ANNE BLACKBURN: So, the sun's come out just in time for us to start. I think I was waiting for that auspicious moment when the sun would come out. That's why we're not starting on time. Delighted to see so many of you here today. And those of you who've come in sort of dripping because you did get caught in the rainstorm on the way, if you need a cup of warm tea or something like that, there's some hot water and so on there. But we'll have a proper reception after today's event.
My name is Anne Blackburn, director of Cornell's South Asia program, and it's a real pleasure, always a very great pleasure, to welcome you to the Kahin Center today for the South Asia Program's annual Tagore Lecture in Modern Indian Literature. I would like to express my thanks to Daniel Bass, South Asia program manager, and Valerie Foster Githinji, the program's administrative assistant, who have worked hard, very hard, I know-- I almost know how hard, to arrange this event. And thanks also to our student assistants [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE]. We appreciate, as always, the Southeast Asia Program sharing with us access to this wonderful building at the Kahin Center, and you can admire the decorations during the reception.
In the late 1990s, Cornell Professor Emeritus of Operations and Industrial Research Narahari Umanath Prabhu and his wife Mrs. Suman Prabhu, initiated a generous gift to Cornell University establishing the Rabindranath Tagore Endowment in Modern Indian Literature. The Rabindranath Tagore endowment was created by Professor and Mrs. Prabhu in order to honor Rabindranath Tagore, a celebrated literatus and musician and one of the great luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition, with their endowment, Professor and Mrs. Prabhu sought to project a strongly positive image of South Asian literature.
While collaborating with Professor and Mrs. Prabhu on the Tagore lecture events, it became clear, to my very great delight, that they have a generous and encompassing view of the Tagore Lecture's destiny and are eager to include writers connected to India and also other parts of the South Asian region. As Professor Prabhu put it to me recently when we spoke on the phone about today's event, when it comes to literature, he understands Sri Lanka, for instance, as part of the wider Indian subcontinental sphere. And as we have seen in past lectures, and will have occasion to note again today, this wider sphere often takes us even further afield to locations in what is sometimes called the South Asian diaspora, but which I sometimes also call, to reflect its historical depth and its social complexity, global South Asia.
This is the first occasion on which Mrs. Prabhu has not been able to join us in person for the Tagore lecture. This is a deep regret. We send her our warmest wishes and take some comfort in knowing that she will quite soon be watching today's Tagore lecture from the comfort of her living room. The disc is nearly on the way. In his closing remarks today, Professor Prabhu will speak with us about the roots of his interest in the world of literature and his decision to make this endowment. I won't steal his thunder by saying more now except to hint that there's something distinctive to the experience, perhaps, of growing up in the southwest of India which led Professor Prabhu to have a particular interest in supporting literature here on Cornell's campus.
Today, it is my very great pleasure to welcome Shyam Selvadurai, who joins an impressive list of Tagore lecturers, including Sunil Gangopadhyay, Kirin Nagarkar, Tahmima Anam, Amit Chaudhuri, Manjushee Thapa, Mohammed Hanif, and Ranjit Hoskote. Shyam Selvadurai holds a BFA from York University and an MFA from the University of British Columbia. Since the publication of his first novel Funny Boy, in 1994, Shyam has been highly sought after as a speaker, teacher, and commentator on multiple continents. He has taught at York University, the University of Toronto, and Guelph University, which houses Canada's premier creative writing program.
Selvadurai moves between Toronto and Colombo. In Sri Lanka, he has undertaken major responsibilities in the sphere of literature and at the intersection of the arts and social action, such as serving twice as the festival curator of the Galle Literary Festival. Dear to Shyam's heart is his work as founder and project director of Right to Reconcile, a creative writing project undertaken in conjunction with the American Center in Colombo and the National Peace Council there. Three batches of emerging writers, ranging from their late teens to late 20s, worked, with Shyam Selvadurai's guidance, to craft fiction, memoir, and poetry on topics of peace, reconciliation, memory, and trauma as related to Sri Lanka's long civil war and ongoing post-conflict processes. You'll find the resulting anthologies on the Right to Reconcile website.
Selvadurai's renown as an editor extends well beyond these works from Right to Reconcile. Two edited volumes are now widely used and enjoyed, Story-Wallah, published in 2004 and 2005, depending on the location, is a collection of South Asian fiction. Many Roads Through Paradise, an anthology of Sri Lankan literature published in 2014, greets me now in so many houses across continents and islands. I have been reading Shyam Selvadurai's fiction since his Funny Boy debut with immense appreciation for his capacity to bring characters to life. Selvadurai's gaze is warm yet unflinching, exploring themes related to class, gender, and sexuality.
At the heart of his work is an investigation of the haunting co-presence of love and emotional violence that so often characterizes family lives. For instance, Arjie in Funny Boy and Shivan in Hungry Ghosts, Shyam's most recent novel, published in 2013, draw us into their struggles to find ways of living well in the world as young gay men whose sexuality is often unwelcome and stigmatized, including by near relations. In these novels, the emotional violence of life at the scale of family is refracted and magnified by the wider space of social habitation marked by the violence and cruelty of Sri Lanka's civil war and deeply classist social dynamics.
Hungry Ghosts, this latest piece, is a remarkable novel in many ways, and we will have a taste of it soon, I hope. Shyam Selvadurai's most elegantly structured novel to date, in my modest few, modest since I'm an historian and not someone working in creative writing, this work is also engagingly experimental in its voice and layered temporality, constructing characters' awareness of themselves and others partly through language taken from Sri Lanka's Buddhist literary heritage, especially Buddhist texts that focus on humans' striking capacity to exert-- exact violence on themselves and others across the many lifetimes of rebirth, or samsara. While the emotional landscape of Selvadurai's fiction is often dark and deeply fraught, in these fictional worlds, there are also important moments of grace, self-transformation, and personal empowerment. With appreciation for Shyam Selvadurai's capacity to traverse this emotional range, it is my very great pleasure to invite him to offer the 2017 Tagore Lecture.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: What Anne didn't mention is that I've known Anne for longer than Funny Boy, isn't it? I mean, we met in Khandi when you were--
ANNE BLACKBURN: We met in Chicago, but you may not want to tell that story.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Chicago, yeah. Yeah. Let's not talk about Chicago. That was my sort of giddy youth, wasn't it. Anyways. So, I'm going to-- sorry, I got distracted by that for a minute, the way to Chicago. I'm going to-- what I'm going do to is I'm going to read an essay on being a diasporatic writer, and then I'm going to read two pieces of writing from The Hungry Ghosts. And they both have to do with the subject of homecoming, so I think it will be sort of tie in nicely. And then we'll take questions, and then right at the end, I'll do a very short reading, also about sort of intersections of my identity, which is an article I did for the Globe and Mail, and it's called "Menage a Trois," so it should be interesting.
