Corporealities of Desire

Smaro Kamboureli reviews Shyam Selvadurai's phenomenally successful first novel, Funny Boy
By Smaro Kamboureli

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Funny Boy is published by McClelland & Stewart Inc
Paperback, 316 pages
Book cover design: Stephen Kenny
Book cover photograph: Michael Ondaatje

Funny Boy is the first novel by Shyam Selvadurai, a young Sri Lankan-Canadian writer. Michael Ondaatje's photograph on the book's cover— a subtle gesture heralding Selvadurai's literary debut—is highly evocative. It is the image of a single bed empty but obviously slept in, for its sheets are wrinkled. A mosquito net is draped over it in such a way that we look at the bed through the soft pleats of the net's fabric. The overhead lamp inside the space framed by the net illuminates the room with a mellow amber light. It falls on the pillow still indented by the shape of the head of the person who is no longer there. We feel like voyeurs, complicit with the camera's angle. We know our gaze violates the privacy of this bedroom but we are not sure what intimacies or secrets we become privy to. Like much of Ondaatje's own work, the photograph exudes a keen sense of uncertainty, an uncertainty born of his crafty blend of romanticism and irony.

If I linger on the cover it is because the tensions it evokes announce, quietly, the volatile relationships that give this novel its impetus. The plot begins with the innocent play of children and ends with the Chelvaratnam family going to exile in Canada after the 1983 riots in Colombo. In between, we read about the reassuring power of familial bonds, misbegotten loves, gay desire; they all inform each other and take place against the spoken and unspoken histories of social and political conflicts in Sri Lanka. Unlike Ondaatje who approaches otherness through elaborate gestures of elision, Selvadurai confronts its many faces. The result is a realistic portrayal of characters whose bodies are inscribed by the tensions holding together, and apart, collective and personal yearnings.

Funny Boy is called 'a novel in six stories' a rather accurate description, although much of the resonance and complexity of these narratives would dissipate were they to stand on their own as 'stories.' They are told from the point of view of Arjie, a young boy when the book opens, but well into adolescence after their house gets burned down by an angry mob of Sinhalese and his family decides to immigrate to Canada. The charm of these 'stories' has much to do with this child's perspective. Funny Boy is a classic example of a novel about a subject-in-formation, a narrative that follows the cultural education and sexual and racialist awakening process of its child protagonist. We see Arjie, for example, receiving a 'lesson' from his father about racism and about the historic tensions between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, or from Daryl Brohier about the Burghers. These are 'lessons' delivered in response to Arjie's curiosity about things he fails to understand, but the answers he gets are also meant to fill in gaps in our knowledge of Sri Lanka's history and social realities. These instances of double-speaking, of addressing at once the protagonist and the reader are an effective narrative device, but one which is not always employed subtly enough. Often, the didacticism of these scenes is too pronounced, as it occurs while all action is suspended. Still, most of the narrative movements are executed deftly through Arjie's perspective.

Why can't boys play with girls? What's wrong with playing with his mother's make-up and jewellery? Why can't he paint his nails with red polish?

As a first-person narrator, Arjie is ubiquitously present in the novel, but he also knows when to make himself invisible. During certain scenes involving adults, Arjie's point of view functions like that of a third-person voice, not because he wants to feign disinterestedness but because Selvadurai casts Arjie in the role of the best and most trustworthy ally adults in distress can find. Acting at once as their strong alibi and a silent witness, Arjie is present when Radha Aunty, a Tamil, has her clandestine meetings with Anil, the Sinhalese man in love with her. Radha Aunty admits she also loves him, but only after it becomes clear that the enmity between their ethnic communities cannot be overcome even by the force of love. This impossibility for love to grow across ethnic and racial boundaries is one of the novel's central themes. Despite this, desire offers the only hope, indeed the only means, however precarious, of transgressing and negotiating those destructive boundaries. And this is where the poignancy of Selvadurai's novel lies.

The opening story establishes Arjie as the character most inclined to cross those boundaries, even though as a child he does not always understand why they have to be there in the first place. During 'spend-the-days,' the Sundays when his extended family gathers together in his grandparents' house, Arjie is the only boy in the family who does not play cricket with the male cousins in front of the house. He belongs to the territory called 'the girls,' the territory confined to the back garden and the kitchen porch. Arjie is there because the rules of the boys' game do not appeal to him; he opts, instead, for 'the free play of fantasy.' There, in front of the kitchen porch, his female cousins select him as their leader 'because of the force of [his] imagination,' and because of the game he has made up, 'bride-bride.' Indeed, he is 'the bestest of brides.' As Arjie tells us, "The dressing of the bride would now begin, and then, by the transfiguration I saw taking place in Janaki's full-length mirror... I was able to leave the constraints of myself and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self, a self to whom this day was dedicated...I was an icon, a graceful, benevolent, perfect being upon whom the adoring eyes of the world rested."

'Funny' signifies what society decides is queer-strange, unpredictable, unmanageable, ultimately threatening to the status quo.

Play-acting and cross-dressing—it is by means of these perfomative acts—through sari and veil, through rouge and lipstick, through kohl-accented eyes and a crown of flowers on the head—that Arjie's body reveals its otherness, that he learns the mysteries and power of trangression. Little Arjie delights in constructing a palimsestic self, for his cross-dressing is at once the product of his rich imagination and an act of double mimicry, enacting as it does the ways in which 'the goddesses of the Sinhalese and Tamil cinema' represent the sexual and social codes of his culture. But it is not merely Arjie's childish and excessive romanticism that bride-bride represents. The game takes him a step ahead of himself, for it already embodies the script of his future self, his gay identity.

