The words that grew apart | Daily News


The words that grew apart

author with Lankan origins long-listed for the Booker Prize 2019

One day in July made his name – and his father almost cried. Now, Guy Gunaratne is the son of a Sri Lankan migrant domiciled in the UK. He has been long-listed for the Booker Prize.

We do not get to hear much about Sri Lankans doing well much offshore – especially in the literary arena. But then the news reaches this part of the land on someone with Sri Lankan origins with an eccentric ‘Guy’ gay name.

Guy’s first novel titled In Our Mad and Furious City has won the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Authors Club Best First Novel long before the Booker Judges considered its placement on the long-list.

The Guardian, a leading British daily, featured Gunaratne from many forms and facets. His book reviewed. Him revealing how he grew up amid the gulf created between his father and himself. It was in April, just one day before the Sri Lankan catastrophe took place, that Gunaratne posted a particular picture - that hardly any other son could take pride in - on the Twitter.

It was the picture of his father flipping the pages of his book in the very London bookshop where he stepped into reading English books to grasp the language in the 1950s. A small smile adorns his aged face.

London was in its 1950s when Guy’s father entered the great metropolis. He was an immigrant with little or no English. He would step into the Foyles, a bookstore with books meant to be savoured. His purpose rested in a different plain. He wanted to learn some English. Over half-a-century later, the teenager turned octogenarian would return to the same bookstore, this time actually to savour a particular moment: to embrace – and perhaps cuddle – the cover of the novel authored by his son.

Guy Gunaratne has fed his post to Twitter to the following effect:

Sixty years ago my father was a teenager and a new immigrant in 1950s London. He used to sneak into Foyles every Saturday, sit on the floor and teach himself English. Yesterday, he returned to pick his son’s novel off the shelf. This universe is spectacular.

The Foyles too took delight in the much looked forward to moment. They expressed the delight in another tweet.

The Gunaratne tweet stirred the circles. The tweeps gathered to show their solidarity in appreciation. They had so much to say.

International Dylan Thomas award is reserved for writers under 40 last month. The Dylan Thomas jury described the work as astounding, provocative and enticing, but not an easy read.

“People bring their own baggage to my baggage and that’s good,” responds 34-year-old Gunaratne.

The panel of judges, chaired by Professors Dai Smith and Kurt Heinzelman executed a careful deliberation in choosing the winner.

Professor Dai Smith adds: “Once in a while, a work of fiction appears which uses voice, style and story, as only works of the imagination can, to let us enter, to makes us see, to demand we understand lives and circumstances seldom given that centre stage position in our contemporary culture and society. This is what Guy Gunaratne’s stunning multi-voice debut novel In Our Mad and Furious City sets out to do and bravely achieves for marginal lives, young and old, in the unforgiving whirlpool of London today.”

In response, Guy comments: “Dylan Thomas has always meant a lot to me, he’s a writer I’ve always turned to for inspiration. And after winning this prize, my mind really just goes to all the other writers, or aspiring writers, who are writing from a place similar to where I began. A place like Neasden, somewhere I always thought was a nowhere place. But to make art out of the world, the language, the voices I grew up around I always felt was important. That’s all I tried to do with this book.”

Awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under, the prize celebrates the international world of fiction in all its forms including poetry, novels, short stories and drama.

Guy Gunaratne was awarded £30,000 for Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize

In Our Mad and Furious City entered the bookshelves in 2018. But it made waves in 2019 owing to its urgent, timely and compelling fictional narrative of a 48-hour period in a North West London housing estate following the murder of a British soldier. Three narrators tell us the story. Hailed as risky and inventive by the critics, Gunaratne’s work offers insights into the marginalised sectors of society.


An excerpt from In Our Mad and Furious City

 There were things that I learned to call fury as a younger. Fury was a fearsome drum, some hungry and hot temper, ill-spirit or madness that never touched us for long but followed our bodies for time. See London. This city taints its young. If you were from here you’d know, ennet. All our faces were pinched sour, even the good few I spent my early way with. We were all born into the menace from day dot.

