Richard Boyle interviews Grataien Prize winner Prashani Rambukwella, author of Mythil´s Secrets. Since superstition is an important facet in Sri Lanka, Prashani Remvukwella, a Sri Lanka-born writer currently working in Hongkong has used yakas, or devils as a central ingredient of her children´s novel, Mythil’s Secret (2009).
Mythil couldn’t bear it. ‘Who’s there?’ he called out. Even though he told himself that there were no poachers his voice still came out all shaky. ‘Come out and show yourself,’ he said, trying to make his voice sound steadier. ‘Come out! Do you hear me? I want to see you.’
Then he caught a movement above his head. With a gasp he spun away from the tree and looked up into the branches. Perched on the fork of a branch overhead, crouched and ready to spring was a … was a … what was it? Matted and tangled hair framed a dark grimy face, barred teeth and bulgy eyes.
‘Yaka!’ Mythil was screaming but the words came out in a hoarse whisper.
– Prashani Rambukwella, Mythil’s Secret
Superstition remains an important facet of Sri Lankan society. It influences every aspect of daily life – take a bath on a Tuesday before commencing a journey, for instance, and you will invariably have an accident. Above all is the belief in the existence of yakas, or devils, which Prashani Rambukwella, a Sri Lanka-born writer currently working in Hong Kong, has used as a central ingredient of her children’s novel (which is also an excellent read for adults), Mythil’s Secret (2009). Mythil is a boy whose world turns upside down when he starts seeing ‘monsters’ in the jungle, where he has gone to escape his constantly squabbling parents. The adults in the family believe the yakas are in his head, a manifestation of his worries about his parents. With no one to turn to, Mythil must depend on himself and some unexpected allies to overcome a hostile foe. But first he must quell his fear and extend a hand in friendship to supernatural beings that only he can see. Rambukwella recently spoke with Himal Southasian contributing editor Richard Boyle.
The manner in which the common belief in the dreadful yakas threads its way throughout the plot of Mythil’s Secret provides a powerful traditional and supernatural dimension to the novel. And your imagination, I believe, has unwittingly reproduced an oral tradition that tells of hidden portals in Sri Lanka, through which those with extraordinary powers can travel to other worlds. How did you approach these issues?
As you know, superstitious tales vary from region to region – this is, of course, the nature of folklore – and any reading on the subject was enough to indicate that I’d never be an expert. So I just had fun. I dredged up stories from my childhood, and gave them a modern twist. I was also conscious that today’s city children may know few, if any, stories about yakas. I hoped Mythil’s Secret would help them take an interest in the old folk stories, even though the yakas in my book are very different to those in traditional lore.
Why did you choose to create a boy and not a girl hero?
The principal character just happened to be a boy from the start. As the story gained momentum and I got to know the character better, he became Mythil, and I couldn’t imagine him any other way. Mythil is a lonely boy with a healthy imagination, so much so that everyone thinks he’s making things up to overcome his worries about his squabbling parents. But is he going mad, or are there really other beings masquerading as humans? With no one believing him, Mythil has to find answers to these troubling questions on his own. In the end, he finds allies in unusual forms, and realises the lessons he learns along the way can help him overcome worries about his family, too.
Of the many truths Mythil learns along the way, is there one that’s most important to you?
For me, one of Mythil’s coolest discoveries is that, when you make friends with someone who’s different, they stop being strange or terrifying. It’s easy to hate or fear a person who belongs to a group that’s different from yours, and it’s even easier if they speak a different language or are dissimilar in appearance. But take the time to look beyond the labels and outer wrappings, get to know them person-to-person, and the differences are no longer weird or scary. The way friendship transforms your thinking is pure magic.
Why did you write the book in English instead of Sinhala?
I think and dream in English, so writing in English is only natural for me. I grew up in a household where English was spoken and Sinhala rarely heard. By age six, I was addicted to English-language storybooks. I studied in the Sinhala stream at school, but my spoken Sinhala was, and still is, appalling. I do have another reason for writing in English, though. When I was growing up, the only English-language children’s adventure books I could find were based in England or America. I knew of very few Sri Lankan children’s books in English – there weren’t many. With the typical naiveté of a child, I remember thinking that some day when I grew up I would change that: I would write adventure stories set in Sri Lanka for Sri Lankan children. It still surprises me that I’ve been able to keep my promise to myself.
You pepper your writing with Sinhala nouns, yet the dialogue is very much British Standard English – “Goodness knows when they’ll get the electricity back on now” – rather than in the vernacular, Sri Lankan English – “Who knows when the power comes?” Is this the best way to present Sri Lankan literature in English?
