Shalini Nanayakkara has been writing since she was eleven-years-old and self-published her fantasy novel The Time has Come when she was twelve-years-old.
During her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, she demonstrated her leadership as an editor-in-chief for the English department’s annual publication With Caffeine and Careful Thought. Her influence as editor-in-chief stretched beyond the reach of the English publication to different department programs and included sixteen editors and twenty-one authors.
Nanayakkara continues her education at the University of British Columbia, with the achievement of the Social Science and Humanities Research award that granted her seventeen-thousand dollars to continue her research on eco-critical readings of fantasy literature, from the Industrial Revolution to now.
Nanayakkara currently works as a committee member organizing UBC’s 2019 Endnotes Conference, two days for graduate students to present their work to peers.
She also hosts a podcast called The High Fantasy Podcast, where she and co-host Morgan Sutherland, discuss fantasy literature and interview independent authors. You can find The High Fantasy Podcast on YouTube.
Nanayakkara moved from Canada to Sri Lanka when she was a child. Her father worked as a professor, founder, and director of the Post Graduate Institute of Management, in Sri Lanka. Nanayakkara’s exposure to academics and her passion for ecological activism inspired her to write a book called The Time Has Come. The books’ plot features aliens invading Earth and offering an ultimatum: “We won’t destroy you if you solve climate change, war, and poverty. You have one year.” Her father used the university’s printing center to publish Nanayakkara’s book. Peers from the university and Nanayakkara’s private elementary school were impressed at her three-hundred-page publication. When Nanayakkara moved back to Canada for high school, she was embarrassed because her 2008 publication was printed in Comic Sans.
“I thought I was being cool and different.” Nanayakkara then published a second edition in 2011, with the same Sri Lankan publishers. She plans on publishing a third edition in Canada, “I hope to finally see it on Indigo shelves.”
I asked Nanayakkara how she could write a three-hundred-page sci-fi book at eleven. “I read a lot. I read all the Harry Potter books and Eragon. I didn’t read a lot [of different] books. I read [these] same books over, and over again. So, I kind of got the style of fantasy writing.”
Nanayakkara published her book in 2008, one year before the Sri Lankan civil war ended. The Time has Come shows the evil side of humanity. The aliens threaten to destroy us if we don’t peacefully end all our wars. I asked if the civil war had inspired her in any way to write The Time has Come. “That’s interesting, I don’t know necessarily. I lived in a privileged area and I went to private school. I was never in any [immediate] danger. But, it was in the back of my mind.”
Nanayakkara explained that her inspiration for her book wasn’t specifically the Sri Lankan Civil war, it was an accumulation of what she saw in the media as a child—the Sri Lankan Civil war being one example of many portrayed on the media.
Nanayakkara has spent most of her life in Canada, and from as young as she can remember, she has always been passionate about climate change. As a child, she watched and read stories about climate change in the media. We watch this news but rarely do anything about it. At eleven-years-old, Nanayakkara wrote The Time has Come to show the importance of time in our socio-political decisions. “Climate change is expected [to have significant effects within the next fifteen years, maybe sooner]. I wanted to write a book to show what [humanity] can do when we have an external force to motivate [our actions].”
I said, “It’s kind of like having an incentive. For example, in our university writing programs, we have incentive to write stories because we have an external force motivating us to do well. That external force being our grades.”
Nanayakkara and I agreed that The Time has Come contains a sociological context. We as a society are motivated to take action at the last minute, distracted to take action ahead of time, and require immediate reward to take any action at all.
Procrastinating homework is a small example of procrastinating action on climate change. But both use the same mindset. We have plenty of time to do our homework, we put it off until the next day, then we realize that it’s due tomorrow and we scramble to finish our homework. It’ll only be when it’s too late that Earth’s due date comes and we as humanity will scramble to solve climate change.
“If you care about the environment in World of Warcraft, then you should care about the environment you live in, in real life,” Nanayakkara said referring to her Graduate thesis.
In 2017, Nanayakkara was awarded the University of Toronto Mississauga Undergraduate Research Fund, an award for $500.00 CAD to conduct research on a specialized topic. Nanayakkara chose to research why fantasy environments are so inspiring. She compared Romantic Era poet, Lord Byron’s Manfred to the videogame, World of Warcraft. Nanayakkara used her five hundred dollars to buy books, academic journals, and a subscription to World of Warcraft where she owned amateur players as a level 43 Druid and a level 53 Warlock. “I would post screenshots of me playing WoW and caption it ‘haha look at me using research money to play WoW!’”
Nanayakkara presented her research at the University of Ottawa’s “Rethinking Nature: Literary Studies in an Age of Ecological Crisis Graduate Student Conference,” in March of 2018. She continues her ecological research through fantasy literature for her graduate thesis at UBC. This coming August, she will present her research on an expanded notion at a conference at the University of Chicago’s “Romantic Elements”conference.
“So, if it’s a video game, if it’s a poem like Byron’s Manfred, or if you know anything about Tolkien, once you get immersed into that [fantasy] world, you automatically start thinking about that environment. And that immersion factor in fantasy might actually help us create more awareness about climate change and may actually make us want to do something,” Nanayakkara said.
Nanayakkara used an example from the World of Warcraft expansion “Battle for Azeroth” that burned the beloved environment, “Darnassus,” in-game.
WoW has posted videos of the burning of Darnassus on YouTube where the community have come together and voiced their disappointment over the developers’ decision to burn down the once mystical forest that was Darnassus. Youtube comments were filled with players lamenting at the decision to remove the virtual setting.
“That’s the same sort of feeling we should have with our own [real-world] environments,” Nanayakkara said referring to the comments.
I asked Nanayakkara if she feels stigma revolving fantasy literature because during my high school years, fantasy was seen as commercial-fiction without any real-world applicability. It is fantasy after all, readers read fantasy to escape the real world.
Nanayakkara hosts her podcast The High Fantasy Podcast on YouTube where she interviews independent fantasy authors about this exact question. “[The authors] figure out how to reconcile what’s happening [in the real-world] through a fantasy setting. You can see the similarities and differences between beautiful and terrible cultures that [exist within fantasy,] and compare them to our own.”
I learned a lot talking with Nanayakkara. We conversed more and we figure that the stigma behind fantasy literature is unwarranted. Orwell wrote fiction in Animal Farm to show the dangers of tyranny. Fantasy is still fiction, just with archetypal tropes. Harry Potter, a series my grade nine English teacher criticized as not-real-literature-commercial-fiction-JK-Rowling’s-cash-cow, uses symbolism akin to symbolism in the bible. Nanayakarra’s research on ecology and fantasy showed that Harry Potter influenced the fans to be more charitable. There are hundreds of charities that reference Harry Potter and relate the fantastical events in the series to real-world issues. For example, the Hogwarts Running Club.
Nanayakkara wants people to take the feelings, emotions, and passions that a reader gets from fantasy literature and games, and turn that fantasy into a reality. She wants us to apply our experiences as the heroes who save Darnassus in World of Warcraft to the heroes who save the ecosystem on Earth.
This article has been corrected.
- April 2, 2019 at 4 a.m.: Reformatted paragraphs properly