I'm often invited to read from my novels in public, and if there's a question period afterwards, someone inevitably stands up to ask the following-- "What kind of writer do you consider yourself to be? Are you a Canadian writer or a Sri Lankan writer?" It is perplexing, this matter of cultural identity, and I am tempted, like some other writers of multiple identities, to reply grumpily, "I'm just a bloody writer, period." Yet this response would be disingenuous. I suppose I could answer Sri Lankan-Canadian writer, or Canadian-Sri Lankan writer, but this also does not get to the heart of what I consider my identity to be as a writer. And we are talking of my writing identity here. For in terms of being a writer, my creativity comes not from Sri Lankan or Canadian, but precisely from the space between. That marvelous open space represented by the hyphen in which the two parts of my identity jostle and rub up against each other like tectonic plates pushing up with the eruption that is my work.
It is from the space between that the novels come, from a double vision-ness, a biculturalism. For the majority of people, a dual identity is a burden forced on them by the fact that their bodies, or their skin colors, to be precise, do not represent the nation state they are in, thus compelling them to constantly wear their difference on their sleeve and carry it around on their backs. In my day-to-day interaction with the world outside, I share the irritation, the burden, the occasional danger of this visible otherness.
But when I close the doors to my study and sit at my computer, that biculturalism becomes the site of great excitement, of great marvel, the very source of my creativity. It is from the space in between represented by the hyphen that I have written what I consider Canadian novels set exclusively in Sri Lanka. For though the material may be Sri Lankan, the shaping of that material and the inclusion, for example, of themes of gay liberation or feminism are drawn from the life I have lived in Canada. Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka, and the very real threat of physical violence and intimidation might have stopped me from exploring this theme had I lived there, being not of a particularly brave disposition.
My thoughts and attitudes, indeed my craft as a writer, have been shaped by my life in Canada. It is from the clash of these cultures which occurs in the space between that the conflicts in my plot lines arise. Without them, my novels would be deathly boring to read. Not to write from the space in between would diminish me. For the first 19 years of my life, questions of cultural identity never troubled me. I was born and raised in Sri Lanka, and it was clear to me who I was. That I was manifested in being a member of my immediate and extended family, the generations before us lying in the graveyard. It was manifested in my school. Various grand uncles, older cousins, and even my older brother had gone there before me, and the teachers saw me in the context of this continuity, though negatively, always expressing their disappointment at my lack of sportiness compared to my forebearers.
This I was embodied in the landscape, the place names, rivers, lakes, stretches of beach, that were tied to the narrative of not just my life, but that of my parents and grandparents before me. This sense of identity remained curiously unshaken by the fact that growing up, I listened exclusively to Western pop music and read Western books. The rise of ethnic conflict within the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, of which I am a member because of my father, even though my mother is Sinhalese, did not shape my identity. Even the growing violence, the spilling over of that violence into our lives, which would ultimately force us to leave Sri Lanka, did not disturb the sense of who I was.
It was the arrival in Canada that shook it. Here, for the first time, I found myself forced, like almost all new immigrants, to ask myself those questions about who I was. What did it mean to be Sri Lankan? What aspects of my culture made me Sri Lankan? What aspects didn't? What was the essence of Sri Lankan-ness? The answers readily furnished themselves and had actually been with me all through my life in Sri Lanka; I had just not known it. All colonial societies, in their struggle for independence and the forming of a new nation, reshape and redefine their identity. This drive for a cultural identity involves the establishment of a collective essential self that is seen-- that is shared by people with a common ancestry and common history. This essential identity is seen to be unchanging and eternal. It provides a common frame of reference to a newly emerged nation.
The goal of these nations released from colonialism is to bring to light this identity that has been suppressed and distorted and disfigured by the colonial masters, to express this identity through a retelling of the past. At the core of this identity lies the idea that beyond the myths and contradictions of today is a resplendent past whose existence, when it is discovered, will restore us as a culture, as a society. My problem in embracing this notion of an essential pure cultural identity was that its contradictions almost immediately bedeviled me. Where, for example, did someone like me, with a Sinhalese mother and a Tamil father fit in? And what to do with that much-adored grandmother of mine with her blue eyes and white skin, who never thought of herself as anything but, well, Sri Lankan? What also to do with the pesky fact that a piece of pop music by the Bee Gees or Olivia Newton-John could take me back to my teenage years and those long tropical afternoons spent lying on my bed, listening to the radio, in a way no a Sri Lankan song could?
In the quest for my cultural identity, I was also discovering that within Sri Lanka itself, opposition had been mounted by writers and thinkers against this notion of a pure, eternal, fixed Sri Lankan identity. Through reading these writers, I became aware that it was the very idea of a pure essential culture that had led to the rise of both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism, racism, and violence, the inability of both communities to accept that they shared a crossbred culture where there was more in common than different, the insistence by each that their culture was superior, the refusal by each to acknowledge that we are a little island nation to whose shores, over the centuries, have come the winds of other cultures that have been integrated into what was now being hailed as a pure culture in Sri Lanka.
I could not ignore that it was this very notion of purity that had ultimately brought such violence to my family and forced us out of the country. On a personal level, I was beginning to come to terms with being gay, beginning to live out a very-- another very important part of my identity. It was very clear to me that the pure sense of being Sri Lankan was based on rigid heterosexual and gender roles. Where did someone like me belong, then? By being gay, was I no longer Sri Lankan? And if that was not the case, what did it mean to be both Sri Lankan and gay? How to live out this combination of identities?
Some of the answers to these questions came through my understanding of the concept of diaspora. And I'm not going to define diaspora. I'm sure everybody knows what it is. "Immigrant" is often used to identify these groups and, indeed, the writers coming from these groups. The problem with this term is that the emphasis is on the act of arrival in a new land. It conveys a sense that someone is a perpetual newcomer, a perpetual outsider. The term immigrant does not leave much room for the process of becoming and changing and the dynamic cultural mixing that diaspora suggests. Diaspora also allows for the encompassing of a wider range of people and experiences.
On the one hand, the idea of diaspora acknowledges that the history and culture from which we have come is not an illusion. Histories are real. They have produced concrete and symbolic results. The past still informs who we are, and the truth is that the discovery of hidden histories has played a very important function in many social movements of our time, feminists, gay, anti-colonial, anti-racist. As such, it should not be dismissed outright. A collective identity can be very effective as a tool of resistance and empowerment and freedom. On the other hand, the idea of diaspora acknowledges the act, the trauma of migration, and the fact that one cannot but be transformed in the new land. The emphasis must shift to a sense of cultural identity that is eclectic and diverse, a sense of cultural identity that is transforming itself, making itself new over and over again, a continuous work in progress.
