In the age of instant communication across social networks and wireless devices, when 140 characters has become an acceptable length of political commentary and critical review, it is unsurprising that ‘Hint Fiction’, a story, poetry or (very short) prose limited to 25 words, has become ‘a thing’.
It was on stifling or balmy night (depends on your constitution), that the first ever Hint Fiction anthology was launched in the open courtyard of the exclusive 80 Club to a crowd of about a hundred and eighty people in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Those expecting the well worn grand statement about the decline of the novel and the literature-apathy of the youth today who literally cannot even read more than 25 words will be disappointed by this article, I’m afraid.
No, the only comment to draw here is that one cannot be surprised that Hint Fiction is ‘a thing’. And in the same way that Twitter has become a valuable instrument to inform and opine, so hint fiction has the potential to deliver sharp-tongued wit and wisdom.
At the start of the evening in Colombo this writer was enthusiastically informed that the audience was a who’s who of the Colombo cultural elite: Authors, actors and academics had all converged to mark this unusual event.
A local theatre group, The Floating Space Theatre Company, read aloud some of the 25 word stories that made up ‘Short & Sweet’. The subject matters were of everyday life – family, love, loss, and marriage – but most markedly they spoke about topics that were knowingly sensitive.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, the curator of the ‘Short & Sweet’ project admitted it was an experiment at first, inspired by an American anthology of Hint Fiction he picked up before a plane journey in 2012. The project has since blossomed and exceeded all expectations.
160 stories were chosen for final publication, from over 100 authors, but over 600 had applied. The audience was informed of the real significance of this over subscription – not simply because of a desire to be published, but because of a desire to tell the truth behind everyday life in Sri Lanka.
You might say, why don’t people just go to Twitter? Why are dissident voices any more noticeable here than they are on blogs or exiled media websites?
A fair remark, but the difference with Hint Fiction is that it has given people from a traditional literature background the opportunity to play around with a new narrative tool that encouraged something instinctive; a thought, statement or a feeling, sui generis. It was the combination of this – a new platform to engage writers on the everyday – that proved so powerful.
Hint Fiction has enticed something unique out of writers and the curator Sanjana began to see that something bigger was going on as the project gained momentum. ‘Short & Sweet’ was:
“a small contribution to a greater interest in the power of literature to question the status quo, to escape lazy writing and to suggest that it is not just through the media that these stories come out”.
The Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Saravanamuttu, closed the evening with a speech that further articulated the underlying thread to the event and the publication of ‘Short & Sweet’ itself, that, although he expressly knew he was treading old ground, the combination of literature and politics was a vital mix for Sri Lankan society. He viewed the book as an opportunity for writers to engage in their own act of dissent and that collectively the book revealed ‘a summation of what has happened to our society’.
Such sentiments come against a backdrop of mounting reports of growing inter-religious tension, such as the recent attack on a church in Hikkaduwa at the beginning of the year by an extremist Buddhist mob, and a further disconnect between some sections of the population towards the government.
The question is, what role can this narrow-based, if you like, ‘artistic activism’, have in the pursuit of national reconciliation, an improvement in inter-communal relations and greater democratic freedoms for Sri Lankans of all ethnic and religious backgrounds?
Sri Lanka, you could say, is at a turning point. Economic progression, a booming tourist industry and export industry, a cosy and profitable relationship with China and supposedly 4 years ‘terrorism-free’ is how some commentators will view the current situation. No looking back, will be the message.
An alternative viewpoint would look at March when the UN will decide on whether the government of Sri Lanka was accountable for war crimes that are alleged to have taken place at the end of the civil war. The ramifications could be unbelievably vast for this small island nation, which may entail an independent UN inquiry and economic sanctions. Reconciliation between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, you could argue, rests on this judgement. UN induced or not, true reconciliation between ethnic and religious groups is the only way the country can possibly move on peacefully and as one.
The words spoken at the Hint Fiction event was a healthy reminder that some individuals and groups will not relent in raising issues that require debate, whilst also willing something to change in Sri Lanka.
But in the wider perspective, one event, one school of thought, does not count for a nation’s thinking.
Dr. Saravanamuttu noted astutely that ‘Short & Sweet’ needed to be published in Sinhala and Tamil not just English, distributed across the country and read by a true cross-section of the populace. The same goes for any material of similar ilk.
Herein lies the problem for those who worry at the way they see some aspects of Sri Lanka governed.
Yes, the message from the venerable speaker and some of the authors was change, as it is for a number of independent organisations and institutions at home and abroad. But it is not only the vote of this elite set that will improve the rule of law, human rights and poverty eradication. They can bang the drum, but to enact constitutional change there needs to be a conversation amongst the whole population, the ordinary woman and man in the street. The platform for this dialogue also needs to be made accessible to all.
So to answer the question, what can evenings like this achieve? Firstly, maintaining debate and providing space to discuss what people think they deserve from their government is always important at a grassroots level. The values and activism of those who want change is unequivocally good, but the challenge is to translate it to the rest of the country.
If you cast a look at Sri Lankan politics through a crudely realist lens, you might see change as a long way off. If 75% of the population are Sinhala and if the government have been successful in championing a nationalist Sinhala vote, there is little requirement to significantly address the worries held by Tamil and Muslim communities.
And whilst the economy grows and peace remains, who could argue that change will occur when a majority is all that is needed to retain power.
So here is your real answer to the question. It is because there is so much in the way and so many hurdles to cross that is must be absolutely yes, these events and “small contributions” are crucial.
Those independent voices that speak up against the status-quo certainly face an uphill struggle. It is an uphill struggle that is decades old, but one that is vital in the pursuit of universal values that are being unattended to today.
The Colomboscope and the Colombo Art Biennale follow this event, for what is a truly artistic and cultural month. One can hope such creativity, bound up irrevocably with politics, can relay itself to a wider audience – a digestible message, appropriate for all Sri Lankans.
The Little Man