As a new adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s “Funny Boy” hits the screen as a Deepa Mehta–directed feature film, Kamal Al-Solaylee reflects on the book that inspired it
By Kamal Al-Solaylee
Few books have cast as large a spell on the last two decades of my life as Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel Funny Boy has. I return to it, by choice or duty, roughly every four or five years. And with each rereading it illuminates not only parts of my personal history but Canada’s shifting literary landscape and the global, and ongoing, debate about the meanings of home, exile, and resettlement. Although it’s set in Selvadurai’s homeland of Sri Lanka, Funny Boy, to me at least, will always read as a novel about the how identity mutates with each stage of life and every border we cross.
My first introduction to the novel happened casually, albeit in a classically condescending English way. “Have you heard of a novel called Funny Boy?” asked my former Nottingham University professor and doctoral supervisor, Norman Page, over dinner in a London restaurant in the fall of 1995. He had retired in 1993, halfway through my PhD studies, but we stayed in touch and, in the grand tradition of literature scholars, met occasionally to bitch about the English department.
Page was a Victorian specialist, and I was writing my doctoral thesis on the sensation novels of the 1860s; specifically, how they plotted narratives of madness and psychiatry. When Page and I talked fiction, we compared the gothic trappings of Wilkie Collins to those of Charles Dickens’ later work or Anthony Trollope’s realism to George Eliot’s. That sort of thing. A writer like Selvadurai (brown Canadian of Sri Lankan origin and author of a gay novel) would not under normal circumstances make his way to our conversations. Except that Page, having read a rave review of Funny Boy, devoured it in an afternoon and was now recommending it to me since I had applied for a landed immigrant visa to Canada and was awaiting security clearance.
At first I couldn’t understand why a novel about an effeminate Sri Lankan was considered Canadian, let alone why I should read it. My notion of Canadian manhood derived from images I’d seen of hockey players, Mounties, and gay porn set in ski resorts in Quebec. Still, I understood what my old prof was telegraphing: You’re gay; he’s gay. You’re brown; he’s brown. You’re going to Canada; he lives there. A matchmaking of reader and book.
I must have made a mental note of Funny Boy, although I didn’t read it then or immediately after landing in Canada in 1996. That happened in 1998, when I had become a regular contributor to Xtra!, Toronto’s biweekly gay and lesbian magazine, and was asked to profile Selvadurai, whose second novel, The Cinnamon Gardens, had just been published. I arranged to meet him at a coffee shop on College Street and immediately sent a letter—yes, a letter as in the post with a stamp and all—to my former supervisor to let him know that I’d be sitting down with the author of the book he loved so much. I may not have made it as an academic but I was doing just fine, thank you, as a journalist. In a way, Page turned out to be right. As two postcolonial, brown gay men who loved Anglo- American literature our paths inevitably crossed in small-town Toronto.
In person, Selvadurai was so gentle and soft spoken that I couldn’t be sure my old tape recorder would capture his voice in the middle of a busy café. I had no choice but to invite him back to my dinky one-bedroom apartment in an alleyway in Chinatown which I hadn’t cleaned in over a week. I guessed at his privileged upbringing from his books and was mortified, but I couldn’t risk not getting the interview. He at least had the graciousness to pretend not to notice the heaps of dust everywhere or the dirty pots in the sink.
And then I didn’t hear much about him, and Funny Boy disappeared from my life for about four years until late 2002 or early 2003, when I briefly joined an all-male book club just so I could meet that elusive species, the bookish, well-read gay man. No luck in that department, but at least someone (not me) had the smarts to suggest Funny Boy for our next reading. I knew I’d have a lot to say. It was my moment to shine in a book club dominated by loud, self-absorbed white gay men. That moment never came as I missed the night Funny Boy was discussed for some work-related reason or another.
In 2009 I had started working on my own coming-out and immigrant narrative in the form of a memoir, Intolerable, and found myself pulled in the direction of Funny Boy again. I knew that the narrator—Arjie, the Tamil boy whose discovery of his sexuality overlaps with the descent of Sri Lanka into a brutal civil war—and I had much in common. (More on that in a moment.) In 2013 I was asked by the Literary Review of Canada to review Selvadurai’s third novel, The Hungry Ghosts, which, despite a different set of characters, picks up from where Funny Boy ends—in the sense that it traced a family’s early years as immigrants from Sri Lanka in Canada, the closing note of his first book.
And here we are in 2017 and it’s the first novel that came to mind when the editor of this magazine asked me to contribute to the Rereading section. No other book came close. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz once said, “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” I saw my reflection in Funny Boy many times over. (I’m not saying that I’m not, at times, a monster.)
My first moment of self-recognition came in the opening story, “When Pigs Fly.” (Funny Boy is made up of six interconnected stories and early editions were subtitled A Novel In Six Stories.) Arjie fights for his right to keep playing the bride in an elaborate wedding scene he along with his sister and cousins stage every time they visit their grandparents. Growing up in Beirut and Cairo in the early 1970s, I loved dressing up in my sisters’ clothes and was obsessed with their makeup and perfumes. Until I was about seven or eight, my parents considered it an acceptable thing for this funny boy to do. Selvadurai’s narrator describes my innermost thoughts when he talks about watching his mother getting dressed for an evening out. “Entering that room was, for me, a greater boon than that granted by any god to a mortal.” The jewellery box was one reason; the other was watching his mother “drape her sari.” Rarely have I read a story in which sissyhood, voyeurism, and child play been cast as such an affirmative, near-religious experience.
