Shyam Selvadurai on hungry ghosts

First aired on The Next Chapter (20/05/13)

Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai's anticipated new novel The Hungry Ghosts is a story about a young gay man of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese background whose controlling grandmother takes him under her wing. The protagonist moves between Canada and Sri Lanka negotiating immigrant anxieties and family baggage.

Although it is not a memoir, The Hungry Ghosts is largely inspired by Selvadurai's own life. In a recent interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter, he described his new novel as an autobiography of a feeling. "It's more about how I felt, for example, arriving in Canada and ending up in that suburb of Scarborough. I wanted to get that feeling down, not just that inner feeling but the tactile feeling of say bringing that bundle buggy to the [Scarborough] mall."


It has been almost 20 years since Selvadurai's breakout novel Funny Boy and more than 10 years since his last book Cinnamon Gardens. He admits that The Hungry Ghosts was such a long time in the making because he couldn't find the perfect tone. "Canada was very difficult to write about, especially the Canada that I wanted to write about, which was the Canada which is called the inner-ring suburbs of, say, Toronto. Where it's an amorphous place, you arrive and there's no centre, there's no main street, no downtown, no nothing. It's just lost in a way. It's a kind of wasteland. I just did not know how to get my language to that place, because my language is much better suited to the sensuality of Sri Lanka."

Selvadurai's novel is largely inspired by his own Buddhist sensibility. The title The Hungry Ghosts is based on a Buddhist story that warns against greed. If you are greedy in your current life you will be reborn as a "hungry ghost" -- an insatiable creature who eats and eats yet can never be full. He says the hungry ghost is a central metaphor in his own novel. "It's a great visual symbol of desiring too much and eternal hunger for more and more and more," he said. "I wanted the novel to be about that."

Buddhism runs through the entire novel. He says his characters are mostly driven by a sense of karma and destiny. "I believe that everything we think and feel and do produces a result and that we have to deal with that result -- that result is then something that produces another result, so on and so forth, so yes, I do believe in causality." The main character's destiny as a young gay man in Sri Lanka in the 1980s looms over him throughout. Selvadurai said that Sri Lanka in the 1980s was (and for the most part still is) an oppressive place for homosexuals. "For me growing up, I felt like there was something fatally and tragically flawed in my nature and that it was my duty to try to avoid falling for that vice."

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