Do you ever read a book and have it change you, change your outlook, maybe even your life? I’m not talking about a self-help book though. I’m talking about a novel. Fiction that resonates, teaches, impels you to grow along with the story.
Recently, I read such a novel-The Hungry Ghosts, by Shyam Selvadurai. Set first in Sri Lanka and then Canada (Toronto and Vancouver), this novel tells the story of Shivan Rassiah, a young man who fruitlessly attempts to break free of his past. In the book, the ‘Hungry Ghost’ is both literal (represented by the Grandmother, whose almost insatiable love for Shivan consumes him) and symbolic (Shivan’s desire to escape his fate).
In Buddhist myth, the dead may be reborn as “hungry ghosts”-spirits with stomach so large they can never be full-if they have desired too much during their lives. It is the duty of the living relatives to free those doomed to this fate by doing kind deeds and creating good karma. In Shyam Selvadurai’s sweeping new novel, his first in more than a decade, he creates an unforgettable ghost, a powerful Sri Lankan matriarch whose wily ways, insatiable longing for land, houses, money and control, and tragic blindness to the human needs of those around her parallels the volatile political situation of her war-torn country. The novel centres around Shivan Rassiah, the beloved grandson, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and who also-to his grandmother’s dismay-grows from beautiful boy to striking gay man. As the novel opens in the present day, Shivan, now living in Canada, is preparing to travel back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to rescue his elderly and ailing grandmother, to remove her from the home-now fallen into disrepair-that is her pride, and bring her to Toronto to live our her final days. But throughout the night and into the early morning hours of his departure, Shivan grapples with his own insatiable hunger and is haunted by unrelenting ghosts of his own creation. (www.chapters.indigo.ca)
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to hold a phone interview with the author. Shyam was an absolute pleasure to talk to, and an immensely interesting person. We veered far from the content of the novel and deep into Buddhism, fate, and the meaning of life. (And he, too polite to tell me, allowed me to refer to his novel as ‘The Naked Ghost’ for the first 10 minutes of our conversation. Which was mortifying for me, and mostly amusing for him.) I had to cut out a lot of our amazing chat, as I promised Shyam I wouldn’t spoil the end for all of you. All I’ll say is that once I spoke to him, I totally rethought my feelings towards the ending, which originally mirrored those of this review from the Toronto Star.
Note: Some adjustments have been made to the verbatim for flow and continuity. None of the opinions or thoughts have been changed.
Shyam: There’s more than autobiography-feeling, place, time, but not just factual. For example the feelings Shivan felt when he arrived in Scarborough, and the perception of immigrants in the 80s is authentic (sic). I brought friends and their experiences into it.
Me: I felt like I was reading a biography, though, and not fiction. Was that the tone that you wanted?
Shyam: Yes. I wanted the reader to feel so connected to the voice and think that the writer and the character were one in the same. I’m not Shivan- I did not have the complications, like the grandmother, which add layers to the story. In augmenting the family, I wanted readers to connect to the character as if he was a real person. On some level it’s great that people connect to the characters as if they’re real people.
Me: What inspired you to include the Buddhist imagery?
Shyam: I became interested in Buddhist philosophy eight or ten years ago. I’m not religious, but I really like the philosophy. It’s a convenient and common sense way to live your life. I really wanted to incorporate my own personal discovery into the novel in a literary way. I attempted to take these stories-which to me are a fascinating way to connect Buddhist philosophies through narrative- and put them in a modern context. So, the structure of the story is based on the story of the Naked Ghost, but with modern connections.
What do you want people to feel about Sri Lanka? Are you as conflicted as Shivan?
Shyam: No, I’m not as conflicted as Shivan. I accept the country more, and don’t ask it to be anything more than what it is. That way, I can enjoy it. I do go back a lot, and the more I go, the more connected I feel. When didn’t go back as much I felt the same way as Shivan.
Me: Do you think Shivan would feel alientated no matter where he lived?
Shyam: It’s not so much alienation as he is unhappy. He cannot find happiness, and he can’t let go, or accept. You can’t just leave your past behind, but rather you must come to terms, incorporate, and absorb your karmic past. But, this is a human condition not just a Shivan condition
Me: Do you really feel like the characters are being punished for past crimes? Do some, like Shivan, bring their unhappiness on themselves?
Shyam: Everything you think and do and say causes a ripple effect. It’s something you have to deal with; we produce an effect whatever we do. It’s not just what we do in a past life. He inherited this thing from his grandmother in which he sometimes made the only choices and sometimes the wrong choices. People can’t overcome their Karma. If you’ve inherited certain things, you have to come to terms with what you’ve inherited. Free will is how you deal with what you’re given, but you can’t escape what happens to you. You must find a way to deal with it.
Me: Did Love lead everyone astray?
Shyam: No, but desire did. And not sexual desire. Desire for fulfillment. These characters wanted to be completed. For example, the Grandmother’s fatal flaw is that she loved Shivan too much. They love with the singularity of the unloved. The world is full of Hungry Ghosts. What we call love is often a strangling thing for the beloved: parental love, love of friends, the love that causes people to try to tell others what’s good for them.
Me: Did you mean the novel to be this complex?
Shyam: There are so many layers to this novel. You can read it more simply, or you can read all the layers, just like in a Buddhist story. I wanted people to be able to read the book according to what they wanted to get out of it. (Note: I am probably going to read the novel again to see what else I get out of it.)
Me: Is it hard to maintain complex themes like yours throughout a novel?
Shyam: No, that’s not difficult. The hard part is allowing the theme to take a secondary place to characters. You must let the characters lead you to the real theme, without holding onto a theme regardless of the characters’ needs.
Do your characters take a life of their own?
Shyam: Yes. For example, the grandmother was a minor character before. But, the book went where it had to go.
Me: Do you outline or just wing it?
Shyam: I do research until I have come up with an outline. Then, I start at the beginning and at 50-60 pages, the story usually becomes something else. Then, I look at it, see what’s changed, and where is it going. Maybe I go back to the beginning again. My writing seems to proceed by these series of writer’s blocks. I’m always going back and forth, it’s never a straight line through.
SHYAM SELVADURAI is the acclaimed author of the novels Funny Boy, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and was a national bestseller, and Cinnamon Gardens, which was shortlisted for the Trillium Award and sold around the world. He has also written a novel for young adults,Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Selvadurai now lives in Toronto and Sri Lanka. You can visit him atwww.shyamselvadurai.com.
Do you think you’ll read The Hungry Ghosts? Please come back and tell me what you thought.