Reaching the top in one’s profession
Posted on September 15th, 2011

Emeritus Professor of English D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke – interviewed by Chandra Wickramasinghe.

Q. Professor Goonetilleke, your Curriculum Vitae is indeed long and impressive

and it would take a good half an hour to recount here even the more salient parts of it. However,what strikes one forcefully is that during your eventful career as a University Don in Sri Lanka,you engaged in extensive research,wrote prolifically and also served on numerous Government Advisory Boards and Panels while being invited as a Visiting Fellow by prestigious Universities in the UK, Cambridge and London, and as Guest Professor of the University of Tubingen in West Germany. If I may take you back to your secondary school period and the University undergraduate days, did you in those early times evince an abiding interest in the English language that may perhaps have presaged your later deeper study of the language as a subject specialty?

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ A. I was an avid reader of English fiction as a boy and used to write synopses of the books I read in the way these interested me in exercise books. This was the beginning of my literary criticism. In those days English was regarded as one of the most difficult subjects to pass at the University Entrance Examination and in my year only three students from Royal College were successful. I gained confidence from the fact that I was one of these three and from the fact that I was at the top of my class at ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”OƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”AƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ Levels, winning many prizes such as the Governor GeneralƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Prize for Western Classics and the StubbsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ Prize for Latin Prose. My knowledge of the Classics and Latin has helped me a great deal as a specialist in English.

Q. Taking off from there Professor, could you recall the lecturers and Professors at Peradeniya University who had a profound influence on you and who guided and directed you in your studies. What bearing did their personalities and their views have on you, particularly in the critical choice you had to make after passing out of the University, of opting for an academic career in preference to an administrative or diplomatic one?

A. I was a student of Professor H.A. Passe and was influenced by his scholarly temperament and his personality as a thorough gentleman. I was also stimulated by the teaching of Dr David Craig (later Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster) for his independent-mindedness and his approach of seeing literature in its social context. I topped my batch at the Final Examination at the University. Soon after it, Dr Craig gave me a glowing certificate, saying among other things that I had the capacity for research and should do well in academic life. Of course, the main reason for my choice of career was that I had an academic cast of mind.

Q. Once you made your choice of academe, were you enamoured by the intellectual exhilaration of being a University pedagogue teaching eager undergradates or were you irresistibly drawn to the equally challenging field of engaging in academic research particularly in areas where there was a relative paucity of analytical research studies due to the difficult and esoteric nature of such research undertakings? Perhaps,if I may venture to say so, it may have been a combination of both which made you get into these two vitally complementary fields with equal zest.

A. Teaching and research should be the twin tasks of every academic. I always wanted to be true to these ideals. I have always remained an idealist even while I have had to absorb some setbacks in the course of my career.

Q. Original research studies, one would expect, are necessary pabulum for the mind of a University Don.However, one finds sadly, a conspicuous absence of such a symbiotic link in the local University academia of today. How could one account for this hiatus?

A. I have found the motivation for my research within myself. I do not endorse such excuses such as lack of library facilities etc. The facilities afforded by the internet make research easier today than it was during much of my career.

Q. Sri Lankans are well aware of the plethora of publications under your name, ranging from books, innumerable articles and research publications in local and international periodicals to anthologies et al. Your Ph.D. dissertation was titled ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Developing Countries in British fictionƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚(1977). The fact that the reputed Publishing House, Macmillan, thought it fit to publish it, alone reflects the esteem with which your thesis was regarded by the British, as a signal contribution to British literature. You would, in your dissertation, have obviously dealt with authors of the colonial period like Kipling, Forster, D.H. Lawrence and some other better known British authors. I know your subsequent books on Joseph Conrad made you an internationally recognized authority on the Polish author. Did you, in your doctoral thesis, deal with at least some of the works of this particular author?

A. My Ph.D. thesis was the foundation of my later research. Ranging from Shakespeare to Joyce Cary, it gave me the training and confidence, really an unconscious confidence, to enter any area of literary study. I did in fact,devote six chapters of my dissertation to Joseph Conrad.

Q. Professor, you are better known in international literary circles than in Sri Lanka particularly for your critical studies of Conrad and his works as well as those of the other enigmatic post colonial author Salman Rushdie. ConradƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s book, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-The Heart of DarknessƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚, which recounts a trek up the river Congo, is to say the least, a difficult narration of the subliminal exploration of the human mind, much in the genre o DostoyevskyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s writings. What attracted you to these two writers, to research into their works deeply and to analyse them critically, in an erudite manner that has won you international acclaim?

