05 October 2015

The Hungry Ghosts; interview with Shyam Selvadurai

Shyam Selvadurai's novel, released in 2014, The Hungry Ghosts, marks a gigantic leap in his craft and writing. The author who garnered international acclaim with his first novel, Funny Boy, and went on to become an icon for the Sri Lankan literary world, has authored a story about haunting recollections from his childhood and young adult life. The novel is bewitching, going back and forth, travelling different time zones between Sri Lanka and Toronto. It gives an accurate portrayal of immigrant life for South Asians in Toronto, which to my mind, makes this a valuable work of contemporary fiction. It has the same heart-wrenching passion of his previous novels, but clearly, the author's understanding of his craft, and his felicity with language have scaled up to extraordinary extent, making The Hungry Ghosts a tour de force.

I find it propitious that he lives in Toronto, which is also my home now. I took the opportunity to do a short interview with him, and was glad to get an insight about his writing.

1. You moved from Sri Lanka to Toronto due to circumstances back home. You've lived in Toronto for many years now. How do think Canada has influenced your work as a writer? What would you say is the upside and downside of living in a foreign land, and how has it defined your career as an author. Toronto, while a safe and multi-cultured place, is often looked upon as restrained and staid. There is diversity, but perhaps less originality and idiosyncrasy.  I see some of that dreariness reflected in The Hungry Ghosts as well. Would you say, Canada's political positioning and national temperament make it greatly liveable but less inspiring in terms of writing? Feel free to vehemently disagree with me.

There are many Canadas in The Hungry Ghosts, there is the ghastly suburb in which Shivan and his family find themselves but there is also vibrant downtown Toronto and Vancouver which is portrayed as a haven, a golden place, where Shivan because of his past cannot find peace. I don't see Canada as dreary or as foreign. For me it is home and Toronto is a vibrant place to live, while at the same time being safe and stable. This stability has greatly helped me as a writer coming from a very unstable place. Here in Toronto, I can let down my guard and be who I am and write what I want. Because I spend 4-5 months in Sri Lanka each year, it is no longer some lost magical place but a place lived in with its own tedium and pleasures. 

2.  Did you always wish to be an author, or were there other interests you were dabbling with as well?  Was it Funny Boy's wide acclaim that propelled you into being a full time author? Now, with Cinnamon Gardens and The Hungry Ghosts, you are firmly placed as one of South Asia's best known authors.  This perhaps means that you can devote every minute towards honing your craft. This, if I may say as a long-time reader of your works, was evident with The Hungry Ghosts which has the fineness and assuredness that comes to writers at their peak. How are you enjoying this phase, and what are your creative struggles? What are the aspects you enjoy most about being a writer? Also do shed some light on the authors and books you read.

I was happy that Funny Boy allowed me to keep writing on a more full time basis but my decision to keep writing was not based on its success. In other words, if it had been published by a small press and sold very little I would still have kept writing. Yet, like most artists through the ages, I must do other things to survive such as teaching. So I can only write 1/2 to 3/4 time. Thank you for your nice words on Hungry Ghosts but alas, I am not enjoying this phase but rather trying to take on more and more challenges as a writer. The enjoyment lies in constantly pushing for a higher level. This is what I enjoy about being a writer. I read widely and voraciously and love many authors. At this stage in the game, a writer tends to be drawn to writers whose work is nothing like theirs out of curiosity and admiration for something different. I don't have therefore a favourite author. I will read anything written by Jumpha Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Kiran Desai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Margaret Drabble and a few other writers.  

3.  The uneasy struggle with the self, the fear of rejection and prejudice - mirrored by Sri Lanka's bloody ethnic strife - is a powerful theme. But how essential do you think is the homosexual instinct to the core of your being as a writer. In Funny Boy, Arjie's struggle with his sexuality masterfully parallel the ethnic conflict and malevolence he sees in the adult world. Your subsequent novels (Cinnamon Gardens, Swimming In the Monsoon Sea and The Hungry Ghosts) also carry a definite theme of homosexuality.  But it's not altogether hard to envision these last three books when taken out of the prism of sexuality.  In The Hungry Ghosts especially, there is such wealth of memory and ideas, that the novel could stand on its own, without the protagonist's sexuality being brought in question.  (I found myself comparing it to Of Human Bondage.) Would you agree at all to that? Or would you say homosexual love is the chief driver of your stories. I ask this, because my favourite author, Somerset Maugham, who was said to be bisexual, never so much as dropped a hint about it in his works. The times he lived in didn't allow it perhaps, but when asked if his stories are autobiographical, he said, "The characters are not me, the emotions are all mine though," or something to that effect.  Do you see yourself attempting that?  Also, do you believe, taking sexuality out of the equation lends more universality to a story?

To me being Gay is normal, it is the world that sees it as abnormal and this is the way I have approached my work. I like having gay characters because I like working with them and I feel it is important to create visibility. I can identify with straight characters so I work on the assumption that the straight reader will be able to identify with my gay characters and that the work will be "universal" in its themes of family, displacement, search for self, search for love etc. What drives the story is not sexuality but ideas and themes and a desire to capture a certain experience.  

4. I can't help but ask you to tell us a little about your new book. Also, you mentioned about your teaching. How rewarding is that experience?

 I don't talk about any work in progress as it seems to kill it. I do love teaching and next to writing it is my favourite occupation.