Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Interview: Shyam Selvadurai on Bonham Centre Award & LGBT Writing in Canada

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Shyam Selvadurai

On April 24, the Mark S. Bonham Centre will be holding the 2014 Bonham Centre “Power of the Word” Awards Gala, honouring writers who have made distinguished contributions to the public understanding of sexual diversity in Canada.

This year, they will honour three distinguished writers in the genre of sexual diversity including Edmund White, Patricia Nell-Warren and Shyam Selvadurai. In addition, the IBM Youth Award will be given to Waawaate Fobister.

Established in 2008, The Bonham Centre Awards recognizes an individual or group that has made a significant contribution to the advancement and education of human rights issues surrounding sexual education.

Today we speak to Shyam Selvadurai, the acclaimed author of Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens and his newest novel, the Governor General's Literary Award nominated The Hungry Ghosts (Doubleday Canada).

Shyam speaks with Open Book about his Bonham Centre Award, the state of LGBT writing and publishing in Canada, and crafting vivid characters.

Open Book:

What was your reaction when you were told you were being honoured with a Bonham Centre Award?

Shyam Selvadurai:

I was delighted and honoured to be chosen.


How do you feel stories of sexual identity have been represented in fiction to date? Have you observed any changing trends in recent years?


In the early days of gay liberation, the emphasis was on just creating visibility and say, “we exist and we are human just like you.” Then AIDS hit and the trend changed towards dealing with the illness and also reflecting the activism that was forced on us because of inaction and prejudice around the disease. But in the last few years there has been a relaxing of this need for a political edge to fiction as queerness has become so mainstream in the west.

This then frees a writer like me to deal with other issues and themes and for queerness to be simply another norm among a diversity of norms. Or to write straight protagonists. However, since I write about Sri Lanka, where homosexuality is still illegal, prejudice and homophobia is still a theme in my work.


What is your approach when writing characters who are dealing with issues around sexuality? Can you tell us about a character you particularly enjoyed writing?


I enjoyed writing all my queer characters. My approach is to treat the character’s sexuality as normal to them. They discover that this thing that is normal to them has a name and carries a negative connotation. So it is society that appears at fault, not the character.


What are you feelings on straight, cis-gendered authors writing characters struggling with sexual or gender identity issues? Are those instances a broadening of the discussion or a troubling appropriation of voice — or something else altogether?


I have no problem with anyone writing queer characters. One problem however, that I do see often is that writers, both straight and queer, avoid the actual sexual act and hedge around it. The sheer carnality of male to male sex is often avoided. Also sometimes, in the attempt to “normalize” gay people, straight writers tend to “heterosexualize” them, particularly the way gay couples are portrayed enacting the male-female gender roles. Not that one is femme and one is butch but rather one plays soccer and comes home all sweaty to hug his spouse who is just pulling out a bunch of freshly baked muffins from the oven… I mean, really.

There is also the portraying of gay or lesbian relationships in an idealized way, that denies the complexity of any relationship, gay or straight — the tiny betrayals, the things said that cannot be taken back but must be lived with, the failures and disappointments etc. Also often gay and lesbian characters are portrayed as nice by straight writers, but actually the trauma of homophobia often makes them quite damaged.


How do you feel the Canadian publishing industry treats books with themes of sexual diversity?


I think mainstream publishing still avoids a book that is too queer centered. Particularly one that has a lot of gay sex in it. Ditto for lesbian sex.


What are some books would you recommend to readers interested in dialogues around sexual and gender identity?


Anything by Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Alan Hollinghurst or Jeanette Winterson.


What are you working on now?


I never talk about the project I am working on.

Shyam Selvadurai was born in 1965 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He came to Canada with his family at the age of nineteen. He has studied creative writing and theatre, and has a B.F.A. from York University. Funny Boy, his first novel, was published to immediate acclaim in 1994, was a national bestseller, and won the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and, in the U.S., The Lambda Literary Award, and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association. Cinnamon Gardens, his second novel, was shortlisted for the Trillium Award. It has been published in the U.S., the U.K., India, and numerous countries in Europe.

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