Father's Day: I'm a writer because of my dad, but he is still my most challenging subject
My father was a wonderful writer and passed his love for it to me. And though I have struggled to write about him, this is my imperfect first attempt.
My father was always writing, as far back as I can remember. Whenever he found more than a moment for himself, he was buried in a book or writing longhand on foolscap paper with multiple open tomes and shoeboxes full of notecards scattered on his desk.
His writing was eclectic, to say the least, ranging from short stories to children’s books to scholarly articles and general interest volumes on the history and archaeology of Sri Lanka, where I grew up. Later in life, he took to compiling dictionaries, all by himself, including one of the more comprehensive English-Sinhala lexicons still in use.
I’m not sure how he found the time — between his day job as a government official, doing things around the house and garden, and spending time with us kids — but he managed to publish over 35 books in his lifetime. That’s all the more impressive considering that he had to drop out of school in the seventh grade to support his suddenly widowed mother and five siblings.
A childhood love flourishes
Clearly, I owe my love of writing to my father. Initially, it must have stemmed from a childish wish to imitate the person I looked up to the most. I remember pestering him for essay topics. When I liked one of his suggestions, I’d scribble a short essay in a ruled exercise book and show it to him proudly.
More often than not, I dismissed the topics he suggested as boring and bugged him for better ideas. One day, when I was in the sixth grade, he sat me down and explained that pretty much anything could serve as a compelling subject, that good writing has more to do with how you approach it rather than the topic itself. “For example, you could write a great essay about something as simple as a matchstick,” he said.
That sounded like a challenge to my 12-year-old self, so I jotted down a dozen or so sentences about the value of a matchstick. Then with my father’s encouragement, I mailed my write-up to a children’s weekly, which included a page of its readers’ submissions in each issue. My little essay must have stood out at least for its subject matter among the usual submissions on “my pet cat” and “my favorite vacation,” because the newspaper printed it a few weeks later. It’s hard to overstate the thrill of seeing my first piece of writing — and my name — in print. I was addicted.
COLUMN: Ray Jayawardhana, an astrophysicist, is the dean of arts and sciences at Cornell University. His picture book debut, “Child of the Universe,” was published this year. Follow him on Twitter: @DrRayJay