Making space for contemplation inspires Shyam Selvadurai's life and writing
Shyam Selvadurai is an award-winning Sri Lankan Canadian novelist. His books include Funny Boy, which won the 1995 Books in Canada First Novel Award (now known as the Amazon Canada First Novel Award) and which was adapted into a 2020 film by acclaimed Indian Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta. His other books include Cinnamon Gardens, The Hungry Ghosts and the YA novel Swimming in the Monsoon Sea.
His new novel, Mansions of the Moon, is a fictional look at the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become the Buddha, from the perspective of his wife Yasodhara — a woman left in the shadows of the historical record.
Selvadurai took The Next Chapter's version of the Proust Questionnaire.
Name your favourite writers.
What I find is that when I'm writing a novel, I have a writer —or a few writers — who become favourites at that time because they're actually acting as guides and mentors. With my novel Mansions of the Moon, I turned to this wonderful historical fiction writer named Mary Renault — she wrote about Ancient Greece and a bit about Rome, too. And I learned a lot from her about how to enter these historical worlds — when you read her novel, you open it and you're right in the world, and I saw that the way she did that was by staying strictly in the point of view of the characters.
My favourite is her novel The Persian Boy, which looks at Alexander the Great through the point of view of a slave who was his lover. It made me realize that in historical fiction, the thing that really works is these marginalized characters, because it brings the marginal into the centre — which historical books don't do since history is written by the conquerors.
If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?
Well, I'd love to have been born to rich parents who could give me an annual fee of $24,000, which would be just enough money to allow me to write without teaching too much. Too much money would make me slack — and just having that $24,000 would allow me to keep writing with some pressure on me.
What is your favourite occupation?
Well, I mean, obviously writing. But I think my second occupation I enjoy most is daydreaming. I just love public transport — you can just sit there and stare out of the bus window and be in your mind.
I just love public transport — you can just sit there and stare out of the bus window and be in your mind.
With the pandemic, I've taken to walking a lot — I just love it; it's a meditative state. I suppose that what I also love is doing meditation in a formal way, but walking and looking out of bus windows is also a form of meditation.
Where would you like to live?
I love where I live — I think I'm very blessed to have two homes: Toronto, and Colombo in Sri Lanka. And I suppose in both places, the thing that makes me very happy to live there is the people whom I know — family and friends. And I think I just love the city.
What is your principal defect?
I get very anxious about everything. That's where taking up Buddhism and meditation has been extremely helpful in helping me both calm my anxiety, but also find a philosophical framework with which to look at the cause of anxiety, and why one might have this feeling.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I don't believe in perfect happiness, because nothing is permanent in life. So the moment you're perfectly happy, very soon you're going to lose that and you're going to be perfectly unhappy.
I don't believe in perfect happiness, because nothing is permanent in life. I would be more interested in perfect peace.
So, for me, I think what I would be more interested in is perfect peace. And by peace, I mean the Buddhist concept of equanimity. In the face of everything that happens in your life, both good and bad, it doesn't mean you have to be indifferent or unemotional. It just means that the good and bad drifts in front of you, and you drift along with it. I feel it's a worthy goal to pursue, and that gives me moments of tranquillity.
Who are your favourite characters in history?
My favourite character is Siddhartha Gautama, who would become the Buddha. I mean, I just so admire how he looked at human existence and saw the fundamental problem in it for people — which was change, and how one might deal with change. So that's why I was so excited to try and bring him to the page through fiction. And I just felt too intimidated to do it completely in his point of view.
I would pity Buddha if he lived in my time, because I would pester him with so many questions.
So that's why I was happy to do it from his wife's point of view, although there are chapters in Mansions of the Moon in which I explore his understanding of the world and the growth of his philosophy, but in a way that his philosophy has affected me. But I would pity the man if he lived in my time, because I would pester him with so many questions. He would see me coming up the road and go, 'Oh, no — here he comes with these one hundred questions.'
What is your greatest fear?
Fear of change — because everything changes all the time. And especially now we're really aware of this because of the pandemic — the things that you love, including your own body, change. People change and they die and you die — there's this endless process of change, and I think that is difficult to deal with.
The things and people that you love change. There's this endless process of change — and I think that is difficult to deal with.
It was kind of nice to actually just go to that fear in this book. I'm never not going to be frightened of change, but it helped me to somewhat come to terms with it.
What is your greatest achievement?
I think my greatest achievement so far is this project I did in Sri Lanka called Right to Reconcile, which brought together students from all over Sri Lanka from all ethnic groups to write about reconciliation and peace and bridge-building through the medium of creative writing.
I just really loved doing that project. I loved meeting these young people — it served as a kind of a gift to meet them and to hear their stories. Young Sri Lankan people are so charming — they're respectful, but they're kind of cheeky, too, and they're full of life.
Some of these students have gone through things that I've not experienced — like lived in refugee camps, or lost people they knew and loved — and yet they have this kind of wisdom as young people because they've survived this. I really felt that it was a kind of a blessing in my life to have done the program.
Shyam Selvadurai's comments have been edited for length and clarity.