Funny Boys: Sex and SushiMicheal Johal and Shyam Selvadurai talk about their bouts with temptation
During the press tour for his new novel Cinnamon Gardens, author Shyam Selvadurai sat down for dinner with Michael Johal. While consuming vats of orange juice and god knows what else, Michael and Shyam talk about their bouts with temptation.
Michael: Part of the reason temptation interests me is that the mischievous part of Michael is fascinated by temptation. Why are we so obsessed with temptation?
Shyam: I think it's the forbidden, I think human desire is at its best when it's not satiated. You need to have that "other thing". If you "have it all" then life is dull. It's a search for the next thing. I suppose growing up in Sri Lanka, for example, you become very conscious of that.
When I was a child it was a very socialist state and we didn't have something like chewing gum. When you got it you treasured it - you ate it a stick at a time. That experience of completely loving that, and luxuriating in that piece of chewing gum in your mouth is completely lost in a society where you can "have it all". I suppose for me - I like to be a bit stingy with myself and hold off.
Michael: Are you usually tempted? You say you like to be stingy.
Shyam: Certain things, yes. For other things temptation doesn't even exist. It depends what it is. I'm always tempted to buy that hard cover book. That's one thing I'm always tempted to do. Now, I think I can afford to buy the book but I don't. I'll hold it off as a treat to myself.
Michael: Let me ask you at this point -What is the most significant historical, mythological, literary story or parable that refers to temptation for you?
Shyam: The Adam and Eve story is the first one that comes to mind.
Michael: The temptation by the serpent and Eve with the apple... did you grow up with this story?
Shyam: I'm Catholic by religion, so yes I definitely did grow up with this story.
Michael: Did you have the same relationship with Catholicism in so far as it relates to notions of temptation as well as the rest of the common characteristics people paint around sin and guilt and so forth... these big scary concepts. Did you grow up in the same way?
Shyam: Temptation? Not really. I didn't grow up in the same way people here do, It took me a while to figure out why cowering Catholics were so angry with the Catholic church here. Because in some ways the same thing didn't exist for us. Partly because religious leaders here aren't regarded in the same way as they are in Sri Lanka. I think that comes from the older tradition of Hinduism where the priests are there to perform a function, not as spiritual leaders. If you really want spiritual leadership you would go to an elder, or that sadhu sitting underneath the tree. You don't really go to the priests for that, (laugh). Priests are regarded sort of as technicians. They're there to do their job - to administer sacraments.
There's almost disrespect for them. My mother is very Catholic in many ways, but I remember one time I said, "I think I'll be a priest when I grow up", and she said "Why do you want to do that you'll lead such an unhappy life".
I mean, here's a very strong Catholic telling her son not to become a priest because it's such an unhappy life. She said I would end up being bitter and all these things. So I think I didn't grow up with the same ideas of sin and temptation that Western Catholics do.
Michael: What else in history or mythology, or literature strikes you as relevant to temptation?
Shyam: I don't know. I'm trying to think...um...
Michael: There's one huge one playing out right now in the United States of America with the president isn't there?
Shyam: Oh yes!
Michael: The infatuation again, this odd relationship that society has with these notions of temptation is now being played out in all its gory details.
Shyam: I think there's an aspect of temptation that bothers me which is just that everybody thinks that we don't actually choose it. I think Clinton knew exactly what was going on and I think Hillary Clinton actually knew what was going on. I don't think it's just a question of you're sitting in your office and the next thing you know you're getting a blow job. I really don't think that's possible.
Michael: So, engaging in activities driven by temptation is never accidental?
Shyam: I don't think so, but I think that pose is accidental, and I it allows you not to take moral responsibility on some level.
"The snake was in the garden and I was just walking in the garden - I didn't go looking for the serpent - so the serpent made me do it."
I think it's a very dangerous thought. (laugh). Temptation itself is a way of avoiding responsibility.
Michael: What about the thought that as long as you're not harming anyone or yourself why not lead a life that gives into temptation every time at every opportunity? The pursuit of living life to the fullest.
Shyam: As I said, there is something to be said for holding back as well. I think then when you do get something, you appreciate it more, But certainly I do not think you should hold back if you're not hurting anyone or yourself for that matter.
Here's a good example - I've been dreaming of eating smoked salmon and sushi in British Columbia, and I am going to have it! There is not much that's going to stop me from having that here.
