In Pursuit of Political Correctness: Shyam Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens

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Author: S. W. Perera
Editor: Jennifer Stock
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,462 words

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[(essay date 99) In the following essay, Perera probes the degree to which Cinnamon Gardens may be read as a response to Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s multigenerational historical saga When Memory Dies and questions the depth and veracity of Selvadurai’s characterizations of Sri Lankan women, elites, and the British.]

Although novels authored by Sri Lankans/Ceylonese living overseas have appeared sporadically since the beginning of this century, the Sri Lankan novel of Expatriation per se began with the publication of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family in 1982. Since then, Sri Lankans living in Australia, Canada, and England have proven Rushdie’s thesis that “however ambiguous and shifting this ground [the positions that expatriate writers find themselves in] may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy. If literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then once again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with such angles” (16). The variety of patterns, themes, strategies and attitudes adopted, and the acclaim with which many of these novels have been received in the English-speaking world demonstrate that diasporic writing vis-a-vis Sri Lanka is both various and healthy. The novelists involved have written about Sri Lanka, sometimes with nostalgia and understanding, and at other times with anger and disapproval. The more sensitive writers combine these and other sentiments in their work which also on occasion appraises the island in relation to the country in which they are currently resident.

A constant in many of these novels is an obsession with the past which is often used to analyze the present and to draw lessons for the future. To cite a few examples, Barry Mundy’s Australian experiences in Yasmine Gooneratne’s A Change of Skies are at one level similar to his grandfather Edward’s exploits in the antipodes many years before, but at another they are substantially different. A. Sivanandan, in When Memory Dies, generally contrasts the past favourably with an odious present. Gamini Salgado’s memoir-novel, The True Paradise, begins with descriptions of Sri Lankan peddlers, palmists, balladeers, and snake-charmers that are almost orientalist in conception, but the work as a whole grapples with life in Sri Lanka which through “the treacherous haze of memory […] seem[s] idyllic” (140) despite his “utter enchantment with England” (145). Romesh Gunesekera in both his novels plays with terms like “paradise” and “Eden” in writing about what has happened to Sri Lanka in recent years. And Shyam Selvadurai’s first novel Funny Boy employs the bildungsroman tradition to describe events that had traumatized his growing up in Sri Lanka.

This exchange between the past and the present, then, is almost a given in Sri Lankan expatriate writing. This practice allows these authors to undertake the kind of project that Dolores de Manuel has identified with Asian writers in America:

In writing of the balance between the exiles’ physical departure from home and their imaginary returning there, Asian writers in America are working out a pattern of action, tracing...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100125385