Guy Gunaratne is the College’s 26th Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts. In May 2018 he was awarded the International Dylan Thomas Prize for his debut novel In Our Mad and Furious City.
He also won the Jhalak Prize, which celebrates work by British/British resident BAME writers and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.
Gunaratne has also worked as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He gained a BA in Film and Televisions Studies at London’s Brunel University and then completed an MA in Current Affairs Journalism at City University.
His media work highlights human rights issues and he has made films about post-conflict Sri Lanka and formerly abducted child soldiers and returnees in Northern Uganda.
Trinity’s Visiting Fellow Commoners spend two years producing original work and participating in the life of the College. A new father, Gunaratne who grew up in northwest London now divides his time between the UK and Malmö, Sweden.
What’s your first book about?
In Our Mad and Furious City follows five voices living around a housing estate in North West London. The events occur after a lone-wolf terrorist attack sets off a wave of anti-Muslim marches around the city. Each voice is written in distinct regional dialect. And the themes deal with our compulsions toward extremism and how this relates to the inheritance of language and violence.
Why did you move from filmmaking to writing a book?
It may be that some stories ask for different forms, I’m not sure. I know that with the first book I wanted to explore themes that would need a longer time to consider. I think in contrast with filmmaking – which is a very collaborative process and often frenetic – the slower pace of putting together a novel feels more in keeping with how I think and naturally approach things.
What were your expectations when you wrote your book? Were you expecting it to be a prize winner?
I didn’t think about much beyond the book itself as I’ve always thought anything else might have interfered. I still think that way. All the noise that happens after the novel is finished, the way it goes out into the world, how it’s received, are all things I try to maintain a healthy detachment toward. It’s a wonderful thing for the publisher and everyone else who has put their faith in the book to begin with.
Do you still want to make documentaries?
I was a video journalist and a filmmaker for the best part of my twenties. The subjects I covered were mostly human rights related. It took me off to places like Northern Uganda and Central America. While I think about that time often, I prefer being at home. Parenting is its own adventure now, plus I have another novel to write.
Can you tell us about how your life experiences have influenced your writing?
Having worked in human rights for so long, you end up developing a sensitivity around people. You learn how to listen. Many of the people I met lived in vulnerable circumstances. And as a storyteller, I think I’ve also learned how not to flinch when nearing the heart of any given story. It’s something that has followed me into my novels, as often it’s the more difficult subject matter I’m interesting in exploring.
What plans do you have for your time at Trinity?
I’ll be completing my second novel over the first year. I also have plans for a play which I’ll hopefully begin by the start of the next.
What does it mean to have been appointed as Visiting Fellow Commoner?
It’s an honour, of course. All I have ever needed is the time and space in which to write, and at Trinity I will have both. It’s also a privilege to be able to get know the city and the university. I hope to contribute to both while I’m here.
In Our Mad and Furious City is published by Headline.
Read and listen to more interviews with Guy Gunaratne.