Michael: (laughing) And here we are...
We have this dichotomous, this contradictory relationship. We want it and we fear it and I'm here to figure out if you, as a writer, have ever represented this in any of your characters in either of your two best known books. Talk about that.
Shyam: In Cinnamon Gardens, one of the two main characters - Balendran is actually gay, but married. And into his life returns his old lover from London - so I mean he is tempted by his old lover. There is a fine example of someone who kind of goes through completely unaware and not accepting what is obvious to the reader, which is that he is falling into temptation.
Michael: What's the moral challenge there and how is it resolved?
Shyam: Do you want me to give away the plot? (laughter)
Michael: It's always interesting to hear it from the author's perspective.
Shyam: Well, I think that he comes to understand very quickly, about half way through the novel, that the choices that he has made are his own choices, that they are not merely temptations. They're actually his choices and he has to accept the responsibility on that.
Michael: This has recurred now two or three times since we have been talking. You're talking about the whole notion of taking responsibility. Um... is this a central theme that's concerning you?
Shyam: Mmm... somewhat.
Michael: We do seem to live in times where everybody's looking for a way to abdicate responsibility.
Shyam: I come from a culture where duty is a burden. There's too much of duty in Sri Lanka, I come here and there's no duty at all. So you come from one extreme to the other. But perhaps if you strike a balance you can bring the old and also incorporate the new individualism - which I think has some really good aspects.
I think you're doing fine if you can do both - you can balance it all. That's it - you have to learn to balance!
I suppose the reason that I mention duty so much in the context of Western society is because it is lacking. If we were having this conversation in Sri Lanka, I'd be mentioning individualism much more because that's what I think is lacking there.
Michael: The notion of responsibility and duty in the cultures of the Indian subcontinent is one that I am very familiar with. Raised of an Indian background in England... obligation, responsibility, familial duty... all of it counterbalances with what really was a whole bunch of temptations. Wearing decadent western clothes, sex in my mid-teens, going out all night, drugs, films in which ideas are represented and depicted in ways that are heretical... so I think I understand what you're saying with respect to the interplay of the two.
I have yet to resolve it. Have you? Shyam: What's to resolve? I mean, I'm a gay man, so I've already abdicated my familial responsibility by coming out -familial in the sense of continuing the generations. But at the same time I'm committed to my family and committed to my relationship in a very responsible fashion, And that's it.
I don't see what else the problem is. I mean occasionally I might give way one way or the other. I may think "oh what the hell, I'll give this up to go to auntie so and so", it's a conscious thing for me. But I do think it's easier to abdicate as a man than if you are woman in the South Asian community, I think for my sisters it's much harder. They are the people who have to remember the birthdays, the christenings, and the marriages. I'm not quite expected to remember that, I don't know how they deal with it.
Michael: It's funny how you talk about expectations of you and expectations of your sisters. In many societies it's frequently considered that men are the ones who have to continually fight and resist temptation because it's men who are led by the nose by their irrational passions or temptations. Is there a relationship between temptation and gender?
Shyam: Perhaps a constructed one, yes. Men never really grow up. A woman learns very early in life, particularly in the South Asian culture, the notion of responsibility, I think it's incarnated in a woman.
What's to resolve? I mean, I'm a gay man, so I've already abdicated my familial responsibility by coming out
Men are pretty free to do what they want. Men are encouraged not to grow up and with not growing up comes the possibility of temptation and wanting to "have it all". You have to realise you can't "have it all", and that's a hard thing to realise.
Is that orange juice?
Waiter: Well, yes it is!
Shyam: Oh I'd love a glass!
I think it's a big thing for men, Especially sexual temptation. It's a real issue for men because of the automatic slowing down of desire and nothing prepares us for that. It's just a terrible thing!
There constantly becomes this need to prove yourself and there's nothing in our culture or any other culture that prepares us for the slowing down of desire.
Michael: Isn't there an irony as well when we are still raging and full of or driven by desire well then, temptation abounds, When we slow down - well then there's the temptation to prove ourselves.
Shyam: See I think temptation slows down. I don't think that when you're 21 temptation is a big thing. You're just raging - you can "have it all".
