Behind the headlines of the conflict of Sri Lanka are a multitude of personal stories, and a complex history of relationships between Tamil and Sinhalese people. One of these stories is captured in novel form as Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy.
Told in short story sections separated by years, the book follows Arjie, a Tamil boy growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the 1980s. As Arjie awakens to his sexuality and the surrounding society’s restrictive gender roles, tensions rise between Tamil and Sinhalese that culminate in the violent 1983 riots. An inquisitive boy, Arjie uncovers family secrets by eavesdropping and making himself useful at just the right times.
Since its release in 1994, Funny Boy has become a national bestseller, winning the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the American Lamda Literary Award. Last Thursday, U of T’s Centre for Women & Trans People hosted Selvadurai to discuss his novel’s continuing relevance in its discussion of queer sexuality and ethnic conflict.
Selvadurai admits that the novel is somewhat autobiographical, as both he and Arjie are gay, grew up in Colombo at about the same time, and eventually immigrated to Canada with their families. Selvadurai’s parents were more lenient than Arjie’s, however and several events in Arjie’s life, from the discovery of his involvement in the female cousins’ wedding game, to a family member’s interethnic love affairs, had happier endings for their real-life counterparts.
“I grew up in a much more liberal house, so when my parents saw me [planning wedding games with my cousins…] they thought ‘oh, he’s artistic’ so they sent me off to drama class and dance class,” explained Selvadurai. “The moment you introduce something different into the novel, like the more conservative parents, then the whole novel changes and it no longer becomes about your life.”
For Arjie, the consequences are more dire. When his relatives discover the boy in a white sari playing the role of bride, his mother forces him to play cricket with his brother and male cousins, which he despises. Arjie overhears his father worrying that he will turn out “funny,” and thus begins his embarrassment and shame as he tries to figure out exactly what is father means, not yet knowing there is such a thing as homosexuality.
When he’s older, Arjie’s father sends him to his older brother’s tough, all-boys school in an effort to cure his “funny” side. Though he does become stronger from the experience, it is at this same school that Arjie meets his first big crush.
In an interview with The Varsity, Selvadurai explained that though there have been some recent developments such as the declared end of the civil war in Sri Lanka earlier this year, Arjie’s story wouldn’t be a whole lot different if it took place today rather than in the 1980s.
“Nothing much has changed in Sri Lanka’s sexuality. I think it’s pretty much the same as it was. I don’t think things have changed that much in Canada either. I think once you get out of Toronto, from what I hear…it’s pretty homophobic,” he said. With regard to the conflict, though there are new issues such as conditions in refugee camps, Selvadurai said the overall theme has not changed: “The idea of oppression and silence is still very much present in Sri Lanka.”
Selvadurai has a certain insight into conflict, being of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese background. “They also share a lot in common, the two cultures, and so that commonality should be the thing that hopefully, now that the war is over, strengthens between the two groups, instead of the differences,” he said.
In addition to Funny Boy, Selvadurai is the author of Cinnamon Gardens and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, and edited Story-Wallah: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction. He is currently working on another novel, but preferred to adhere to his policy of staying mum on the subject before it’s released.
The Centre for Women & Trans People continues its exploration of gender and sexuality on Friday, Nov. 6 with “The Joy of Gender,” a presentation on the transgender experience presented by Hershel T. Russel. Funny Boy is published by Emblem Editions.