Romesh Gunesekera, the Sri Lanka-born British author of four novels, including his debut Reef (1994), which was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Guardian Fiction Prize, belongs to a post-Rushdie generation of writers working in a new global English. In the piece below, originally written for the 2012 Royal Society of Literature Review, he muses on the changes to the English language in post-colonial times—a “Second Elizabethan Age.”
In the Elizabethan Age, literature – on the stage – flowered as Britain expanded its horizons, reaching out for the Americas, Africa and Asia.
The last 60 years could be seen as another period when literary history in Britain was was entangled with geography: the age when Asia, Africa and America discovered Britain, and literature – fiction this time – from America, Africa and Asia expanded the horizons of Britain. The result: a change in the English language which may prove to be the cultural hallmark of recent decades. Languages start local but become nomadic. They travel easily and live to be shared, but it is rare for a language to change ownership. It happened with Latin. The ownership – not just usage – expanded. With English, in the twentieth century, it went further. Literacy broadened. The celebration of the English language that had started with Chaucer, and flourished in Shakespeare, spread around the world. The language burst its boundaries. English was liberated. What once had been a weapon of control became a tool of democracy, and changed hands.
In the long hot summer of 1976, I was in the strange tent-shaped building of the Commonwealth Institute, next to Holland Park, with its once futuristic architecture and already antiquated exhibitions, looking in the library for books written by Sri Lankan writers. They were not easy to find in London, back then. But on those awkwardly placed bookshelves I discovered many, in English. And then more from India, Nigeria and the Caribbean. I began to see that the English language belonged to those who used it. I wasn’t the only one. This had been happening for decades in Asia and Africa, just as it had earlier in America.
The Second Elizabethan Age, if anything, might come to be seen as the time when the centre stage in literature could be taken by writers from all over the world – Achebe, Lessing, Naipaul, Rushdie, and many, many more – writing here, there and everywhere, linked by the language we now all own.