This sense of cultural identity, while taking into account that a group or a culture might have many important points of similarity, also acknowledges that there are many points of difference between its people, and that these differences, such as sexuality and gender and class, also define who we are. This sense of cultural identity stresses not just who one was in the past, but who one might be in the process of becoming. OK. So then I go on in the essay to talk about the problems of that diasporic identity, and so on and so forth. But I'm not going to read all that.
That piece was written before I wrote The Hungry Ghosts, and so I do now write about Canada. And the novel does actually go between, draw between Canada and Sri Lanka. And so what I did-- what I thought was I would start with the Sri Lankan part and then move to the Canadian part. So the protagonist, or the narrator, of the novel is a young man named Shivan Rassiah, and the novel-- at the beginning of the novel, he and his mother are preparing to go back to Sri Lanka to bring his grandmother-- they've got a special dispensation from the Canadian government to bring the grandmother back to basically die, because she's very sick and there's nobody to look after her there.
And so as the night progresses, he's thinking about his very toxic relationship with his grandmother and how it shaped him as a person not just in Sri Lanka, but also in Canada, because, as Anne mentioned, I'm very interested in the idea of a Buddhist narrative and how it follows a character through various births. And I thought that the idea of moving to another country is a form of rebirth, but you do carry the karma of your previous country. And I really wanted to work that through the narrative. And what I'm going to do-- so he's thinking now of his past. And I'm going to start off with a Buddhist story that he's thinking of.
Tonight, I'm thinking of one story in particular, a story where a narrative moment becomes its own tale, which my grandmother named The Thieving Hawk. In it, a hawk steals a piece of meat from a butcher and rises, triumphant, into the sky. Soon, however, other hawks surround him and try to pluck the meat away, tearing at the thieving hawk with their beaks and claws. He tries to escape them, refusing to give the meat up, even though he's bloodied and wounded. Finally, however, his agony is unbearable, and he lets the meat fall. The other birds swoop down to grab it, tearing and clawing at each other now. The thieving hawk flies away, injured and starving, but free of the thing that caused him such suffering.
That is how I think of my mother in the days after my father died, sprawled out in a plastic chair, head tilted towards the morning sun, exhausted but at peace, her waist-length hair, which she had let down over the chair, flickering with sunlight. When my sister and I spoke to her, she was mild and gentle, touching our faces and arms with her fingertips, no longer cruel and shooing us away. She began to do things she had never done before, such as bathe us, feed us with her own hand, and read to us in the evenings. In the middle of the night, I would often feel my bed give as she climbed in and held me close, gently pressing up and down my limbs, as if checking for fractures. Then she would get up to repeat this affection with my sister.
When my father was alive, there was hardly a night my sister and I fell asleep without the sound of our parents fierce whispering in the living room or outside on the verandah, my mother crying, my father pleading. Sometimes, my mother would not be able to contain her anger, and she would yell at my father, calling him a ponnaya, a faggot, reeling at his weakness and incompetence. When they first met, my father had been a junior executive in a prestigious shipping company. But soon, his ineptitude began to affect the company, and when he lost a major Japanese client, he was fired. Over the next few years, my parents, my sister, and I moved continuously as my father's bungling cost him job after job. With each sacking, he fell to a lower level of employment, until finally, by the time I was six years old and my sister eight, he had sunk to manager of a little guesthouse. The rooms, when they were occupied, were usually taken by traveling salesmen and low-level civil servants on circuit.
From our manager's bungalow at a far corner of the compound, we would hear their drunken bawling, the same tired baila songs with their lewd lyrics. In typical Sri Lankan form, the men would not eat until they were tight, and so the staff was kept up well past midnight before dinner was served. My father would return to our quarters in the small hours of the morning bleached with fatigue. Not long after we moved to the guest house, a kindly stranger, whom we would later know as Sunil Maama, my grandmother's cousin, started to visit us, coming once a month and always bringing my sister and me a box of Kandos chocolates.
My mother was imperious, speaking crossly, as if she was doing him a favor tolerating his visit. At the end, he would always give her an envelope of money, and each time, my mother sneered, "Is this her money?" "No, no, Hema," Sunil Maama would say with an anxious smile, "It's mine." "Well," my mother would declare even as she opened the envelope and counted the notes, "If it's hers, I don't want it."
After Sunil Maama's third visit, my sister and I wanted to know who "her" was. "Your grandmother; who else," my mother snorted. "We have an aachi?" Renu tucked in her chin, incredulous. "Yes, of course. Did you think I was born in a rubbish bin?" "But we haven't met this aachi," I asked. "But why haven't we met this aachi?" I asked. "Because," my mother paused for emphasis. "She hates you."
We stared at her, dumbfounded. "Why?" Renu finally demanded. "Because you are half Tamil. Your grandmother didn't want me to marry your father because he was Tamil, and now that you are half Tamil, she hates you." My mother said this in a way that would not tolerate any further questions. We were not really surprised that someone hated us for being Tamil, for by the early 1970s, the tension between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils was escalating, particularly around the latter's desire for a separate state.
My father was resented by the waiters and other workers in the guest house, who were all Sinhalese, and he had a hard time maintaining discipline. Though the staff were kind to us, they felt no compunction referring to him as a Tamil dog in our earshot. My parents, who my sister's-- my sister, whom my parents discord in me caused it and who looked like a midget spinster, with a sharp dark skin and hair cut in rigid lines, would often taunt me, saying I could never escape being a single Tamil, but that she would marry a Sinhalese one day, change her last name, and no longer be Tamil. And she would be rich and never allow me in her house because I would end up a beggar man. This threat would send me howling to my mother, who would cry, "Stop being such a baby," and bat my arm off.
Our father died of a heart attack, keeling over with a surprised shout one morning while doing the accounts in his office. We barely knew him, and so his death had little impact on us. He would be gone from the manager's bungalow in the morning before we woke up and come back when we were asleep, spending all day at his office to avoid my mother. Occasionally, he had tried to do something fatherly such as take us into town to see a visiting circus troupe, but he was so awkward, begging for our affection with chastened glances, that we felt stifled by him and were always glad to return to the rudeness of our mother. We saw that by losing our father, we had this new gentle mother, and we gladly traded him to death in exchange for the person she had become.
