An Interview With Shyam Selvadurai
by Ray Deonandan
August 3, 2002
This article originally appeared in India Currents Magazine, in April of 1996, under the title, “The Human Condition Explored.” The author retains all rights.
Shyam Selvadurai was launched last year into the public eye with the release of his global bestseller, Funny Boy. The tale of a gay boy growing up in racially divided Sri Lanka, Funny Boy has made the thoughtful Selvadurai a focus for the discussion of homosexuality in many South Asian communities.
The novel is currently in release in the U.S.A. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
India Currents: How have organizations such as Khush and Desh Pardesh affected your work? [Khush is an organization for gay South Asians, while Desh Pardesh is a venue for marginalized South Asian artists and performers, many of whom are gay.]
Shyam Selvadurai: They’ve helped absolutely. When I first came out [as a gay man] there was no such thing as Khush, so I had to come out into the white gay community. I had to adapt to gay white norms. What Khush provided was a way to combine the South Asian and gay elements to be explored. This comes out very much in Funny Boy: being gay in a South Asian context. Khush provided a very helpful forum for discussion.
With Desh Pardesh it was being able to then be gay, South Asian and an artist. If it were not for Desh I would have had to negotiate myself as an artist in a white context.
IC: How different do you think Funny Boy would have been has these organizations not existed?
SS: I think it would have been geared much more to a white audience, [whereas] I wrote the book very much for a South Asian audience, especially Sri Lankans. The courage and the validity for doing this came through Desh Pardesh, which as well provided an exposure to Orientalism and human rights issues. In fact, I was writing the book while I was on the steering committee for Desh. I think that a lot of discussions that went on there ultimately made their way into the book.
IC: How much of Funny Boy is autobiographical?
SS: I`m gay, the character in the book is gay. I’m Sri Lankan Tamil, the character in the book is Sri Lankan Tamil. We came to Canada –they came to Canada. Therein ends the parallels.
IC: Your family situation was different from Arjie’s [the protagonist]?
SS: Yes, completely different. My family is much less conservative. In fact, it was quite an unusual family because my parents were a mixed marriage: my father was Tamil and my mother Sinhalese, so there was instantly a certain specialness because we knew we were different from other children.
In addition, my mother was a doctor of medicine, unlike the mother in the book who is much more helpless because she is not economically self-sufficient the way my mother was. So all of us were brought up with a very different sense of what the roles of a male and female were.
IC: There was no problem then in writing this book in terms of exposure to your family?
SS: Oh no no. My family is very open in that sense. Even in Sri Lanka, there were never any comments about gay people being sick or anything like that. In fact, I remember my mother saying to me, when I was about 13 or 14, about a man who was a broadcaster or actor, “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s gay because those people are really intelligent and creative.”
It was another stereotype, but at least it was a positive one!
IC: When did you reveal to them that you were gay?
SS: I did that when I was 21. We were then in Canada. I think it made it easier for them to accept it here simply because they knew that there were greater possibilities for happiness here, being gay, than there would have been in Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka, I think they would have said, “We realize that you are gay, and we know that it’s not a sickness.” But it would have made them very unhappy because I couldn’t have been accepted and happy there.
IC: How has the book been received in Sri Lanka?
SS: Really well, actually! I was there doing promotions in January , and I came out [of the closet] in a big way in a major newspaper with an article titled, “Growing Up Gay in Lanka.” And the response was really favourable; the book sold out in a couple of weeks –you just couldn’t get it anywhere!
I did a reading at the British consul, and they said they’d never had such a big turn-out for a reading before, except for maybe [fellow Sri Lankan-Canadian and Booker prize winner] Michael Ondaatje. And in the question-and-answer period, a lot of the questions were about being gay. They were not asked negatively, but rather intelligently.
IC: Are you surprised?
SS: A little, but in retrospect I think that people there are much more open than we give them credit for being. They are, after all, exposed to what goes on here. People who read English read Western magazines. And now we have CNN (God help us!), so ideas trickle down, and there is an understanding of homosexuality there among the liberal sector of society.
And you have to understand that in societies like that in which one side is very conservative, in response the other side gets very very liberal, almost radical. So the liberal people there tend to be much more radical than, say, liberal people in Canada. For example, Marxism and Maoism are discussed as viable forms of combating social oppression.
There, they are much more eclectic, while here we tend to be liberal within a very narrow definition of the term.
IC: What do you think is the most inflammatory about Funny Boy. Is it the homosexuality or the political element?
SS: It’s a combination of both. I would think it would be more the homosexuality, but among the ultra-Right Sinhalese, probably most problematic is the fact that the book expresses sympathies for Tamils and shows them as human, which is about the last thing that the ultra-Right want Tamils to be.
This sector of the population will be upset that tragedy is humanized in the book. It’s a very personal tone.
IC: How do you explain the success of South Asian writers in the West?
SS: Good writing? I’m joking, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because it’s fairly new territory. People simply like [Indo-Canadian writers] Rohinton Mistry and Moyez Vassanji and others. They’re just really good writers; there’s nothing much beyond that. They have a firm grasp on the structure and on the craft of writing, and there’s a depth of understanding of human nature and human experience.
People can read them and identify with them, even though they may not have experienced the same culture. By being very particular and very rooted in their milieu, they magically become universalized. The [diversity] of the people who’ve read my book amazes me because there is no reason they would pick it up in the bookstore.
IC: Do you think that you’ve influenced other South-Asian homosexual writers? Was that your intent?
SS: I wouldn’t say that that was my intent. I was thinking more about giving voice to that certain liberal section of the community that seldom gets heard. The biggest kick I get from the response to the book is when somebody who is South Asian tells me they’ve been empowered by the book, or that they’ve given it to their parents as a way of coming out.
As well, people in the South Asian community have a hard time talking about straight sex, let alone gay sex or sexuality in general. But you can discuss this by using the book as a springboard, “Have you read Funny Boy? What do you think about it?” and launch the subject that way. I think the book has allowed a lot of people to discuss homosexuality without having to bring up the subject per se. For example, people in Sri Lanka who read English can now say that they know of a real live gay Sri Lankan person.