As you might all know, I’m a big fan of Shyam Selvadurai who was present at the 2010 Galle Literary Festival. You could say that I went to the GLF this year mainly to see him and Michelle de Kretser. And what a lovely man he is.

I read both Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens many years ago, and felt they both deserved a re-read in preparation for Selvadurai’s talks. Funny Boy I re-read a few years back, so I opted to re-read Cinnamon Gardens this holiday and took it with me to Galle. And as before, it was a sublime read. Selvadurai’s prose is polished, yet gentle, and slowly seduces you into caring for his struggling characters.

In Cinnamon Gardens, we meet Annalukshmi Kandiah a young progressive woman intent on qualifying as a teacher in a society where a woman’s expectations end with a suitable marriage. However, Annalukshmi is not one to cave in to familial duty and strives to carve out a career amidst opposition and a reluctant interest in the idea of love even though it is not something in which she feels she should be interested. Not far from them, her uncle Balendran is trying hard to be a dutiful son to his tightly controlling father the Mudaliyar Navaratnam. Married to a beautiful and caring wife and with a son who has gone abroad to university, Balendran is unable to forget his lover Richard whom he left behind in London 20 years ago. Set in Cinnamon Gardens, the affluent area in Colombo inhabited mainly by wealthy Burgher and Tamil families, it is the end of the 1920s in pre-Independance Ceylon and times are changing. In Selvadurai’s novel we catch a glimpse of the Cinnamon Gardens set in a long vanished world.

As both Annalukshmi and Balendran navigate through their struggles with their families who try to bind them to their rules, we hope that they will eventually find the freedom which they so long for. In addition to the two protagonists’ tale, we also see the effect of rebellion against the Mudaliyar Navaratnam’s iron rule. His eldest son, Balendran’s brother, is thrown out of his house following his elopement with a maid and is living in poverty in India. To utter his name is forbidden in the house. When news arrives of his illness, Balendran goes to India to bring back his brother’s ashes as instructed by his father. How Balendran deals with his father’s control extending even after his brother’s death, and the subsequent revelations which unfold following his return to Ceylon will change Balendran’s view of his father, and his life, forever.

This is a subtle book about the shifting values and obligations within a family and Selvaduri shows how nothing is ever as it first appears.

I’m submitting this book for both the Flashback Challenge and the South Asian Author Challenge.

was brilliant. Unfortunately my parents couldn’t make it as our dog was poorly (although much better now) so I went to Galle with some old family friends who kindly kept a room for me at Mama’s Guest House – a small guest house in the middle of Galle Fort with a roof restaurant serving some fantastic rice and curry and a beautiful view.

This year I was eagerly awaiting talks by two of my favourite writers, Michelle de Kretser and Shyam Selvadurai who were both charming, erudite and very, very nice. They spoke about their books and early life in Sri Lanka before their families had moved abroad, scenes that are familiar to many families of the diaspora.

In preparation I re-read Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens which was beautifully written (and got that signed!) and am excited to learn about his new work which will be a re-telling of the Buddhist Jataka tales (about the lives of the Buddha) which I confess I don’t really know much about (very embarrassing since I grew up in several Buddhist countries and my family is sort-of Buddhist in a non-religious way.) But then I never went to Sunday school (and yes, I mean Buddhist Sunday school) and am probably more versed in biblical stories due to my Western education. So I’m looking forward eagerly to Selvadurai’s next book.

Mohammed Hanif and Ru Freeman were two authors I had heard a lot about but never read so I’ll be looking out for their books, A Case of Exploding Mangoes and A Disobedient Girl. You can check out Ru Freeman‘s wonderful and erudite post on the GLF 2010 here.

I also went to a poetry reading by Wendy Cope who was a great raconteur and had us all in stitches. I don’t read much poetry but Cope’s poems are funny, simple and go straight to the point, and were the first poems that made me want to go out and buy some poetry. And she dispelled the myth that the world of poetry is all love and roses with no bickering or bullying. It’s a cut-throat world (as we’ve seen with the Oxford Professor of Poetry fiasco).

Louise Doughty gave a wonderful talk about her Romani heritage, a subject which is simultaneously fascinating and tragic and which made me want to seek out her books. Did you know that a lot of Roma have simple surnames such as Smith and Lee but flamboyant first names?

Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn gave talks that were entertaining, serious and illuminating. I’ve been a fan of Frayn’s since reading and watching the play Copenhagen about the lost weekend in which the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg visits Copenhagen to meet his mentor Niels Bohr during WWII after the capitulation of Denmark to the Nazis. Historians of science have always puzzled over what the two scientists discussed, with Bohr knowing full well that Heisenberg was working on the Nazi nuclear weapons programme, and which led to a break in their friendship. Tomalin spoke of Dickens and his mistress and all the other women who have been swept under the carpet of history. Fascinating stuff.