That first time we visited my grandmother's house, we walked along the length of its high boundary wall, jagged blue and green glass glinting along the top, and came to a stop before the gate with its spiked iron bars. Renu and I stared up the curved drive at the grand whitewashed bungalow, its red tile roof adorned with a melody of wooden fretwork. A polished silver four-- silver door-- A polished silver four-door Bentley T sat before the verandah under a carport. My mother, dressed in the white widow-- a white sari of a widow, did not ring the bell but stood at the gate, waiting. Soon, a plump old woman wearing a sarong and blouse ambled around from the back of the house and peered down the driveway as she wiped her hand on a dish towel. My sister and I knew that this had to be the legendary ayah, Rosalind, about whom my mother had spoken so lovingly in preparing us for this journey.
My mother raised her arm, and the ayah was still for a moment. She began to hurry down the driveway, the dish towel, which she had tucked into her waist, flapping like some tired sorrow. When she got to the gate, she let out a choked sob and struggled with the latch. "Aney, Baba," she cried as she stepped out. "The gods have been good to grant me this sight of you." She began to weep, touching my mother's face, her hair, her shoulders, her arms, saying, "Aiyo, Baba, look at you, so young and already a widow." Soon, my mother was crying, too. "I never thought I would see you again, Rosalind. I never did." The ayah held my mother's head against her spice-stained bosom. "You're home now, Baba. You're safe."
She noticed us, and letting go of my mother, knelt on the ground, the sweetness of roasted cumin powder coming off her. Rosalind gently took my hand in hers. "He's beautiful," she whispered to my mother. "Just like you were as a child." "Oh, don't tell him that," my mother said with a laugh and a sob. "He's already spoiled enough." Rosalind patted Renu on her head and said she had heard my sister was very good in school, just like our mother had been. "I suppose I should go in and face her," my mother said, tightening the sari palu around her waist, then blotting her tears with her handkerchief. "I told Loku Nona you were coming, Baba. I thought it was best."
My mother sucked in her lower lip. "And?" "She acted like she hadn't heard, but then she yelled at me that the rice was not cooked enough." Rosalind grimaced. "Just keep your temper." The old ayah ushered us to the kitchen in the court-- in the back courtyard, which like most Sri Lankan kitchens, was a tin roofed shed, its half walls blackened by soot. "Shivan, Renu, you stay here with Rosalind." My mother patted the bun at the nape of her neck, pushed her handbag over her shoulder, and went into the house. The old ayah beckoned my sister and me to sit on low stools, then she gestured to the plates she had set out on a long scarred table. "Banana fritters. I made these especially for you." The ayah covered the fritters with kithul treacle before placing the plates before us.
As we tucked into them, she sat on another low stool across from us and watched with great satisfaction. After what seemed a long time, my mother came back, her eyes red, her cheeks grimy. "She will provide an allowance, but she wants us to leave." Rosalind drew in her breath. "No, no, Baba. You cannot give in so easily." The ayah's eyes narrowed as she looked me over. "She needs to see her grandson." Rosalind took my plate of fritters, raised me to my feet, smoothed down my hair, and straightened my collar. "Yes, yes, let her see him." "There's no point, Rosalind."
The ayah grabbed my hand. I pulled away, terrified now, but she held on and bustled me into the pantry, with its spice safe and ancient refrigerator and from there into the main part of the house, which was built in the old Sinhalese style, with a vast, high-ceilinged saleya that was both living and dining room. Curtained doorways led into bedrooms from the saleya. Rosalind strode to one of the curtained doorways and slipped me through. A tall, thin woman in a long nightgown and housecoat was seated elegantly upright in bed, polishing a tiny silver teapot, the coverelet scattered with porcelain ornaments and silver objects.
My grandmother snorted like a startled horse and dropped the teapot, which clinked and bounced on the mattress. I began to whimper under her stare, sneaking frightened glances at this stranger with knotty arms, rope-like tendons in her neck, long graying hair in stringy strands about her shoulders. She finally looked about as if searching for some escape, then picked up a silver teapot and began to rub it vigorously, her gaze sliding towards me, then darting away. "Rosalind, Rosalind," she suddenly yelled, her voice shrill. "Come here immediately."
When the old ayah presented herself, my grandmother cried, "Have you given the boy something to eat?" Rosalind sucked in her breath, dismayed. "I never thought to, Loku Nona." "Why not?" my grandmother shrieked, flinging her polishing cloth on the bed. "Is there only cow dung between your ears?" She fluttered an arm in my direction. "This poor little boy has probably not had a meal since breakfast. Can't you see the way he's crying from hunger? Aiyo, take him away. Take him away. Feed the poor thing, for goodness sake."
Then she grabbed a cloth and began to rub another ornament, muttering under her breath. Rosalind took my arm-- hand and we left. My legs were trembling from witnessing my grandmother's anger. But Rosalind looked well pleased with herself and nodded to my mother, who was in the saleya with my sister. The ayah set me up at the dining table with another plate of fritters, which I greedily consumed, being ravenously hungry in that way one is after a fright.
As I ate, my mother sat at the table watching me with a wry, defeated smile. My sister, glaring at the second helping of fritters she had not been offered. There was much activity going on in my grandmother's bedroom, and after some time, she bustled out wearing a white Kandyan sari, hair knotted at the nape of her neck. She glanced past my mother and sister to me, then flapped towards the front door, chin tilted as if I had slighted her in some way. "Rosalind," she said, crooking her finger for the ayah to follow. "I'm going for my evening pooja. Tomorrow, when you go to Sathiya Stores, buy two plastic school lunch boxes, one blue and one pink." "Yes, Loku Nona." Rosalind shot my mother a triumphant look.
My grandmother saw the look. She rummaged through her coconut frond purse, then let it fall to the ground, coins spattering over the polished red floor. Rosalind made to go forward, but my mother lifted her hand. She rose from the chair. Getting down on her knees, she crawled over to take the purse from my stony-faced grandmother, then, still on her knees, scrambled around to retrieve the coins, all the while keeping her luminous gaze on my sister and me. When every coin was picked, she crawled back to my grandmother and handed the change purse to her. My grandmother took it and continued towards the verandah, her car starting up as she went out to it. My mother stayed on her knees, looking after her. She was 29 years old, and her life was over.
So that's that.
And I should mention, because Daniel actually pointed it out to me, one thing-- I should say one of the things about writing a novel is that you-- well, I don't know about other people, but I have a kind of amnesia after it. I can't remember what's in the novel, so when somebody reminds me, I'm always slightly shocked. But Daniel was reminding me that the sister actually ends up at Cornell. And I was gobsmacked. And for a moment, I thought, what? And then I remembered that she does end up as a scholarship student here.
