Shyam Selvadurai was born in 1965. His book Funny Boy introduced gay fiction to mainstream English literature in Sri Lanka, and indeed as Shyam notes, in South Asia. Born to a Sinhalese mother and Tamil father, Shyam was 19 when he left Sri Lanka in 1983 for Canada. Funny Boy was as much about class and ethnicity as sexual identities, and though Shyam has repeatedly noted that it was not autobiographical, the fiction is set against a violent Sri Lanka.

Shyam is presently the curator of the Galle Literary Festival. In an essay (Coming Out) penned for Time in 2003, Shyam brought out the vexed relationship he has with Sri Lanka. On the one hand is the love for the country, “…live and let live generosity and good humour that I love most about Sri Lanka” and on the other, the unsettling nature of it “in this country that I still considered my home, I could never be at home.” Yet all of Shyam’s fiction is set in Sri Lanka, the reason for which I asked him in this interview.

The interview starts, as with so many others he has done, with Funny Boy and in 2011, Shyam’s take on his writing way back in the early 90’s. I ask him whether he is frustrated by being pegged so much to Funny Boy, given that he has come out with two other books, and is working on the release of a third this year. I asked him whether and how his exile from Sri Lanka helped in his fiction, and in his words, anchor his books to “a voice that is deeply Sri Lankan”. We explore the concept of home, and what it means to Shyam and also how his fiction often deals with the minutiae of life amongst certain classes, including unseen but appreciated acts of courage and kindness amidst hate and harm. I ask him about the process of writing and of literary prizes, and we both refer to the excellent essay Eyes on the Prize by Booker Prize winning Hillary Mantel, published in the Winter 2010 edition of Intelligent Life.

We end the interview on his curation of the Galle Literary Festival and his take on it, including the introduction of new events, better outreach and new voices reflecting Tamil and Sinhala literature. I ask him about the usual criticisms of the Festival – ranging from elitism to inauthenticity – and how he has, if at all, addressed these concerns, or feels the need to in the first place. I ask him what to him would be a measure of success for his first GLF as a curator, though he has appeared before as an author. Going deeper into the politics of language in Sri Lanka, and of the English language in particular, we end on an interesting note, where Shyam refers to English as the language of peace.

  • Belle

    For me, Funny Boy was not primarily gay fiction. Rather it showed me that so much of what I had assumed to be Singaporean culture in my childhood life was actually part of my Sri Lankan cultural heritage. For eg, kids calling each other “Fatty, fatty, bom, bom,” and cousins being deposited at their grandparents’ home for the weekend so their sibling parents could enjoy the day out together. There was so much cultural recognition for me in that book, for which I will always be grateful. Cinnamon Gardens helped me understand the cultural provenance of the elite Colombo Tamil diaspora settled in Singapore and Malaysia–so different from the Jaffna Tamil diaspora here.

  • The Analyst

    I was deeply moved by reading Shyam Selavadurai’s Funny Boy. Also I like his Swimming in the Monsoon Sea as well.

  • The Mervyn Silva

    The Shyam,

    If you think you are funny boy please be joining our goverment. Full of the funny men. (Coming to be thinking of it so is the opposition).

  • Dear Belle, thanks for casting light on other aspects of Shyam Selvadurai´s book Funny Boy. Neither have I considered the story to be primarily gay fiction. I tried to read the book in a cultural context. It was so much enjoyable and enriching since I don´t know much about Sri Lanka and life there. I haven´t read Cinnamon Gardens yet but as I see from your notes it is worth reading, isn´t it?

  • DHP

    As part of the Sri Lankan diaspora, I loved reading Funny Boy in my early twenties and Cinnamon Gardens in my late twenties. They were warm, engaging and insightful windows into different scenes of Sri Lankan life.

    Shyam is absolutely right that he is first a writer and that being gay is only a small part of his life. But he is (and I say this as a heterosexual who is supportive of equal rights for those who happen to be attracted to the same sex) a wonderful role model for gay men, both young and old. He is showing them the courage to be true to themselves, rather than living an untruthful double life.

  • sumati

    I have read and reread Funny Boy innumerable times… I simply loved the way it is written.

  • I read this novel in last week and still I’m rereading!!!.Actually this not a friction ,this is a real life time experiences of Shyam I believe.I’m not gonna comment about this novel bcz I’m just a reader.But I want to say I really enjoyed this novel and I must thank for Shyam to bring this beautiful story for us.