talk about what was happening in the country during a specific time. It was about how certain incidents impacted people’s lives during a particular time and how people behaved with those influences.
In the short story Angaharuwaadaa Rae (Tuesday night), I wanted to show how men and women thought about life and how life impacted them in different ways. It is completely different. The woman says I am not going to wear any clothes from tomorrow onwards. I am not going to wear any clothes from hereafter. How it affects the man is completely different. When the man tells the woman the same thing how that affects her is different. I think we are walking on a wire. We may or may not fall. But how people see it is different. The only truth in life can be seen from different angles.
I am not sure if readers actually take these meanings in. It may have been dismissed as children’s literature or comedy. This is mainly because we are not used to reading such stories. We are not sent in the direction of such literature. If we are going on a main road, such literature is situated in the by-road of a by-road. No one goes in that by-road. The one who goes on the by-road is not seen by anyone. I feel that people don’t like to necessarily engage with alternative literature that is not part of the mainstream. Those who write differently are pushed into the alternative space and asked not to come towards the mainstream. Even if I may have been pushed in that direction, I wrote with the idea that I want to continue to do it.
I feel that anyone should have a writing style or a genre. Even when the writer’s name is not there and only a sentence is visible, it must be recognizable as the work of a certain writer. I wanted to be someone like that. That is why I tried to write differently. I did not form a new genre but I did form a different genre. I showed that this is also one way of writing. You must play with words as much as you can. There is no limit to what you can do with words…
Death seems to have a very comedic value in your stories and you often associate black humour into your narratives?
So, in the short story Gammiris Kurulla all these characters die in the end and there is pandemonium. I like that perplexity. Death is comedic. The birds in that story die for very pathetic reasons. I feel like the seriousness of life has left us. Even death has become a joke. Apart from dying in a war, people themselves fight and shoot each other. The lives of birds and animals are also like that. They face very unexpected extraordinary deaths. I tried to say that death itself has become a joke now. More than about life, people are concerned with beautifying death and funerals. In the stories, I like to end with a bit of a shock and turn everything inside out. So, I did kill a lot of characters because of that.
Where do you find the inspiration to write your stories and poetry?
I don’t write with a particular structure. I don’t have a plan when I write. Always, I work with an idea. A particular scene comes to my mind first. With Maalu Hatana, I first got the idea by seeing a fish tank. I saw one fish being continuously attacked by other fish in the tank. I saw this and thought what if the fish actually had axes in their tails? With that small incident, I built that entire story.
It happens from a small particle. It is like when you put a drop of paint and spread around. I don’t know whether writing without a plan is good or bad. But I cannot write within a structure. As I write the story, the characters begin to work with me. When I write the story I begin to think about what may happen to them. That is how I write. I feel like the characters in the story live with me.
These stories are also very instantaneous. These are very short stories and I haven’t spent a lot of time to write them. Some of them were typed on my phone. Some, I have typed on Facebook and posted online. Even today, I don’t feel like it is wrong to write in this way. It is as if in a trance that I write. I get an idea and begin to write and the story develops.
My mind always works with a visual. Because of that visual, I am able to describe characters. More than words perhaps it is these visuals that work with me.
You have published two poetry books Premaye Kaarthu and Boomarangaya Obe Es Deka (your eyes are a boomerang). Could you elaborate on your work in these books?
Even by the time I was publishing Premaye Kaarthu, I had written about 600 poems and only 50 were selected for that book. Even I don’t understand why I had written this many poems. Perhaps it was a feeling or expression that I needed to release that had come out as poetry. Most of these poems are very instantaneous.
By that time, I had stopped writing poems by hand. I had moved to typing on the computer. And that is very immediate writing. That is also the uniqueness of cyber writing. You get an idea, write, and publish it immediately. You don’t turn back. It is a very risky activity but at the same time something that you can really enjoy. I also get immediate feedback about how I have used words, how to develop the language, comments on the length and style. When certain dialogues are initiated I feel like the writer is immediately nurtured. It is of great value to our generation who began writing in the cyberspace. We are not writers with great patience.
In Premaye Kaarthu, there were poems covering various themes. My publisher first asked me to do a collection of love poems. In the meantime, we also included poems of other themes. The second book Boomarangaya Obe Es Deka was published two years later. Again, out of so many poems we had to select. So, we decided to do this book according to a theme. We thought of having a lifeline – we talk about a certain fragment of a person’s life within the poetry book. That is why I separated the poems into four parts.
So, the boomerang, when you throw it away it comes back. If you don’t catch it, you miss it. Our life, too, is very circular like that. We think that if something happens it is over. That is not the case. The end is only the beginning. Even love is there after the ending. Love is something inseparable from people’s lives. It comes back and glues itself to our lives. It is very complicated. I wanted to show how people spend their lives with that.
For me, poetry is a small piece of something I am feeling. If it is genuine, the poem will appeal to someone else. Whether that feeling is as if someone stabs you with a knife or as if someone is showering you with flowers, such a feeling can only be generated if you are genuine to the poetry you write.
Access interview in Sinhala (සිංහල සම්මුඛ සාකච්ඡාව මෙතනින් ලබාගන්න): Kanchana Amilani_Sinhala interview with Women Talk
Date of Interview: 16 October 2017
Interviewer and photos of Kanchana: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage