DotIW 2019: Shakthika Sathkumara (Sri Lanka)

For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, Zoë Wicomb has written a letter of solidarity to imprisoned Sri Lankan writer, Shakthika Sathkumara

November 15, 2019


Shakthika Sathkumara is the author of short stories, poetry, a novel and numerous works of non-fiction. In April 2019, Sathkumara was arrested on suspicion that he had committed offences under the Penal Code and Sri Lanka’s ICCPR Act, in connection with a short story that he had published on his Facebook page. The short story, ‘Ardha’ (‘Half’), due to be published as part of a collection later this year, has provoked hostility from Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka who allege that it is derogatory and defamatory to Buddhism owing to its indirect references to homosexuality within the Buddhist clergy.

Sathkumara’s legal counsel has indicated that, even 75 days after his arrest, the police are yet to frame charges against him and no hearing has been held to discuss the merits of the case. Despite this, the Polgahawela Magistrate Court has repeatedly denied bail and refused to disregard the accusations laid against Sathkumara under the ICCPR Act. His legal team have therefore filed a bail application with the High Court and filed a fundamental rights case with the Supreme Court. Sathkumara was recently released on bail.

For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, writer and emeritus professor, Zoë Wicomb has written a letter of solidarity to Shakthika Sathkumara.

Dear Shakthika Sathkumara,

I am so sorry that you have unjustly suffered 130 days in remand custody and, in spite of the remaining danger of indictment in the High Court, am relieved, as you and your family must be, to hear that you are now on bail.

It is particularly shocking that the Sri Lankan authorities should have prosecuted you under the ICCPR Act which, instead of protecting human rights as is its stated purpose, has been used against you to stifle free speech. The question that this raises of how incitement to hostility can be interpreted seems to be foreshadowed in your short story ‘Ardha’, deemed guilty of flouting the Act. Your nuanced narrative speaks volumes about a cultural climate that produces a story revolving around the very notions of reading, writing, and interpretation. I, for one, have not only found it a rewarding and thought-provoking read, but realise how courageously and delicately you have tackled the issues of sexuality and suppression within Buddhist monasteries.

How telling that the story that provoked your imprisonment should have been titled ‘Ardha’. The title (I understand it to mean ‘half’) has indeed encouraged your critics to supply another half to its meaning by exploiting the nuances and ambiguities to fix what is clearly a story of multiple meanings into a single one that incites hostility and is defamatory to Buddhism. Ironically, the story has as a result of their actions achieved wide distribution: in other words, the Buddhist establishment has not only unwittingly brought about its own exposure; it also testifies to the power of narrative fiction.

the Buddhist establishment has not only unwittingly brought about its own exposure; it also testifies to the power of narrative fiction.

Your imprisonment within a tradition hitherto known as secular and liberal has driven me to read ‘Ardha’ more closely and thus to appreciate the economy with which it self-reflexively explores narrative, interpretation and freedom of expression. Please forgive this iteration: not only does the story refer, in passing, to a monk who is reading a text that he wants banned as a work of fundamentalist propaganda; in ‘Ardha’ is also embedded another narrative, written by a character who radically departs from the orthodox Siddhartha story to give the point of view of the Buddha’s wife. Her version tells of his inadequate sexual performance that led to her infidelity. We as readers are thus reminded that there are many versions from which canonical stories are derived, and that they therefore could be told from other perspectives, such as that of the Buddha’s abandoned wife. Your narrator recognises this tale as dangerous and inimical to the given version, even if it does exist in another Buddhist tradition. In other words, through the different versions and interpretations of the story of the Buddha, ‘Ardha’ promotes pluralism and tolerance of other points of view.

In other words, through the different versions and interpretations of the story of the Buddha, ‘Ardha’ promotes pluralism and tolerance of other points of view.

For all its inclusion of a nightmare of a bloodied, castrated monk, I am struck by the delicacy of your story. Exemplary in its resistance to a single meaning, its enigma ––achieved also through the ambivalence of its narrator ––offers readers the freedom to supply readings from their own knowledge and experience. That certain monks should have abused such freedom is disheartening. On the other hand, I have been encouraged by the voluble responses of your fellow writers and commentators in Sri Lanka itself.  Such messages of support for you and your cause, of analysis and critique of the law are courageous, and testify to the spirit of freedom in your country that cannot be stifled by acts of oppression.

My very best wishes for your further hearing on 10 December. I hope that you take courage from the very many within your own country as well as those abroad who are thinking of you and support your cause. Let us hope that the Sri Lankan literary festival in January will be a place of celebration of the freedom of the writer and indeed also of your own physical freedom.

With congratulations on your work,

Yours sincerely,

Zoë Wicomb

Zoë Wicomb is a South African writer who has lived in Scotland for over 20 years. She is Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University. Her works of fiction ––You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, David’s Story, Playing in the Light, The One That Got Away and October ––have been translated into a number of languages. The novel, Still Life, will be published in 2020. Wicomb is a recipient of Yale’s Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction.  Her latest critical work, Race, Nation, Translation: South African Essays (2019) was published by Yale University Press, and critical writing on her fiction, Zoë Wicomb and the Translocal: Writing Scotland and South Africa (Routledge 2017) was edited by Derek Attridge & Kai Easton.