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Literature in the Sunny Side of Life

Mariyam Malsa
24 January 2019, MVT 09:23
Books on Dhivehi literature and language. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / THE EDITION
Mariyam Malsa
24 January 2019, MVT 09:23

The average 21st-century Maldivian youth is a citizen of the world in every right. Their political, social and economic views are shaped by an influx of new, progressive ideas.

With the advent of tourism, democratic reform, and internet access, the way of life dramatically changed in the late 1900s. While older citizens mourn the loss of cultural traditions, 35 percent of the resident population, the youth, have little to no experience of this lifestyle.

Along with the socioeconomic changes came fascinating shifts in the literary landscape. In particular, widespread use of English as a second language greatly influenced the preferences of younger millennials and older members of Generation Z when it comes to literature.

English novels, short stories and poetry are certainly commonplace, but how did this impact the popularity of local poetic forms such as ‘Raivaru’, ‘Lhen’ and works of fiction written by celebrated Dhivehi authors?

A cursory glance at the shelves of bookstores and libraries in Male’ reveals that almost all these outlets or institutions have a section dedicated to Dhivehi books.

Despite this reassuring fact, records kept by the National Library show that only 25 percent of fictional books loaned out in 2018 were written in Dhivehi, compared to a percentage of 75 when it came to English. Similarly, Round One Bookshop also stated that the sale of Dhivehi novels is lower compared to the past.

These troubling trends are not the result of a lack of relevant legislation. On the contrary, the government exerts great efforts to protect the linguistic identity of Maldives.

For instance, Dhivehi is not only a compulsory subject in public schools but also the official state language. This makes it the language of courtrooms and the one favoured by news broadcasters. In addition to the internationally celebrated date for native languages, Maldives observes 'Maadharee Bahuge Dhuvas' (Mother Language Day) on April 14 of each year with numerous activities.

The question remains as to why Dhivehi literature, in particular, seems to have fallen out of favour.

A rigid education system

Establishing Dhivehi as a compulsory subject plays a crucial role in teaching students basic grammar rules and instilling respect for the language. Despite this, certain flaws in the current syllabus act as barriers to experimentation and creativity.

The greater emphasis on academic writing as opposed to creative works is a key factor. Sure, students are taught literary forms such as Lhen and Raivaru, and earning examination marks by writing a short story remains a possibility. However, the chance of scoring better grades with an informative essay deters students from engaging in 'Dhivehi-based' artistic expression.

Another problem is that Dhivehi literature is not taught as a separate subject, but rather it is limited to only a handful of lessons in textbooks. Even then, it is only in higher secondary that students are taught to analyse literary work on a deeper level. As a result, not many among the younger generation know about Dhivehi epics such as ‘Dhiyo ge Raivaru’ or ‘Dhon Hiyala aai Alifulhu’. Few are even aware of the existence of seven distinct types of literature, which are neatly categorized under the colloquial acronym 'Boki Furaalhu Ali'.

Another obstacle is that there is greater emphasis on examining already existing literary forms rather than creating one’s own. An often quoted phrase among Dhivehi teachers states: the true meaning of a Lhen is in the stomach of the author. In line with this belief, students are tasked with analysing complex poetry about seemingly obscure topics.

Some argue that these literary forms may be introduced in a more student-friendly manner. Poetic styles such as ‘Raivaru’ are governed by seemingly complicated rules, such as the rearrangement of letters or words to attain a lyrical quality. These can undoubtedly be made more relatable if they are taught in comparison to Haiku, and if students actually learnt how to express themselves using these forms.

Many would argue that the best literary works stem from real life experiences and inspire raw emotions in the reader. How can one truly understand it without at least using a small portion of it to put their own experiences into words, when the extensive amount of written work, even if it were only 20 years old, was written in and about a vastly different social context?

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Rapid social and economic changes have created a pronounced gap between conservative older generations and the millennials. A quick skim across Facebook newsfeeds are enough to safely conclude the two groups are often at loggerheads over an array of prominent social issues. These issues continue to gain momentum as they become common topics of discussion in everyday life.

Older generations are often regarded as being critical of western influences, as they voice concerns of culture loss and view modernization with a sometimes justified degree of suspicion.

While there may be an extent of truth to these viewpoints, they also have a restrictive influence, and most Maldivian writers acknowledge unwritten rules which bar them from writing about culturally sensitive topics.

The history of the local literary scene does little to encourage creative experimentation. Similar to many other countries, building a career as a writer during the harsher economic conditions of the past was a realistic option mostly for affluent writers hailing from politically influential families. As such, renowned authors such as Hussain Salahuddin, Ismail Shihab and former President Amin Didi, were also top statesmen. It is likely that many creative locals who are interested in the field still face difficulties in establishing themselves as writers.

The combination of these factors helps to explain why the themes and subject matters of Dhivehi literature are so limited. It is understandable that Maldivians living in the age of social media might not relate to poetry about 18th-century fishing techniques.

Bilingualism - a convenient scapegoat

The impact of bilingualism on Maldivian society is often treated as a “problem” that needs to be solved, with complaints frequently voiced about students favouring the foreign language over Dhivehi.

Maldives replaced traditional learning centres known as 'Edhuruge' with western-style schools in the 1980s-1990s. During the same period, the economic importance of tourism grew exponentially, meaning that more locals sought jobs in the hospitality industry which helped to entrench English as a second language. Virtually every child growing up in 2019 learns both languages simultaneously.

Studies have confirmed that children brought up as bilinguals do not necessarily have slow linguistic development. However, It is possible that such kids will develop a dominant language, especially if exposure is unequal. The fact that some will prefer to express themselves in English is an unavoidable impact of a bilingual society.

Perhaps this is because we have not yet finished updating local dictionaries to meet the requirements of young people who must process large amounts of information from all over the world. While we have walked the walk, straight into the digital age, we may have failed to 'talk the talk', so to speak.

Whatever the case, the alienation of some Maldivians from their native tongue deprives them of an entire avenue of self-expression, and contributes to the apparent unpopularity of local literature.

Avant-Gardism in Maldivian

If intricate coral stone carvings and the number of distinctive literary forms are any indication, Maldivians have great creative potential since time immemorial, and we still retain this innate talent.

The state of our local literary scene is far from hopeless, with media outlets publishing Dhivehi stories on their pages, and the emergence of creative platforms like 'Vaahaka.com'.

In the long run, there is hope that local writers will produce pieces of avant-garde literature, effectively putting an end to the vicious cycle of disinterest leading to a shortage of engaging prose.

In light of the dynamic changes in Maldivian society, it is imperative that we record ordinary lives to capture the human experience. Literature has, historically, played a key role in recording cultural identities.

This urgency in documenting our society becomes even more apparent when we consider the fact that it is jeopardised by climate change. If the projections made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are to be believed, Maldives will irrevocably lose a part of its culture to the waves within the next century.

Therefore it is crucial, in order to preserve our identity and collective voice, that Dhivehi literature is revived and revamped.

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