HOW AUSTRALIA (AND JASA) HELPED ESTABLISH A REERENCE LIBRARY IN SRI LANKA – by Yasmine Gooneratne
In 1993 the literary magazine OZWORDS devoted its regular literary competition to the composition of limericks. I was teaching English Literature at the time in Australia, at Maacquarie University in Sydney, New South Wales. I was asked by my Department to teach a course in ‘Creative Writing’ (on the strength, I imagine, of a recent success in novel-writing! My first novel, A Change of Skies, had just been awarded the Marjorie Barnard Prize for fiction.) I introduced my 300-level Creative Writing class to the genre of limericks, and encouraged them to send entries to the OZWORDS competition. I sent in two myself, on the subject of Ms Pauline Hanson, a politician of the time, and to my own surprise won the First Prize of $100 worth of OUP reference books.
I was not aware at this time that the OZWORDS literary magazine was being co-edited by the late Frederick Ludowyk, nephew of the Foundation Professor of English at my former University in Sri Lanka. The unexpected discovery reunited me with a former classmate who shared my background and many of my happiest memories of university life. The experience also reinforced my awareness that Sri Lankan graduates in many parts of the world were contributing in different and unexpected ways to intellectual developments in countries formerly unknown to them. I had learned that Mr. S.B. Bandara, Assistant Librarian at Peradeniya in my time, was functioning as Librarian and expert in Caribbean Literature at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica! Fred Ludowyk’s work as an expert in the developments of ‘Strine’ mirrored Mr Bandara’s in Jamaica (not to mention my own in Australia, teaching Jane Austen to Australian students).
I donated the books I chose from the OUP list to the Pemberley Literature and Language Research Centre, an institution that had just been set up by Dr Brendon Gooneratne on Viharagala, a beautiful tea estate in Haputale, Sri Lanka, formerly the property of a British planting family. The OZWORDS prize books, together with a complete Folio Society edition of Jane Austen’s novels donated to the Centre by one of its earliest Residential Fellows (Ms Susannah Fullerton, A.M., currently President of JASA, Jane Austen Society of Australia) became the nucleus of a small library, which was made available to Residential Fellows at the Centre.
A ten-year civil war forced the PLLRC to temporarily close its doors to overseas applicants for Residential Fellowships, after which the estate reverted to its original name of Viharagala, and enjoyed a brief period as a boutique hotel. The COVID 19 pandemic brought this period to an end.
In 2021, Dr Brendon Gooneratne’s death and the relocation of the family from Colombo to Haputale necessitated fundamental changes in the management of the property. The late Dr Gooneratne’s daughter Dr Devika Brendon, who now owns Viharagala Estate, has established the Gooneratne Memorial Library there in memory of her father, retaining the original PLLRC library as its nucleus, and adding elements from the lifetime collections of Gooneratne family members. Wide-ranging in interest, these include substantial holdings relating to Natural History, Sri Lanka’s Arts and Culture, English Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Literature, Sri Lankan History & Politics, Children’s Literature; and special collections relating to Jane Austen, Ananda Coomaraswamy, James d’Alwis, Sir John D’Oyly, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, V.S. Naipaul, R.K. Narayan, Leonard Woolf, and other authors.
Cataloguing this varied collection, which is being constantly expanded through the generosity of friends of the Library, is certainly challenging. Viharagala Estate has also become the home of VEB Creations, a non-profit organization that produces greeting cards, bookmarks and other items, chiefly in cross stitch, and NEW CEYLON WRITING, a literary journal which began as an informal cyclostyled sheet managed by students and staff at Peradeniya in 1970, and is flourishing today with international online reach and a 12-member editorial board.