Failed desires conjure Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts

Shyam Selvadurai’s new tale explores the persistence of love and bad karma

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      More than a decade ago, Shyam Selvadurai was re-evaluating his life when he happened to discover Karen Armstrong’s Buddha. Fascinated by the book and the British scholar’s “ability to talk about religion in a way that applies to a modern context”, he began to explore the philosophy and adopted the practice of meditation.

      “One of the things I love about Buddhist thought is the idea that you cannot escape once you’ve created something bad,” the Toronto-based author says. “Whether it’s true in real life or not, I don’t know.”

      Seated in the dining room of a downtown hotel, Selvadurai is speaking to the Straight about the influences behind his sweeping third novel, The Hungry Ghosts. Recounted through the memories of Shivan Rassiah, a gay man of Tamil and Sinhalese descent, it unfurls on an April evening in 1995 before he is to return to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to bring his ailing grandmother to Scarborough.

      “I just knew I had to write about Canada,” the author says. “It was really important for me to do that.”

      Born in Colombo and arriving in Canada in 1984, Selvadurai remarks that the volume is emotionally autobiographical—he and Shivan shared similar feelings upon entering this country—but the dynamics within his clan are much different than those of his protagonist’s. Composed over 13 years, The Hungry Ghosts is a response to the author’s initial period in Canada, and demonstrates his sterling facilities as a stylist.

      Incorporating Buddhist concepts organically into the material was an exacting task, as was his approach to crafting prose lush with rhythm and imagery. “I really, really pushed myself,” he says. “I wanted to get to a different place as a writer. And I hope I have.”

      Preparing to face the Machiavellian matriarch, Shivan reflects on the lasting consequences of their treacherous history, and how the bleakness of immigrating to Scarborough, 11 years prior with his sister and mother, affected them all. Success eludes this cast, like matches struck in a breeze, and their attempts at happiness are repeatedly thwarted by both fate and their own hands.

      Moving seamlessly across time and place, the narrative contemplates karma, the belief that past misdeeds can generate spiritual debts that shackle future outcomes. “In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya [hungry ghost] because, during his human life, he desired too much—hence the large stomach that can never be filled through the tiny mouth,” Selvadurai writes in the novel. “The peréthayas that appear to us are always our ancestors, and it is our duty to free them from their suffering by feeding Buddhist monks and transferring the merit of that deed to our dead relatives.”

      Acknowledging that he draws heavily from personal reservoirs, the author, who is 48, enjoys filtering experience into fiction. “Why would I look anywhere else when I have [subjects] right here?”

      Though 1994’s Giller nominee Funny Boy and 1998’s Cinnamon Gardens featured queer identity and familial conflict, his new work magnifies these themes while addressing the restless search to secure a sense of home and belonging, and the individual costs of Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese turmoil.

      Rendered in visceral detail, locale plays a significant role here: Colombo, Toronto, and Vancouver each possess their own unique temperament. Unsettled by marginalization and the death of a partner, Shivan sought diversion in various settings only to realize that some burdens remain borderless, that his grief and remorse over what was lost devour solace. Commenting on this motif, the author says, “No matter how you change your external circumstances, that bad karma will ripen. It will have its place in your life.”

      Presently, Selvadurai keeps an apartment in Colombo, where he is project director of Write to Reconcile, a program that encourages emerging Sri Lankan writers to contribute their words to the peace process. “It’s the thing I’m proudest of doing so far in my entire life. Because it’s bringing my knowledge and skill in creative writing to something really important and useful, which is building some sense of reconciliation in Sri Lanka.”

      The Hungry Ghosts is lustrous in its depictions of duty, dislocation, and the ways love and relationships haunt the human heart. Passion, the author attests, is necessary to producing his novels; without zeal, a career in letters would be too discouraging. What lures him to the form is the “mystery in there, some knot that I’m looking forward to try to unpick. But having some odd confidence that when it goes where it’s going, it will be a revelation.”

      On assuaging writer’s block, he mentions the importance of abundant reading, as well as an unexpected aid: schlocky movies, the author enthuses, have the potential to relax the mind and simultaneously showcase condensed plot. Legally Blonde, in particular, once provided him this prized relief.

      “People always think that writers have this mysterious intellectual life, and on some days we do,” Selvadurai says. “But, you know, you also have to be realistic and in touch with the everyday.”