DEFINING CULTURE & ITS ROLE IN LITERATURE
In conversation with Sam Perera
We believe that an understanding of tangible and intangible cultural heritage of different communities help intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life, even within the communities of a nation. There is a chance that certain elements of tangible or intangible cultural heritage may disappear without help, so we posed the question of how can we safeguard and manage a heritage that is constantly changing, and is a part of ‘living culture’ without freezing or trivializing it to Sam Perera. Co-founder of Perera-Hussein Publishing, Sri Lanka’s seminal publishing house producing local and regional literature in English, Sam Perera was educated at Royal College, Colombo and pursued his academic studies in Electrical Engineering and subsequently in Finance Architecture. After working for fourteen years at the United Nations, Sam returned to Sri Lanka with a broader understanding of Sri Lankan literature and its credibility in a wider context.
Q| In your own words, kindly elaborate your understanding of culture & heritage and its parameters?
A| Soul-searching is an intrinsic part of the human experience. We constantly ask ourselves who we are, what our mission on earth is, and where we come from. Our collective existence is such that we want to know what defines us as a people or as a nation. What makes us stand apart from other people, making us recognizably different? It is those answers that propel us forward, giving shape to who we are.
An appreciation of the intangible - art, music and dance allows us to rise above day to day exigencies, and this definition of culture in all its forms is the element that elevates our existence to the sublime, the factor that raises us above the commonplace. Culture, then, surpasses the individual to embrace the collectivity in such a way that greater society is both conscious and appreciative of a unique set of values that defines it. Those norms, when passed down, become both our tradition and our heritage.
Pushing the boundaries of culture and heritage, whether tangible or intangible, leads us to behavioral patterns of social development that begin to define civilization. Historical retrospectives show that great civilizations did not last, that evolution is constant and not always for the better.
Q | In your opinion, what is the significance & importance of cultural heritage to a nation and its people?
A | From the beginning of our collective memory, we consciously or unconsciously embraced a concept the world now finds fashionable – that of pluralism. Whether by accident or design, hordes of ethnicities descended on Lanka’s fair shores, settled here and called it home. Our cultural fabric woven by each new arrival is, in global terms, unrivaled.
Even if they may not be the biggest or oldest in the world, the mixed heritage of our architecture and the design of our ancient ruined cities are fascinating. The engineering concepts and sophistication that went into tank building and irrigation, border on an art form. This tangible part of our cultural heritage is something all Lankans are equally proud of.
Religion is an integral part of our culture. Vestiges of Buddha statues, veheras and viharas point to the importance placed on Buddhism; Hindu kovils mirror Chola design; ancient mosques reflect tropical influences and churches are airy rather than closed in. Remarkably, four of the world’s most popular religions coexist peacefully - until politically needled into being hostile.
Given our shared heritage, Lankans are uniquely aware of their commonalities and are usually considerate of the ‘other’. Traditions are shared, celebrations are common, and food has become emblematic of culture. So much so that even at Buddhist weddings the feast served to guests is often a Biriyani.
Q | In your opinion, how can literature preserve heritage, tradition and culture in diverse societies?
A | Although traditions and heritage are things that are passed down to us, that we value and nurture because they define who we are and where we come from, culture is not something that needs to be kept alive. Culture is what is happening right now. It is a reflection of the present. It is how we interpret the world and give it meaning, it is what defines us today, and in that sense, today’s culture will become tomorrow’s heritage.
Even without state patronage for any of our arts, our music scene is innovative and shows promise; cinema, especially through short films, portrays accurate cultural depictions. Besides those mediums, today’s culture encompasses architecture, fashion and non-traditional installations. As an integral part of modern culture, books too have grown to encompass various disciplines and at the moment, everything that is loosely defined as being cultural, is documented and analyzed.
I have always been interested in how, as Lankans, we perceive ourselves. As such, almost all of the stories I publish have a strong Sri Lankan element. Each author may bring a different viewpoint on who we Lankans are, how we behave, what motivates us, our goals and ambitions. In contemporary literature, we recognize ourselves easily as we share a common heritage. And I hope that in time, maybe 50 years down the line, you would be able to pick up any book that I published and say it was representative of Lankan culture.
The goal of publishing is to provide a platform for Lankan authors to showcase their talents and catapult them onto the world stage. The range of Lankan writing, especially in English is widening but it is too soon to analyze any of it collectively and point towards a distinct emerging culture. Having said that, Lankan writers keeps improving and as a key Lankan publisher, I’m delighted to be part of this journey that takes our literature forward.