40 at 40: Shyam Selvadurai looks back at the queer novel that launched his career

Nominated for a Canadian Screen Award this month for Funny Boy, the author discusses changes in Sri Lanka and identity politics’ second wave


In September 1994, NOW put a young, unknown gay Sri-Lankan-Canadian novelist on the cover for his debut novel, Funny Boy. This month, Shyam Selvadurai – besides having several more acclaimed novels under his belt, including Cinnamon Gardens and The Hungry Ghosts – is nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for his adaptation of his first novel in Deepa Mehta’s film. (The film is currently streaming on CBC Gem.)

This wasn’t the first time Selvadurai tried adapting the novel, which is set in Colombo in the lead-up to the Sri Lankan Civil War and follows a young, queer boy named Arjie from childhood to adolescence. A year or so after the novel’s publication, the UK’s Channel 4 optioned it, and Selvadurai and director Gurinder Chadha worked on a script.

“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing then, except I was being paid more than I’d ever been paid as a novelist,” says Selvadurai about that screenplay. “I kind of sat there and let Gurinder do what she wanted, then I added my bits to it. It was a complete flop. She wanted to include all the stories in the book, and it didn’t work. You can’t have that episodic structure in a film.

“Later, someone else optioned it, and several screenplays came out of that, including a really terrible one by an Oscar-winning screenwriter who had obviously seen too many Vietnam films, because there was this ‘Last plane out of Sri Lanka’ feel to it.”

The book, meanwhile, kept getting reprinted, with new generations of readers discovering it. Selvadurai wanted to have some sort of guardianship over it, and so he decided not to let anyone adapt it. That is, until a Sri Lankan director friend asked if he might want to write one himself.

“I was looking for a new writing challenge, and so I studied screenplay writing books – including some by Syd Field. I studied screenplays of films I loved. And I sat down and broke the novel up in a way that would work in the three-act screenplay structure. And eventually I sent it to the film agent Michael Levine, who said, ‘Who would have thought that you could do this?’ He asked who I wanted to send it to, and Deepa Mehta was at the top of my list.”

Veteran director Mehta was interested, but wanted more of the book in the movie. Selvadurai realized he was taking Field’s advice about sticking to one time period too literally. So he and Mehta went back and forth with notes and changes until it was finally ready for pre-production.

“Some of my favourite moments in the film have nothing to do with my writing or the book,” admits Selvadurai. “There’s a moment when the mother picks out these dead flowers from a vase. That was purely spontaneous for Deepa to do that. I like those moments a lot.

“I think it was screenwriter William Goldman who said the screenplay is like a blueprint for the film,” says the author, who’s working on a new screenplay but doesn’t want to say anything about it. “And what I realized is that it’s very much like the second draft of a novel. Everything’s in place, but the magic hasn’t happened yet. That’s when the director takes the screenplay and makes it her own.”

In Jerry Horton’s cover story, Selvadurai mentions the differences between being queer in the West and East, saying that the attitude in Sri Lanka felt like Britain in the mid-20th century. Have things changed in 27 years?

“Some things have and some things haven’t,” he says. “The sodomy law is still there, and same-sex sexual relations are still a criminal offence. At the same time, all these gay organizations exist, there’s a trans organization and a trans woman has her own talk show. So it’s weird. It’s a paradox.”

Original photo by Mike Ford

Selvadurai appeared on NOW’s cover a second time in April 2013 for his novel The Hungry Ghosts, which he calls his favourite book.

Selvadurai was on a second NOW cover, in 2013, for his novel The Hungry Ghosts, which he says is his favourite book he’s written.

“I don’t feel I was a proper writer until The Hungry Ghosts,” he says. “I really learned my craft with that book.”

He’s currently doing line edits on his new novel, Mansion Of The Moon, a historical novel about the Buddha’s wife.

“One of the challenges has been bringing 600 B.C. India to life,” he says, laughing. “It’s an odd book, but at some point I just started to live in it. I don’t understand why or how. But I just really enjoyed writing it. It’s nice not to be writing about the Civil War.”

Looking back on 1994, Selvadurai says he and his book were part of the first wave of identity politics in Canada. Now he says we’re in the second wave.

“I think Funny Boy was pushed forward by that first wave,” he says. “It had the prominence it did because it came at a moment when everybody was looking very hard for material like this, they were interested in it.

“And so it’s interesting to now be so much older and seeing and experiencing this second wave. I’m part of it to some extent, but it’s being carried by younger people who have other ways of looking at the world, other agendas. And I think my role is to support and promote them.”

I mention the work of multi-disciplinary trans artist Vivek Shraya, whose work Selvadurai has blurbed.

“I feel touched and honoured that someone like Vivek approached me to provide a quote for their book. It’s nice that artists who are on the cutting edge still care enough about me and my work to ask me for a quote. Of course I always say yes right away.”

– Glenn Sumi

Below is Jerry Horton’s cover feature on Shyam Selvadurai, Gay Sri Lankan wows Word On The Street, republished from our September 22, 1994 issue.


Dazzling debut novelist expands gay visions

By Jerry Horton

Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy is that rare literary creature – a first novel by an unknown writer backed by a major publishing house.

And not just any major publishing house – Funny Boy is the one and only first novel being published this year at the flagship of CanLit, McClelland & Stewart, and the book bears the personal stamp of fiction director Ellen Seligman. That stamp means something to publishers around the world – this is the woman who edits Atwood, after all – so it doesn’t get applied every day.

