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‘Fresh opportunities inspire talented writers’

The speech delivered by US Ambassador Robert O. Blake at the launch of the Daily News Short Story Anthology Nothing Grows Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories on Wednesday at the Cinnamon Grand, Colombo.

It is an honour for me to be here tonight to serve as Chief Guest for the launching of the anthology Nothing Grows Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories. At the outset let me express my admiration and congratulations to the organisers of this event. The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, for undertaking this important initiative to recognise and give encouragement to short story authors writing in English.

I was delighted to receive this invitation. Let me say at the outset that I have never been clever or imaginative enough to write fiction, although I am sure that my friends in the JVP and perhaps elsewhere might say that most of what I say and write belongs in the fictional category!


Robert O. Blake having a glance at the book of short stories
Picture by Sudath Nishantha

But I am an avid reader of fiction and am therefore happy to be here to encourage the accomplished writers represented in this anthology today.

The United States has its own awards for short stories known as the O’Henry awards. Named after the prolific short story writer William Sideny Porter who wrote under the pseudonym of O’Henry, the first prizes were awarded in 1919 to “strengthen the art of the short story and to stimulate younger authors”. In 1927 Double day was chosen to publish the first volume of O’Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories. This tradition has continued ever since.

The beginnings of the modern short story can in many ways, be found in America. Many credit Edgar Allan Poe as an originator of the craft.

It was he who first undertook to analyse the art form, defining the short story as a narrative that “can be read at one sitting.”

Poe had an ambition to create an independent American literary tradition and turned to magazine to help do so. From The Saturday Evening Post to The New Yorker, from Hawthorn to Hemingway - short stories brought ordinary Americans news about the way they live, and why. To this day, the New Yorker, Harper’s and Atlantic magazines and many other publications continue to provide a rich menu of wonderful short stories for their readers.

Numerous great American writers have arguably done their best work in this medium. Washington Irving, Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Jack London, Katherine Anne Porter, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr - some of these authors’ most memorable pieces are short stories.

The short story is both a result and an illustration of two of America’s greatest values: democracy and diversity.

Democratically - the nature of short story form lends itself to exploring the life of the common man, the experiences and crises of ordinary life that resonate with us all. Emerson called this equal treatment of life stories, “the new importance given to the single person”. Yet, as writer Gail Godwin noted, “The more you focus on the singular and the strange, the more you become aware of the universal and the infinite.”

Between the civil war and the outbreak of World War I, immigration was the greatest human story of the time and a slew of eager writers portrayed this experience in the short story genre, Immigrant writers created a literature “with an altogether new substance, saturated with the truth of the life they are experiencing.”

Our nation’s immigrants provided the foundation for our diversity that has given America its greatest strength. American short fiction reflects that same diversity.

From Bret Harte’s newly settled Far West, to William Faulkner’s sweltering Deep South or O. Henry’s bustling North Eastern cityscapes. It is the story of the dusty plains of Oklahoma, the factories of Chicago, the mining towns of the Sierra Nevada, the snows of Alaska or the teaming tenements of New York City.

The short story is specially suited to the concerns of a fast developing culture, characterised by the diversity of its traditions and populations. It is especially notable for the part it has played in telling the story of ethnic minorities in America - the Native American, Asian, African, Jewish and Hispanic and countless other immigrant experiences of our growing nation.

Today the thriving American short story genre speaks in a host of different voices- those of T. Coraghessan Boyle, Jamaica Kinkaid, Amy Tan, John Updike, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff, Saul Bellow, even Steven King. In fact, two of the finalists for the 2007 National Book Awards were collections of short stories.

In an age when radio, movies and TV compete for the writer’s audience it is heartening to see a leading newspaper like the Daily News encouraging a resurgence of the short story art form. In doing so they create an outlet where English langauge authors can recognize and celebrate the diverse experiences and cultures of Sri Lanka.

Newspapers like the Daily News have been featuring short stories for several years now, and I commend incumbent ANCL Chairman Mr. Bandula Padmakumara for encouraging writers on the Sri Lankan literary scene by providing them a showcase and audience for their works.

I offer my sincere congratulations to editors Dr. Lakshmi de Silva and Vijita Fernando for undertaking the arduous task of judging over 300 entries, and I look forward to reading their final selections.

But most importantly, I congratulate the twenty-four authors whose works are featured in Nothing Grows Under the Banyan Tree and Other stories. Their success will share new visions and voices of Sri Lanka with the world.

Let me conclude with a quote from O’Henry who said “There are stories in everything.

I’ve got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands.” One of his stories, “Springtime A La Carte,” grew out of a restaurant menus he and a friend were perusing.

The story is about a love sick woman who typed daily menus for a New York restaurant. One day she absent-mindedly typed,” Dearest Walter, with hard-boiled egg.” Her lost love saw it, realized only she could have typed it and found her.

I hope all aspiring Sri Lankan short-story writers will draw inspiration from this anecdote to believe in themselves. Thanks to the Daily News and Lake House, there will now be fresh opportunities for Sri Lanka’s talented writers.

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