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Life, Luck and Manuscripts
Author, Editor, Publisher Ameena Hussein tells Colombo Spirit what it takes to make it in the world of writing, editing and publishing
Find out what inspires the founder of Perera Hussein Publishing House, and what she believes is important to pass onto the next generation.
Why writing? Did you always have a passion for it?
I began to write quite late in life. Perhaps I got into writing because as a student of Sociology I had to do qualitative research but was forced to present my papers in a dispassionate scholarly tone. Writing gave me the chance to delve into issues that I was interested in and present the human face of the research in the form of fiction.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have just finished editing a book on Sri Lankan erotica and it will be launched in January 2011 just before the Galle Literary Festival. In addition, I am thinking of beginning a project that deals with food and writers. We are also sifting through the flood of submissions that we received for our Flash Fiction collection.
Who or what influences/inspires your work?
Life can be the greatest inspiration. Everything inspires me from the mundane to the exotic. A writer looks at life with a slightly different eye and even the way the clouds scud across the sky can be an inspiring moment for a writer. Reading other writers also inspire me. They inspire me to strive harder, to write better.
What have been some of your greatest challenges as a writer/editor, and in running the publishing house?
My greatest challenge right now is to find time to write my own works. My greatest challenge as an editor was to allow the writers voice to remain true to the work and not interfere. My greatest challenge in running the publishing house is to make it a success, to keep us afloat, to keep us on track to achieve what we wanted
What made you start Perera Hussein Publishing House?
Somewhere in the late 90s I realised that Sri Lanka did not have a publishing house for Sri Lankan fiction written in English. That was the initial spark. And who can refuse a chance of working in a world of books and writing?
Who are your favourite authors (Sri Lankan in particular), and why?
My favourite Sri Lankan authors are Vivimarie VanderPoorten the poet who encapsulates the smallest human emotion in such a creative way; and Shyam Selvadurai who told the story of our generation first with humour, and compassion and sensitivity.
What is your all-time favourite book, and why?
In a world where there are millions of books and hundreds of good books, it is difficult to name one all-time favourite. But a book I find myself dipping into is The Poems of Hafez. Hafez is a Sufi poet and he constantly amazes me with his contemporary take on life and the world.
In your opinion, is English Literature produced by Sri Lankans on par with international standards?
Definitely. Think Yasmine Gooneratne, Carl Muller, Jean Arasanayagam, Anne Ranasinghe, David Blacker, and Shehan Karunatilleke, to name a few. They all live in Sri Lanka and have been published by both local and international publishers. That has to say something for itself.
You are taking part in the Galle Literary Festival 2011. Why do you think this festival is important and how does it contribute to Sri Lankan society and the Arts?
With the introduction of the Galle Literary Festival (GLF)we get a double bonus. We get to see international writers of great repute and we get to show case our own local literary talent. Of course perhaps I am biased as I was involved with the GLF from inception and it makes me proud to see it now four years old and thriving the way it is. It is also a reflection on the local readers and lovers of literature that they have generously supported and encouraged such a literary activity to make it the success that it is.
What can up and coming Sri Lankan writers do to get their work recognized on a national/international level?
I feel it is only a matter of time for Sri Lankan writers to be recognized fully both home and abroad. My advice to them would be to persevere, write as well as you can, be open to suggestions, read, and if you work at your craft with your whole soul, whatever you define as success be it published locally, internationally or something else, will be yours.
What advice would you give to young people pursuing a career similar to yours?
Publishing is a tough business. It is still one of the few bastions where the "South" has to still break into the international world big time. Do it if you love it, be it writing or publishing, because it is a long hard journey.
What do you look for, as an editor and from the publisher's point of view, when choosing manuscripts to publish?
As an editor I look for something interesting, something new, a good story well told. As a publisher I look for all that and it has to be saleable. Publishing is an investment and if we don't make our money back, we will not be able to stay in business for very long
What types of stories do you think are still missing that need to be told?
I find that most manuscripts that come my way are still hooked on the walauwa and village. Modern contemporary stories need to be told in a style that is engaging and fast paced. We have concluded a 26-year conflict. Post conflict writing will touch on a whole host of issues that need to be addressed. I want stories that look ahead, stories that use the past to teach us how to live in the future. Nostalgia is all well and good, but it is the future that we give to the next generation. Fiction can be an amazing tool to mould the thought of coming generations.
If you were not in this field, what other career path might you have taken?
I might still be a sociologist doing research, writing papers that no one else ever reads, attending conferences and dreaming about being a writer and a publisher. Conversely, I already have another part time life - that of living and working on my mixed crop estate in Puttalam.
Anything else you would like to add?
I have been incredibly lucky in my life. Luck is something you don't plan in life, it either happens or not. But you don't wait for luck to live, if you have a dream, it doesn't matter if it’s small or big. And if you are lucky enough to be able to see it through, then just consider yourself blessed. And that I am!