“When I sat down at the computer again, I thought it would blow up in my face. It was really hard.”
Shyam Selvadurai is speaking of pressure, the off-the-barometer kind that starts to press on novelists once they’ve come out of the literary blue to publish a first novel that readers and critics alike agree to be highly accomplished.
Selvadurai, of course, is just such a novelist: in 1994, while working in a Toronto bookstore, he made his debut with Funny Boy, a book that was praised as much for its clarity of tone and structure as for the assurance with which the story wove the personal – a boy’s story of growing up gay in Sri Lanka – with the political – the friction of that country’s longstanding rivalry between its Tamil and Sinhalese communities.
The book attracted rave reviews (“First-rate fiction, from a brilliant new writer whose next book cannot arrive here quickly enough,” one American reviewer wrote, and that was more or less the tone of things internationally). It won a SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, a Lambda Literary Award for gay and lesbian literature, got on the inaugural Giller Prize shortlist, and found itself deemed a Notable Book by the American Library Association.
In Canada, the first print run sold out before its publication date, then kept on going after that. In Sri Lanka, it was merely read by everyone, from the president on down, creating a forum in which discussion of homosexuality could find a way into the social discourse for the first time.
And it merely caused Selvadurai, who’s now 32, to fear his computer. “The pressure,” he says now, “was not made any easier by people always talking about, well, the pressure of writing a second novel.”
Could he do it again? Interviewers often seemed to expect him to know. He was just about ready to go into hiding when, at the dinner for the 1994 Giller Prize, he talked to jury member Alice Munro.
“She asked me, ‘Oh, are you having difficulties with your second book?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ She said: ‘I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s no better for me now than it was on my second book, it never gets easier.’ She said you just always want to do better than the last one, and that’s always a pressure. So that helped.”
Now – until the next time – Selvadurai appears to have come through the second-book pressures. While McClelland & Stewart won’t publish his new novel, Cinnamon Gardens, until September, and while he can’t, of course, foretell how it will be received, he’s arrived at a kind of peace.
It’s a spring Saturday at the Toronto apartment he shares with his partner. Cats are asleep in the living room and, under the fierce gaze of a framed print of Frida Kahlo in self-portrait, Selvadurai is pouring the tea he’s just made and smiling his serene smile.
“You know,” he says, “having said all that, something is different finishing this second novel. It feels…I really feel like a writer now. With Funny Boy I knew I was a writer, but I didn’t know if I was fly-by-night or not.”
Funny Boy was set in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, in the seven years leading up to the bloodying riots that erupted in 1983 between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the minority (Hindu) Tamils. It was following those very same communal riots that Selvadurai’s parents – his father Tamil, his mother Sinhalese – decided that there was no future for the family amid the strife and brought the family to Canada.
“It was hard for us to leave Sri Lanka, hard to leave the place that has always been, in our hearts, home,” Selvadurai, who was 19 when he emigrated, told an interviewer in 1994.
At the same time, he recognized that, to him as a writer, the distance was also a gift. “Like a lot of immigrant writers I find that a homeward pull inhabits my creative mind, that it is the capturing of the world I left behind that haunts my imagination. Yet, without the isolation from that world, without the act of migration, I wonder if Funny Boy would have ever been written.”
In Cinnamon Gardens, Selvadurai seeks to capture a world that he never actually knew. The novel is also set in Colombo – Cinnamon Gardens is an affluent suburb – but this time the year is 1927, and it’s the capital of pre-independence Ceylon. It’s also a time, as one character notes, in which “everything is changing.” A high-level delegation, the Donoughmore Commission, has arrived from London to decide on how the island will be governed, so the country is tottering on the rim of its future. At the same time the longstanding social order is starting to shift as, for example, women chafe at the old, hidebound structures of things.
For an epigraph with which to open the novel, Selvadurai borrows a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
As it was with Funny Boy, Selvadurai’s stage in the new novel is the wider world, but his story – or stories – are the unhistoric acts, the unvisited tombs. He follows two central characters: Annalukshmi, a young teacher who sees herself as belonging to “the modern world,” even while she lives day-to-day in the repressively traditional world of her parents’ generation; and Balendran, who struggles with his identity and his homosexuality against the strictures of family, marriage, and tradition.
“What originally sparked the story,” Selvadurai says, “were the stories my grandmother used to tell me about her sister, who lived in Malaysia. She was a remarkable woman in every way. She was married, pretty much against her will, to a husband who gambled, so she more or less took over the estate from him and ran it herself. She was very shrewd. She drove a car and she rode a horse – this at a time when a woman really couldn’t walk to the bottom of her street unchaperoned. That was the story I had.”
Then, in 1994, around the time of Funny Boy’s publication, Selvadurai went back to Sri Lanka and spent some time in Colombo’s archives. The more he read about the 1920s, the more fascinated he found himself. “The majority of the book was going to be set in Malaysia, Sri Lanka was only going to be about a third of it. But it just changed, it grew into something else. It makes sense that it did, because Malaysia is not really…I don’t love it, it doesn’t really have any great significance to me, not in the way Colombo does.
“And I got very interested in the history of the late ’20s. The labour movement, the women’s movement, the Donoughmore Commission – those are the beginnings of modern Sri Lanka.”
That realization was crucial, he says, because as much as he was interested in writing a historical novel, he was also intent on producing a book that comments on Sri Lanka today.
“It’s not a novel that’s merely set in that period – it’s a parable for today. So far, when I’ve sat down to write, I have in mind a Sri Lankan readership. The Sri Lankan English-speaking upper-middle class – it’s their sacred cows I’m attacking. It’s them I’m addressing.
“In the 1920s,” he says, “people were saying, okay, Ceylon is a multicultural society, a mosaic, and we can’t use a British system, a Whitehall system here. Even the British were saying this. The Donoughmore Commission, from outside, was saying this. They said, we have to come up with a different system. And they did. It’s the refusal to understand the complexity of a society that causes it to fall apart. Today in Sri Lanka, people know this is a fact, but they’re unable to resolve things, they’re unable to find a political system that reflects this.”
Last year, when Selvadurai was working on the second draft of Cinnamon Gardens, he and his partner went to live in Colombo. Before that, he says, he understood, perhaps in a mostly inarticulate way, how the second book connected to the first.
They are both, he knew, about racial conflict, be it Tamil/Sinhalese or Ceylonese/English. They were both obviously interested in what it means to be homosexual. Both focused on Sri Lankan politics and history. But it was only in Colombo that he began to see the importance of those unhistoric acts of George Eliot’s to his work both past and present.
“I think this book,” he says, “is what it is because I was there last year. You see when you’re living in the West, you don’t really understand the enormous courage it takes somebody like Balendran to live the life he lives. They don’t win battles, or court cases, or anything like that.
“I think Cinnamon Gardens is about personal courage and liberation. But I couldn’t really understand that courage until I was in Sri Lanka with my partner, trying to live as a gay couple in a society like that. The enormous cost, the enormous energy, the day-to-day fear, the problems – and the joys. I think I may have intellectualized all that before, but to live it…. I think that’s what made my characters come alive.”