‘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
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
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
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
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
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.