Where Self-Publishing Meets the Literary: Theena Kumaragurunathan’s Debut Novel First Utterance

It’s not often that you find a writer who pays equal attention to the craft of writing and the story itself. Nor is it easy to find a well written book that also has a unique mixed-genre approach. Where Sri Lankan English Literature is concerned, the chances of stumbling into the above are pretty low – so it was a pleasant surprise to read in Theena Kumaragurunathan’s debut novel, First Utterance, the words of someone who is not just meticulous with his writing, but also literary and experimental at the same time.

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the majority of the books written for the niche English reading audience in Sri Lanka deal with conflict. We’re constantly framing ourselves in terms of some external conflict or the other, in terms of the war, the tsunami, colonisation, or colonial trappings; and while it is important to explore such topics, it is equally important to go beyond them. In such a context, First Utterance is an absolutely refreshing read – for that matter, we will even go as far as to call it Sri Lanka’s first attempt in English at a genre that goes beyond fiction and even fantasy. To use the words of the author, let’s call it ‘speculative fiction’ that doesn’t allow for tidy classification. So while it deals with an alternative universe, known as Mirage, if you’re expecting a run-of-the-mill fantasy paperback, you’re in for a surprise. It could even appeal to many sub-genre sensibilities, and readers may find correspondences with fantasy, magic realism, fiction and even sci-fi. The fact that there aren’t many – or any – Sri Lankan English books touching such adventurous and daunting themes might just make this book the father of a new genre, a great start to doing away with some of the needless stigma associated with speculative fiction.  

There are a few things that stand out where Kumaragurunathan’s book is concerned, but before we get to that, here’s a short introduction to acquaint the reader with the book in question.

First Utterance is the first instalment of three books which make up the Miragian Cycles and is, just as interestingly, a self-published novel. It is easily on par with any novel a major publishing house out there might put out – or perhaps even goes beyond it, for, as the author pointed out to us, publishing houses tend to be rigid where genre is concerned, particularly in Sri Lanka. Hence the difficulty in finding a book that takes on a mixed-genre approach, where traditional novelistic prose is juxtaposed alongside tight, economical poetry and, interestingly enough, a play.  

Where subject matter is concerned, out of fear of that dreadful word “spoilers,” we’ll leave it at: a book about creation and destruction, the cyclicality of beginnings and endings (artfully conveyed by the cover where three Urobori devour themselves), the marginalisation of what’s “different”, the dangers of dogma, an All-Mother, fathers and sons, writers and madness, music, and time itself.

The book will launch this Sunday, March 27, at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, and is a slim, but well-designed volume that won’t disgrace your bookshelf. You can pick up a copy on the day of the launch itself, or go to firstutterancebook.com to register for a free e-book version.

Perhaps Kumaragurunathan takes his cue from poetry – his writing, like his poetry, is economical and precise. It doesn’t leave room for a loose word or details that the book could do without. In fact (and this could go both ways), it is a very demanding book where attention is concerned. It might put off lazy readers, or readers who only want easy prose, but the book is by no means difficult either. Rather, the book, to repeat, is ‘precise’ and extremely carefully constructed. This means that skimming through it is not an option – every word is purposeful and every sentence integral to the flow of the plot. If at any point the reader might feel confused, particularly with the three “mad” men and their corresponding narratives, it’s only because the writer encourages the reader’s understanding to gradually develop. In that sense, it wouldn’t be difficult to call the book a bit of a mystery, which would require the sequels to help develop the universe further.

Kumaragurunathan also has an interesting way of dealing with convention, particularly fantasy convention. Perhaps he draws from writers he endorses, like Marquez; for although the primary plot device is, quite simply put, a prophecy of sorts, there’s nothing cheesy, trite or even apologetic about his presentation. In that sense, his experimentation with this particular classical fantasy trope has paid off. It’s almost as if he reinvents the idea, breathing much needed life into a concept as hacked as a prophecy.

The fact that a self-published debut novel could be so well crafted is commendable – it begs to answer many questions that budding writers out there may have. We thought we’d get the details from the man himself, so watch this space for an exclusive interview with Theena Kumaragurunathan about self-publishing and the writing process.

As for the book itself, if you’re wondering whether you should pick up a copy, either electronically or physically, we have this much to say: this book is a definite yes, a book that could possibly even help redirect, redefine, and refine Sri Lankan Literature written in English.

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