These were the hidden violences. Day-long deaths that snuffed out our small and limited futures. We grew up around these towers, so struggle was a standard echo in our speech, in thought, in action. But it was only after the release of that one video, clipped from a phone of a witness, that everyone else saw the truth. The image on every news channel and paper, a black boy had killed an off-duty soldier. Soldier-boy we called him. The black younger had stopped soldier-boy and struck him down with a cleaver. Then he wrapped his body in a black cloth and strung him up from a road sign. Stuff was dark. Darkest because it happened in a space so familiar. In our city, on road, and in broad daylight. The sound of the black boy’s voice came next, shouting into the camera about the infidel, the sinful kuffar. It was on radio and television, an endless loop. He called himself the hand of Allah, but to us he looked as if he had just rolled out the same school gates as us. He had the same trainers we wore. Spoke the same road slang we used. The blood was not what shocked us. For us it was his face like a mirror, reflecting our own confused and frightened hearts.

Violence made this city. Those living, born and raised, grow up with it like an older brother. On that final day when flames licked the domes of our painted Mosque, we were all far beyond saving. Fury was like a fever in the air. A corrupt mass of bodies pulsing together in pain and rhetoric. Muhajiroun were herding our people along August Road and had us stand on the burned earth like a testament. There was violence in our brotherhood, that much is clear, though we never knew how much of that violence came from us or the road beneath our feet.

We were London’s scowling youth. As siblings of rage, we were never meant to stray beyond the street. We might not have known it with our eyes so alight, but it was true. Our miseducation is proof, ennet. Those school corridors were like cold chambers, anyone who went to St Mary’s would attest. Our bodies were locked for verbal assaults, our words clipped and surging with our own code and fuck anyone who disagreed-yuno? Violence shadowed our language and our lines tagged the streets. They’d read us on walls, in open seams and dim lamplight. We’d cotch on park benches and waste air, sock-mouthed and bound, stupid to our fates the entire time.

Our tongues were so soaked in our defences, we hoped only to outlast the day. Just look at how we spoke to one another: ennet-tho, myman and pussyo. Our friendships we called bloods and our homes we called our Ends. We revelled in throwing crafted curses at our mothers and receiving hard slaps to heads. Our combs cut lines in our hair and we scarred our eyebrows with blades. We became warrior tribes of mandem, slave-kings and palm-swiping cubs we were. Our parents knew nothing. And most others? Most others only knew us from the noise we made at the back of the buses.

Close without touch. That was the only love permitted, though it was deeply felt among our own. We smoked weed together, borrowed idioms and shopped American verses. In our caustic speech we threw out platitudes, in our guts our feisty wit. It was like we lived upon jagged teeth in the dark, in this bone-cold London city. A young nation of mongrels. Constantly measuring ourselves against what we were supposed to be, which was what? I couldn’t tell you.

For those of us who had an elsewhere in our blood, some foreign origin, we had richer colours and ancient callings to hear. Fight with, more likely, and fight for, a push-pull of ancestry and meaning. For me that meant Pakistan and its local masks, which in Neasden meant going Mosque and dodging Muhajiroun. For my breddas on Estate, they were from all over. Jamaicans, Irish pikeys, Nigerians, Ghanaians, South Indians, Bengalis. Proper Commonwealth kids, ennet. Even the Arab squaddies from UAE. We’d all spy those private-school boys from Belmont and Mill Hill and we’d wonder, how would it have felt to come from the same story? To have been moulded out of one thing and not of many? There was nothing more foreign to us than that. Nothing more boring and pale to imagine. Ours was a language, a dubbing of noise, while theirs was a one note, void of new feeling and any sense of place.

Place was our own. This place. Whether we heard the whispers of our older roots never mattered. What mattered for us was the present, terse and cold, where we would make our own coarse music. This was where we found our young madnesses after all, on road, or rather between the roads we knew and the world we felt we could never hope to claim.

So it was like watching our own faces made foul when we saw that video. When that soldier-boy was butchered by a homegrown bredda. That’s when we knew we were all lost to the ruin. They called it terrorism but terrorism never felt so close. Even when we saw the madness rise, when the hijab lady was slashed in the car park in Bricky or when Michael was knifed in North, the swell only peaked after that soldier-boy’s killing.

I think about why it had to be a younger that done it. Why it was that when we saw the eyes of the black boy with the dripping blade, we felt closer to him than that soldier-boy slain in the street. But now I know this city and its sickness of violence and mean living. These things come in sharp ruptures that don’t discern. It was the fury. Horror curled into horror. Violence trailing back for centuries, I heard as much in Mosque and from rudeboys on road. So when the riots blew up in the Square, when the Umma came out and the Union Jack burned in the June air, the terror had become unwound and lightweight. Each of us were caught in the same swirl, all held together with our own small furies in this single mad, monstrous and lunatic city.

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