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Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

by Shyam Selvadurai

In the 20 years of my adult book discussion group at the library, one title stands out for the sheer delight it occasioned us all – Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s outrageous Sri Lankan memoir. Over the years my readers have been equally enthusiastic about other portrayals of south Asian life in novels by Rohinton Mistry and Anita Rau Badami. What is it about Canadians and south Asian literature?

Listening to discussions of these books, I have noticed that the appeal lies in setting and character. To a damp Vancouverite gradually turning mossy on her north side over the winter, to a betoqued and shivering Winnipegger, there’s a particular pleasure in reading about languid heat, the scent of cinnamon, and a garden rampant in succulents. It’s a kind of literary aromatherapy. As to character, everybody seems to appreciate portrayals of multi-generational families rich in tensions, hierarchies, and complexities. In-laws apparently make the whole world one.

This is the territory of Shyam Selvadurai’s adult novel Funny Boy. Focusing on a young man coming of age in Sri Lanka in the political turmoil of the early 1980s, Selvadurai portrays the world of imaginative play and the minefields of school and friendship with originality, respect, and quirkiness, revealing a writer who has retained an authentic sense of childhood. When I read such novels I often wonder what would result if the writer were to turn his attention to a young audience. Now I know. Selvadurai’s Swimming in the Monsoon Sea is his first young adult novel.

The story here, set in Sri Lanka in 1980, is of 14-year-old Amrith, a boy orphaned in early childhood when his parents died in a motorcycle accident. Amrith has been adopted by old family friends, the felicitously named Aunty Bundle and Uncle Lucky and their bumptious daughters, Mala and Selvi. The family is privileged, cultured, warm-hearted, and tremendously kind to Amrith.

As the novel opens Amrith faces a common teenage problem: looming summer holiday boredom. His only plans involve learning to type and rehearsing for the school play, Othello. In Amrith’s all-boys school, males take all the roles and Amrith has his heart set on Desdemona. The summer takes a more exciting turn, however, with the arrival of Amrith’s teenage Canadian cousin Niresh. Niresh is handsome, worldly, cool, and iconoclastic. He is the cat among the pigeons of Amrith and his adopted sisters.

From this point in the plot secrets begin to surface. Family feuds form the background to current tensions, largely to do with jealousy over the attentions of Niresh. Niresh reveals that the rosy picture he has painted of life in Canada – pals, pop concerts, sports – has been a lie. Amrith reveals that the last thing he ever said to his mother, in a fit of childish anger, was “I hate you.” Both boys try to deal with their deeply flawed fathers. Through it all Amrith gradually becomes aware of his own homosexuality. All of this tension comes to a climax in a swim in the monsoon sea, in which Amrith very nearly drowns Mala, and then himself.

The hefty overlap of material between this novel and Funny Boy makes for a revealing case study on what makes a young adult novel. One difference is that the political issues that are front and centre in adult works are muted and minor here, as befits teenage solipsism. In terms of narrative structure, whereas Funny Boy uses a series of linked short stories, Monsoon Sea is a more conventional linear narrative, dealing with a shorter, more focused period of time. Selvadurai artfully retains some of the short story feeling, however, by having chapter titles, a useful device for those readers who still need a helping hand through longer fiction. Another helping hand is provided by the Canadian cousin who functions as a plausible tour guide to some of the strangeness of the time and place, a point of reference for readers who haven’t ventured beyond the mall.

But the biggest difference, it seems to me, is in the handling of the gay theme. Funny Boy simply has a broader adult perspective and includes humour as part of the equation. Scenes of that novel’s hero Arjie escaping cricket to play Bride-Bride with his girl cousins capture both the pain of the situation and its hilarity. Amrith’s story is, in contrast, intense, complicated, sexy, and moving, but not funny. To be a gay teenager in Asia in the early 1980s is, we assume, no joke.

In style the two books are virtually indistinguishable. Selvadurai uses much more exposition and description than is usual in YA fiction. He expects the reader to have the skills to puzzle out unfamiliar references from context. Selvadurai expects his reader to be able to slow down. You need to slow down because he is telling you important things about Amrith in descriptions of trees, birds, the quality of the light, the smell of eucalyptus. You need to slow down to notice how jealousy in Othello is the same green-eyed monster you feel about your latest boyfriend’s betrayal. You need to slow down because it is so humid and hot, because a storm is brewing. This kind of reading will be a stretch for many young adult readers used to hyperactive plots and point-and-click characters. In this way Swimming in the Monsoon Sea truly is a crossover book, partly because it has two potential audiences, but more so because it will teach teen readers how to read adult fiction.