And the reason I had done that is because I had visited Anne at Cornell, and there was initially a scene where she wanted the mother to come to Cornell to visit Renu, and so I thought, OK, I can at least fake this Ivy League university. And so I decided to keep it there. But then the scene fell out. And I also knew that if I was stuck, I could ask Anne for detail. But it fell out, and then all we know is she goes, and then she comes back, and she's highly successful. She's that-- she is the immigrant kid who-- and you know, Canada is-- coming to the West serves her in a certain way, in a way that Sri Lanka couldn't. All right. So we did one homecoming, and now we're going to do the second homecoming. Sorry, yeah. Hold on, let me find it. OK.
I saw Canada-- As I began to waver down the culvert's edge, I recalled the first time I saw Canada from the plane, how despite knowing we were arriving in summer, I was surprised at the green grass and trees between the stretches of gray highway, tarmac, and squat rectangular buildings. In my imagination, I had been expecting snow. An old schoolmate of my mother's, Shireen Subramaniam, was to meet us at the airport. My mother had written to ask her-- to her asking if she could suggest a cheap hotel we might live in until we found more permanent accommodation.
Much to my mother's surprise, this woman, more acquaintance than friend, had replied that she and her husband, Bhavan, would be delighted to offer us hospitality until we got on our feet. My mother, while grateful, was uneasy about this generosity, as if she suspected something was amiss. There was a stridency in her voice when she told friends and relatives about this invitation, saying things like, "Yes, yes, we were very good friends. I knew her very well." As my mother, my sister, and I dragged our bags off the luggage carousel and loaded them onto carts, we avoided looking at each other. The distraction of immigration formalities and negotiating this foreign airport had kept our anxiety at bay. But now, as we cleared customs and made our way to the automatic doors, our apprehension swelled, turning to panic as we came out onto a low platform and found the arrivals lounge before us packed with people pressed up against the ramps that led down on either side into chaos.
We stopped, not knowing which way to go, bewildered by the muddle of foreign faces below. White, Asian, black, the babble of so many languages as people shrieked out greetings and instructions to their relatives and friends, the blurred stridency of PA announcements. Travelers brought up short by our indecision bumped into us and shoved past. We were gaping at my mother, waiting for her to identify this friend. What if Shireen and her husband had not come? What if they had forgotten the day? What if they had changed their mind? As if she had read our fears, my mother said, "I have their phone number, just in case."
She gripped her luggage cart, set her lips grimly, and strode down one of the ramps. We scanned the crowd for a Sri Lankan face, and soon, we saw a woman holding a placard with my mother's name on it. "Shireen," my mother cried, her voice fracturing with relief. "Hema," she cried back, her eyes popping behind gilt-edged glasses. We hurried together towards the end of the ramp, separated from Shireen by the rail. When we reached her, this woman threw her arms around my mother as if they were long lost best friends. Startled, my mother submitted to the embrace.
"My, how grown-up these children are," she cried, as if she had known us when we were little. She embraced Renu and me in turn, pressing us against her bony form, gold bangles and necklace cold against our skin. "Welcome. Welcome to Canada. Now, you children must call me Auntie Shireen." She beamed at us. Auntie Shireen was angular, like a faceted jewel, her carefully back-combed hair gleaming with lacquer. But she seemed genuinely pleased to see us, and our anxiety began to ease a little. She slipped her hand into the crook of my mother's arm and said, as she led us towards the elevator, "So, tell, tell, child, how are things back home?"
My mother, because she had nothing else in common with her, informed Shireen about their school friends. I had the impression from Auntie Shireen's slightly exaggerated reactions that she really did not remember these people. Soon, we were on the highway, and I gazed out at large billboards, taking in the plump gleaming food of fast-food chains, models in department store clothing, the hard, gleaming bodies of men in an underwear ad. The sheer size of the billboards seemed a promise of affluence and happiness. Then there were the cars, so new and clean, not belching diesel smoke, as they did in Sri Lanka. The speed at which everyone drove was terrifying, the foreignness of a seat belt constricting.
As she drove along, Auntie Shireen informed us that her husband had gone on a week-long golfing trip with some of his fellow real estate agents. "Oh, he was so disappointed he couldn't be around to welcome you," she said, her voice resonant with some emotion I couldn't identify. In Colombo, a 15-minute trip was considered long, and this drive, which took us an hour, seemed to go on forever. Soon, the streets all began to look alike. I wondered if Auntie Shireen had made a mistake and we were looping back. The billboards we passed had the same images as the ones we had driven by earlier.
The Subramaniams lived in the upscale suburb of Unionville. Once we pulled into their subdivision, we were in the midst of large detached houses with three-door garages and sloping, manicured lawns, rock-lined flower beds prim with rows of colorful portulacas. I felt I had been in a place like this before, and it took me a moment to realize I had seen versions of it in numerous American made-for-TV films. I felt a thrill of satisfaction. I had arrived in the middle of my dreams. Auntie Shireen's house reinforced this sense of arrival with its shiny hardwood floors, oriental carpets, and a grand piano and gilded Chinese furniture upholstered in red silk. Everything about the interior gleamed and sparkled, especially the kitchen.
We took in the smooth white cupboards, marble counters, deep black stove, and dishwasher, and when Auntie Shireen opened her refrigerator, we gawped as brilliant lights came on to illuminate a glossy white interior, spotless glass shelves, and array of bottles filled with things we had never tasted, like corn relish and capers. "Ah," Auntie Shireen said as she turned to Renu and me with a smile of a magician about to pull off a final dazzling trick. "I know just what these young people want." She drew out a massive plastic bottle of Coca-Cola with a flourish and began to pour us tall glasses. Coca-Cola was still a luxury in Sri Lanka. As I took my first long draught, the bubbles pleasantly tickled my short throat, and I blushed with delight.
"Now, you all get changed and showered. Maybe we'll have dinner," Auntie Shireen cried. She winked at Renu and me. "I know exactly what you'll be wanting." She paused for dramatic effect. "Kentucky Fried Chicken." The morning after we arrived, I went out for a jog. I told myself that when I arrived in Canada, I would take up this sport I had seen so many Americans do in films. I'd even got myself an outfit, a blue tracksuit with a double white stripe down the outside seams, a matching headband. I made my way along the sidewalk at the lumbering gait of a first-time runner, fists clenched, elbows pressed to my sides. Some of the neighbors were out getting papers, watering lawns, walking dogs, gardening. I was acutely conscious they were white, but they did not seem aware of my difference, and a few even raised a hand and called out, "Morning," as I passed.
