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Pappadums at the Sky Dome - Ameen Merchant speaks with Shyam Selvadurai
by Ameen Merchant

Shyam Selvadurai was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1965. After attending the Royal College and completing his university entrance requirements, he emigrated to Canada with his family following the 1983 riots in Colombo. He studied Fine Arts and Creative Writing at York University in Toronto, where he resides today.

His critically acclaimed novel, Funny Boy, recounts a Sri Lankan boy's coming of age during the turbulent 1975-1983 period, and it won the 1994 Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Men's Fiction. His latest novel is Cinnamon Gardens.

I spoke with Selvadurai by telephone from Vancouver.

AM: Cinnamon Gardens has a tone and structure which reminds one of the Victorian novel. I was wondering if you chose such a framework with an intent to parody?

SS: I think it is an attempt to appreciate more than parody. I don't think I am parodying the form, although the novel does have a Victorian feel to it. The `20s in the West may have been an age of jazz and all that, but in Sri Lanka it was a very mannered period...

AM: So you will say that it is not unlike a Jane Austen novel, only set in colonial Ceylon?

SS: Exactly.

AM: I am interested in the beginnings of this new work. How did it come about?

SS: The original seed was a story my grandmother told about my grandaunt, whom I'd never met, who married and settled in Malaysia. It became clear through the stories I was told that she was a woman ahead of her time in many ways. Not a feminist by any means. Rather, a woman who was moved by pragmatic concerns, even selfish ones. The character of Annalukshmi is an example of those early glimmers of feminism in Sri Lanka. My early research into that period turned out to be fascinating-particularly around the time of the Donoughmore Commission which opened the debate on the definition of nationalism. And there were so many progressive ideas... Franchise for women, the Union movement, the formation of the Congress. And yet, ironically, it becomes clear that all those definitions of Sri Lankan nationalism depicted in the book have failed.

AM: Would it be apt then to describe Cinnamon Gardens as a post-colonial novel?

SS: I think it is a post post-colonial novel in that it revisits the past to understand how and where these definitions of the post-colonial state went wrong. It is also an attempt perhaps to suggest what post-coloniality should be.

AM: But the novel participates equally in the discourse of nostalgia...

SS: Yes, there is nostalgia. But there is no sense of loss. At least for me there is none. I really don't miss Sri Lanka in that way. And even in Canada, I am not really a part of the Sri Lankan community, as I don't attend the song, dance, and food events they put on to keep in touch with their culture. My community in Canada is the one outside what is generally seen as the Sri Lankan community here.

AM: And that would include?

SS: Segments of the gay community in Toronto, friends from Montreal Serai and Desh Pardesh, and progressive people in Sri Lanka, both gay and straight.

AM: How do you handle the hypocrisy and homophobia of South Asians-including the so-called "progressives"?

SS: Well, I don't think you can change the Mudaliyars of this world, or for that matter the Jerry Falwells or anyone with a right wing agenda. These are hopeless cases and I have no intention of wasting my energies on them. But there are also people who are committted to social change, people who want to understand and redress social injustices, and these are the people I am interested in talking to. And, surprisingly, there are many out there who are willing to listen.

AM: So coming out was not particularly traumatic for you?

SS: Not really. I have a very supportive family. But it is so much easier to be gay and out nowadays. There are so many young people, just eighteen or nineteen, who are out to the world and have no problems with their identity. At least, that is what I see in Toronto and other cities in Canada.

AM: Yes, but class and economic power also have a significant bearing on who is accepted as gay/lesbian and who is not. I understand your partner, Andrew, accompanied you to Sri Lanka for a year when you were working on Cinnamon Gardens. What was that like?

SS: It was fine. I am out to everyone there so it was not a surprise or anything like that. There was also no chance of being snubbed as my own family is so supportive of both of us. So snubbing us would have been an indirect affront to my parents, and nobody there was going to do that. People were considerate. For instance, people wouldn't dare to ask me out without inviting Andrew along. And then after a few months there I found it interesting that my relatives would ask Andrew for news on a common friend in Toronto and he would give them a detailed answer... Now that's a familiar thing to do, you see. So there were those signs of inclusion.

AM: How often do you go back to Sri Lanka?

SS: I go back almost every year. I was there for a whole year working on Cinnamon Gardens. I find that being in Sri Lanka for a period of time, for me, puts many things in perspective.

AM: Are you happy about the response to Cinnamon Gardens?

SS: It's doing well, although I wouldn't be able to say how well in terms of sales figures. I haven't seen any yet. But it has had good, bad, and mixed reviews. That's a good reception.

AM: How would you define Canadian literature, the way it is today?

SS: Landed Immigrant Literature? I mean, look at the diversity in Canadian writing today. There are Canadian writers from so many different places and cultures.

AM: And yet there is a critique-specifically from Canadian writers/critics of colour-that this diversity is merely a gesture of tokenism, just a veneer of literary multiculturalism...

SS: I am not sure of such a critique. Nevertheless, it is an interesting one. If this were really tokenism then how do you explain the presence of Rohinton Mistry, Anita Rau Badami, and M.G. Vassanji-all Canadians originally from India? Or Neil Bissoondath and Shani Mootoo, both from Trinidad? So tokenism is really hard to prove, and hence such a critique is difficult to sustain.

AM: But it is also true that the publishing industry is as market-driven as any.

SS: Well, no one wants to publish a book that no one will read. And, of course, they also want to make a profit. But still the fact is that many new literary voices are being heard today in Canada more than they were ever in the past. In just ten years there has been such a change in the Canadian literary scene. And there are so many big publishing houses that are publishing and promoting an impressive list of non-white writers.

AM: It is evident that you have been influenced by many great Victorian novelists. Are there any writers outside the English canon that have inspired you?

SS: I am influenced more by books than writers. There are many books that have affected me deeply, that have pushed me in my own writing. Anita Desai's Clear Light Of Day is one such novel. I was also moved by Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. So there are influential books, even after the writers have moved on to other styles and subjects.

AM: Is there an attempt to rewrite the Aziz-Fielding relationship of Forster's A Passage to India through the gay affair in Cinnamon Gardens?

SS: You know, it's funny, but I never finished reading A Passage to India. I loved Howard's End, but A Passage to India I found to be rather boring. I found it to be quite dated.

AM: Thank you. 

Ameen Merchant is a cultural critic specializing in South Asian/diasporic popular culture. He lives in Vancouver.


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