You can have as much sex as you want and do whatever you want. I think there is no sense of responsibility. Now, I think at my age there is a sense of responsibility, You're in a relationship and you have to deal with that. It's not the same as it was before and that's when temptation occurs. I think far more men fall into temptation in their 30's and 40's and upwards than men in their 20's. Young men don't even need to think about it. They just up and go.
Michael: It's interesting... you've essentially made an argument for the notion of temptation as being something that is being as much as something that derives from being a complex set of notions and thought in the individual, as a discreet and objective definition that stands by itself all the time.
Shyam: Come again... you lost me there.
Michael: Essentially we might do things at particular times in our life that we don't call temptation. We do the same things at another stage and we are now calling it temptation.
Shyam: Yes, I think because they become forbidden. Towards the element of temptation there must be the element of the forbidden.
I think in your 20's, if we talk about it purely as sex, nothing is forbidden. But once you get married or you're in a relationship, and you have a child, and a house, then I think things start slowing down and that's when the problems start.
I can't imagine if I was tempted, I think I would have a breakdown or something.
Michael: Isn't the allure of the forbidden one of the most compelling in the human condition? Is that not one of the strongest urges and pulls that we can experience?
Shyam: I can't say it's true for me. I'm a writer so my life is constantly stimulated by the creative urge. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I was not a writer - if I was working at IBM or a bank, a regular 9 to 5 job. That stimulation that you need in life is over provided by writing. I don't really need it any more.
At the end of my writing day I just want to put my legs up, cuddle up to my partner and watch TV. So temptation would be a bloody burden to me. I can't imagine if I was tempted, I think I would have a breakdown or something.
Michael: You just expressed a remarkable level of serenity in your life.
Shyam: Not when I'm writing or reading reviews. I'm far from serene. If I was serene I might be tempted. I'm not serene. My relationship might be serene, but certainly not my working life. We need some sort of stimulation in our lives as human beings.
Michael: That's interesting that you make the relationship between serenity and temptation being that you were more tempted if you were more serene. When I recognise myself in periods of less serenity I think I'm more susceptible to temptation - I'm flapping around looking for things to self satisfy.
Shyam: But in moments of uncertainty isn't the thing that's causing the crisis more likely to obsess you than anything else?
Michael: There's a great irony that exists right there, The more you flap around and grab at things the less you're actually bringing about serenity.
Shyam: That's interesting. See, for me when I am agitated I'm extremely not tempted. I find that whatever it is that is agitating me obsesses me so much that I can't concentrate on anything else. Let's say I get a terrible review -I'm more obsessed with the terrible review than going out and getting laid or eating chocolate mousse cake. It just makes me feel like, "what is wrong here?" And then when things in my life become serene the opposite happens.
Michael: Where are those human infallibilities in you that cause you to go out and drink a bottle or go out and get laid if you get a shitty review.
Shyam: Where are they? I don't know.
Michael: That's remarkably composed and disciplined.
Shyam: Maybe I'll have a big mid-life crisis at forty-five and wear bell-bottoms or something like that. I don't know to be honest.
I think I've had great turbulence in my early life growing up in Sri Lanka both because of the act of immigration, and of what happened in Sri Lanka, and coming out, and all that. And those years of turbulence have led me to value the serenity in my life. It's just not an issue for me right now.
Michael: That's good.
Shyam: I suppose it is yes.
Michael: What's the future of temptation as it relates to other characters that you have brewing? Are there moral dilemmas around temptation that the characters are going to play out? Do we get sneak previews?
Shyam: The next novel? No (laugh) I'm not saying anything on that subject.
Michael: (laugh) We're gonna have to wait and find out right?
Shyam: That's right.
Michael: How long are we gonna have to wait... give us a timeline?
Shyam: I try for every four years, but I don't know at this point. You're asking at the wrong time. I'm pretty exhausted right now. I feel like I want years off before I even think of writing another book.
Michael: After having this conversation with you, I'm looking forward to reading the next novel to see if at any point in it I can pick up any thin strands or what we have talked about.
Shyam: Thank you. I'd be interested to see what you say because there's always the temptation to relate a work of fiction to the writer's life. Since temptation plays such a huge part in this next novel, I'd be very curious to know how you view it.
Michael: That's a marvellous note to leave it at. Thank you so much for bringing that to a very tidy conclusion.
Shyam: Oh, thank you!
Shyam Selvadurai's latest temptation Cinnamon Gardens, published by McLennad & Stewart, is available at a book store near you.