Soon, another jogger bounded towards me, a tall, blond young man. He was wearing shorts and a singlet, and I felt caught out in my full tracksuit, now sweat-slickened inside. He passed me with a military nod, leaving me diminished by the hairy whiteness of his muscular limbs. How rife with cliches our arrival was. The Coca-Cola, the KFC, the billboards, the resplendent fridge, the passing jogger. By the time I came out a year later, I understood that abject awe at Coca-Cola and shag carpets was not cool. I would pretend to the other young gay men I met at groups or at bars that I had not been awed at all by Canada. I said I had felt no culture shock, acting like I had slipped into this world as if it were my natural element.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Lovely. Thank you. So we have a chance for some questions, and then the words from Professor Prabhu, and then your final reading.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Yeah.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Yeah.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: A short one. And you don't have to have read the book to-- books to ask questions. You can just ask. You know, I always leave that option to people.
ANNE BLACKBURN: So--
AUDIENCE: I have a question. I did not understand completely the ethnicity problem that you raised. The ethnicity.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Yes, between the Sinhalese and the Tamils?
AUDIENCE: The-- what I find is that when I fill out some really good forms, they want to know which race I belong to. I refuse to sign there. I say that I belong to the human race.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. And we do-- the creating of myself.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Yes, I agree. Or you could do what the people in Sarajevo did when they were sent a census. I think under ethnicity and race, they wrote teacup and saucer. You could do that, too.
AUDIENCE: On the other hand, in modern-day politics, the protected groups claim special status or special [INAUDIBLE]. More and more this happens. Based on religion, based on their origin. I'm from [? Ghana, ?] or from Southeast Asia or whatever.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Yes. So--
AUDIENCE: Well, is that acceptable by your thinking?
SHYAM SELVADURAI: To claim ethnicity is. Sure. Why not? I mean, I think that-- I think-- I mean I think that-- I think we live in our sort of ethnicities and cultures, and they only become claimable-- you only actually claim them when they're under threat, I find. As a friend of mine says, he says, "I woke up--" sorry, I should have-- tell you, in Sri Lanka, in 1983 was the beginning of the-- so you could think the beginning of the civil war if you wanted. He said, "I woke up one day in July 1983, and I was Tamil suddenly." And so I think that ethnicity becomes, when it becomes contested and when you feel that you are under threat, then it becomes something that either is thrust at you or a combination of being thrust at you and something that you have to resort to for safety, sometimes, for-- to feel psychologically whole.
So I'm not, I can't completely dismiss it as nothing, but I also understand that claiming it in a rigid way can lead to what happens in Sri Lanka on both sides. So I would say it's a complex question that has a-- that I don't-- and then as I said in that first talk, it's an evolving thing. Ethnicity is evolving, and we can't actually-- we shouldn't essentialize it, basically. Yes, all the way at the back.
AUDIENCE: So my question is about your book, The Cinnamon Gardens.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Yes.
AUDIENCE: Because, I think that you bring up a good point of like, I didn't see in Sri Lanka [INAUDIBLE] I mean, I went to school in Sri Lanka, and the Donoughmore Constitution, which did this, we never cited [INAUDIBLE] because it was held as the constitution that gave the vote, but we do, [INAUDIBLE] get this sort of a historical perspective now, because I feel like I got more history out of that book than any history I have read about Sri Lanka at that point.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Thank you. That's very-- I'm always very, I'm so delighted when a Sri Lankan says that. I think that for me, yes, I mean I was interested in that history. I think what happened was that I was trying to, I got interested in the story because it was my grandmother's story, and I got interested in my grandmother's story and her sister's story. And then as I began to research the period, I also didn't know this history, and I also was finding out things about it that were absolutely fascinating. And so then I got excited, and I thought there was a way to put it in a book, that this was sort of the beginning of everybody scrambling for their little piece of Sri Lanka and this kind of deviations and stuff. So yes, I was very keen to put that in at that point, and-- as a kind of starter.
And also, I mean, I kind of wanted to slightly begin-- you know, we are very-- the politicians in Sri Lanka are always very quick to sort of refer to any ill in Sri Lanka is referred to Colonialism. And I just kind of wanted to say, well, here is the opportunity. They actually went a little further than Sri Lankans were ready to go in terms of giving universal franchise, for example, which Sri Lankan politicians at that time didn't want. And that somehow, just kind of twisting the historical narrative a little bit through the novel. Yes?
AUDIENCE: So, I've only read Funny Boy, which I actually read in the British Consulate [INAUDIBLE] Colombo. But I found it-- I didn't realize that you had a Sri Lankan background until I finished reading it and tried to find more about it. So I was interested that you also see a distinctness about Sri Lankan writers, or a difference when it comes-- when it contrasts with other [INAUDIBLE] perspectives.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: I think that-- well, I don't think there's, like, because there are so many different kinds of Sri Lankan writers, I think that-- I think one of the things you could say ties us together is we write about Sri Lanka. You could say that that was sort of one of the things that define us, or, and that because of the civil war, we are also tormented by Sri Lanka, and it torments us as people. As writers, it's always there on some level. And that goes-- seems to go across all three languages, this sense of being troubled and disturbed by it.
So that, you could say, was a defining factor in a lot of modern Sri Lankan writing. But there's not anything else. Because also, each Sri Lankan writer is influenced by different people and different-- and often, the influences are surprising. Like, it could be Japanese literature. Or it could be-- we don't know what influences them. So it's obviously interesting. I mean, Russian literature is a big influence because it's translated, you see, into Sinhalese so that you hear a lot about it. So it's hard to say. There's a question over there.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. I was just curious, I did my PhD in Australia, and my supervisor was from Sri Lanka. But his family were Sinhalese, who didn't speak Sinhalese; they spoke English. They're from that background. But they would have this old radio and listen to cricket on them. They were crazy about cricket, and [INAUDIBLE] I know here, you migrated to Canada, but originally [INAUDIBLE] I found that we have a very different role of Sri Lankan than to minorities there. My supervisor [INAUDIBLE] my friend, [INAUDIBLE] they are pretty much like British patriot [INAUDIBLE]. And then you're talking about in America and [INAUDIBLE] I don't know, I mean, I know very little of Sri Lanka, but listening to you, I'm even more confused.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: OK. Well, no, no. I understand why you would be confused that your supervisor was a Sri Lankan who didn't speak Sinhalese or Tamil and played cricket, and was crazy about cricket. Well, you know, I mean, like any other colonial-- like being colonized by anything or anyone, you do pick up parts of it, and the parts of those things become who you are. I don't think anybody in Sri Lanka thinks of themselves-- thinks of cricket as a-- this British sport that we are playing. What they think was can-- is the Sri Lanka good enough-- team good enough to kick the British's-- British ass in this thing. Or can we beat Australia, you know, or such and such. And then the Indians and Pakistanis both love Sri Lanka because they want to see Sri Lanka cream the other team, you see.
