Curators / The Sunday Times / Writers

Shyam Selvadurai: The Writing Life and Curating GLF

We ring the bell and from behind the forbidding black gate a cacophony of barks rises to greet us. A smaller door swings open and Shyam Selvadurai pops out, all smiles. As we pass under the portico, I think that if Great Expectations had been set in Sri Lanka, Mrs. Havisham could have lived in this house.

With its owners (Shyam’s dear friends, author Ashok Ferrey and his wife Mandy) away from home, the grand entrance hall is empty. Looking cheerful and cool in a blue kurta, Shyam seems out of place among the chandeliers and heavy antique furniture, but this is to be his base till he leaves again later in September. Shyam has much to accomplish before then – having agreed to serve as the Literary Curator of the 2011 Galle Literary Festival, the beloved author of ‘Funny Boy’ says he’s discovered something he loves as much as writing.

Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

“I just love this, I love my job. I’m not just a writer, I’m a reader, and the thought of being able to get the writers in there that I love to read, discovering new writers and just planning it out, imagining it…” Shyam is so enthusiastic he barely pauses for breath. His appointment as Festival Curator comes at a time when GLF is secure in its reputation as one of the world’s premier literary festivals. Later this week the official list of participating writers will be released.

Offering us an early glimpse, Shyam says Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk will become the first Nobel Prize winning author to appear at the Festival and Kiran Desai is to be one of several Booker Prize winning novelists who will make an appearance. The Orange Prize winning author of ‘Half a Yellow Sun’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has also said yes – much to Shyam’s delight. The Nigerian- born Adichie has long been a personal favourite.

Shyam’s other loves – poetry and South Asian writing – will find their own niche at the festival. The author is delighted with a tea and poetry series he’s been planning. He also intends to introduce a GLF spotlight on a country. Beginning with Malaysia this year, the festival will showcase the literature of a different nation each year. And if Shyam has his way, across the three days of the festival its audience will leave the safety of the halls more often, moving out into the open spaces and rooftops within the fort. In fact, when we meet he has just returned from scouting locations in Galle, and says he is struck by how wonderfully the fort lends itself to the staging of an event like this.

“It really taps into my old love, which is theatre,” he says, “It is performance in a way…what follows what, where people should stand.” It’s clear he sees it all in his head. “The placement is great – you can’t improve on the fort,” he says, adding that in planning next year’s festival he found himself uninterested in changing the audience – “I’m interested in changing what I give them. I like the audience, it’s what we want.” Having travelled the literary circuit himself, Shyam believes that GLF stands out in part because it offers an unmatched intimacy. He brings to his planning the perspective of both a writer and a participant. “I know the rhythm of the festival, because I’ve been a part of it before.”

In past years, the team has run under a single Festival Director, but this time around the labour has been divided – Shyam has been in charge of planning the programme, while Kishani De Silva will serve as Festival Director and administrative head of the project. Having worked on the programme alone, Shyam says he was pleasantly surprised by what he discovered about himself. “It surprised me that I could do this. I discovered that I had skills that I didn’t know I had – I’m good with organizing and my time management is excellent.” On a laugh, he adds, “damn writing, I should take it and use it in the corporate world, than I wouldn’t be so poor.”

Since he published the semi-autobiographical ‘Funny Boy’ to universal acclaim 15 years ago, the author who now makes his home in Toronto, Canada, has released two other books. ‘Cinnamon Gardens’ and ‘Swimming in the Monsoon Sea’ both featured protagonists who flouted gender stereotypes. All three novels were also set in Sri Lanka and now he says he feels drawn back to the land of his birth. “I had begun to feel that it wasn’t very good for me as a writer to stay away,” he says, going on to explain that “even before the war had ended I had already made that decision.”

The action in Shyam’s newest novel, ‘The Hungry Ghosts’ is split between Sri Lanka and Canada and is scheduled for release late in 2011. “It is about this young man’s relationship with his grandmother over a long period of time and her influence over him. There are some very strongly Buddhist themes.”

Ruminatively he adds: “It deals with themes of home and loss of home… it’s not an autobiography of my life, but it is an autobiography of feeling, in a way.” Having previously fantasised about writing two novels simultaneously, he also undertook to write a second novel, this time for children. Describing the as yet untitled text as a Buddhist fantasy, the author reveals that Buddhist lore and stories from the Pali cannon make their way into both novels.

Judging by past performance, the two books are likely to receive a warm welcome, but for many fans his first book is still the one they define him by. Shyam confesses that he is often surprised by how ‘Funny Boy’ continues to resonate with young readers, even as his own emotional involvement with the book has lessened. “It’s like a child that got away to go wander the world, that’s how it feels.” Since most writers are defined by one book, Shyam is content that ‘Funny Boy’ is it for now. “I tell myself, ‘at least you’ve got one’.” It’s also the book that has given him the privilege of being able to do what he loves best. To be 45 years old and still a writer seems nothing short of a gift.

But ‘Funny Boy’ is old hat, and what Shyam really wants to talk about is the Festival. This trip is devoted to finalizing the Sri Lankan elements in the programme. “I’m trying to do a translation panel,” he says, explaining that he’s determined to make room for both Tamil and Sinhala literature. A series of free lunchtime concerts that will feature performances in both languages is also on the drawing board, as is a very Sri Lankan set of “pre-events” that will be held in the days leading up to the festival. Will it all come together? That his audience will be the judge of its success leaves Shyam feeling as vulnerable as if he were presenting them with a new book. In the end, it’s clear that the festival will have a ‘face’ in a way that it hasn’t before. That it will be Shyam’s is sure to delight his legion of fans.

Published in The Sunday Times on September 5, 2010, Sri Lanka. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

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