Selvadurai’s novel follows Arjie Chelvaratnam as he moves through an idyllic childhood into his teenage years, the complications of adolescence compounded by his renegade sexuality and cultural heritage – Arjie is a Tamil living in a nation run by the rival Sinhalese.

Although Selvadurai brushes off the suggestion that his novel is autobiographical, Funny Boy’s author and its protagonist have a lot in common. Both young men are Sri Lankan-born, both come from extended upper-middle-class Tamil-families centred in the capital city of Colombo, and both are gay.

And both came to call Canada home after 1983, when the Sinhalese majority responded to a terrorist bombing by taking to the streets of Colombo in a bloody anti-Tamil riot.

Selvadurai’s memories of the riot that forced his family to emigrate are still fresh 10 years later. “We heard that 13 soldiers had been killed by a bomb or a mine and that the funeral was to be that evening,” Selvadurai remembers just prior to his reading at this Sunday’s Word On The Street festival. “They were expecting trouble, but nobody thought much about it. But that night a riot started at the graveyard and it spanned out into the surrounding area.

“Next morning everything was calm. There was nothing on the news, it was as if nothing was happening. It was all by the grapevine. Gradually we became aware that Colombo was on fire and that the riot was moving closer to our area. We spent that week and the next in hiding.

“My mother is Sinhalese and my father Tamil, so race was never a source of conflict in our home. I had Sinhalese friends, I had Tamil friends – I never stopped to think they were this or that until 1983, when I was forced to.”

For Selvadurai, the weeks he spent in hiding and his flight from the country colour everything that has happened since, even the fairy-tale success of his writing career.

After graduating from York University in 1988 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre directing and playwriting, Selvadurai took a fiction workshop, spent a year in Montreal writing what he now calls “a really bad book,” then occupied himself the following summer doing writing exercises.

One exercise led to a scene that intrigued him – a boy watching his mother put on her sari, participating vicariously in the feminine rituals of getting dressed up. Pigs Can’t Fly, the story that grew out of that scene, was published in the Toronto South Asian Review, where it caught the eye of anthologist Alberto Manguel.

“It was like one of those stories that only happen in films,” Selvadurai says. “I was working at Lichtman’s and I’d had a really bad writing month, and I was really pissed off at myself. So I thought, ‘I’m going to go into work and do book returns, which for a writer is just about the most depressing thing you can do.

“So there I was in the basement when my manager came hurtling down the stairs and said, ‘Alberto Manguel is on the phone for you!'”

Manguel wanted the story for his gay anthology Meanwhile, In Another Part Of The Forest. He had also passed it on to his agent, who called Selvadurai to see if he had more work available. “When I told her it was the first story in a novel, she said, ‘That’s great!’

Long story

“Ellen Seligman at McClelland & Stewart, meanwhile, had already read Pigs Can’t Fly in hopes of including it in the Journey Prize Anthology, but it was too long. When she read the book she really loved it too.

“It was very exciting and very frightening, because once one has been through an experience where overnight everything you take for granted is taken away, you always live under fear.”

Too young to have investigated the Sri Lankan gay scene when he was a resident, Selvadurai sought it out when he returned for three months to research his novel.

“I came out as a gay person here, so my ideology around being gay is western. I have come to expect that certain things are my rights, to demand them and to feel cheated and angry when I can’t get them. In Sri Lanka that perception does not exist.

“Butch-femme stereotypes are very prevalent – who gets penetrated, who penetrates, who sucks, who gets sucked. I don’t think about those things, you know? It’s very much like Britain 40 or 50 years ago, in that class plays an interesting role in relationships. But some people are really out – amazingly out! And quite flamboyant. It’s very oppressive on one level, but on another there’s this freedom, this acceptance. I don’t understand the paradox of it.”

The trip did help make Selvadurai’s feelings about his heritage come into focus, however. “When I first looked into writing fiction I realized my education had been completely in the western classical tradition, and it was sort of like coming out. There was that same feeling of rage at the world for having cheated you out of something that is rightfully yours.

Reclaim history

“My reaction has been to immerse myself in South Asian writing and history and music, to try to catch up on the things I missed out on. Everything else, even gay fiction, has been moved aside to make way for this urge to reclaim my history.”

If Selvadurai thought he had left prejudice behind when he fled Sri Lanka, he soon discovered that it still thrives, in a less violent but still hobbling form, in the world of Canadian arts.

“When I was finishing up theatre school, it became clear to me that the only kind of career I could expect in Canadian theatre was as a creator of race-relation plays, because there was nothing else out there. There still isn’t.

“You don’t see somebody like me, at my age, being put on by Tarragon in their Mainspace or by the Canadian Stage. They won’t touch us with a barge pole, so we get put into fringe stuff, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want the colour of my imagination to be fettered by the colour of my skin.

“Around the time I graduated, writers like Neil Bissoondath, Bharati Mukherjee and Rohinton Mistry were beginning to have real success on their own terms. They were not pandering to the West. And I said to myself, this is the way to go.

“Mistry proved to me that you don’t have to be disparaging about your community in order to make it in the quote-unquote white world. I wanted to create characters like his – characters who are faulty but not stereotypes and who don’t pander to that idea that the East is barbarous or uncivilized or violent.”

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.

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