|Subject||Sexuality, Diaspora, 1983 Colombo Riots|
|Publisher||McClelland & Stewart|
Funny Boy  is a coming-of-age novel by Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. First published by McClelland and Stewart in September 1994, the novel won the Lambda Literary Award for gay male fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award.
Set in Sri Lanka where Selvadurai grew up, Funny Boy is constructed in the form of six poignant stories about a boy coming to age within a wealthy Tamil family in Colombo. Between the ages of seven and fourteen, he explores his sexual identity, and encounters the Sinhala-Tamil tensions leading up to the 1983 riots.
- 1 Background
- 2 Plot
- 3 Important Characters
- 4 Themes
- 5 Tamil Diaspora and Sri Lankan Civil War
- 6 Reception
- 7 Further reading
- 8 References
The novel presents vivid sketches of family members, friends, school teachers, shown co-operating, arguing, loving, and living. The large Tamil family, and its arguments and discussions reflect a specific culture, while in many aspects the problems are universal.
Tension mounts as the riots come closer to home, and the whole family sleeps in their shoes so they can quickly escape should the Sinhalese mobs descend.
When Selvadurai's Funny Boy was published in 1994, it was hailed as one of the most powerful renditions of the trauma of the prevailing ethnic tensions in contemporary Sri Lanka. Selvadurai brings together the struggles of sexuality, ethnicity and class. These issues arise during the development of the protagonist, Arjie, whose maturation is framed against the backdrop of ethnic politics.
Selvadurai has stated that Funny Boy should not be seen as an autobiography. While both he and Arjie are gay and Sri Lankans who immigrated to Canada, they had very different experiences.
Pigs Can't Fly
The first part of the novel begins with the spend-the-days, in which the grandchildren congregate at Ammachi and Appachi’s home. Arjie and his female cousins, as usual, play their game of “bride-bride,” which is interrupted when their cousin Tanuja (Her Fatness) refuses to indulge Arjie’s desire to be bride. The adults ultimately discover their game, and one uncle tells Arjie’s father “you have a funny one here” (14). Arjie is no longer allowed to play with the girls. When he questions his mother, she responds with “because the sky is so high and pigs can’t fly, that’s why” (19).
The second chapter focuses on the return of Radha Aunty from America. Radha Aunty and Arjie develop a special relationship, immediately, and both become involved in a performance of The King and I. Although she receives an engagement offer from Rajan Nagendra, she is reluctant and develops a friendship with Anil Jayasinghe, a Sinhalese who is also involved in the play. The extended family warns Radha and encourages her to put an end to the relationship. Radha Aunt goes to Jaffna to forget about Anil, and on her return journey, she and other Tamils are attacked on the train. Eventually, she becomes engaged to Rajan. It is through the friendship between his aunt and Anil that Arjie begins to understand the concept of ethnicity and the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
In the third story, while Arjie’s father is in Europe on a business trip, Daryl Uncle returns to Sri Lanka from Australia to investigate allegations of government torture. Arjie is cognizant of a long history between Amma and Daryl Uncle, but is unsure of the cause of the tensions until he has an eventual realisation of their affair. When Arjie becomes very ill, Amma decides to take Arjie from Colombo to the countryside to recover. Much to Arjie’s surprise, Daryl Uncle visits Arjie and his mother throughout their stay in the hill country. Following his recovery, Arjie and Amma return to Colombo, while Daryl Uncle goes to Jaffna. When there is news that violence had broken out in Jaffna, Amma becomes worried about Daryl and eventually, they receive word that Daryl’s body was found on the beach, supposedly from drowning but they suspect he was killed first. Although Amma tries to pursue the matter further, a civil rights lawyer tells her that there is nothing they can do, given the state of the country, and that “one must be like the three wise monkeys. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” (141). Arjie quickly becomes a man, he steps up as man of the house while his father is away and supports the family during the time of tragedy.
In a plot shift, Appa’s school friend’s son Jegan comes to the family looking for a job and begins to work with Appa at his hotel and also lives with the Chelvaratnam family at their home. Jegan previously associated with the Tamil Tigers, but insists that he has broken all connections with the organization. Jegan also strikes up a friendship with Arjie and for the first time, he feels his homosexual tendencies surface, as Arjie admires “how build he was, the way his thighs pressed against his trousers.” The Tamil-Sinhalese tensions build up throughout the story, and Jegan is accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate a Tamil politician who the Tamil Tigers label as a traitor (177). After Jegan’s room at the hotel is vandalized, Appa decides it is best to fire Jegan and he leaves with hints that he may retrace back to his violent past (200).
