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Literary Smackdown

Shyam Selvadurai vs. Robert Hough: Write what you know/Write what you don't

We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.

Battle Seven: Is it better to write what you know, or to write outside your own experience? Shyam Selvadurai is an self-professed autobiographical writer, while Robert Hough's imaginary worlds include everything from lion tamers to Mexican peasants. What do you think—are you on Team Shyam or Team Robert?


Shyam Selvadurai: Write what you know

No words on the art of writing fiction rang home so much as a few pages of James Wood’s How Fiction Works in which he talks about writers rich in “negative capability.” It’s a term Wood uses to describe writers like Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolstoy etc. who can create “galleries of various people who are nothing like them.” Then there are the writers who are “less interested in, or perhaps less naturally gifted at this faculty but who, nevertheless, have a great deal of interest in the self.” In this category Wood puts Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence etc. 

It is in this second category that I have come to finally accept I belong, after years of agonizing about my lack of “negative capability;” after years of wasted writing trying to achieve this elusive goal. 

My work is, for lack of a better word, “autobiographical.” The characters I create, though fictional, are often inspired by real people, (usually people I know). The milieu of all my novels is very narrow and one I know well—confined to the English speaking upper middle class of Sri Lanka, known as the “Cinnamon Gardens” class, after the Colombo ward where this elite lives. While my work certainly encompasses other sections of Sri Lankan society, while it travels through time and across continents, while it contains both Sri Lankan and non-Sri Lankan characters, while it deal with very serious social and political issues, the point of entry is always through the lens of Cinnamon Gardens characters. I think I also write much better from the male point of view. In fact, with the exception of one female main character, all my protagonists have been gay Sri Lankan men from the Cinnamon Gardens class i.e. men just like me. They do, however, have different personalities and family dynamics from mine (and from each other too); they make different life choices before and during the course of the novel.

I don’t really understand why I am thus limited. It’s partly just lack of interest in straying beyond my chosen territory, which I find rich and fascinating. It matters to me in a way that no other fictional territory does, and this gives the work, the language, an energy. Yet leaving the explanation at lack of interest isn’t enough. For the truth is that, when I have strayed from this territory, the work has thinned out, become schematic and predictable. The work no longer surprises me. My “voice” has a slightly old fashioned cadence which is well suited to the slightly mannered way Cinnamon Gardens people think and talk. It cracks and splinters when used through a more colloquial point of view.  

I think that, in the end my limitation is ineffable, as is so much to do with writing. The writer Anita Desai, I believe, said that we are all given a certain number of notes and from those notes we must compose various melodies. I can only say for myself that it’s a pleasure and relief to be no longer reaching beyond my range, to be content within it.

Shyam Selvadurai was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His first novel, Funny Boy, was published to acclaim in 1994 and won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and The Lambda Literary Award in the U.S. He is the author of Cinnamon Gardens and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea and the editor of an anthology, Story-wallah! A Celebration of South Asian Fiction. His books have been published in the U.S, U.K and India, and published in translation in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey and Israel.

Robert Hough: Write what you don't know

Perhaps the only rule of writing that can’t be broken is the eternal “write about what you know.” By the same token, there is no rule so woefully misunderstood: thanks to this wooly maxim, countless hard drives around the world are, at any given time, storing quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age tales. 

The problem is that the vast majority of people’s lives are just not interesting enough to warrant a novel. (This, by the way, is a good thing; the last thing you want is the sort of problems that will fuel a 300-page novel.) I myself grew up in a predominantly white suburb that was neither rich nor poor. Nothing interesting, at least in novelistic terms, ever happened to me, and I believe the same could be said about my neighbours. Early on I realized that if I was going to write, I was going to have to step out of my own circle. In order to know something worth writing about, I was going to have to go out and learn it.

So I did. I’ve written novels about circus performers, Filipino sailors, alcoholic Romanians, Russian internet brides, and, most recently, impoverished Mexicans. While I would never suggest this is the only way to write a novel, or even the best way to write a novel, I will say that it’s the only way for me to write a novel, or at least one that others might find interesting. And yes, it takes work. Sometimes it feels like I spend my whole life memorizing the names of foreign foods, learning expressions in other languages, or digesting the history of countries that don’t happen to be my own. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve arrived alone in a weird place, phrase book in hand, my only explanation that I’m a Canadian author with an interest in… well… you.

The result is that I know more about, say, Mexican history than Canadian history, which would bother me were it not for the fact that Mexican history is so much more interesting. Though my research may be laborious, it also has a way of  opening the world up for me. Thanks to my novels, I know where to get good pelmini in St. Petersburg, I know the difference between tequila and mescal, and I know that dwarves, at least in the circus, are considered good luck. And while these might be useless things to know, they are things that I know, and as such are facts I’ve grown attached to. 

There are pros and cons. The research is daunting; the research is interesting. I suppose I could write the sort of novel in which there’s nothing remarkable happening on the surface,  the writing functioning to explore the interior reality of my characters. The only problem is that I’m not a fan of those kind of books, and I do believe that most readers, living with such distractions as HBO and Angry Birds, prefer stories in which overtly interesting stuff happens. 

The other thing I could do is move far away, and live there long enough that I begin to view my own life through the lens of a foreigner; many a writer has said that he couldn’t write about his own world until he left it. Again, there’s an obstacle. My daughters are happy in their schools,  my wife likes her job, we recently redid our kitchen. I am rooted in Toronto, so once again I’m stuck writing about those whose lives are much different than mine. For a dullard such as I, it’s matter not of curiosity, or even masochism, but of pure and unabashed necessity.  

Robert Hough’s latest novel is Dr. Brinkley's Tower. His debut novel, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. His second novel, The Stowaway, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Award and chosen by the Boston Globe as one of the top ten fiction titles of 2004. His third novel, The Culprits, was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Prize, the Commonwealth Award for Best Book (Canada and the Caribbean), and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. He lives in Toronto.




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