Ashok Ferrey is one of Sri Lanka’s finest fiction writers. He has published six books, including Colpetty People, The Good Little Ceylonese Girl and Serendipity. His most recent novel, The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons, was longlisted for the DSC Prize this year. Ferrey studied Pure Maths at Christ Church Oxford. He joined the DLF 2017 and participated in many sessions. In this interview, which took place on the second day of the festival (November 17), he talks about his fiction and his writing process.
Is this your first visit to Bangladesh?
No, it’s my second. I came here to open an art gallery a few years ago, but it’s my first at the Dhaka Literary Festival.
How do you feel about attending the DLF?
It is wonderful because there are so many similarities between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. We originally came from this part of the world; Sri Lankans came originally from Bengal. So, when I compare the features of Bangladesh with those of ours, I find that they have a lot in common. The language and food are similar. But at the same time we are different. We are a different culture and a different race, and it’s important for all the South Asian races to get together in terms of literature and so on because you have India, which is the big fish in the middle and all of us around. For many of us, these festivals are very important in order to promote what our countries are like.
Your novel, The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons, explores the idea and concept of evil. What inspired you to write this book?
I think evil is quite an unfashionable thing nowadays in the west where people make excuses for evil. People will say, “Oh, he is not evil, it’s just his father beat him when he was young and that made his mind go funny, or he is genetically conditioned to be the way he is.” But I actually think that there is an actual evil around and it’s a free choice to be good or bad. You know it’s not totally outside our control, and this is what my book is about. Although it’s a comedy, it’s a funny book about Sir Lankan life: It’s about how we set or place evil, how we define it in Sri Lanka and we have very funny ways of doing it. We are also a very superstitious race, so nothing is ever anyone’s fault; everything is other people’s fault. People will say the cat crossed my path or somebody threw salt over their shoulder and that’s why the bad things happened. You know we refuse to accept responsibility, so it’s a comedy on those lines.
Your early childhood was spent in Africa and a boarding school in the English countryside. You only came back to Sri Lanka after college and began writing stories. Do you see instances of your formative years moulding your writing today?
Yes, all the time. I think I started writing quite late in life when I was in my early forties. As a result, there’s a lot of raw material inside me and a lot of stuff that happened to me, or countries, people and civilization I have been through in Africa, Somalia, Nigeria, England and America.
What is it like to be a fiction writer? How would you describe your process of writing a story?
Well, it’s a creation. Just like building a house or writing a song, it’s a creation. It’s a supreme creation because unlike a painting – a painting remains the same; for everyone who sees a painting, it is the same – writing a book is a different thing. If you write a book and 50 people read the book, there are 50 different books in their mind. That is why literature or books or nonfiction books are so supreme as far as I am concerned. They can fire up so many different people in different ways because each person reads a different book.
Who are the authors that have inspired you the most to write?
For me there is a set of authors who started writing in the middle of the twentieth century. I can talk about Graham Greene. For him, the good and evil were also very important. A lot of his novels explored these themes. There is another writer, Evelyn Waugh, who is very funny, and as I write comedy, I find him a supreme writer. Also stylistically, his English is almost unmatched; the way he writes it and styles it.
Do you think your writing belongs to the postcolonial tradition?
I don’t think about it much. In fact, I don’t care. I think any author should not care. It is up to the critics to tell you where you belong. As an author, as an artist of any sort, you should not care. You should not be looking over your shoulder all the time or looking into the mirror. If you recognise something in yourself, your own output changes. It is like looking into a mirror. The only truth that comes in that quarter second before you recognise yourself is: The moment you recognise yourself your expression changes. So, if I consciously sit down and say I am writing postcolonial literature, it will change the way I write. It will ruin the way I write, because all writing has to come from inside. And I must not think about what other people think of me. I must write because that is what is inside me.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes. Don’t be afraid, pick up the pen. We have one good book inside – in each of us. So pick up that pen today or get to the computer. I think one of the great reasons why we South Asians don’t write is because we are afraid. We are afraid of what other people will say about our writing; we are afraid of lots of things. But actually, don’t be afraid. I know that Bangladeshis, for instance, are hugely talented and they are very artistic. I’ve travelled to many countries, and this is possibly or probably the most artistic country I have been to. That’s why it pains me to think that there are so many writers, potential writers, who will never pick up the pen. So, do it and that’s all.