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When one plus one equals one

BOOKS:
The two worlds of Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist Shyam Selvadurai come together in one passionate, powerful writer


From war-torn Sri Lanka to suburban Toronto, The Hungry Ghosts is a novel with the power to transport. It’s the tale of Shivan, a gay Sri Lankan-Canadian who moves between cultures, belonging to both but comfortable in neither. This strong and evocative narrative is the work of Shyam Selvadurai, author of Funny Boy — shortlisted for the Giller prize in 1994 — and Cinnamon Gardens. His writing often draws on personal experience and, like Shivan, Selvadurai left Sri Lanka for Canada when he was 19. This isn’t a memoir, though. “It’s an autobiography of feeling and place and time and period detail,” says Selvadurai.

It wasn’t an easy book to write. The parts about life in Canada were brand-new territory for Selvadurai and particularly challenging. “It’s taken me 13 years to write this novel and it was writing about Canada — I just couldn’t get it right,” he says. “I was trying to render this landscape of Scarborough, an amorphous and kind-of-nothing landscape, so the reader would be oriented in a place that does not have an orientation… and it just took a long time to do it.”  

Part of the struggle — and what makes the novel an important one — is that there was no precedent for what Selvadurai set out to do. Part of his creative process is to use related novels as a starting point, creating a dialogue with them in his own work. But the story Selvadurai wanted to tell is unusual, partly because it’s a gay character and partly because it’s a painfully honest, warts-and-all account of coming to Canada. “That sense of the landscape itself feeding your depression and your gloom and the sheer drudgery and grind of that life,” says Selvadurai. “There are no models for that experience.”

In The Hungry Ghosts Shivan’s coming out is set against the backdrop of this alienation. Being both a cultural and sexual outsider magnifies his sense of difference. As he begins to explore the gay bars of Church Street, he quickly discovers his place in the pecking order. “It did not take me long to realize that in a community so devoted to the worship of beauty, I was generally not considered good looking because of the colour of my skin,” writes Selvadurai as Shivan. “My foreignness was often my appeal, and these white men ascribed both a submissiveness and feral sexuality to me, one man begging me to put on a loincloth and turban that he had in his closet.”

There’s a clear tension between Shivan’s relief at living in a culture that accepts homosexuality, and the loneliness he feels in that community. Even returning home to his mother and sister in Scarborough can’t lift his mood. The familiar sight of “grey-brick houses, stretches of wasteland, a field with a circle of overturned white lawn chairs in the middle of it,” becomes almost unbearable. This Canada-focused part of the narrative feels especially raw — an indication, perhaps, of why it was such a challenge to write.

There’s also no glorifying or demonizing of Sri Lanka; this is a story that shows the nuances of both places. Influenced by fellow South Asian writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Selvadurai set out to reflect a positive image of his native culture. “I wanted to have a sense of affection for my own people in the book,” he says. “There’s no question of looking down my nose or being slightly removed from them.”

There’s a strong sense throughout the book that we can’t blame our cultural background for the bad things that happen to us. “There are choices we can make, and that’s our responsibility,” says Selvadurai. “Your fate is something that’s fixed, but within that context you can make choices that will influence how that fate plays out; how your karma plays out in your life.” Buddhist philosophies like this are woven through the story and are sometimes voiced by Shivan’s tyrannical grandmother, Daya. She’s harsh and difficult to please yet devoted to her grandson — a complex character that literally had a life of its own. “This grandmother was supposed to be just backstory, but a chapter on her just took over,” says Selvadurai. “Once I had put her on the bed polishing the silver there was no going back, she just took up more and more space. And so the novel kept changing and growing, changing and growing.”

That process of changing and growing echoes Shivan’s narrative and, to some extent, Selvadurai’s own peripatetic life. He now spends seven months of the year in Toronto and five in Sri Lanka. He shares his Spadina and St Clair home with long-time partner Andrew Champion, and describes Toronto as “a big city that is peaceful enough to allow one to write.” It’s also a great place to be Sri Lankan, he says. “There’s such access to Sri Lankan food and culture and community here, which you don’t get even in New York. If you lived there, you’d have to go out to Staten Island to do your groceries. Here I just go out to Scarborough and get whatever I want.”

In the Sri Lankan half of his life, Selvadurai is in the thick of city life, living and working in the commercial capital of Colombo. In the last few years, he’s been curator of the Galle Literary Festival, an experience that deepened his connection to the culture. “It’s a completely different and wonderful experience to work in Sri Lanka because it roots you to the place in a way that going in as an expat writer sniffing around and doing research doesn’t,” he says. He recently started Write to Reconcile, a creative writing project in conjunction with The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. And he’s hard at work on an anthology of Sri Lankan fiction for Penguin India.

Still, it’s not easy to live in Sri Lanka as a gay person. “When I first encountered gay people in Sri Lanka in the early ’90s, they were self-hating. Now the gay people I meet think there’s nothing wrong with them, the problem is with society, so they’re closer to 1960s gay people in Canada,” he says. “They have to negotiate a life in secrecy and protect themselves from discrimination of all sorts. But they do increasingly have their own support networks, and there’s even a pride event. So all that’s going on in a slow way.”

Given his continent-straddling lifestyle, does Selvadurai think of himself as more Sri Lankan than Canadian, or is there less separation than ever? “I guess you could say I’m Sri Lankan-Canadian, but to me they seem like distinct things. Like two sets of clothing: I’m still the same person but I’m putting on different clothes — and I literally am putting on different clothes when I move from place to place,” he says, with a smile. “I don’t think of myself as an immigrant. For me, immigrant is a phase you pass through and then you become Canadian on your own terms. And that’s really how I think of myself: Canadian on my own terms.”


THE HUNGRY GHOSTS Shyam Selvadurai. Doubleday Canada. $20.

AUTHORS AT HARBOURFRONT Shyam Selvadurai reads with Mia Couto and Ania Szado. $10. 7:30pm. Wed, May 1. Brigantine Room. 235 Queens Quay W. (416) 973-4000.  harbourfrontcentre.com.

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