By Ian McGillis
It hasn’t been a century since Shyam Selvadurai was a star presence on the Canadian literary stage, but it was in a previous century that most of us last saw him — in 1998, to be precise, when his second novel Cinnamon Gardens solidified the profile established by his 1994 debut Funny Boy, a book that won what is now called the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and quickly became a foundation text both as gay literature and South Asian Canadian fiction.
Now he returns with The Hungry Ghosts (Doubleday Canada, 371 pages, $29.95), an epic novel that incorporates elements of the earlier two in its story of the half-Tamil, half-Sinhalese Shivan Rassiah, a young gay man torn between the difficult adjustment to Canadian life and the unresolved dramas he and his family left behind when they fled the civil war in Sri Lanka. It also adds a new maturity of tone, scope, language and character.
The question can’t be avoided, so it may as well be put in blunt terms: what took Selvadurai so long?
“On some level, you don’t really know,” the still-youthful 47-year-old says, having clearly thought about it a fair deal. “In every artist’s life there are these periods of what you can call dry spells, but often when you look at others’ careers you see that those dry spells were actually a period of gestation. That’s what I’m hoping this will turn out to be. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Selvadurai returns to a very different landscape than the one he left. Veteran writers he cites as kindred spirits — Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith — had yet to debut when Cinnamon Gardens came out; there was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter. “Everything moves much faster now,” the writer observes. But there’s an upside, too.
In contrast to the ’90s, when his company as a South Asian Canadian fiction writer consisted of Rohinton Mistry and precious few others, Selvadurai finds less need to explain basic questions of identity and motivation now.
“People now are much more sophisticated in a way,” he says. “Another thing is that it’s our generation (he nods to his slightly older interviewer) who are doing the interviewing now. So there’s a shared language, in a sense. We understand on a basic level — we accept and we acknowledge — that we don’t understand everything. Do you know what I mean? The multiplicity of realities is something that we accept. We don’t try to squeeze everything into a universal norm.”
Another element in The Hungry Ghosts’ difficult birth, says its author, was the need to find a way, and a language, to utilize a lot of the reading he’d been doing. “I was fascinated by the way the early Buddhist writers found a way to incorporate philosophy into narrative,” he says, “and I wanted to be able to do that in a modern context.”
Central to that philosophy is the idea of karma. The novel’s very title refers to the spirits of people who desired too much during their previous lives and must rely on living relatives to free them.
“The word karma is interpreted in different ways by different people,” says Selvadurai. “Shivan’s grandmother’s interpretation is a very punitive one: if you are suffering right now, you deserve it because it’s due to something bad you did in your previous life. That’s almost a non-Buddhist take, because it’s not about compassion. But there’s a version that is comforting, which says that if you’re going through a bad experience right now and you don’t know what you’ve done to deserve it, the good thing is that it’s like a debt. Once you’ve paid that debt of karma, it falls off you and you’re free of it. And within that is the idea of free will. You can perform actions to create a better karma for your next life.”
While not prepared to call himself a Buddhist — “Buddhism is a religion, and especially in a Sri Lankan context it carries all the problems that religion has for me” — Selvadurai does find elements of the faith useful. “I do believe that everything you say and do and think and feel produces a result, and that you are then stuck with that result and have to deal with it. There’s no easy escape. I find that, for me, is a very sensible way to think about how I live my life.”
Plenty will be tempted to read Shivan as a fictionalized version of his creator, an eventuality Selvadurai understands. “Like Shivan, I did come to that particular Toronto suburb and felt it in the same way, the alienation of it. And like him, I did come out in the early ’80s as a non-white in a white gay community. But I would say that on the whole it’s autobiography of time and place and feeling, rather than of character and plot.”
Speaking of place, The Hungry Ghosts is unsparing of Toronto and the alienation its atomizing urban sprawl can have on new arrivals. If the Queen City doesn’t do very well in the novel, says Selvadurai, “that’s because, for Shivan and his family, it can’t do well. On a simple level, migration is traumatic, and even more so when you add things like isolation, lack of access to employment. I didn’t want the book to in any way avoid that.”
Some immigrants cope by refusing to look back; Shivan, for his part, is the opposite.
“If the place you are coming from is traumatic, you are less able to give it up,” Selvadurai says. “Your relationship is fraught; you’re less able to put it aside than if your journey has been something like from France to Quebec. In a case like that, return is easy and possible, and by return I don’t just mean getting on a plane. I mean safety, comfort, basic stuff. People like Shivan are no longer safe at home.”
Shivan is not the most conventionally likable of narrators; one reviewer has described him as “irritating,” and while that’s unfairly dismissive, there’s no denying that he is a prickly figure, prone to petulant outbursts and emotionally manipulative behaviour. If not all readers find him easily sympathetic company over 370 pages, that’s a chance Selvadurai was more than willing to take.
“I don’t want to know about goody-goody characters with fake-naive voices,” he says. “That feels very catering. In a lot of contemporary fiction I find a kind of cuteness to the narrators and main characters that sets my teeth on edge. I like to read about very complex and dark people, because there’s something cathartic in the true Greek sense of it, of working through the darkness and into light. The epiphany at the end, if there is one, has to be deeply earned.”
In the gap between novels (there was a children’s book, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, published in 2006), Selvadurai found himself spending more and more time in the country of his birth, working as the curator of a literary festival, finding himself rooted in everyday Sri Lankan life “in a different way than when you’re just coming in as the émigré writer sniffing around for a story.” What he has seen there does not fill him with optimism.
“There’s no rule of law in Sri Lanka anymore,” he laments. “In a way, I feel I saw this coming. I knew that we couldn’t have been through 25 years of civil war and lost so many people and done so many terrible things and then think that when the war was over we would enter into some bright period. All that negativity and evil and suffering that people have gone through has to go somewhere. It doesn’t just stop because a false date is put on the end of it. I hope for something better, but …,” and his voice trails off in a way that makes you feel this karmic cycle has a long way to run.