Mirror Magazine

19th October 1997

A tale from the past

Afdhel Aziz chats with Shyam Selvadurai and finds out about his latest book

Shyam Selvadurai peruses the menu at Shanti Vihar and wonders whether to get the paper thosai. The atmosphere is cool and shadowed inside the busy restaurant, lunch time appetites being satiated by large helpings of rice and vegetable curries. We are here to talk about Shyam's new book "Cinnamon Gardens" and the time he spent writing it in Sri Lanka. He finally decides on the masala thosai, and together with a side order of vadai, we get down to business.

In the last couple of years, there has been a substantial increase in writing from the subcontinent - to what do you attribute this?

It's like we've finally been taken notice of by the West - but we've been writing stories for years, for centuries, so we do come from a tradition of storytelling . But it has been going on for some time now with people like Rohinton Mistry, Rushdie, Anita Desai. Maybe it has to do with the whole fifty years of independence thing more than anything else.

Does it reflect anything about the state of Western literature?

I don't think so - there are some very great Western writers writing as well at the same time. It's just a broader perspective, as the world becomes smaller there is a lot more of an interest in other literature . But you have to acknowledge that we as South Asian writers have done our work , it's not that they came to us and elevated us to this level, we've been working at our craft for some time now - but we've only recently been getting the recognition.

Let's talk about the craft aspect - what is your approach to writing ?

Craft is something you just learn through sheer practice. I think that's the first thing - it's hard work and discipline. All writers who write substantially do so on a daily basis, whatever hours suit them. I work from 9-5 and I always make sure I'm at the computer by 8:30 or 9:00 and work solidly till 1 o'clock when I take a break for lunch. I have a light snack because otherwise I want to lie down and take a nap - so even my diet is regulated by my work ! I have a couple of slices of bread and a piece of cheese and then work until 4:30 - but it's a daily thing , Monday to Friday.

What other advice for young writers?

Marry someone really rich or have really rich parents! Seriously, if you write fiction, you're in it for the long haul, so you have to be in an environment that allows you to do that. I was sort of joking when I said find someone rich to support you, but you really can't go out to work in the day and write at night. I mean, I moved back in with my parents to write "Funny Boy." If you have to work, I suggest you take a job that doesn't tax your intellect, like being a waiter or working in a bookstore, because you only have so much mental energy and once you lose that, you can just forget it because your brain would be dead by the time you get home. Obviously the ideal would be to write every day, but if you can't, a Saturday set aside is just as good. But it has to be a definite time and you have to sit there and write even if nothing comes out.

That almost reduces the act of writing to a business - but where do you find inspiration for your books ?

Different places.... each book, one comes at it from a different angle. Sometimes it's a story that somebody tells you, sometimes a situation. Like with "Funny Boy", it's the ethnic situation and my position in it as a person of Sinhalese-Tamil heritage. It can be anything - but it has to grab you, you have to feel absolutely passionate about it because it's not a poem, it's not a page long, it's 3-400 pages, so you have to be able to live with it for 2-3 years, or however long it takes to write it.

Talking about how places influence you - you've moved back to Sri Lanka to work on your second book. Does that help to draw inspiration from?

Yes, my new book (the working title is "Cinnamon Gardens") is a historical novel set in Sri Lanka in the Twenties, which at that time was a whole different country. Canada, where I wrote "Funny Boy" was too far away. I needed to be in Sri Lanka because it clarified certain issues and the positions of characters . But even though it's historical, for me it must always be a metaphor for the present. Now you lived most of your life as a gay man in Toronto which is far more tolerant than Sri Lanka ever would be .....

Don't say every thing would be! Ok, Ok - so you moved you here for the last nine months , have you had to change your lifestyle drastically?

Yes, definitely, I'm here with my partner and it's difficult for us to be so secretive about it. I'm not saying that we want to run down the street hand in hand - we don't even do that in Toronto! But it's hard to negotiate your life.....it puts a stress on you. Having said that there are people who are OK about it. But it's hard , very hard.

I know you don't like to talk about your books, but what can you tell me about this one?

It deals with the Cinnamon Gardens elite, who ruled and still rule the country and it talks about a Tamil family living in this environment and all their connections . And yes, there is a gay character in it.

Didn't you do some research in Malaysia for it ?

Yes - a complete waste of time! Nothing came of it at all ...the thing about writing is that you start thinking that the novel is about one thing - and then the characters take the novel in directions you never imagined ! So there is a tussle between the author and the characters.

What other Asian writers are writing about gay themes?

There are people like Firdous Kanga who wrote about a gay person who is also physically handicapped, which is actually being made into a film. Straight writers are also beginning to involve gay characters in their work, not just as caricatures but as fully fleshed people. Actually, in terms of film there has been quite a lot - Deepa Mehta's "Fire" which is about a lesbian love story - and I have also heard about a gay Bollywood film .... With singing and dancing and everything ??! Yes.... This I have to see.... I don't know what it's called , but I think Bollywood is also starting to deal with it in a more positive way , not just the usual maniacs or suicides.

Do you find yourself being pushed to be a spokesman for gay issues because there are comparatively few people talking openly about them?

Yes, but I'm very good at drawing the line between private and public image. When I'm writing I need to be very private, live in a cell like environment, live a monk like existence. So I'm very good at saying no I don't want to talk about at this moment - I need to have the world cut off in that sense. But there are other people, other organisations who are addressing the issue in a very sophisticated way.

You're talking about people like Sherman de Rose and "Companions on a Journey"?

Yes, and Ashok Rao Kavi in Bombay , and other groups in Delhi and Kerala. I think I do two things - I help gay people validate their hidden lives, right, most people are not out in any context , so I can help give voice to their lives; and in terms of the straight community, I provide a look into a world that's not talked about. And it's not a very threatening look.... It's not. It's just saying hey, we're also people, we love .....we love differently but its all the same love. The thing about a novel is that it allows the reader to interact with these people as human beings and takes them into the mind of the character which is a very powerful thing. And certainly in a Sri Lankan context, "Funny Boy" for instance provided a forum for talking around a dining room table , letting them discuss something people never discussed before except in a very salacious way.

What other reactions have you heard?

Well, I hear lots of stories - one of the funniest was about a friend of mine who with great trepidation, gave her mother-in-law the book - and she is a very prim and proper Colombo 7 type. Afterwards when she asked her mother-in-law what she thought, she replied "Well I was a little disappointed because there weren't enough naughty bits in it !" But obviously there were some negative reactions to it , people said it was a good book but couldn't he have just stuck to the ethnic issue. But that I feel is the power of the book , it shows both together - whether you're marginalised as a Tamil, a gay person, a woman or a person of lower caste, you all suffer the same way. Now there are two distinct blocs of gay society in Sri Lanka - the more out, upper classes , and then another who don't have the money or position to protect themselves .

There was some dissent from those who are established and say that they are fine ?

Well, they say they are fine but personally if you look at a lot of their lives, they're not. A lot of them suffer from blackmail which is a big problem in the gay community. A lot of them seem very out but you could never approach them and ask straightforwardly 'are you gay' ? Some of them can't even say the word! Some of them are like "I'm like.....you know !" I'm like, say it, say it ! They say they are but very few of them take their gay spouses into society that's pretty taboo. In terms of the "Companions on a Journey" type people, who are from the middle to lower middle classes, when you hear their stories, you know that they've really suffered. These are people who have been kicked out of their homes, their jobs, their families, because they been discovered to be gay. That's terrible. I'm from that English speaking elite and I can pretend that this is my work, I can live like this and my daddy knows so and so , and I don't need to worry - but to me that's morally wrong.

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