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Behind the page: Exploring Shyam Selvadurai’s creative process

Behind the page: Exploring Shyam Selvadurai’s creative process

18 Feb 2024 | By Naveed Rozais

  • Exploring Shyam Selvadurai’s creative process 

Colombo came alive last week with the inaugural ‘Ceylon Literary & Art Festival,’ bringing together a consortium of authors and artists from all over the world to share knowledge and perspectives. 

The festival also saw Lankan authors living overseas make their way back home to talk about their work and be part of the local creative discourse. One such author was Shyam Selvadurai, who held a special launch of his newest book ‘Mansions of the Moon’ at the festival. 

As an author, Shyam has flown the Lankan flag high. His literary work is deeply influenced by his personal experiences, particularly the ethnic tensions between his parents’ Sinhalese and Tamil backgrounds, which is a recurring theme in his writing. 

Shyam’s most renowned novel, ‘Funny Boy,’ published in 1994, won several awards and is a poignant coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The novel beautifully captures the complexities of a boy growing up in an upper-middle-class Tamil family in Colombo.

Shyam’s writing is known for its sensual descriptions and profound insights into human emotions, taking readers on a journey through fragrant gardens and the intricacies of conflicted passions. His works have earned him prestigious accolades, including the Lambda Literary Award for ‘Funny Boy’ and a Trillium Book Award nomination. In addition to his novels, Shyam has also edited anthologies and contributed to various literary collections, showcasing the depth and diversity of his literary talent.

Amidst the backdrop of the ‘Ceylon Literary & Art Festival,’ The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down for a quick chat with Shyam on his latest book and how he approaches telling stories. 

‘Mansions of the Moon’

Shyam’s newest book ‘Mansions of the Moon,’ first published in 2021 amid the pandemic, is a historical novel that reimagines ancient India through the life of Yasodhara, the woman who married Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become the Buddha. The novel is an intimate tale that paints a picture of the Buddha’s destiny of enlightenment through Yasodhara’s eyes, reflecting on their love and life together and the impact the Buddha’s calling had on their lives. 

The novel explores the question of what kind of life a woman can lead in ancient India if her husband abandons her, even a well-born woman such as Yasodhara. The book is a poignant and unique novel that blends history, fiction, and mythology to create a vivid portrayal of Siddhartha and his wife Yasodhara. 

Speaking on what sparked ‘Mansions of the Moon,’ Shyam noted that when it came to Yasodhara, “we hardly know anything about her. A lot of the time she’s called simply Rahula Matha, or Rahula’s mother. She’s quite marginalised in canon. Over the centuries, many people have written about her in plays and novels and imagined her life as a woman married to a man with a greater destiny.” 

As a Buddhist himself (Shyam was born Christian but has since converted after learning about Buddhism), the story of Yasodhara was one Shyam found compelling, especially after listening to and looking at the ‘Yasodharawatha’ in depth. “It is a lament of her and her abandonment. You feel her pain and anguish at this abandonment,” Shyam said of the ‘Yasodharawatha,’ noting that it was often sung at funerals. “When reading it, you realise the story of Yasodhara goes to the heart of the human fear and abandonment by those we love.” 

And it is this that Shyam tries to capture for his readers in ‘Mansions of the Moon,’ this and the embracing of Buddhist storytelling tropes as opposed to only the Judeo-Christian storytelling tropes that define much of global fiction. “As a writer and a Buddhist, I was interested in bringing these two types of storytelling together and ‘Mansions of the Moon’ was a wonderful vehicle to do this with.” 

Telling intricate social stories

A defining feature of Shyam’s work is its portrayal of intricate social dynamics and key to being able to do this is an innate understanding of people, as well as a huge amount of research. ‘Mansions of the Moon,’ for example, took 10 years of research. And it is this long period of research that Shyam credits with being able to write characters who are well fleshed-out and nuanced. In the case of putting the character of Yasodhara onto the page, Shyam said: “Those 10 years showed me over time how to inhabit her character and her journey.” 

In fact, research journeys of over 10 years can be common for Shyam. The longest time he’s spent researching a single book has been 13 years (‘The Hungry Ghosts’) and his shortest (‘Funny Boy’ and ‘Cinnamon Gardens’) has been four years. 

When it comes to making his characters human, Shyam explained that what he tended to do was put a part of himself in these characters. With ‘Mansions of the Moon,’ for example, he imparted to Yasodhara his own sense of and need for privacy, making this an innate part of her character. When writing Prince Siddhartha Gautama, Shyam found himself connecting his own sense of ruthless vocation to the Buddha’s vocational call to enlightenment which simply must be answered.  

But these are the main characters; what about characters who are unlikeable and antagonistic – how does Shyam approach them? 

“My approach is that people aren’t, in and of themselves, bad,” Shyam said. “They’ve latched on to a prison of greed, hatred, or delusion, and this makes them act in a bad way. So, when fleshing out these characters, I think about who they are and why they are behaving the way they are before bringing them to the page.” 

Parting thoughts

Good literature has the power to transform lives, to provoke thought, and to inspire change, and ‘Mansions of the Moon’ takes historical figures that, especially in the Sri Lankan context, we are all familiar with and casts a new light on them as human beings. 

As we immerse ourselves in the pages of ‘Mansions of the Moon’ and other literary works, we must also think of the platforms that nurture writers and creatives.

With Shyam holding a special launch of ‘Mansions of the Moon’ at the ‘Ceylon Literary & Art Festival,’ we also asked Shyam for his thoughts on being able to present his work at such a festival: “It’s wonderful to have a festival like this in Colombo where people don’t have to incur the expense of travelling or going anywhere else to participate. Literature [and arts] festivals like this also provide a space in which, through books, we can share ideas and thoughts. And that’s very powerful.” 

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