Then masculinity got into the picture, for Arjie and me. Boys don’t dress up as girls for long in the Middle East, no matter how liberal the family is. In another story, “The Best School of All,” Arjie’s father sends him to the Queen Victoria Academy, a strict colonial school that takes discipline to a sadomasochistic level, in order to toughen him up. In that switch from one school to another, from carefree childhood to the rote performance of male gender roles, lies the journey of millions of gay men around the world. Arjie would rather play house than rugby. I would too.
Arjie’s journey as a gay man felt so familiar, so my life, and the fact that we shared the same skin tones made it even more powerful. Most of the gay-themed novels I read in my twenties featured white English (Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett) or American men (Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance) whose struggles with homophobia made little sense to me in the context of western democracies where gay rights were somewhat established. When I did read about the lives of black and brown gay men and women, it was largely through the lens of white middlemen: either writers of Spartacus, the gay travel guide that recommended where to eat and fuck like a local anywhere in the world, or, later, work by foreign correspondents who took upon themselves the act of explaining gayness to Third-World nations—and Third-World gayness to the First.
To me, Funny Boy offered direct exposure to brown-on-brown desire. Of the many powerful and tragic characters who orbit Arjie’s small universe in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, two stand out for pushing such desires to an extreme: Radha Aunty, who falls in love with a Sinhalese man, and Shehan Soyza, Arjie’s first lover—the bad boy of the new school who gives head to elderly prefects. (No matter how many times I encounter him, I can’t shake off an impression of the Rizzo character from Grease. So much so that I expect him to belt out There Are Worse Things I Could Do when and if the novel is ever turned into a movie or TV show.) Both characters have an instinctive awareness of the price to be paid for their transgressions, and yet carry on with their sexual desires, defying Sri Lankan society’s proscriptions for women and gay men. It’s impossible not to think of the sad circumstances in which the aunt’s affair ends as a reminder of the political forces that ultimately shape who we are, who we are allowed to love, or permitted to hate—in this case, the ethnic war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils.
My most recent rereading of Funny Boy made me wistful for a different moment in the life of the book itself. This spring, as part of a fundraising event, I was asked to read from a work that had an effect on me as a writer. I chose another book I love, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, an assortment of tall tales, poetry, and reflections on his family lore in Sri Lanka that collectively pass as a memoir. I don’t think there’s a direct relationship between Sri Lanka and my literary taste, but I believe my choices of both Funny Boy and Running in the Family as seminal books betray a longing for a time in the 1980s and 1990s when Canadian fiction was dominated by brown, South Asian (including those with ties to the Caribbean or East and South Africa) predominately male writers: Rohinton Mistry, M. G. Vassanji, Neil Bisoondath, and, of course, Ondaatje and Selvadurai. Their global counterparts included Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Bharati Mukherjee started out in Canada before relocating to the United States in the early 1980s. Brown writers ruled.
I started exploring these writers at the tail end of that wave, but I still basked in their glow. Books by the Canadian men in particular told me that our literature is indeed a very broad temple. Even stories not set here can be considered quintessentially Canadian—our country having absorbed this new wave of newcomers and refugees into its own larger narrative of immigration and land conquests. In her 1994 review of Funny Boy for the Globe and Mail, author Merna Summers explains how new South Asian writers, among others, represent both a departure from and a continuation of Canadian cultural identity: “Canadian literature has been in a Golden Age for a long time now, and it occurs to me that we are now entering a new phase of that Golden Age,” she writes. “When we say ‘We’ now, meaning Canadians, we mean more than we used to mean. It’s our writers who have come here from elsewhere—or who have been here, but silent—who are giving us that new sense of who we are.”
Parts of that quote send shivers down my spine, but it also makes me angry. Twenty-three years later, and three or four decades after that Golden-brown Age, we’re still talking about marginalization, discrimination, and lack of opportunities for racialized and minority writers in Canada. This despite some notable Giller Prize triumphs by the likes of Madeleine Thien, Lawrence Hill, Esi Edugyan, and Vincent Lam.
Funny Boy was nominated for the Giller in 1994, but didn’t win. It went on to snag the now-defunct SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award. It’s safe (and mean-spirited, but accurate) to say that it remains the book most English-speaking readers associate with Selvadurai, thus proving the power and curse of a stellar debut. I reread parts of Cinnamon Gardens and doubt that I’ll venture into The Hungry Ghosts any time soon. But I expect to revisit—relive, rejoice in—the world of Funny Boy again in a few years.
Until then, sweet Arjie.
—Originally published in CNQ #100
Toronto-based Kamal Al-Solaylee is a professor of journalism at Ryerson University and the author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes and Brown: What Being Brown in the World Means (to Everyone).