What was really great about going to a literary festival is not just to hear your favourite authors talk about their books and lives, but to also be exposed to new and previously unheard of authors who you may not automatically pick up in a bookshop but whose world view and words entice you to try out their writings and you come away with a new list of books for your wish list.

I enjoyed a wonderfully mellow evening at The Closenberg Hotel, a tuk tuk ride away from the Galle Fort as Ashok Ferrey, together with some friends, read from his new novel Serendipity. We sat in the garden surrounded by bougainvillea and overlooking the sea, and we didn’t mind the mosquitoes so much because we were laughing too hard. The Closenberg is somewhere my family always stopped by for tea and lime-juice every time we drove down south so it was nice to become reaquainted with the historic hotel.

Some of my favourite moments at the 2010 GLF included a talk given by Richard Boyle about books published about Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) from the mid-sixteenth century to the present. Although he focused on books in English (there are probably as many books in Dutch and Portuguese as parts of Ceylon were ruled by both countries for many years) it was interesting to see the impressions that the people of Ceylon gave to the foreigners who tried to subdue and rule them. Even the infamous Aleister Crowley had made a pit stop in Sri Lanka!

And the other two memorable events weren’t book-related but gave a flavour of the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. There were two free outdoor concerts by the Ravibandu Vidyapathi Drum Ensemble and the Chitrasena Dance Company that were the highlight of my 4 days in Galle. The performances were a brilliant fusion of the traditional with the modern. Surrounded by twinkling floor lights, we saw the drummers and dancers in the dark under the giant trees in the central Law Court Square. It was a magical ending to a brilliant festival.

OMG! Shyam Selvadurai is going to be there!

If you like your Sri Lankan diasporic literature, you will not be blind to the bright star that is Selvadurai. His two novels Funny Boy and Cinammon Gardens are beautifully written, dealing with issues of identity, sexuality and Sri Lanka’s troubled past in a vivid and sensitive way. I can’t recommend him enough. If you haven’t tried any Sri Lankan literature, why don’t you start with him?

Selvadurai is also the editor of Story Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers which I am dipping into occasionally. Good stuff.

Favourite Writers: Fiction

15 August, 2009

Everytime I am confronted with articles or questionnaires about favourite books and writers, I decide to make my own list and give up after a few minutes. It’s not that I don’t have enough to fill a list, I have too many favourites and I fear that I have forgotten some of the ones I particularly loved. I want to do justice to that list. In author interviews, this is one of the most frequently asked questions and I can almost visualise their quavering when they have to announce to the world their favourite books and authors. They always start or end by saying that this is by no means absolute and it could change tomorrow. That is how I feel too. But there are a number of titles I will always love because of their impact on my thinking at a particular point in my life, and I thought it would be a good exercise to give it a try. Put it down on paper, so to speak.

I generally read a lot of mysteries, historical mysteries, science fiction and fantasy and general/literary fiction and of course, some classics, once in a while. When I was a student I went through a French phase where everything had to originate from the Latin Quarter: Sartre, Beauvouir and Camus. I grew up with the refrain ‘maman est morte’ as Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider in English) is my father’s all time favourite book, a remnant of his student days at the Sorbonne in the late ’60s.

letranger theoutsider

I will be putting up lists divided by genre in the coming weeks but will start with the most general. It’s not a reflection of which is the most important genre for me. I’m open to and have favourites in all. I tend to mix my reading and have several books on the go, but sometimes I find that I need to concentrate on one book just to see it through and do it some justice.

So, let’s start with the following:

General/literary fiction

Donna Tartt (A Secret History)
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas)
Tahmima Anam (A Golden Age)
Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Patron Saint of Liars)
Michelle de Kretser (The Hamilton Case)
Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger)
Romesh Gunasekara (The Match)
Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens)
Douglas Coupland (Generation X)
Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Kaori Ekuni (Twinkle Twinkle, Calmi Cuori Appassionata – Red (in Japanese only))
Agota Kristof (The Notebook; The Proof; The Third Lie – Three Novels)
Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family, The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost)

You will notice that I have quite a few Sri Lankan writers in the mix: Michelle de Kretser, Romesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai. Everytime I go back to Sri Lanka, I always feel a need to read about the country, to immerse myself in the culture and history of the place. And I also stock up on a lot of books there that aren’t available abroad. Perera Hussein Publishing House publishes Sri Lankan authors writing in English and their blog can be found here.

My favourite book of all time is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I first read it as I was revising for my first year undergrad exams. Even though my mind was busy trying to grasp the intricacies of maths and physics, Tartt’s novel gripped me from the start and I spent every moment I could away from my studies burrowed in her book. I haven’t read it in a while so I might give it a go when the mood takes me. Her second book The Little Friend was much anticipated but didn’t have as big an impact and took me a while to get into. There is something about her writing that invokes a feeling within me that I cannot find anywhere else. I finished it still believing she is a great writer even though I didn’t love it as much as The Secret History, and I can’t wait for her next book.