Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene’s new Sinhala book, Sivu Mansala Kolu Getaya (සිවුමංසල කොලූ ගැටයා), is being launched at the Colombo International Book Fair that runs from 18 to 26 September 2012.
A Ravaya Publication, the book is an edited collection of his weekly Sinhala columns by the same name, contributed to the Ravaya Sunday broadsheet newspaper in Sri Lanka during 2011.
Beginning in February 2011, Nalaka has sustained a column that touches on many and varied topics related to popular science, human development, mass media and information society. The book compiles 44 of these columns.
“The title is of my column is derived from its particular scope and angle. I stand at the intersection (or confluence) of science, development, media and culture. Once there, I often play the role of that cheeky lad who asked difficult questions, and once pointed out the Emperor(s) had nothing on when all others were either too polite or too scared to say so,” Nalaka says.
He calls the book a personalised exploration of how Sri Lanka can cope with many challenges of globalisation and modernisation. Nalaka writes in conversational Sinhala, rich in metaphor and analogy, and drawing on his own wide experiences as a journalist, filmmaker and development communicator. He often mixes the big picture level analysis (bird’s eye view) with ground level reality checks (toad’s eye view).
“I like to ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ when discussing topics as diverse as coping with HIV/AIDS, nurturing innovation, regulating the Internet, tackling climate change or farming without costing the Earth,” he says. “I do so with an open mind and sense of wonder. I have no particular ideology to promote and no sacred cows to protect!”
He adds: “As a journalist, I was trained to look for what’s New, True and Interesting (‘NTI Test’). Early on in my career, I went beyond simply reporting events, and probed the underlying causes and processes. With those insights, I can now offer my readers perspectives and seasoned opinion. These are much needed today as we swim through massive volumes of information, trying to stay afloat and make sense of it all.”
The book marks Nalaka’s return to Sinhala writing after an absence of two decades during which he communicated mostly in English to various international audiences. “In a sense, with this column I have come back home. The last time I wrote in Sinhala was in another century, and in what now feels like another country!” he says.
“All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one’s frightened of playing it
Ev’ryone’s saying it,
Flowing more freely than wine,
All thru’ your life I me mine…”
When George Harrison sang those words in the 1970 Beatles song ‘I-Me-Mine’, he was in two minds about expressing in the first person (or ego). He wasn’t alone: mainstream journalism has long had reservations about where ‘I’ fit in journalistic narratives.
“Never bring yourself into what you write,” we were told in journalism school 20 years ago. Journalists, as observers and chroniclers of events, write the first drafts of history – and without the luxury of time or perspective that historians and biographers take for granted. We often have to package information and provide analysis on the run. Bringing ourselves into that process would surely distort messages and confuse many, it was argued. We had to keep our feelings out of our reportage lest it affects our ‘objectivity’.
In other words, we were simply mirrors reflecting (and recording) the events happening around us. Mirrors can’t – and shouldn’t — emit light of their own.
Occasionally, if we felt the urge to express how we personally felt about such trends and events, we were allowed the luxury of an op-ed or commentary piece. Of course, as long as we ensured that it was a measured and guarded expression. And if we really wanted to bring ourselves into the narrative, we could use the archaic phrase ‘this writer…’ to refer to ourselves.
But never use I-Me-Mine! That would surely sour, taint and even contaminate good journalism – right?
Well, it used to be the ‘norm’ for decades — but mercifully, not any longer. Thanks largely to the new media revolution triggered by the Internet, writing in the I-Me-Mine mode is no longer frowned upon as egotistic or narcissistic. It sometimes is one or both these, but hey, that’s part of cultural diversity that our information society has belatedly learnt to live with…
We journalists are late arrivals to this domain. The first person narrative was always valued in other areas of creative arts such as literary fiction, poetry and the cinema. In such endeavours, their creators are encouraged to tell the world exactly how they feel and what they think.
Of course, some writers ignored orthodoxy and wrote in the first person all along. One example I know personally is the acclaimed writer of science fiction and science fact, Sir Arthur C Clarke. Shortly after I’d started working with him in 1987, Sir Arthur encouraged me to fearlessly use the first person narrative even in technical and business writing. A lot of writing ended up being too dull and dreary, he said, because their writers were afraid of speaking their minds.
Yet we had to wait for the first decade of the Twenty First Century to see I-Me-Mine being widely accepted in the world of journalism. Did the old guard finally cave in, or (as sounds more likely) did Generation Me just redefine the rules of the game?
Whatever it is, I-Me-Mine is now very much in vogue. And not a moment too soon!
As Time columnist Joel Stein, who often writes with his tongue firmly in his cheek, noted in a recent column: “All bloggers write in first person, spending hours each day chronicling their anger at their kids for taking away their free time. Every Facebook update and tweet is sophomoric, solipsistic, snarky and other words I’ve learned by Googling myself.”
Joel Stein quotes Jean M Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, as saying that we are living in the Age of Individualism, a radical philosophical shift that began with Sigmund Freud. It has exploded during the past decade with reality television, Facebook and blogging. “You’re supposed to craft your own image and have a personal brand. That was unheard of 10 years ago,” Twenge says.
What a difference a decade can make. Although trained in the pre-me era, I was never convinced as to why I had to keep myself out of what I write. However, my use of I-Me-Mine was done sparingly in the late 1980s (when I started my media work) and during the 1990s. It was only in the 2000s that I finally found both the freedom to speak my mind – and the ideal platforms for doing so: blogging and tweeting.
As my regular readers know, I blog about my family, friends, pet, travels, writing and conference speaking. I liberally sprinkle photographs of myself doing various things. I tell you more than you really want to know about my life. Ah yes, I’m self-referential too.
And not just on this blog. I’ve also been writing op ed essays for various mainstream media outlets for much of the past decade, and have never hesitated in expressing what I think, feel and even dream about. (Isn’t that what opinion pieces are meant to be?)
But the Digital Immigrant that I am, all my writing is shaped by my pre-Internet training. Even for a blog post or tweet, I still gather information, marshal my thoughts and agonise over every word, sentence and paragraph.
As my own editor and publisher on the blog, I don’t have gatekeepers who insist on any of this. My readers haven’t complained either. Yet I write the way I do for a simple reason. I may indulge in a lot of I-Me-Mine, but I don’t write just for myself. You, gentle reader, are the main reason why I strive for coherence and relevance.
(OK, if you really must know, it also ensures a joyful read when I occasionally go back and read my own writing…)