One of the main reasons there was a 13-year gap between Shyam Selvadurai’s second and third novels was the knotty problem of Scarborough. The author’s first two novels, Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens, captured the lush culture and landscape of his native Sri Lanka with an easy fluency. But language withered when fate and art demanded that Selvadurai turn his attention to the bleak working-class Canadian suburb where his family landed after fleeing Sri Lanka’s anti-Tamil violence in 1984.
“It took me a long time to be able to write about the Canada I came to,” Selvadurai says, almost 30 years after the traumatic dislocation that brought his family here. He had no words to depict “the greyness of Scarborough” or to render that “in its own sensual way,” he says, and couldn’t find such a thing depicted anywhere else in modern literature.
“I wanted to bring the entire landscape in,” he says. “And it just took forever. I don’t know why it took me forever to get that down, but I just kept failing at it over and over again.”
Perhaps that is the nature of a breakthrough – for what Canadians now know as “immigrant literature” has typically been backward-looking, with the trauma of dislocation at centre stage and the onward journey’s actual destination playing a subordinate role, less a place in itself than a viewpoint that provides the perspective necessary to understand the past.
Trinidad-born Rabindranath Maharaj broke from type decisively with The Amazing Absorbing Boy, as does Selvadurai with The Hungry Ghosts. The complications carry forward, travelling new thematic bridges across the chasms of past trauma. And what arrives is a refreshingly original hybrid.
“It’s a book that has about it a very delicate balance between Sri Lanka and Canada,” says Selvadurai, who exemplifies just that in his own person. He is an utterly contemporary, urbane and stylish gay man with the bright-eyed good looks of a prince straight out of one of the ancient tales he so admires, complete with massively detached, Buddha-like earlobes. But a prince neither of Serendip nor Scarborough; rather something new.
The best way to understand Selvadurai is to read his books, which are all autobiographical to some extent at least. He is one of the rare writers who will admit that, although he once pretended otherwise. “Subsequently I read Proust,” he explains, and abandoned the disclaimers. He writes about his own experience “because it’s there, and it’s rich,” he says. “The details are rich.”
The hero of The Hungry Ghosts is named Shivan. “I knew it was close to Shyam, but I said, ‘You know, let it be,’” he says “Let it be like that.”
Although broad in its ambition to infuse the wisdom of Buddhist folk tales into the reality of 21st-century life in the West, The Hungry Ghosts comes to a sharp focus on the issues of migration and loss. Prosperous in Colombo, the Selvadurais arrived in Toronto with nothing and started again from scratch, his mother, a doctor, taking work as a file clerk to help feed her four children.
The move also brought opportunities for 19-year-old Shyam. “One is that I came out and began to be myself really, and as a result I began to make friends who were real friends,” he says. He was also able to study fine arts at York University.
“So it worked out well,” he adds. “I’m happy we are here. All the people I love most in the world now live in Toronto.” But “the trauma of migration” survives. “I think the pain of losing your home is something that’s always with us,” Selvadurai says. “There’s always a homesickness, and that has to be negotiated in your life in the new country.”
Like so many other successful immigrants, Selvadurai currently negotiates with the aid of transcontinental air travel, spending as much time as possible in his native country. A two-year stint as artistic director of the Galle Literary Festival in southern Sri Lanka was “a very settling experience,” according to the author. “It’s one thing to go back as an expat writer sniffing around for a story,” he says, “but it’s a much more rooting experience to work there.”
More recently, Selvadurai has undertaken the directorship of Write to Reconcile, a creative-writing project that attempts to heal wounds opened by decades of civil war. The project is necessary because the country’s current government shows no interest in reconciliation, according to Selvadurai, and is even encouraging a new wave of anti-Muslim violence.
“I feel that a great opportunity for the country to move forward is being bled away right now,” he says.
But Sri Lanka’s present is Selvadurai’s past. He has moved beyond it, and remains confident it will never catch up. “We have created a different society here,” he says, pointedly including himself in the enterprise.
And a new literature to match it.