So this is how it-- but that's the result, as I was saying, of this accumulation of outside influences. And people-- and there is that class, the upper class of Sri Lanka who do speak English as their mother tongue and who do exist a lot on Western culture. And that separates them from the others. And that was a class that was sort of almost created-- not created by the British because it existed, but the British saw these-- by educating these people, they could influence their minds, and they could also have a second level of sort of civil servants, doctors, so on and so forth. So it's a very complicated thing.
Where what's interesting is that you can find that across the Commonwealth. And that is an odd-- and that's why the Commonwealth, that's why I would have more in common with, say, a Nigerian writer or a Trinidadian writer than I would have with a sort of East Asian writer, whom I'd have nothing, often I don't have this common experience. Yeah. Thanks. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Shawnee, and I'm a Sri Lankan-American, but I was born in New York City, and I only visited Sri Lanka twice, once when I was eight years old, and once this summer. But I feel like even though I've never been a part of Sri Lanka in a very wholesome sort of way, I tend to feel the effects of the genocide, and I tend to understand my Sri Lankan identity in kind of a very different way. For example, it manifests itself in my [INAUDIBLE], where there's the Indian devils and the Sri Lankan devils, and there's, like, this split between them, too. And just like the war, when just, the war, for me, was listening to my parents talk about it, and then going on Lankasri.com and, like, learning about [INAUDIBLE] death and everything. So, when we're-- when-- if I write about Sri Lanka, and I'm writing about the war or something like that, what would be an advice you might give me, not romanticizing, I guess?
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Well, I mean-- I mean it's interesting you raise that question, because I'm asked it in a different way in Sri Lanka, like what right does the diaspora have to write about Sri Lanka. And my answer to that is that there is a diaspora because of the ethnic war. So that their lives have also been changed by the-- so that they are-- they have a right to write because they are being displaced because of the war, and they lost their homes and their families and their history. And that for you, as a young second generation person growing up, you are acutely aware of this loss, and that you have every right to be able to explore that, to look at that loss and to write about it. So I say that on one level.
What I also say on another level is this-- is that there's a wonderful TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the power of the single story. And I think what Chimamanda addresses in that is the idea of story as a power tool. So we have to always be aware of-- us storytellers have to always be aware what is the-- how much power do we have in terms of the story we're telling in different contexts. So you have to somehow carry that with you, a sense that you have privilege to tell a story that other people might not have, and what is the responsibility that comes with this privilege, and how are you-- how representational are you and how representational do you need to be or not to be. See what I mean? I mean, it's just very-- it's complicated. But you-- what I'm saying is you can't ignore that, the power of story to punish and to justify genocides. So you can't ignore that, so that's, it's a complicated answer. It's something you work out for yourself as a writer.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Should we take one more?
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Sure. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Hi. Yesterday, I saw a film. It was called I Remember Mama, and it's a story about a second-generation girl, or a family, they're from Norway. And the girl ends up being a writer. So my question is kind of twofold. She wanted to be a writer, but all of her stories stunk, so to speak. And she asked a very accomplished writer, how do I fix this? And she said you have to write about what you know, and that's how you will succeed. So two questions, or twofold, do you find that to be true? And then what compels you into writing, or when did you start writing? And what was your influence behind your writing?
SHYAM SELVADURAI: OK. So to answer the first part of the question, do you have to write-- is it better to write about what you know? Not necessarily. I think it just depends on what you are passionate about. If you want to write about goblins and witches or whatever, and you're passionate about that, you should just do it. But what you're going to do is you find with all those-- I mean, I started with goblins and witches, let's talk about fantasy, then. So you find that all the great fantasy writers are writing about fantasy worlds, but it's influenced by their own history, by their own personality, by real serious human concerns that they have, which you then have to bring to this world. So you can write about whatever you want, but you will always be writing about it as yourself. And the second one was what?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, what compelled you to become a writer, or when did you start writing?
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Well, you know, I didn't really know I was a writer. I thought I was going to be in theater. And I when I came to Toronto, I studied theater, actually. And I took a playwriting course, and I became very interested in playwriting and writing, and-- but there was no South Asian actors to play the roles. And so I consciously made a decision that I would move into fiction. And, yes, so that was like there was something about it that was almost opportunistic. I wanted to be a writer. The medium I was working in wasn't working. So I tried another medium, and for some reason, it caught fire. And it was clear to me that-- and I think now in retrospect that, of course, I should-- I mean what business did I, a supreme introvert, have being in theater, you know? Because I have to admit I just couldn't stand actors and couldn't stand anybody, you know? And I just thought what am I doing here? So yes, I think I found my calling that's a calling that fitted my personality perfectly. And I always say, if you want to be a writer, you'd just better be very happy with your own company, because you're going to spend a lot of time in it. Thank you. Thanks.
ANNE BLACKBURN: And Professor Prabhu, if you are willing, we would like to invite you to say some words in conclusion of the discussion. And then are you still interested, Shyam, in doing a--
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Yeah, if there's time.
ANNE BLACKBURN: We have time if-- we're always happy to have a little bit of an encore. You know.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Sure. I'd be happy to.
ANNE BLACKBURN: So, but let us hear--
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Yes, too, actually, I said I'd read Menage a Trois, I mean--
ANNE BLACKBURN: Yeah, exactly. I don't think they're going to let you off the hook on that one. But we would really like to hear from Professor Prabhu.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: I'll be very brief.
ANNE BLACKBURN: There is no pressure on time, Professor Prabhu. We're really honored that you're here, happy that you're here today. Please.
NARAHARI UMANATH PRABHU: I've got just two comments to make. First, the announcement that said modern literature, I wanted this to be a modern Indian literature, but my idea of Indian, it covers the whole Indian subcontinent. In fact, the-- we have covered Bangladesh, Pakistan, so far, Nepal, and today, we have Ceylon. I'm using the old word, Ceylon. Sri Lanka is I prefer to. Well, the-- Sri Lanka is part of the Indian subcontinent. Sri Lanka is included in the Ramayana. [INAUDIBLE] came from there. In fact, at one time, I heard that people in Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, wanted to write [? Rohan ?] [? Narayana ?] and so on. OK, that's one comment.
