In the time given to her to thank, at the launch of her first novel, a very young woman writer, described as “exceptionally perceptive” in the striking back cover of the book, called herself rather “eccentric”, and confessed to having “dropped out” of law-school. She also revealed that while others doodled drawings while taking down notes, her notebooks while following classes at CIMA were filled with doodled writing. The makings of a writer?
In the opening chapter and paragraph of Learning to Fly, Shehani Gomes plunges us into that all too familiar childhood game – a paper-boat race between the principal character Kala and her friend Sumi. The reader takes a paper-boat ride right through the book, not knowing where the current of words will carry, with a young girl attending classes, drawn into an emotional love triangle with a young man with a learning disability – Dylan, whom she meets in church, and Nadia, his friend. We move through an affair of working girl to a married woman expecting her first child. All through the reading, one wonders where fiction – which the novel is – begins and ends in Kala’s mind.
Kala’s world is definitely urban and modern, as the publishers- Perera-Hussein term it. The English the writer uses is that of the young — hip, irreverent and at times vulnerable. Clarity is hardly sought in the outpourings of emotional hypersensitivity at times, becoming a characteristic of the writer and her characters. The words, in short sentences and clipped dialogue, move us through the denouement of the novel. The language is tender when Kala is with her sister Nirmaleen, protective of her first flute recital nerves, wondering if the blind felt love the same way. It hardens when Kala reacts to her boss or a parent who beats a son or daughter. Occasionally, the reader is given brief reflective, poetic glides of prose that slow the tempo of the writing.
Kala. carries the shock of the sudden accidental death of her friend Sumi, in bursts of touching flashbacks of girlhood experiences shared, titled ‘Rituals with Sumi’– of singing loud and off key, lighting candles, watering plants in the night while out at camp in school. The affair of a young office worker with her boss whom she describes in brutal terms, propels us into the sudden death of a parent, the brutality of physical abuse of children by parents who react violently to the behavior of their ‘offspring’…
At times one wonders where one is in this Sri Lankan novel as when one sees the romantic front cover. I am reminded of Asoka Handagama’s film, Thani Thatuwen Piyabanna, again made for a “globalised” audience which could have been filmed and located anywhere– in South America or one of the island ports that ring round the equator. In the film one was anchored to our island by one of the languages we speak –Sinhala. In the novel just as one wonders where one is, a term “Nadia baba”, or “do you want a toffee?” or “lorry” bring us into our small island. It’s only towards the end, with the suicide of a preschool teacher that words get mixed into the English of the novel, linking the link language into the indigenous. Shehani Gomes has promised more in an interview. If all this outpouring of her creativity found form in a first novel, one hopes for more writing in print from Shehani…
© Lakmali Gunawardena 2008
Educationist Lakmali Gunawardena (Univ. Ceylon, Peradeniya & Univ. of Poitiers, France) is the author of Kusuma, A pigeon learns to Fly, and Song for the Setting Sun.