Shyam Selvadurai Biography
Nationality: Sri Lankan (Ceylonese)-Canadian. Born: Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1963; immigrated to Canada, 1984. Education: York University, Toronto, B.F.A. Career: Novelist, essayist, and writer for television. Awards: Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, 1997; Lambda Literary Award for gay men's fiction (Lambda Literary Foundation), 1997. Agent: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
Funny Boy: A Novel in Six Stories. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1994; as Funny Boy: A Novel. New York, Morrow, 1996.
Cinnamon Gardens. New York, Hyperion, 1999.
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Like much recent South Asian diasporic fiction, the novels of Shyam Selvadurai share several thematic preoccupations: with the inherited legacy of the British colonial past; with the more recent strife caused by post-independence ethnic and religious divisions; with journeys of migration and return; with the rending of families by long suppressed secrets, generational conflicts, duties compelled, and traditions neglected. In this regard, Selvadurai's work has much in common with that of other South Asian-Canadian writers, including Neil Bisoondath (A Casual Brutality, The Worlds Within Her), Rohinton Mistry (Such a Long Journey, A Fine Balance), M. G. Vassanji, (The Gunny Sack, The Book of Secrets), Anita Rau Badami (Tamarind Mem, The Hero's Walk), and especially Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family, Anil's Ghost), who, like Selvadurai, was born in Sri Lanka and emigrated to Canada at the age of nineteen. However, what is distinctive about Selvadurai's novels, and what sets them apart from the above list, is their skilful interweaving of issues of sexuality into the standard narrative of South Asian cultural dislocation.
Funny Boy, Selvadurai's first novel, was published in 1994 to immediate international acclaim. It won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, as well as a Lambda Literary Award for Best Work of Gay Fiction, and announced Selvadurai as a major new voice in Canadian, postcolonial, and gay literature. Set against the backdrop of growing tensions between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese and Tamil communities that culminated in the outbreak of civil war in 1983, the novel is a moving and scrupulously honest coming out story. Arjie Chelvaratnam, the cosseted son of prosperous Tamil hoteliers in Colombo, is not like the other boys in his large extended family; for one thing, when his cousins gather for childhood games of "bride-bride," he always likes to wear the sari. In an effort to curtail such eccentricities and teach his son "to become a man," Arjie's father sends him off to the Victoria Academy; there he meets Shehan, a Sinhalese boy about whom there is also something "funny."
The romance between Arjie and Shehan blooms furtively amidst the revelation of other family secrets, each progressively more violent in their repercussions: Arjie's glamorous aunt Radha clashes with his grandmother over her marriage prospects and her true love for a Sinhalese man; an Australian journalist murdered in Jaffna turns out to have been a former lover of Arjie's mother; and Jegan, whom Arjie's father "adopts" into the family and business, may or may not be a member of the Tamil Tigers. Throughout, Arjie's essential naivete and guilelessness makes him an ideal narrative filter for the explosive transformations he is witness to, both in the streets of Colombo and in his own bodily desires. This technique is most skilfully rendered by Selvadurai in the novel's concluding epilogue, a "Riot Journal" in which Arjie records the tumultuous events that have precipitated his family's imminent departure for Canada, as well as the poignant denouement of his relationship with Shehan.
Funny Boy is innovatively structured as "a novel in six stories." Arjie is the focalizing narrative consciousness of each, and to the extent that the book's plot traces, more or less linearly, his development through boyhood into young adulthood, it can be said that Selvadurai's writing achieves a cohesive unity. And yet, given that so much of the novel is concerned with the violent fracturing of cohesion, be it national, familial, or sexual, it seems only appropriate that its structure should likewise resist such a totalizing gesture. In this respect, Funny Boy bears examination alongside two similarly structured novels published by gay writers in Canada during this period: Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony (1995) and Derek McCormack's Dark Rides (1996). The interconnected "stories" in each novel add up to a cumulative portrait of adolescent identity formation (and especially the discontinuous links between sexual and ethnic identity in the cases of Selvadurai and Choy), at the same time as the silences and gaps between the stories point to the fact that the rendering of this portrait will never be complete or whole.