The second comment is regarding a point that comes up every time, mainly from our Indian friends, God bless them that believe in God. Why are these called Tagore Lectures? So when I was growing up in British India, my heroes were Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, a man of acts, political action, and a poet. But that's not strictly an accurate classification, because when H.G. Wells wrote to Nehru telling him, why are you so against us? After all, we taught you English. But your [INAUDIBLE] wasn't allowed to come up to the stage. Tagore wrote a reply. Nehru was in-- British government's guest, namely in prison. Say that whatever you say about English is fine. But my people are starving. Bengal famine at that time. And no, the British government did not take care of them.
That's why the-- Gandhi, because for the first time, he introduced this concept of peaceful resistance. I had the good fortune to go and touch his feet. I was just about five years. My mother took me there. He was staying in a [INAUDIBLE]. He was having a guest in one of my, in my town. Anyway, so that is-- really, that's what I wanted to say. I'm so-- in a way, I'm celebrating this concept of literature being a soul soother and so on. The-- Tagore, as I have said in many ways, he, apart from his music, novels, short stories, and so on, wrote poems. We talk about the Rabindra Sangeet, which I enjoy very much. Thank you very much.
SHYAM SELVADURAI: Thank you for that. And thank you. So now, I have to put on my-- these glasses. You know, I was always dying to have a pair like this, where you can fold it up and take it to the restaurant and all that. And guess where I found it? In Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka continues to amaze me by the things it suddenly has. So whenever I put it on, I actually think of myself going for a swim, my daily swim, and then stopping off, thinking, you know, what if they have it at this place? So it has an odd memory to me of finding it. OK. All right. So the article is called "International Menage a Trois."
The quarrel began, as many lovers' quarrels do, over a triviality, getting the milk. By then, Andrew had been in Sri Lanka three weeks. It was his first trip to the country that had been my home until I was 19 and which I still considered home at that point despite 11 years in Canada. I left that morning to do research for my second novel, Cinnamon Gardens, and had asked Andrew to get milk from the local store. I got back, hot and exhausted, to find out he had not done so. It was a combination of a growing number of stressors between us, and soon, I was yelling at him, listing all the things I had done to make this trip work, "and you have not thanked me for any of it!" "Thank you!" Andrew shouted in response.
We had known each other four months, having met at the launch of my first novel, Funny Boy. Looking up from signing books, I had found before me a devastatingly handsome man with the poetic patrician looks of an Edwardian hero in a Merchant Ivory film. We immediately slipped into an easy intimacy, as if we had known each other all our lives. And when we had been going out just a week-- we had been going out just a week when we said we loved each other. It was I who suggested that Andrew join me for my trip to Sri Lanka. He accepted, and I was overjoyed. He arrived a month after I did. And when I saw him coming through the airport gates, I felt my heart thump in my chest.
The first few days were bliss. We had never shared a living space, and could not pass each other without kissing. We spent long afternoons in bed, holding each other and talking. But then things began to go downhill. What neither Andrew nor I had anticipated was just how foreign he would be in Sri Lanka, how helpless. Nothing summed this up so much as the reason he had not gotten the milk. For Andrew, just going up our street was a challenge as it involved making his way through a gamut of curious and occasional hostile stares from the neighbors. Then there was the question of getting across the busy road to the store. Traffic hurtled in both directions, no one respecting the lanes, cars and scooters cutting in and out, everyone ignoring the crosswalk. Poor Andrew could not do what came so naturally to us Sri Lankans, dart to the middle of the road, stand there while traffic rushed within an inch of you, and then, when there was a small gap, rush across to the other side, signaling all the while frantically for the oncoming traffic to slow down or stop.
Andrew was also bored and trapped. I was often away doing research, and our rented house was in an isolated suburb. He had nothing to do but read or watch TV programs in a language he did not understand. Periodically, a troop of monkeys would come visiting, jumping up and down on the roof, sounding like bombs going off, which further frayed his nerves. And because monkeys are often vicious and rabid, he was frightened to go out into the garden. I should have been more sympathetic, more understanding. But Andrew's foreignness scared me, and it made our relationship seem suddenly frail and impossible.
I love Sri Lanka, and if he could not love it and belong in it, how did we work together? Out of fear and despair at losing this person I love so much, I became angry with him. A simmering tension grew between us, only heightened by the fact that Andrew often had to accompany me to dinners at the homes of friends and relatives, dinners at which he would sit in silence, largely ignored, as the rest of us reminisced about the good old days. Finally, Andrew reached a breaking point at a party when one of the female guests took an instant dislike to him and stared at him coldly when introduced, probably because she was homophobic and he was the living representation of my sexuality. At dinner, noticing the way he was scooping up the curries with a piece of chapati, she declared with sweet malice for the whole table to hear, "Oh, look. Why, he's making little pizzas." And Andrew later yelled, having informed me that he would not attend another dinner or party, "I was not making little pizzas. I was eating exactly the same as everyone else."
Nothing quite tests a relationship like traveling together. It shows you the weaknesses in your union, but it can also show-- it can also strengthen your love. And we did love each other. So once we had let all the steam we needed out, all the steam we needed to, we sat down to share our feelings and point of view. One of the things this trip to Sri Lanka was making us realize was that we were really in a menage a trois, Andrew, me, and Sri Lanka. We were both understanding that the longing and passion an immigrant feels for the country he has left takes up a lot of emotional space. We had to learn to negotiate and cope with this third element in our relationship.
Once we had begun to understand this, our relationship got even better. Andrew joined the Colombo Swimming Club, where he would relax by the pool while I rushed about town, doing my research. I began to say no to some of the dinner invitations. We looked forward to our ritual gin and tonic at the club, watching the sunset over the Indian Ocean, Andrew filling me in on the gossips and goings on of the ex-pat community, which he observed and listened to, appalled and titillated. Soon, he was falling in love with Sri Lanka, too. In the years to come, we would make many trips back, even spending a whole year there. Andrew would soon be crossing the street in true Sri Lankan style. Thank you.
ANNE BLACKBURN: Thank you all for joining us today. There's a reception-- if the gods have smiled, there's a reception next door. I think the gods have smiled. So please, fine food and drink and good company. And if you didn't get a chance to ask your question, you can further [? expand ?] in those other areas as well. Thank you.
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Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai reads from his most recent novel "The Hungry Ghosts," and talks about what it means to be a writer working from the hyphen between Sri Lankan and Canadian.
The Tagore Lecture Series is made possible by a gift from Cornell Professor Emeritus Narahari Umanath Prabhu and Mrs. Sumi Prabhu to honor Rabindranath Tagore, a celebrated writer and musician, and one of the great luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.