Past and present collide in writer’s new novel

Regardless of how hard one tries, it is impossible to shed the past. This is a realization that Shivan Rassiah, the protagonist of Shyam Selvadurai’s latest novel, The Hungry Ghosts, must grapple with.

As the novel opens, Shivan — who emigrated from war-torn Sri Lanka to Canada as a young man — is preparing to travel back to the country of his birth to bring his ailing grandmother to Ontario. But as he prepares for his departure, Shivan finds himself haunted by memories of loss, desire and his grandmother’s domineering presence in his life.

Born in Sri Lanka in 1965 to a Sinhalese mother and a Tamil father, Shyam Selvadurai immigrated to Canada at the age of 19. His parents were members of Sri Lanka’s conflicting ethnic groups — a major theme that underlies hiSelvadurai’s writing.

Selvadurai’s debut novel — 1994’s Funny Boy — was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Books in Canada First Novel Award. He followed that up with the short story collection Cinnamon Gardens in 1998. Currently living in Toronto, Selvadurai’s latest novel — The Hungry Ghosts — took him 13 years to write and is his first novel to be set in Canada.

Outside of his own writing, Selvadurai heads Write to Reconcile, a project designed to give young Sri Lankan writers a platform to write about memory, reconciliation and war in a manner that challenges official government versions of that country’s civil war. He plans to publish an anthology of the project’s writing this fall.

Selvadurai recently sat down with Karry Taylor of the Calgary Journal to discuss writing, memory, and the role of fiction.

Your first novel, Funny Boy, won several literary prizes. Has that caused you to feel any pressure about that following up that success with the books you have written since then?

Yes, I did feel that pressure — especially with my second book Cinnamon Gardens. But I think, on some level, that I always feel pressure because I am always trying something new with writing and I never know if I am succeeding or failing at it. So this ends up taking a lot of my energy and time.

Where did the character of Shivan come from?

I knew I wanted to write a book about Canada. I liked the idea of writing a gay protagonist because I am gay, and I don’t see why a gay protagonist shouldn’t be as universal as a straight one. I can identify with straight or lesbian protagonists, so there is no reason why it can’t be the other way around. He just grew on his own from there.

I suppose what surprised me was that the relationship with his grandmother took up so much of the book. Initially, she was supposed to appear in just one chapter. But once I created her sitting on her bed polishing her silver teapot, there was no way that I could get her off the stage. She was there to stay, and then the book itself changed.

What surprised you the most about this book? Was it the grandmother’s role?

Yes it was. But, as an author, books should always surprise you in some way. They should always have an element of mystery to them. I feel that if a book is absolutely clear to me in how it is supposed to be written, I am not getting it right. It’s going to be a boring book. There should always be something about it that I don’t understand — some knot that I am trying to pick apart when I am writing.

How much of your own life experience informs your writing?

A lot of it informs my writing. I think I am an autobiographical writer. I used to feel very defensive about being called an autobiographical writer after Funny Boy because I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist.

But then I read novels by Marcel Proust, who is also an autobiographical writer. I thought, “‘He’s taken his life and made it into art”‘ — even if the writing was not exactly what his life was.

There can be many variations of one’s life experience, and I think you can draw new material from that. I think that I have been gifted with good life material that I can turn into art.

A creative writing professor once said to me that talent is only 10 per cent of what makes a writer — along with 50 per cent perseverance and 40 per cent subject matter. So I asked myself, “‘Since I am blessed with wonderful life material, why don’t I draw from it?”‘ I do like to draw on my own life, but I don’t like to write memoir myself. Memoir doesn’t interest me as an art form.

What role do you think that fiction can play in helping to universalize and explain unfamiliar experiences, people and places to readers?

In a polarized society like Sri Lanka, where everything is black or white and where all the ethnic communities have their own version of what happened in the civil war — the majority thinks they are right, and the minorities think that they are right — I think that fiction and poetry can introduce a lot of greays into the whole thing, which is a good thing. Fiction can bring the human experience to it. So you are not just looking at a photograph of hundreds of people milling on the road on their way to escape a bomb;, you are looking through the eyes of one person in the crowd. By doing that, you humanize everybody else in the crowd. So I think that is very important role that fiction can play — it humanizes things.

Editor’s Note: Questions and Answers have been edited for length and clairity

ktaylor@cjournal.ca