In his latest novel, Mansions of the Moon, Sri-Lankan Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai transports readers to sixth-century BC India and into the life of Siddhartha, the man who would become the Buddha. But instrumental in the telling of this tale is a woman, Yasodhara, Siddhartha’s wife. Selvadurai paints a fictional portrait of Yasodhara, exploring her relationship with the Buddha, before it crumbled and left her abandoned, as he moved on to finding enlightenment.
Selvadurai spoke with writer and curator Devyani Saltzman about his inspirations and process behind the novel, how change drives us all and the power of historical fiction.
In essence, Mansions of the Moon is a work of historical fiction. Yasodhara appears very briefly in the original Buddhist texts. She’s invisible and unnamed or named often in relation to her son. Is this a feminist retelling from your perspective?
Yes, it’s a feminist retelling because that’s part of my creative DNA in a way. I came out of that first wave of the identity politics movements.
More than feminism, I think it’s looking at the pressure of patriarchy on the lives of women and gay men, and the way that pressure distorts and cripples your thoughts, your ambitions, your loves, your talent, really everything in your life. All my novels have these gay protagonists who feel this pressure of the patriarchal structure, but they also have women who are also experiencing that, and you can see Yasodhara’s lineage in some of those women in my past novels.
What drew you to Yasodhara and how did you find her?
I found her through Ranjini Obeyesekere, an academic who had translated a wonderful collection of women’s stories from the Buddha’s era. I was taken aback at her interest in Yasodhara, because I knew Buddha had a wife, but I didn’t know very much about this woman.
Ranjini sent me her translation of an old Sri Lankan folk poem called Yasodharavatta. I was immediately riveted. It taps into a fundamental human fear that we all have: abandonment by those you love. I thought that was something I would love to explore through fiction.
I began work on it in 2014. I think there was a necessary feeling, a sense of urgency, that this is important for me to do and that I cannot not do it in that sense. Like Siddhartha driven to do what he does, I was also driven to write this book.
I also wanted to explore a marriage because I’ve been in one for 28 years and I know how it functions in all its complications and joys.
I consider myself a practicing Buddhist, and wanted to use Yasodhara as the lens to explore the philosophy. As I was writing the book I realized that there was something else about the story that was universal, which is this idea of change, and it’s how Yasodhara’s life changes and changes and she must deal with this. And this notion of change lies at the basis of Buddhism. I was curious to explore this.
As a reader, I was in the sixth century BC for the 400 pages of this journey. There was a lot of world making. And I’m curious about your writing process – how did you enter a world like Mansions of the Moon every day?
It’s like being a dancer. A really great dancer has all that technique in their head. But the moment they come out on stage, they’re not thinking of the technique there, just simply dancing.
It’s sort of like that for writing. I have all this technique and craft now because I’ve been writing for a long time, but when I sit down in the morning and I start to write, I’m dancing. I’m in there dancing, and then it finishes and then I usually go and lie down for a bit.
But there was something different about this book from the other books, I just felt like I was in there with Yasodhara and it was truly a joy to be with her every morning.
Because of how little she appears within the historical text, I’m curious how you reconstructed Yasodhara’s life. You’ve painted sixth-century BC Kapilvastu, Nepal. In your acknowledgments, you thank archaeologists and texts and academics. You’ve obviously done a lot of research. How much of this book was in the realm of research versus imagination?
I’ll give you an example from the book: The courtesans. We know that in the Buddha’s time, they were not just respected figures, but like film stars. They were figures of incredible glamour, but they were business women too, and owned lots of property. We also know that during the daytime, respectable women visited them. What they went for was maybe advice on the marriage bed, but we don’t know.
From that idea, I constructed Yasodhara’s visit to a courtesan through a mysterious passage, a beautiful garden, etc. So, it’s the research, but it’s also going with the imagination and trying to bring that negative research on courtesans to life.
Were you actually travelling? Because Kapilvastu in Nepal is an archeological footprint that must look like a very small city by current standards. How did you walk into the past?
Well, I mean there’s practically nothing when you go to Kapilvastu. Most was constructed out of material that easily disintegrated, which tells us that it was probably wood.
But Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, hasn’t developed much, so there was a sense of being back in that era when I was there. There were long power cuts, and at night I would go to the restaurant carrying a torch, and other people would be carrying torches or lamps.
And there’s a lot of detail in the stories about life in that time that has been compiled by various academics. There’s actually a book called Daily Life in Ancient India, which felt oddly familiar from my childhood. I just read that and then would imagine myself in that world.
Can you tell us a little bit about your own daily Buddhist practice and how writing this influenced that practice or vice versa?
I first came upon Buddhism when I was trying to deal with the trauma of the [Sri Lankan] civil war, so since the early 2000s. You get so fixated on this traumatized self and Buddhism allows you to kind of loosen your grip on it.
I do a little meditation every day. The meditation is toward keeping you aware of these ideas of change and how desire rises in you. It reminds me a lot of the process of writing because it’s small increments, lots of setbacks and all of it curiously beyond language. It has to be lived in a way.
How has this book built on your previous work?
Well, starting with The Hungry Ghosts, I began this sort of project of trying to combine the tropes of Buddhist narratives with the Western realist novel. This is the second of that experimentation.
Is there a third planned?
I think it would be incorporated into all my works. But I’m working on these two children’s novels, which I have basically finished. They’re Buddhist fantasy novels. It’s allowed me to go even further into those ideas.
Can you talk about the power of historical fiction and your interest in it?
History is written by the winners and the vanquished and the people in power who have always been men and straight men. But on the edges of this history are these liminal characters, usually women, sometimes queer people, sometimes slaves. What historical fiction allows us to do is bring these characters from the margins and put them in the centre and by doing so, we “queer” that history, and by that I don’t mean “gay,” I mean change the point of view, re-centre it.
What have you read lately that you have loved, that also re-centres voices in this vein?
I think Mary Renault’s book The Persian Boy is one of my all-time favourite novels, looking at Alexander the Great from the point of view of this slave boy who was most likely his lover. I haven’t read anything recently that grabbed me like that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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