Shyam Selvadurai, an author renowned for skillfully weaving the themes of identity and ethnicity into his stories, discusses the release of his new book, “The Hungry Ghosts” in an exclusive with GaysiFamily.
Q. Please tell us a bit about your new book. What themes have you explored in it?
The themes I have explored have to do with forgiveness. The book also uses themes from Buddhist philosophy. As for what the book is “about”, it’s an impossible question for an author to answer as we can’t see the forest from the trees. Here, therefore, is my editor’s description, taken from the Canadian edition of The Hungry Ghosts:
In Buddhist myth, the dead may be reborn as “hungry ghosts”—spirits with stomach so large they can never be full—if they have desired too much during their lives. It is the duty of the living relatives to free those doomed to this fate by doing kind deeds and creating good karma. In Shyam Selvadurai’s sweeping new novel, his first in more than a decade, he creates an unforgettable ghost, a powerful Sri Lankan matriarch whose wily ways, insatiable longing for land, houses, money and control, and tragic blindness to the human needs of those around her, parallels the volatile political situation of her war-torn country.
The novel centres around Shivan Rassiah, the beloved grandson, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and who also—to his grandmother’s dismay—grows from beautiful boy to striking gay man. As the novel opens in the present day, Shivan, now living in Canada, is preparing to travel back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to rescue his elderly and ailing grandmother, to remove her from the home—now fallen into disrepair—that is her pride, and bring her to Toronto to live out her final days. But throughout the night and into the early morning hours of his departure, Shivan grapples with his own insatiable hunger and is haunted by unrelenting ghosts of his own creation.
The Hungry Ghosts is a beautifully written, dazzling story of family, wealth and the long reach of the past. It shows how racial, political and sexual differences can tear apart both a country and the human heart—not just once, but many times, until the ghosts are fed and freed.
Q. Do you think being an immigrant/ homosexual brings a characteristic flavour to an author’s writing? Are they more adept at dealing with the subjects of alienation and loss?
No, not necessarily. Sure one is more alienated, but having the ability to write about it is something else.
Q. Your earlier book ‘Funny Boy’ was set in a turbulent era of Lankan history; bad time to be Tamil and gay. How did you work on the background (time and place) for basing ‘The Hungry Ghosts’?
No research was really needed. I lived in that period and in both countries- Sri Lanka and Canada.
Q. In your opinion, how has literature dealing with homosexuality evolved since the 90’s? Do you think the South Asian audience still views it as controversial?
Gay literature has become much more mainstream. Yes, I guess they do view it as controversial but the people reading my books and other Gay literature are obviously reading because they are not homophobic.
Q. You had written earlier about the difficulties you faced while living with your partner in Sri Lanka. Do you think it is any easier to come out in Sri Lanka today?
The difficulties we had were not that bad, the article was more amusing than anything else. No, it’s just as difficult to come out in Sri Lanka now. There is, however, more acceptance in progressive circles.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your work at ‘Write to Reconcile’. Can literature lead to social change? If so, how?
Write to Reconcile is a creative writing project in English undertaken by The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, in conjunction with me as Project Director. The aim of the project is to bring together emerging Sri Lankan writers who are interested in writing creative pieces (fiction, memoir or poetry) on the issues of conflict, peace, reconciliation, memory and trauma, as they relate to Sri Lanka. Yes, literature can bring social change as it gives us access to the minds, feelings and views of those who are different from us and wins our empathy towards them.
Q. In your perspective, is there a common thread in South Asian Literature? If so, what is it and could you name an author whose work you can relate to?
No there is no common thread. The literature is too diverse to have a common thread.
Q. Could you name a few queer- themed books that have inspired you? Any advice for budding writers?
I can’t think of any gay themed books that have inspired me. I do like the following writers who are gay- Proust, Edmund White, James Baldwin and Andrew Holleran.
As for advice to budding writers: Read a lot and set aside time to write every day or at least a few times a week. A book is nothing but an accumulation of pages and you have to write those pages.