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ A. I am attracted to the challenge posed by difficult and major writers. I have published four times on Conrad and each time written differently. The subtlety of his writings invites multiple interpretations. Major works and the critic seem to mature with time, like good wine. Moreover, readers need help to understand and appreciate works such as those by Conrad and Rushdie. The readers include undergraduates whom, as once a university teacher, I still wish to help even after retirement.

Q.I find it quite disappointing that your internationally popular treatises on Conrad and Rushdie are not known all that widely in SriLanka, even among the English reading public. Is it due to the works of these two authors not being popular and widely read in Sri Lanka? May I have your own views on this?

A. My earlier books published by Macmillan such as ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Developing Countries in British FictionƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Images of the RajƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Joseph Conrad: Beyond Culture and BackgroundƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ were published only in hard cover and were not imported by local booksellers because these would have been too expensive for local readers. But ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Joseph ConradƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Heart of DarknessƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ (Routledge, 2007) and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Salman Rushdie: Second EditionƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ (Macmillan, 2009) have been published in paperback too, and have been imported by Vijitha Yapa Bookshops.

Q. You could have made a career researching main-stream literature. Routledge has stated: ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-He is a well-established and recognized critic of twentieth century and post-colonial literature.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Palgrave Macmillan said: ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-He is a well-established critic of twentieth-century and postcolonial literature, and the leading authority on Sri Lankan English literature.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Why did you think of devoting more attention to Sri Lankan literature?

A. A critic naturally responds to the literature being written in his own milieu. More importantly, I felt I had to assist our own writers and fill a blank space in the literary map. My anthologies, the two volumes of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-KaleidoscopeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚, were meant to present a cross-section of our literature to our own reading public, especially those who cannot afford to buy individual works, and to the reading public abroad. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Sri Lankan Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ is a complete history of our literature in English from its beginnings to the present as well as a social account of the period.

Q. The Governmant has recognized the importance of teaching English in secondary schools as well as in the Universities. There is however,the almost insuperable barrier of the appalling lack of good and competent English teachers. As a highly regarded University Professor of English how would you perceive this problem and what ways would you suggest of circumventing it?

A. I am aware that the Government is already taking certain positive steps towards the rectification of this problem by the training of Master Teachers. As an academic, I have for my part, tried to address the practical and immediate need of providing good English language teaching textbooks for the general public. I have published ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Learning English: Book IƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ with Mona Gooneratne and Mirelle Jayawardene and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Learning English Book IIƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ with Mona Gooneratne.

Q.To strike a more personal note, it would be of interest to the readers, I am sure, to find out something about you wife and constant companion on the long, long road. How and under what circumstances did you first meet her?

A. I met my wife at the University of Peradeniya. We were both undergraduates, and decided to partner each other in the Mixed Doubles at the University Badminton Tournament. It soon turned out to be a partnership for life.

Q. Your wife would have undoubtedly been a great asset and a source of inspiration and encouragement to you in your literary studies.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ A. Her cooperation has been indispensable in all my academic endeavours ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” and it is always readily given.

3 Responses to “Reaching the top in one’s profession”

  1. gunarat Says:

    During the last two years, Goonetilleke, professor emeritus of English at Kelaniya, received much publicity from the Artscope magazine of the Daily News. I think the Q and A format of his interviews fail to dramatize him as an exciting character.

    Neither of his interviewers,Sajitha Prematunge (in Artscope) nor Chnadra Wickremasinghe (in Lankaweb) seems to have mastered the art of interviewing for feature-writing. The trick is to elicit anecdotes (storiettes on how the interviewee overcame obstacles to reach his goals), colorful quotes that makes him a unique character, etc.,and weaving these together into an interesting story. In the process of doing so, the writer unfolds the elements of drama–man against man, man against nature, or man against self. He uses literary style substituting facts for fiction.

    The banal questions the supplicant interviewer asks and the equally supercilious responses the interviewee delivers are pathetic. How relieving would it have been had the professor dropped the facade of gravity, backtracked to the days when learned to play tennis with his future spouse (and her charming sister) and shared their thoughts on Conrad while exploring the hills of Hantane. Alas, in this interview, he even forgets to name his wife. One wonders whether the good old professor has turned into a misanthropic namarupa!

  2. Lorenzo Says:

    He can do a lot to teach kids good English.

    I hope the government will make good use of him and his ideas on it.

  3. Siya1950 Says:

    I happened to see this interview only now. Professor Goonetilleke has to be commended for having so many international publications–not an easy achievement for anyone!

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