Opening doors to the future

Shyam Selvadurai offers a gay immigrant’s view of Toronto


Shyam Selvadura
Pages on Kensington
Monday, May 6

More in: Literary

Shyam Selvadurai’s new novel, The Hungry Ghosts (Random House, 374 pp.), took 13 years to complete. After the success of his debut novel, Funny Boy, he wrote two more novels and edited an anthology, but was continually challenged by the process of constructing this novel, which reflects his own experiences as an immigrant.

“It was important to write about the Canada I came to as an immigrant,” he says. “The suburbs, where you sort of arrive at a nowhere place. The houses look the same, and there’s no street life or daily contact.”

Selvadurai says the difficulty was in trying to write about Toronto in the same sensuous way that he had written about his native Sri Lanka. “I wanted to bring the landscape alive. Landscape and weather played a big part in the novel. As a new immigrant, the weather is startling, it can kill you.”

The Hungry Ghosts is a generational drama set in Sri Lanka and Toronto. It follows Shivan, a young gay man whose life is pulled between his haunted mother and domineering grandmother. Like the Buddhist tales interlaced throughout the book, past actions have karmic consequences that ripple throughout the characters’ futures. Selvadurai says the Buddhist themes are central to the novel, particularly the “hungry ghost,” someone whose insatiable appetite in life leaves them constantly hungry, starving, in death. In the novel, karma is a very real thing. However, as Selvadurai says, all doors open to the future. “Your destiny is fixed by who you are, but you can also make decisions about free will,” he says. “It’s how you deal with it that creates bad karma.”

Like Shivan, Selvadurai discovered his homosexuality while a young man living in Sri Lanka in the late ’70s and early ’80s. At that time, he says, there was no gay culture to speak of. “You were aware of what it was, the effeminate men, the derogatory terms. But it was so negative I couldn’t see myself in it.”

He says things are much different now, with access to the Internet and shows like Glee making a younger generation more aware of a larger gay culture. “When I met gay men in the ’80s they were self-hating. Now those men (in their 50s and 60s) see the problem with society, not themselves,” says Selvadurai. “They often need to negotiate society in secret, which they don’t like, obviously. But it is a massive change compared to the past.”

Selvadurai also vividly describes gay life in ’80s Toronto, at that time a culture the author himself felt alienated from. “I thought that there would be this immediate connection and it was a real letdown when that wasn’t so,” he says. “I did make friends from other communities, but felt I was only half-present. I felt giving a tour-guide history to my past cheapened it, and discovered a hierarchy of beauty and race in the community.”

He says that has largely disappeared. “When the ’90s arrived, people began to form different groups, and the larger white gay world didn’t have that grip on me.”

Selvadurai now divides his time between Toronto and Sri Lanka. Laws punishing homosexuality are still on the books in Sri Lanka, but he says he’s not concerned. “It’s hard to imagine because of the amount of violence that goes on there — that’s all you ever hear about,” he says. “What’s missing from the equation is that people there are easygoing on a day-to-day level. I’m obviously out in the sense that my books are out and I’m gay, and the circles I mix with aren’t homophobic at all. I learned how to do it. It would be much more difficult if I couldn’t be out at all.”



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