Sunday, March 26th, 2023

Traumatic violence in Sri Lanka, immigrant frustration in Toronto and Vancouver

The Hungry Ghosts

by Shyam Selvadurai

Published by Penguin

Published June 19, 2013
384 pgs.
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Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

April 14, 2014.

I remember from a 1996 book appearance promoting the affecting 1994 Funny Boy that Shyam Selvadurai said he was not ready to write about adjusting to Canada, that he was learning Tamil, and that he had an Anglo-Canadian lover (now husband).

Selvadurai was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1965 to a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother. The riots and “ethnic cleansing” on 1983 propelled them out of Sri Lanka and into Canada. He studied creative writing at York University in the northern reaches of Toronto. And he is now ready to write about the life of a say immigrant to Anglo Canada, though what most haunts the seemingly autobiographical protagonist of The Hungry Ghosts (2013) occurred in Sri Lanka (on a revisit perhaps even more than before emigrating).

Like Arjie in Funny Boy and Shivan Rassiah in The Hungry Ghosts, Selvadurai was culturally Sinhalese (schooled in English) but endangered in primarily Sinhalese Colombo by a Tamil patronym. I hope the miserly, self-righteous grandmother of Hungry Ghosts is entirely fictional! She has long terrified her daughter and grand-daughter, though doting on her grandson…until she learns he is gay.

Shivan comes out to his mother in Toronto and receives a witheringly negative response that includes, “If I had known you would throw away your life, I would have aborted you.” Visiting “home” and carrying on a passionate affair with a former-schoolmate, Mili, Shivan does not come out to his grandmother, but she has him followed and then intervenes in a way that is catastrophic not only for Shivan but for any future relationship between him and her.

The violence in Sri Lanka is harrowing to read about. The difficulties of the relationship Shivan has with his Japanophile white Vancouver-native lover, Michael, seem trivial in comparison. Also, I don’t believe the character as Selvadurai presents him, even bearing in mind that it is Shivan’s perceptions and conceptions, not a dispassionate or omniscient narrator. (There are passages about Shivan’s mother that are not from his perspective. That is there are problems of perspective in the technical sense.) Having been puzzled by the difficulty of making contact with anyone in Toronto gay bars a few years before Shivan, I have no difficulty believing his portrayal of Toronto gay male unfriendliness or that he felt the most desired bois were not interested in him.

Shyam Selvadurai
2011 Creative Commons photo by АндрейРоманенко

Shivan has a sister one year older. She is supportive of him when he comes out to their mother (and in general) and also flees their mother’s unhappiness, going to graduate school at Cornell. The mother eventually rallies, enrolls in history classes at York, and wins over her mother by serving the bitter old lady’s needs (which should accumulate good karma for the self-sacrificing daughter).

I’m not sure if the grandmother, who is still alive if slowed down by strokes, is supposed to be a “hungry ghost.” There is a Sinhalese legend that is repeated within the book about a woman even more self-defeating (and/or a victim of her bad karma) than Aachi…or Shivan.

The book is long, and the pace is mostly leisurely. I have more trouble with the diffidence of portrayal of sex in the book than with the pace, however. Both in Sri Lanka and Canada, Shivan “makes love.” This locution may ease reception by straight readers, but I doubt I am the only gay reader who wants to know who does what to whom and finds the euphemism “making love” very suspect—a kind of closeting of what happens sexually between men.

The book definitely shows that honesty if not always the best policy, especially honesty about sexual identity providing lethal ammunition to hostile others. It also instantiates what I have called “the will not to know,” particularly Mili’s parents’ not wanting to recognize their model athletic son is gay (and his own failure to realize that “everyone knows” even before his idyll with Shivan).

©2104 by Stephen O. Murray. All rights reserved.

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.