Twenty-Five-year old Gratiaen | Daily News

Twenty-Five-year old Gratiaen

Michael Ondaatje in his literary generosity founded the establishment of the Gratiaen Prize in 1992.

The Gratiaen Trust was set-up and arrangements were made to have an annual competition to select the best English book; novel, poetry, a play or a collection of short stories written by a Sri Lankan. Rules and regulations have been established by the Gratiaen Trust, but I am not conversant with all their details. Year in and year out the competition has been held and the 2017 award will be its 25th anniversary. Yes, the Gratiaen is twenty-five years old and is still going strong. The entries for this year’s competition will close on December 31.

Local literati

During the past quarter century, the Gratiaen has done yeomen service in the encouragement given to local literati. New authors came to the limelight, poets got published, dramatists received recognition and the short-story teller found his or her audience. They all vied for the coveted Gratiaen Prize and each year the winner was celebrated, the short-listed were honoured, and the rest who competed walked away to write another day.

The entry for the competition does not need to be a published volume, as even work in manuscript is acceptable to the Trust and its judges. This is a great incentive to the writer. As we all know, writing a book is no cake-walk, and even more difficult is the task of convincing a publisher to accept a book, especially if you are a first-timer. Gratiaen therefore gives more opportunity to the novice by bringing the bar down. The fairy tale of the Gratiaen is simple, writes your piece, page-set and gets it printed in double space and photocopied in quadruplicate. Log into the Gratiaen website and follow instructions and submit your entry. Who knows? You might be the winner of the 25th Gratiaen Prize!

Corporate entities

The event set-up by Booker-winning Ondaatje has been sponsored by many corporate entities and the current God-Father is Sarasavi Books. They ushered generous cash prizes, and added the icing on the cake by making a pledge to publish the winning entry as well as those short-listed, if they were still in manuscript, and of course if the respective authors were happy to get their books published by Sarasavi.

This is a gymkhana for the authors, to get the reputed Sarasavi to do all the nitty-gritty of printing and publishing their Gratiaen-recognized work and marketing them as a Sarasavi product.

The Gratiaen is judged by a panel of three experts appointed by the Trust Committee giving due consideration to their varying expertise to be judges of this grand competition.

Whichever way one looks at it, picking a winner for the Gratiaen will always be a daunting task. Let alone the winner, the short-listing of five entries too is a nightmare to a judge making his or her best attempt to be fair and impartial in his selections. The reading itself is a heavy load as it comprises of more than fifty books. Among the judge opinions differ, and endless discussions take place till consensus is reached, and then and only then will the short list of five is announced. The judges do get a respite after the short listing is done, as there is about a month to go before the final selection of the over-all winner. It has been done 24 times and the 25th will not be different. It is certainly not always standing ovations and clapping hands for the judges and their judgement. But that is to be expected in a literary competition. Wasn’t it Cervantes who said, “one man’s meat and drink Senor, is another man’s poison.”

Annual incentive

Every year there are three prestigious awards that are given to the best written work in English, The Gratiaen Prize, the State Literary Award and the Fairways Literary Award. I am not aware of any others, but I could be wrong. Which of the above three is more recognized is irrelevant. They are all great and is an annual incentive for people who write. Of course, the Gratiaen has been the oldest having served Sri Lankan English literature for twenty-five years. Will there be a continuation after a quarter of a century? I sincerely hope so. It is too important an event to slip out of the back-door and go into oblivion.

Let us hope that the Gratiaen will continue and the writers will compete, and the judges will do justice to crown the King or the Queen of English writing in Sri Lanka for many years to come.

It is an august event that has its pomp and pageantry, but undoubtedly it does serve the local English literati magnanimously.

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