NEW CEYLON WRITING began in 1969 as an idea generated by a small company of academics between lectures and tutorials in the Senior Common Room of the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya. The Arts Faculty of the University, comprising both Western and Oriental Languages, had been moved from Colombo to the magnificent setting of the hill-country, and Dr Merlin Pieris, who taught Latin and Greek, had been thinking about some poems written in English by his students that had deeply impressed him.
“What a pity it is,” said Dr Pieris, “that they have no way of publishing their work …” And there, quite literally, is where the journal began. The impulse that created it was not entirely altruistic. There had been for some time among university academics teaching the Arts a conviction that the English language itself as a University subject was under siege. At this time, teaching the ‘Western Arts’ at the University of Ceylon (the island’s only university, recently split in two by the shift of the Arts Faculty to Peradeniya) was still carried out in English, and the Departments of English and Western Classics at Peradeniya, though numerically small, were nationally and internationally respected for the quality of their teaching staff and of their graduates. The highest degrees awarded were the BA and BA (Hons) degrees. For their PhDs, Peradeniya graduates applied to Oxford, Cambridge and other long-established institutions overseas, Britain (and later the USA) being their preferred destinations.
The passing of the Sinhala Only Language Act in 1956 effectively displaced English, and replaced it with the language of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority: Sinhala. Teachers who had, for generations, trained local students in the use of the English language, and passed on to them their own love of English literature, left the island in large numbers for employment in English-speaking countries in which their children could be sure of receiving the sound ‘English education’ that would no longer be available to them in Sri Lanka. This created a regrettable gap in the national fabric. Many people benefited from ‘Sinhala only’. Unfortunately, students who had worked in English throughout their school and university careers — the poets and novelists of the future — did not.
The effect of this situation on the creativity and confidence of writers in English can be imagined, especially when the sources from which support might have been received in such a crisis — imported English books, imported English literary journals, for example — dried up. Journalistic standards in the English-language newspapers (formerly touchstones of excellence, which students had been encouraged by their teachers to recognize and learn from) declined sharply, and Government-sponsored scholarships, literary awards and prizes were no longer available to writers in English.
It was into this unpromising atmosphere that NEW CEYLON WRITING was born. There was no question of a University-sponsored printed publication: university funding only financed journals that published the scholarly research of academics, not the creative efforts of students. The costs would have to be paid from donations by students and interested staff members. Was this a possibility? Academic salaries were not high, and students, even those who volunteered their help in distribution, could hardly be tapped for financial assistance in a venture unconnected with their studies that gave them no financial remuneration. Besides, a regular printed publication could only be maintained if advertising were solicited to meet the essential costs of paper and printing. But would this not jeopardize the journal’s independence? Quite simply, we could not afford to print. Typewritten texts were next suggested — the poems and stories to be laboriously copied with carbon paper (there were no photocopiers available yet) onto two or three sheets, stapled together, and distributed by student volunteers once every three months? That was a possibility which was canvassed and rejected. Computers, of course, had not yet become available on our campuses. After much discussion, it was agreed that NEW CEYLON WRITING could be typewritten on to waxed sheets and cyclostyled. At this point Mr Harold Pieris, a genial and wealthy benefactor of the arts (and a Sanskrit scholar), learning of our dilemma, sent us a generous cheque, and Mr T.B.S. Godamunne, head of the Sithumina Press in Kandy, who had just bought a beautiful new Heidelberg press for his company’s use, agreed to print our covers free of charge. A kindly Dean permitted the use of the departmental cyclostyling machine, and Somadasa, the skilled and efficient Head Clerk in the Dean’s office, assisted us in his spare time by operating the machine for a small fee. Part of Mr Pieris’s cheque was spent on placing a small advertisement in the local English newspapers, announcing the advent of a new literary magazine, and … we were in business!
What did that first issue, the work of enthusiastic amateurs, look like? The text was typed on a portable Olympia typewriter, stencilled and cyclostyled on campus, the journal’s pages were collated in the homes of the editors by students bribed with coffee, tea and chocolate cake, and bound by the neat fingers of children at the request of their editor-parents. In designing a cover for that first issue, boards in the ‘political party’ colours of green, blue and red were avoided , and plain whiteboard selected instead, on which the lettering of the magazine title and our elegant ‘Hansa’ logo were arranged in black by Mr Godamunne. Successive issues sported different coloured backgrounds. From these tentative beginnings grew the journal which enjoyed a 15-year initial run, during which it featured some of the best and most significant creative and critical writing in English to appear in post-Independence Sri Lanka. From the start the magazine was determinedly independent, seeking no sponsorship or support other than from those who read and contributed to it. Fortunately, such support was forthcoming, and three issues were published before the departure from Sri Lanka of two of its editors, Yasmine Gooneratne and Shelagh Anghie, forced temporary cessation of publication. Two more issues followed, published in Australia. The last of these (which was issued in 1984), had a grey and black cover memorializing the race riots that had shaken Sri Lanka in 1983. At the request of readers who wish to see copies of those first five issues of NEW CEYLON WRITING, we have published the texts in their entirety online. You will find them on our website: http://www.newceylonwriting under the title “Quintet”. They contain the early work of many writers whose names are very well-known today nationally and internationally: among them four outstanding poets — Patrick Fernando, Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, Anne Ranasinghe and Jean Arasanayagam. You will also find there the complete text of Lakshmi de Silva’s translation of Ediriwira Sarachchandra’s play Sinhabahu, a selection of short plays by Ernest Macintyre, and an account by E.F.C. Ludowyk of the beginnings of the `DramSoc’. There’s a great deal more. Please check out ‘Quintet’. We are proud that, by taking the journal online, we are using contemporary technology to bring the early writing of many of Sri Lanka’s most distinguished writers into a new century.
New Ceylon Writing’s cover presents a modern interpretation of the hansa, the sacred bird of Dvarga Loka, who possesses, according to legend, the ability to separate milk from water when these two are mixed together, making the bird a fitting symbol for the literary critic who takes seriously the need to distinguish between good and bad literature.