I think you will find that in their unguarded moments, the characters do tend to use Sri Lankan English. But when they’re speaking to Aunty Nilmini’s well-heeled, well-travelled family, Mythil’s family use an English that’s closer to British Standard English. I would imagine this comes naturally to them, as Mythil’s ammi and thaththi [parents] are both students of English literature, who might have studied abroad before Mythil was born. Either way, I certainly don’t think that Sri Lankan English is inferior. But I did steer away from putting in too many Sri Lankan expressions because in the past I’ve seen literature in which, in an attempt to make it sound Sri Lankan, the language has become exaggerated, even comical. This isn’t to suggest that it can’t be done, and there are certainly some very good examples. But I felt that this mixed mode was best suited for my characters, given their family backgrounds.
I’ve heard you’re a great fan of Enid Blyton, whose work is generally considered of little literary value, and snobbish, racist and sexist. Has she influenced your writing, and what of J K Rowling?
Enid Blyton’s books are certainly not politically correct, but then she’s not a politically aware writer. She’s a brilliant storyteller, though. Her stories are simply told, but as a reader you find yourself emotionally bound to the characters, feeling their pain and sorrow, and laughing at their silly tricks. These books deal with family dynamics and the way it affected children, so yes, they do influence my writing. Also, I love the first three Harry Potter books; but other than the fact that Mythil’s Secret is about a boy and the supernatural world, the stories are quite different. Other storytellers, such as Hayao Miyazaki, R K Narayan, J R R Tolkien, Raymond E Feist, Diana Wynne Jones, Jonathan Stroud and even George Lucas, inspired Mythil’s world, together with my earliest and most treasured sources – both my grandmothers. I had the good fortune of having my grandmothers living with us for most of my childhood, and they would spend hours reading to me and telling me stories from their own era. One told me stories about the jungle, instilled in me a love of nature and bought me my first of Blyton’s Famous Five books. The other introduced me to the classics of English literature. Both were excellent storytellers, particularly when relating the adventures and misadventures of the extended family, both present and past.
Sri Lankans don’t seem to want to buy locally written children’s books, seemingly still constricted by the yoke of colonialism and only wanting to read about white children. Do you feel that a different approach to writing children’s literature could free juvenile readers from that yoke?
I certainly hope so! The first books I read at school were about Sam and Pat and Spot the Dog, who went on picnics with Mother and Father. Things have begun to change now. But at the same time, making a book seem ‘Sri Lankan’ shouldn’t mean injecting a few local names and locating the action in a village. Our children’s stories need to be local and modern. Children are exposed to much storytelling on TV and at the movies, and if our local stories look staid and old-fashioned in comparison they are not going to captivate young readers. There’s also a personal reason. Part of the joy of reading for me is being able to get to the end of a book and then imagine myself in the story’s action. But with the Enid Blyton books, it wasn’t long before I realised that if I had joined these 1940s British children as myself (a Sri Lankan not of royalty), I might have had to have my meals in the kitchen like the gypsy girl, Jo! So while I did long to try tinned peaches with sardines and condensed milk, I knew they’d taste a lot better to me in Mythil’s world rather than in the land of the Famous Five. This thought is what made me yearn for stories set in Sri Lanka.
You grew up at the height of the ethnic conflict. Is this fact reflected in the book, or is the book a supernatural escape from reality?
Growing up with insurrections and ethnic conflict meant that certain things – keeping an eye out for unattended parcels, or hiding under desks when a danger signal was given – were a part of school life. But none of us stayed at home; we went about life as usual, and worried about mid-term tests. A central theme of the book is the fear of the ‘other’ – this is something Mythil must overcome. But just because this is a Sri Lankan story, it shouldn’t be defined by the ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka is made up of many communities and groups of people, and to define this story in terms of the ethnic conflict would be to limit it to one side of a multi-faceted whole.
Because it’s so multi-faceted, anyone can be an outsider in whatever group they’re trying to be part of. For instance, you could be Sinhala, but if you’ve grown up speaking English and your spoken Sinhala is poor, you could end up feeling like an outsider among your peers. In a similar circumstance, a Tamil or Muslim or Burgher friend who speaks flawless Sinhala would fit in a lot better than you do. So the ‘otherness’ that Mythil has to slice through is representative of a much broader spectrum of differences. The book does deal with two races (three if you count the bahirawaya, the powerful spirit) and the conflict that arises when they meet face-to-face. But that’s just one part of the story. It’s also about a child learning to overcome everyday worries like squabbling parents, not being as well-off as the next child, and having little say over events that significantly affect him. These are all problems that Mythil must learn to deal with if he is to have peace of mind.
~ Richard Boyle is a contributing editor to this magazine.