In Cinnamon Gardens, his second novel, Selvadurai goes back in time to the late 1920s, during the waning days of colonialism, when Sri Lanka was still Ceylon. The British government has just set up the Donoughmore Commission, in order to look at the possibility of transferring limited self-rule to the Ceylonese people. The Commission has sparked fierce debates among Colombo's wealthy Tamil families—most of whom live in the well-appointed suburb of Cinnamon Gardens—about what form this self-rule should take and to whom exactly the voting franchise should be extended (limited self-rule was eventually granted in 1931, but it would be another seventeen years before Ceylon/Sri Lanka achieved full independence).
Interestingly, Selvadurai also retreats somewhat in terms of form, modeling his novel more along the lines of nineteenth-century British examples of the genre. Cinnamon Gardens is a big book, sweeping in scope, grand in its ideas, and here it very much resembles the work of George Eliot, who serves as a sort of guiding spirit throughout the novel. Indeed, at one point we learn that Annalukshmi, Selvadurai's heroine, is reading Silas Marner; and a quotation from Middlemarch is used by Selvadurai as an epigraph to his novel. Annalukshmi, a fiercely intelligent and independent young woman who has scandalized her family by qualifying for her teacher's certificate and by espousing radical views on women's suffrage, is very much a Dorothea Brooke-figure. Both characters are externally public-spirited and progressive politically, working on behalf of others (Dorothea through housing, Annalukshmi through education); and both characters are deeply conflicted internally, unable to resolve the competing pulls of head and heart. To this end, Annalukshmi's immediate predicament concerns her family's desire for her to marry, a move that, in proper Ceylonese society of the time, would compel her to give up her teaching career. Much of the novel is taken up with a comic parading of potential suitors before Annalukshmi, all of whom fall impossibly short of her high standards. Partly through her own strength of will and partly through circumstance, Annalukshmi avoids making a match as disastrous as that between Dorothea and Edward Causabon; on the other hand, by the end of the novel neither has she found her Will Ladislaw.
Balendran, Annalukshmi's uncle and the novel's other principle protagonist, can likewise be compared with Eliot's Causabon. Both men have lived mostly unfulfilled lives, caught between thought and action, rationalization and passion. Like Causabon's unrealizable Key to All Mythologies, Balendran, we are told, has been working for some time on a study of Jaffna culture. Of even graver consequence, however, is the fact that for the past twenty years Balendran has submerged his own homosexual desires underneath a facade of respectable familial propriety. While a student at Oxford, Balendran fell in love with a white man, Richard Howland, but abandoned his lover and returned to Colombo to marry his cousin when his outraged father discovered the true nature of the relationship. Now, two decades later, Richard has come to Colombo to observe the Donoughmore Commission's proceedings, forcing Balendran to confront both his past and present duplicity. Here, in addition to Eliot, we see the influence of E. M Forster, especially in terms of Selvadurai's exploration of the attendant clashes between sexuality, colonialism, and class. We are told, for example, that early on in their relationship Richard and Balendran made a pilgrimage to visit Forster's great mentor, Edward Carpenter, author of The Intermediate Sex (Forster's Maurice was written soon after his own visit to the pioneering sexologist); moreover, late in the novel one of Annalukshmi's suitors presses upon her a copy of A Passage to India.
Cinnamon Gardens is, however, mostly Dickensian in its execution. Intricately plotted, sporting a huge cast of characters, and with all manner of secrets revealed, long-lost relatives returned, and penurious paupers rescued, Selvadurai uses humor and coincidence to explore some weighty issues: the suffragist movement, the classism inherent in the caste system, religious divisions, racial and sexual prejudice, and so on. On these issues, Selvadurai refuses to elevate anyone as moral spokesperson. All the characters in Cinnamon Gardens are flawed and compromised in some way. The progressive and much-admired headmistress of Annalukshmi's school, Miss Lawton, turns out to be a quiet racist and religious xenophobe, appalled that her adopted Tamil daughter, Nancy, has fallen in love with a poor Sinhalese Buddhist. Even Balendran, despite taking a climactic stand against his father, has failed to redress fully his treatment of Richard by the end of the novel. In this regard, Selvadurai's characters mirror the conflicts and contradictions inherent in Sri Lankan culture itself.
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