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Shyam Selvadurai: Funny Boy on Campus

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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  • In his first work Funny Boy, author Shyam Selvadurai burst onto the scene with works
exploring issues of alienation, displaceme

    In his first work Funny Boy, author Shyam Selvadurai burst onto the scene with works exploring issues of alienation, displaceme

Written by Annie Lian

At nineteen years old, Shyam Selvadurai fled to Canada with his family to escape the strife that rocked his home country of Sri Lanka.

There had always been tensions between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the minority Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, recalled Selvadurai, himself the son of a Sinhalese mother and Christian-Tamil father. In 1983, the unrest finally erupted into full-scale rioting on the streets of Columbo.

It was the last straw for Shyam’s family. “That was when my father realized that my mother was right - Sri Lanka could no longer be our home,” said Selvaduai, now 43.

The period had a lasting impression on the author, who has taken up the title of writer-in-residence at the University of Guelph.  

After graduating from York University with a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts, Selvadurai burst onto the scene with works exploring issues of alienation, displacement and conflict.

His first novel, Funny Boy, follows a young boy named Arjun Chelvaratnam as he grows up in Colombo in the 1970s.

Amidst the turmoil of postcolonial angst between the Sinhalese and Tamils, Arjun also struggles with his sexual desire for men. When the young protagonist escapes from the gender-segregated cricket pitch to play bride-bride with the girls, he learns that this inherent funniness is not something that is tolerated by his community or his family.

Funny Boy was shortlisted for the inaugural Giller Prize in 1994 and won the Books in Canada First Novel Award.

The author also gained international recognition for drawing attention to homophobia in Sri Lanka, where sex between consenting men remains punishable by up to a dozen years in jail.

It was an issue Selvadurai explored further in Coming Out, an 2003 essay he wrote for the Asian edition of Time Magazine. In it, he recounted his experiences living with his partner Andrew Champion for a year in Sri Lanka, including a harrowing account of when Sinhalese security forces  searched their home looking for Tamil Tigerse. 

Shyam is surprisingly nonchalant about trying to reconcile the different cultures and values he's been exposed to throughout his life.

"It is not about finding a balance between your identities, or trying to define within a particular one," he explained.

Rather, he said “it is about being open-minded” and “being accepting of how others define you.”

Selvadurai's second novel, Cinnamon Gardens (1998) was inspired by his fascination with Sri Lanka’s pre-independence history as well as the notion of clashing identities.

The historical fiction, set in 1920's Sri Lanka when it was a Portuguese colony called Ceylon, features two characters with polar opposite attitudes toward life. Annalukshmi rebels against societal restraints of her time, travelling unchaperoned on her bike on various endeavors. Her uncle, Balendran has survived by meeting all the expectations set by his lovely family.

Shyam’s family is swirled with real-life stories led by women boiling against the expectations of their time. In her teens, Shyam's mother was disowned by her “Aachi” or grandmother for eloping with her Christian-Tamil husband. (Shyam’s grandmother would later demonstrate her own independent streak, taking on the responsibility of managing multiple properties by herself after Shyam's grandfather died.)

Since Cinnamon Gardens, Selvadurai served as editor for the 2004 anthology Story Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers, which featured works by Salmon Rushdie and Monica Ali.

In 2005 he published a young adult novel Swimming in Monsoon Sea, which won the Lambda Literary Award in the Children's and Youth Literature category.

Selvadurai current divides his time between Guelph and Toronto, where he and his partner Andrew reside.

As U of G's writer-in-residence, Selvadurai said he's hard at work on his next work, which he describes as "fantasy" that explores Buddhism and the effect of forgiveness on Karma.

On the focus of Canadian literary education these days, Shyam thinks younger generations should be taught in a “modern approach – read more contemporary books to cultivate more diverse minds.”

“You must be consistent and disciplined,” he advised. “You are only as good a writer as how much you read.”

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