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Folk Tales of Bicultural Anxiety
by Bruce Meyer

As the McMaster University professor Graeme MacQueen aptly acknowledges in his foreword to The Monkey King and other stories, good stories travel well. "They speak," he says, "to our common needs as human beings: our loneliness, our fear, our love, and our ability to find the universe funny." In this volume of stories, written in honour of World Literacy Canada's fortieth anniversary, the message is quite clear: stories bring people together. One doesn't have to be a Joseph Campbell or a Claude LÚvi-Strauss to realize that there is an element of truth in what Robert Graves said in the opening line of his famous poem, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice": "There is one story and one story only." The sense of the universal, of a commonality in expression, and a joy in the process of telling is what shines through in these retold folk tales.
At the same time, I am reminded of the assertions made by the British poet and critic Charles Tomlinson in Poetry and Metamorphosis (1983), a study of the problems and implications of the art of translation. He says there that the way important works of literature and their statements stay fresh is through reinterpretation and retransmission into the language and context of the current age. Along the way, there is a certain amount of reinvention-a latitude given to the storyteller-reinventor to compensate for the nagging pressures and tastes of the age, the whims of individual creativity, and the demands of an ever-changing audience. What is important, in the end, is the story itself-or the quality that remains indisputably and unalterably important to the story, the reason why the story was told in the first place. This seems to be the point of The Monkey King and other stories: that no matter how many times a story is told, retold, or reshaped, there is an essential element in it that remains vital.
In this selection of Sri Lankan folk tales and legends, as retold by Canadian authors such as Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, Linda Spalding, M. G. Vassanji, Shyam Selvadurai, Sarah Sheard, P. K. Page, Tim Wynne-Jones, and the playwright Judith Thompson and by Sri Lankan authors such as Ranjini Obeyesekere and Rajiva Wijesinha, what is surprising is the number of concerns shared by authors who are separated by different traditions and a great deal of geography-similarities that may say something about the authors and the traditions from which they are working, but which speak volumes about the nature of storytelling. A notable omission from the Sri Lankan contingent is Jean Arasanayagam, whose title story from her 1995 collection of short stories, All Is Burning, is a direct response to the political and cultural tensions in Sri Lanka.
This volume would also have gained from biographical and bibliographical notices on the authors-not for the benefit of Canadians reading Canadian authors, but for Canadians who would want to see more work from the Sri Lankans. With an under-published literature such as Sri Lanka's, access is difficult. The absence of information on these writers creates a kind of "solitude" about them-exactly the sort of solitude that the book was attempting to penetrate and diffuse.
The Monkey King tries to form a bridge of commonality of expression between the writers of Sri Lanka and Canada. An earlier attempt at this same idea was partially a subtext in the Irish poet Richard Murphy's 1989 collection of poems, The Mirror Wall, although his volume falls more into the category of tourist interpretation than cultural reinterpretation. The stories in this collection are retold and reshaped legends-the implicit sense of playfulness, magic, and vibrancy of the original stories shines through, no matter who is telling the story (what the British-American translator Christopher Middleton likes to call the "endophone", or the voice of the original storyteller that cannot be removed from a work even after several translators and reinventors have had a go at it). The delight and mystery that come through in all these entertaining stories are, perhaps, at the root of the contemporary idiom and underline just how small the world becomes when it is measured not in miles or differences but when it is perceived through the common ground of the powerful English language and the structures inherent in contemporary storytelling.
What seems to separate the Sri Lankan retellers from the Canadian ones is a sense of nervous uncertainty, which is reflected in their choice of tales. In both tone and content, with a few exceptions such Michael Ondaatje's marvellous and funny trickster tale "The Vulture", the Canadian authors seem imaginatively and politically naive compared to the Sri Lankans who are represented here. In the Canadian stories, magic, delight, and entertainment seem to hold a commanding influence: in the Sri Lankan stories, the magic, the delight, and the entertainment are underscored by a dark vision of the realities of life in a tenuous situation of bicultural dislike.
Rajiva Wijesinha, whose 1991 collection of short stories The Lady Hippopotamus and other stories stands as a significant work of short fiction in Sri Lankan literature, writes in the story "Hanuman and Sita" about the monkey god, Hanuman, who searches for the goddess Sita in order to return to Lanka. In the story, a veiled political metaphor of purpose and punishment, Hanuman is seized and interrogated as he goes about his mission, and in the end returns to the god Rama, who is readying an invasion army to drive the demons out of the island. In a recent interview in Chelva Kananaganayakam's Configurations of Exile: South Asian Writers and Their World, Wijesinha discusses the arrest and death of the political activist Richard de Soyza-a fact which, if not masked by the story he tells in "Hanuman and Sita", at least informs his reading of the legend with the awareness that a state under siege within itself is rife with secret police paranoia and "rings on the doorbell at two in the morning." Wijesinha's story reflects the political reality of contemporary Sri Lanka-a reality that seethes beneath these stories- where the subtext carries the tensions and anxieties of a bicultural nation (the Tamils vs. the Sinhalese) that is torn in two by linguistic, religious, and cultural strife. As MacQueen points out in his foreword, "the island is still reeling from the appalling violence and war of the past years."
Likewise, Shyam Selvadurai's tale of "The Monkey King", which opens the collection, carries a message of hope that a leader will emerge who will act as a bridge for his people between the strife and the safe future. The editor, Griffin Ondaatje, seems unaware that what he has created in The Monkey King, a collection of Sri Lankan tales aimed primarily at a Canadian audience, is a metaphor about the problems that can arise when two distinct parties in a bicultural nation attempt to articulate their own stories from the foundations of their informing legends and mythologies.
In the end, the essential human trait of loving stories acts as a common ground. As MacQueen says, "The retelling of a story is necessary because of change and human difference. Different times, different cultures. But retelling is possible only because of the human nature we share. We are all able to follow a narrative. And when we retell these stories we become part of a community stretching back in time and reaching forward into the future." Surely, the generosity that is shown here, the openness with which each author tells each retelling, is a positive sign that nations separated by the gaps of geography, tradition, and history can find some common ground for the creative exchange of their sentiments and concerns.
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