Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai


Funny Boy gave me an opportunity to explore a culture I know nothing about. The story is set in Sri Lanka during the late 70’s and early 80’s when the Tamil-Sinhalese conflicts exploded into full-blown bloody civil war (1983-2009). In reading the novel, once again I realized that I know little about most of the history I have lived through. The story was both a tender coming of age story during a turbulent time and a learning experience for me about a country I could not even locate on a map until I read the novel. It is the author’s first book. While not autobiographical, ethnic riots in 1983 did drive Selvadurai’s own family to emigrate to Canada when Selvadurai, who is gay, was nineteen.

The main character, Arjie, is delightful. I fell in love with him. He disappears into the background of the world of adults quietly absorbing everything. He is always just outside a window or on the other side of a closed door–always listening, observing and curious about what is really going on behind the scenes. The adults are unaware of all that he pieces together as they quietly tell their secrets to one another. The story begins with a family protected from the violence going on around them by their privilege. Eventually, they can no longer ignore the conflict as it strikes them personally, and they suffer great loss in the street fighting. Through all this, Arjie is learning about his own sexuality. His family notices he is “funny.” He prefers play-acting weddings with his girl friends to joining the boys for sports. He even insists on playing the bride. He’s sent to a school where it is hoped the discipline and rigor will help him grow up into the man his family expects him to become. Funny Boy carries a strong message of staying true to yourself no matter what the cost. A much needed message for today.

Selvadurai’s empathetic novel about a family’s personal struggles within the context of class differences, attitudes towards homosexuality and Sri Lanka’s deadly ethnic clashes, is executed with award-winning skill. Selvadurai’s first book, Funny Boy, won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Lambda Literary Award in the U.S.

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