When another cousin, naughtily (but rightly so, I should add) nick-named Her Fatness, begins to covet Arjie's bride role, Arjie's playacting ceases to be just that. Her Fatness, recently back from America, suspects his sexual otherness and, encouraged by some of the uncles and aunts, begins to call him names: pansy, faggot, girlie-boy, Funny Boy. It is in response to his family's fear that he might turn out to be 'funny,' a euphemism for being gay, in retaliation to their elaborate (and often comical) attempts to dissuade him from playing with the girls, that Arjie begins his relentless questioning of what is taken to be normative behaviour: why should he play cricket despite his hating it? Why can't boys play with girls? What's wrong with playing with his mother's make-up and jewellery? Why can't he paint his nails with red polish? The answers he receives to these why's vary, but they can be summed up by his Amma's reply: "Because the sky is so high and the pigs can't fly, that's why."

Perhaps it is because Arjie learns how aberrant logic can be while he is still very young that he becomes so adept at receiving what is 'other' to the norms of his immediate environment, ultimately at mediating difference. His bewilderment as to why he is not allowed to play bride-bride soon gives way to a bitterness and frustration that gradually reveal to him how similarly arbitrary other social and cultural codes can be. As the plot unfolds, Arjie's loss of innocence comes to represent the misplaced desires of adults like his mother, for example, desires that could have been fulfilled had she been strong or fortunate enough to resist the long-established boundary lines of ethnicity and class. 'Funny,' Arjie discovers, signifies what society decides is queer-strange, unpredictable, unmanageable, ultimately threatening to the status quo. 'Funny,' as in 'funny life,' functions in the novel as a sign of difference and misunderstanding, of marginalisation and excess.

It doesn't then come as a surprise that, when Arjie's father places him in a private school in the hope that its strict discipline will make a 'man' out of him, Arjie befriends the only other marginal figure in his class: Shehan, a boy who dares to wear his hair longer than allowed and who, as rumours have it, has sex with the Head Prefect. Amidst the tough attitudes of the other boys, Arjie is grateful for Shehan's gentleness and the two become close friends. Their growing affection and love for each other culminates in a wonderfully intense scene that initiates Arjie into sexuality. Arjie and Shehan play hide-and-seek with Arjie's younger sister and her girlfriends. In the dark of the garage where they hide, the subliminal desires that have suffused Arjie's relationship with Shehan are finally released. Through a language that is delicately erotic, but which lacks the kind of sentimentalism that often accompanies the adolescent discovery of sex, Arjie describes their tentative movements, their charged emotions, the heightened sensitivity of their bodies. "The entire world," he says, "became the sensation in my mouth and Shehan's tongue probing, retreating, intertwining with mine." That they are almost found out by Sonali, the catcher of the game, that immediately after this sexual experience Arjie is agitated and feels as if he 'had committed a terrible crime against...the trust and love [his family] had given' him, is emblematic of how Arjie has internalised, to an extent, the 'straight' values of his society. He begins to understand that his coming to terms with his gay identity reinforces, instead of doing away with, his sense of responsibility toward his ethnic community, and more specifically his family.

From this climactic scene during which Arjie discovers the pleasure as the social perils that are to accompany him as a gay man, the narrative goes on to unravel the other central theme of the novel, that of racial tensions, the last story, titled Rio Journal: An Epilogue, covers the last two months of the Chelvaratnam family's ambushed life in friends' houses and in their own during the Colombo riots in the summer of 1893. Arjie's diary entries record the wave of violence unleashed by the Sinhales against the Tamils which includes the burning of his grandparents in their car and the burning down of his own house. Arjie, like the rest of his family, no longer feels safe or at home in Sri Lanka. Indeed, as Arjie confesses to his diary, he 'will never feel safe again.' It is, then, all the more telling that it is during this period of anguish and loss that 'something occurred to [Arjie] that [he] had never really been conscious of before—Shehan was Sinhalese and [he] was not.' "This awareness," Arjie admits, "did not change my feelings for him, it was simply there, like a thin translucent screen through which I watched him."

Selvadurai has written an intriguing and moving novel about difficult—all the more so because current—issues that divide families, that can threaten to destroy national states. Although his characters are confronted with the social difficulties that revolve around gay identity and the ethical and ideological questions raised by what Paul Gilroy calls 'ethnic absolutism,' Selvadurai, wisely, avoids moralising about their dilemmas. This is a refreshing, indeed an honest, way of writing about such politically volatile issues. The story Selvadurai tells so compellingly speaks of contesting desires, of the need to understand identity as a process that constantly demands negotiation. Be it a negotiation of the cultural values invested in girls' play and boys' games, of strong-headed mothers and emancipated daughters, of the nationalist struggles between Tamils and Sinhalese, or of gay versus heterosexual relationships—this process is dramatised in the novel through the corporeality of desire. For this, and for the humour and compassion that its narrator Arjie displays, Funny Boy is a deeply satisfying novel.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Smaro Kamboureli
Smaro Kamboureli has published short fiction, a long prose poem, in the second person, and a lot of criticism on Canadian Literature.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre