Shehan Karunatilaka (47), a Sri Lankan writer, hasn’t lost any of his rockstar glimmer, even though he now spends less time with his guitar. The black nail paint on his fingers — “male polish”, he calls it — was a hat tip to his “juvenile rockstar ambitions”. “My wife took me for a manicure before the award ceremony. She said you are going to the Booker, you need to look nice. Big mistake! I was getting the manicure and I see all these bottles and I told the manicurist, ‘Can you put something black?’ and here we are!”He smiles. His phone hasn’t stopped buzzing since the time he became the second writer from Sri Lanka to win the Booker PrizeTo read his novel The Seven Moons of Maali AlmeidaThis week and earlier. “We won the Asia Cup (cricket tournament) but we haven’t had many victories in Sri Lanka in the last year,”He spoke. This Colombo-based writer discusses his literary influences and why the novel went through a thorough round. Below are excerpts edited from his book.
You stated in your acceptance speech that you could not set the novel anywhere but 1989. Why?
This was my original idea. If the silenced voices of Sri Lanka’s conflicts were allowed to speak and speak freely, what stories would they tell? Right after 2010, 2010 and 2011, I began writing. Chinaman: Pradeep Mathew’s Legend2010 was his debut novel, but 2009 was what was freshest in our minds. This was the ending of a war that we believed would never end. While it was obvious that civilians were suffering, numbers continued to be pushed. They didn’t know the truth. There wasn’t enough. Their main issue was over who was responsible. It was this that I decided a ghost story would be an excellent way to look at it. But I wasn’t comfortable because it was contemporary history, and, in South Asia, you are always wary about offending the wrong people. So, I returned. I could have gone to ’83 (when the war began), that would have been obvious, but that story has been well-documented and I felt that it wasn’t my story to tell. Sinhala was me. Buddhist male. I was the oppressor, I wasn’t the one who suffered great loss during that period. But, as a teenager, I remembered ’89. I wasn’t aware of much of the politics but I remember how uniquely messed up it was for Sri Lanka. The LTTE, JVP [Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna], Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Sri Lanka (Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Sri Lanka) and Indian Peace Keeping Force were all present. Within the framework of a typical murder mystery, I got to explore this period that I wasn’t that aware of at 14-15 (years of age). It’s only later that I read about it and found out that it was more absurd than I ever thought it was.
You spoke of Kurt Vonnegut’s debt. George SaundersDouglas Adams. Sri Lanka is a country with a rich literary heritage. Do you feel this has influenced your life?
Growing up, there wasn’t a Sri Lankan section in the bookshop. Professors might have written a few books on Sri Lankan literature. But in the ’90s, that all changed and Michael Ondaatje deserves a lot of credit for that. His writings were Running in the Family(1982), which was a landmark text. I was instantly surrounded by a book that discussed my street and my neighbourhood. Romesh Gunesekera was awarded the prize for his book, Booker PrizeTo Reef (1995). These are two expat Sri Lankan writers who write beautiful, elegant prose that you, as a young writer, aspire to but can’t write like. Shyam Selvadurai published. Funny Boy (1994), a quite groundbreaking gay coming-of-age story. Carl Muller was my guru. His first writing was like that of Sri Lankans. ChinamanThis was an idea from a drunken uncle who would tell stories. They also chose the format they would use. This was liberating. The freedom to share our stories was liberating.
Ondaatje was also awarded the Booker. His prize money was donated to the Gratiaen Prize. In recognition of a literary achievement in English that is outstanding by an author who was born in Sri Lanka, the annual Gratiaen Prize, founded in 1992, awards the winner. It’s genre agnostic, and that was the goal for us. It was important to me that my work could be submitted for the Gratiaen Prize.ChinamanIn 2008, the winner was That’s why there has been a lot of Sri Lankan writing in English. But, apart from the writers of the ’90s, certainly Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders and Douglas Adams — you can see the commonality, they’re writing about quite serious topics, but they have that freewheeling tone, and it’s almost like a trick. You are captivated by their writing and suddenly realize that you’re reading about very dark topics.
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Original publication of the book as Chats with the Dead (Penguin India) was in 2020. A short extract from the book was published in Sunday Magazine. Wow! The Seven Moons of Maali AlmeidaIs your team ready to go for the new version in 2020?
The manuscript for Chats with the Dead was received by many people who were delighted. Even ten years after his death, Chinaman is still loved by many. The second volume was very well received. But that wasn’t translated anywhere else. I felt I wasn’t sure. Are you unsure if it is clear enough. Does it make sense? The Indian subcontinent has a good understanding of Sri Lanka, LTTE and the conflict. It may have confused UK publishers. It was confusing and too complicated for UK readers, according to many. Her experience was shared with Sort of Books in the UK, an independent publishing house. ‘I think it’s a terrific work, it could be a very big book, but we need to do some proper work on it.’ Initially, we thought, let’s just clarify and make the Sri Lankan situation clear. When we reached the pandemic happened, we couldn’t publish in 2020. So we had nine months. This subplot makes you wonder if it is actually working. It is boring. Is this character logical? There was a lot of taking out bits that didn’t work and rewriting new scenes. But essentially, it’s the same book in that it starts with the same premise and ends in the same place and same character.
Do incidents like this attack on Salman Rushdie make it hard to write about political issues?
I’ve always been cautious. In my first book, I thought, can you write a Sri Lankan story not mentioning the war — that was my challenge to myself, because all the stories we got, the war was always part of it — and I thought cricket and arrack, and I felt safe.
It was also more political. But again, I didn’t feel threatened because I was writing about ancient history. It’s 30 years ago. It was 30 years ago. But the Easter attacks feel so far away. Now, we’ve got our 2022. But, here are some stories. The Birth Lottery, and other SurprisesJust published by Hachette India. These were stories from the last 20 years. The pandemic saw the selection of the most important stories and I was asked that question. Also, I self-censored. Because it could offend religious and political beliefs, I didn’t include any. Look, I’m not a hero. I’m not an activist. I’m aware of what we discussThe freedom of speechYou have the right to speak out. But we have had periods in our history where it’s been very dangerous to speak out. I’ve got young kids, I’d like to live a long and healthy life, and it’s only a short story.
I am working on a new novel. I can’t talk about it, it’s bad luck, but I will say it’s got to do with Sri Lanka in the 2000s. It was hard to write this book. This book will be much easier. It will have to do with Sri Lankan absurdity, that’s as much as I can tell.