As a highly acclaimed sports journalist, Andrew Fidel Fernando is no stranger to most Sri Lankans. If you love Cricket – and there’s a high probability that you do – then you may have read or seen his reports. These days, Fidel’s face pops up on media for another reason: he was the recipient of this year’s prestigious Gratien prize for his non-fiction book ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’, a prize given for the best work of literary writing by a resident of Sri Lanka.
By Thushanthi Ponweera
Going from writing about the country’s favourite sport, to writing about the country itself, doesn’t seem like an unusual leap. And it’s clear he loves his country of birth, even though he was away from it for nearly 13 years. “We moved to New Zealand when I was 10. I liked it, but I never really felt at home there. I always wanted to return to Sri Lanka, to reconnect with my roots.”
Fate seemed to have agreed too. Towards the end of his undergraduate degree at the University of Auckland where Fidel was studying history, theology & philosophy, he was presented an opportunity to explore his passion for writing when he applied to write for ESPN. They liked his writing enough to take him on board. As Fidel recalls in his book, he may not have been much good at playing Cricket, but his love for the sport shone through in what he wrote. Fortunately for him, what started off as a trial ended up as a career. Coupled with his wry humour and precise reporting, Fidel soon became a permanent part of the ESPN team, later becoming the national correspondent for Cricket for Sri Lanka, a position he has held since 2012.
“At first, my parents weren’t too pleased. I was the first from their family to enter university. My grandparents were humble folk– my mom’s mom was a school teacher who raised her kids as a single parent, and my dad’s dad was a prison guard. Naturally, they wanted to see me become a professional, and have financial security, and that meant university and a degree. But as I got promoted and my reputation as a journalist grew, they started to understand that this was a passion, and respected the path I took. My father took a bit longer than my mother to warm up to the idea, but he is now one of my biggest fans.” His parents are still in New Zealand, but Fidel, true to his original plan, has settled in Sri Lanka with his Kiwi wife and two-year-old son.
In real life, Fidel stays true to his reporter persona, answering swiftly and to the point. No long ramblings or discussion here. It almost makes me wish I had a bulleted list of questions in front of me. But it also makes it clear that this is why he won the Gratien. Fidel prefers talking about the topic at hand, and not about himself. His book is a testament to that. It is full of insightful observations unmuddied by personal judgement. In order to write it, he traveled the length and breadth of Sri Lanka over a span of seven weeks, by various means of transportation and seeking as authentic an experience as possible. “Mannar was unexpectedly my favourite stop. The Madu church is a melting pot of culture and religion, and it had a serenity that was inescapable.” His keen love for history often makes its way into his travelogue, making it all the more interesting. “I’ve always been a bit of a nerd. Be it sports or history, details fascinate me. It’s really interesting to learn how warped our version of history can be. Depending on who wrote what, and what is passed on…a lot can change based on the lens through which it was recorded, and who was in power. The Mahawamsa is largely written from a Sinhalese Buddhist perspective, and there are times when we have to approach it as a propaganda piece, rather than uncritically accept it as history. As with most historical texts the losers are often not represented as fairly as they could be” he says, referring to the famous Dutugemanu-Elara battle as an example. To quote a line from his book, “The truth lay wherever you put your faith. No version of events was without error.”
Being of mixed heritage himself, and having spent his childhood and youth in two completely different countries, it is no surprise that Fidel is drawn towards stories that explore our humanity and shared similarities. “There are many factors that contribute towards each of our lives: politics, identity, culture, history and circumstances. But even if these differ based on where you’re from, there is also so much that remains the same. Kindness, empathy, generosity. These are what binds us together. And in a country that is constantly reminding us of our differences, it is good to be reminded how alike we still are, and that’s what I hope to do with my writing.”
Originally appeared in Pulse magazine, print edition, Sept/Oct 2020
Image credit: Andrew Fidel Fernando