[(essay date 1996) In the following interview, Selvadurai discusses the public reaction to his depiction of the historical political situation that plays such an important role in the characters’ lives in his novel Funny Boy.]
A small man, slender, with delicate features, at first glance Shyam Selvadurai could be only a few years older than the adolescent protagonist, Arjie, of his first novel, Funny Boy. Yet the 31-year old author has written a subtly mature book, weaving together political and personal themes into a story of love and ethnic violence that is all the more dramatic because understated.
The publicity for Funny Boy focuses on its gay, coming of age theme. In all fairness, readers lured in by this publicity will not be disappointed: in it’s central relationship between the Tamil Arjie and his Sinhalese first love Shehan, Selvadurai has created a tale of schoolboy affection in the line of E. M. Forster and John Knowles.
But the publicity for Funny Boy will leave readers unprepared for the crucial role played by political events, which bring the story to a climax with the anti-Tamil riots in the Sri Lankan capital of Columbo in 1983. Given the book’s focus on the political situation, it seemed appropriate to begin by asking Selvadurai if his primary intention was to write a “human rights” novel about the sectarian violence and its consequences.
“I think not.” Selvadurai elaborated by tracing the book’s history. “The first chapter of the book, “Pigs Can’t Fly” started as a short story. When I got to the end of that story, I thought I couldn’t relate the boy’s story without the political context, given that the communal situation was so complex and so volatile, and given that the political situation had really changed my life.”
He began work on the book in earnest in the fall of 1992. At the beginning of 1992, Selvadurai “returned to Sri Lanka to research that period [1977-1983]. I felt that I didn’t understand the forces” struggling in Sri Lanka. “I left Sri Lanka when I was 19; I’d never done an analysis of the situation, which is why I went back. We led a very sheltered life, even more sheltered than Arjie. For him, events intervene with much greater force than they entered into my life.”
Selvadurai insisted that Funny Boy is “not at all autobiographical. It’s only autobiographical in that Arjie’s gay, I’m gay. His family left after the communal violence, my family left after the violence, but under very different circumstances.
“My discovery, upon returning, was that I was shocked by the abuse of human rights. I thought that my life in 1979 was completely different from someone living in the [predominantely Tamil city of] Jaffna. There were horrible things I read about in the Amnesty International reports. I didn’t believe that the Sri Lankan people were capable of such cruelty.” Much of his...