Shyam Selvadurai Telling His Own Stories
Shyam Selvadurai is one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated writers, with his exquisite debut Funny Boy cementing his status as an important literary figure in the country. Funny Boy won the W.H. Smith/ Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Lambda Literary Award in the US. He is the author of Cinnamon Gardens and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, and the editor of an anthology, Story-Wallah! A Celebration of South Asian Fiction. Many Roads Through Paradise is an anthology edited by Shyam highlighting the best and brightest literary figures in Sri Lankan literature, published in May 2014. The idea for the anthology came about when Penguin India approached him with the idea. “I jumped at the opportunity as it meant I could deepen my understanding and knowledge of Sri Lankan Literature,” he said.
The collection boasts a wide range of Sri Lankan authors and poets, from the Sinhala and Tamil writers of the 1950s to the diasporic writers of today, giving the reader a rich and vivid sense of the country, its people and its history. The anthology features translations of iconic works of Sri Lankan literature, such as Gamperaliya (Uprooted) by Martin Wickramasinghe and Mahakavi’s poem, The Chariot and the Moon, making it accessible both to readers from the West and to Sri Lankans not familiar with Sinhala or Tamil.
With the current turbulence in the country, he feels that an anthology such as this is an example of how we can all be united as Sri Lankans through our literature. “It is very important to talk about unity now but also the notion of unity through diversity. The anthology really asserts the multiple cultures that make up the word ‘Sri Lankan’ or ‘Sri Lanka’. This is evident in its title Many Roads through Paradise,” Shyam observed.
Putting a collection like this together is no easy feat, he said. “It was really difficult coming up with a short list from a very long list I had. My editor at Penguin really helped with this. Ultimately, they didn’t want the anthology to be beyond a certain amount of pages as the price would go up, making publishing the anthology not financially viable. Finally, I cut out my own story too so that I could give priority to another Sri Lankan writer,” Shyam noted.
According to Shyam, the literary landscape in Sri Lanka has changed a great deal over the years. He said, “There is a lot more writing in English and a lot of the work in all three languages deals with the war, for obvious reasons”.
He feels that it is important to encourage a new breed of writers; however they need the right support and motivation. “If someone wants to be a writer, they will become writers. What we are lacking are proper creative writing programs so that those who want to become writers receive some training,” he said.
Regarding his personal journey in becoming a writer, he said, “I just wanted to tell stories. The book that made me feel like I had a story to tell was Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, because even though it was set in India the world it created was similar to the world I had grown up in Sri Lanka”. For those looking to pursue a literary career he offers this advice: “Write consistently and don’t sit around waiting for inspiration. Also read a lot”.
The anthology has been gaining rave reviews since its publication; for example the New Delhi Financial Chronicle says, “It’s difficult to believe that an entire nation can be contained within one book. Many Roads to Paradise is an encapsulation of the essence of Sri Lanka that includes its history, social fabric, heart-wrenching tragedies, slow-healing wounds and rising hopes. This book absolutely teems with life”. From the publication of this anthology, Shyam hopes that people will take away something after reading it, such as developing a holistic view of Sri Lanka and that the work they read in the anthology will inspire them to read more Sri Lankan authors.