Shyam Selvadurai on childhood memory, Buddha, and answering your own questions
The author of Funny Boy and The Hungry Ghosts fields questions from the Canadian literati (including himself!) on his influences outside literature, the relationship between his childhood and his writing, and what type of characters he is comfortable portraying.
1. Kate Pullinger asks: "Is there anything in your own life that you would never write about?"
I would never write a memoir that involves my family and close friends. They are very important to me and to write about their lives, their secrets, their faults and foibles, would put me in an odd position of power over them, which would ruin the intimacy that I so enjoy.
2. Lynn Coady asks: "Is there a poet, philosopher, musician, painter or any other type of artist outside the world of fiction who has inspired your work in a concrete way at some point or another? If so, who?"
I am not sure if you would count the Buddha as a “philosopher” but if you do, then yes, he has greatly influenced my thoughts and hence the way I write. This is particularly so in my new novel The Hungry Ghosts, which has strong Buddhist themes. The narrative structure of the book is also based on certain Buddhist stories that are narrated within the novel, stories whose plots are contrived to express key points of Buddhist philosophy.
3. Zsuzsi Gartner asks: "Have you ever written a sentence you think could save lives?"
4. Kate Pullinger asks: "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"
My work is greatly influenced by my childhood, particularly the period details of that time, the world we grew up in where the ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils got worse and worse. Then there was the pain and horror of realizing I was gay in a world where there were no positive role models. At the same time, I came from a loving family and this gave me a sense of confidence to venture out into the world and become a writer, as well as come to terms with my sexuality. All this has influenced the philosophy behind my writing as well as the content of the writing itself. It is very important for me to portray Sri Lanka in a balanced way, both its horror and its beauty and pleasure. That period of pain, particularly my adolescence, is a wellspring I return to again and again to animate the emotional landscape of my novels.
5. Shyam Selvadurai asks: "Do you think the portrayal of certain character types are beyond you? Can you name a character in a novel, whose personality/point of view/ character traits etc you know you could never write?"
Well, this is odd, having to answer my own question! But obviously I asked this question because it's of importance to me as a writer. For myself, I find that, like Jane Austen and Henry James, I am a very limited writer, only able to write well when portraying the social and cultural milieu I know, which in my case is the upper-middle-class, English-speaking elite of Sri Lanka—the “Cinnamon Gardens Class,” as they are called. It is from this point of view that I venture out into the world, in terms of my fiction. Now this point of view is not as limited as it seems. For example, this social group travels widely and also immigrates to other countries. In The Hungry Ghosts, therefore, the immigrant parts are very much from the point of view of this group. So, to answer my own question, many character types are beyond me. I couldn’t, for example, write any of the characters in a Zadie Smith or Margaret Atwood novel. And certainly none of the characters in a novel by David Adams Richards, Alice Munro oh the list goes on and on. I so envy writers who can range widely.
6. Sharon Butala asks: "Someone once said to me, 'It's a sin not to write,' meaning that if you have the gift you do not have the right not to use it. Is writing something given to you by the gods and thus it is your duty to pursue and develop it?"
I’m not sure I would use the word “sin” in my case. The better word would be “privilege” to write. I feel this particularly in the Sri Lankan context. I have the privilege of a Canadian passport that allows me to escape if things get too dangerous for me. Other writers in Sri Lanka don’t have this advantage. In Sri Lanka writers and journalists are constantly silenced by threats and some disappear. So I feel I must push harder in terms of speaking out against the current political trends in Sri Lanka.
7. Sharon Butala asks: "What is the main question that you wish somebody would ask you, although nobody ever has?"
I can’t think of anything I haven’t been asked. There is always that question at the end of any interview where one is asked if there is anything the interviewer hasn’t covered. If I think there is something I want to say, I do so at that point.
8. Cordelia Strube asks: What keeps you writing?
I don’t really know. Just a mad urge. Not writing would make me more unhappy than writing.
Shyam Selvadurai is the acclaimed author of the novels Funny Boy, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was a national bestseller, and Cinnamon Gardens, which was shortlisted for the Trillium Award. He has also written a novel for young adults, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award. His latest novel, The Hungry Ghosts, is shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards.
Photo credit: Kevin Kelly Photography