The Best School of All
Appa decides to transfer Arjie to Victoria Academy, a school he says “will force you to become a man” (210). Arjie catches the eye of a boy named Shehan as well as the notorious school principal. Diggy hints that Shehan is gay and urges Arjie to stay away from him. Arjie notices in himself a growing attraction towards Shehan as the two spend more time together. The principal, nicknamed “Black Tie” ropes in Arjie to recite two poems at an upcoming school function. The function and specific poems are especially important to “Black Tie” as they are his final plea to prevent the government from reorganizing the school. Arjie gets nervous reciting the poems and forgets his lines, and the principal beats Arjie as well as Shehan for failing to help him memorize the poems. One day, Shehan kisses Arjie on the lips and he recoils, but it is after the kiss Arjie begins to comprehend his own sexuality. “I now knew that kiss was somehow connected to what we had in common, and Shehan had known this all along” (250), he says. Later, Arjie and Shehan have their first sexual encounter together in his parents’ garage. Afterwards, Arjie feels ashamed of himself and believes he has failed his family and their trust. During the school function, Arjie purposely jumbles up his poem after he witnesses Shehan emotionally break down from Black Tie’s beatings.
Riot Journal: An Epilogue
In the final chapter of the novel, rioters start to burn down the Tamil houses and establishments in Colombo. The family escapes to a neighbor’s house and goes into hiding after a mob comes to burn down their home. After their own hotel is attacked and Ammachi and Appachi are killed, Appa decides it is time for the family to leave the country. After making love to Shehan for the last time, Arjie leaves Sri Lanka and moves to Canada with his family.
Arjie (née Arjun) the protagonist. The novel follows his journey of coming to terms with his sexuality as a homosexual boy growing up in Sri Lanka
Arjie’s snobbish cousin who dresses up as the groom during their game of “Bride-bride”. A jealous cousin who gets Arjie into an embarrassing situation just to gain her superiority in the game of "bride-bride".
Arjie's sister. Arjie's younger sister. She supports him and understands him when others are harsh on him.
Arjie’s brother. A stereotypical character representing what boys should be like. Named Diggy-nose or Diggy due to his habit of poking his nose in all affairs.
Arjie’s mother; Arjie's first exposure to femininity; he enjoyed watching her get ready for special occasions.
Arjie's father. The head of the family. He takes decisions on behalf of the entire family.
Arjie’s grandparents. Well educated and belonging to the upeer-middle-class strata of the society.
Arjie’s aunt who comes to live with his family. Arjie and Radha Aunty have a special bond.
Radha Aunty’s romantic interest, causes turmoil in the family due to Sinhalese/Tamil conflict. He got rejected, or more like "Friend Zoned".
Daryl, a Burgher, is a friend of Amma and previous lover, who returns from Australia to investigate government corruption.
Jegan is the son of a friend of Appa, who comes to work for him. He was a former Tamil Tiger, although only admits to being a part of the Gandhiyam movement.
Arjie’s love interest, whom he meets at the Victoria Academy. He made Arjie fully aware of his sexuality and its uniqueness.
The Black Tie
Very strict principal of the Victoria Academy. Believes that it is possible to extract work from students only by beating them up.
Gender and Sexuality
The interplay between sexuality and gender is an important underlying theme in the novel, and it is most apparent in the spend-the-day events at the start of the story. Here, Arjie and his cousins enact a marriage scene in their “bride-bride” game. As the leader of the group, Arjie plays the bride, and the children are blissfully unaware of the disjunction between Arjie’s male gender and the traditionally feminine role until the arrival of their cousin “Her Fatness.” She states that, “A boy cannot be the bride. A girl must be the bride” (11). The rest of the family finds out about Arjie’s activities and are horrified at the notion of him dressing up in bridal attire. Interestingly, “Her Fatness” is described as large and booming with masculine traits (10) throughout the scene. It is almost as if her masculinity is innocuous, whereas his femininity is a point of contention. Sexuality and gender play an important role in defining the relationships between the characters and their perceptions of one and other.
Marriage appears several times throughout the course of the novel, as it is something Arjie is fascinated with. In “Pigs Can’t Fly,” Arjie and his female cousins reenact a Sri Lankan marriage in the game of “bride-bride.” Arjie assumes the most coveted role, that of the bride. The most exciting part of the game is the transformation into the bride. The draping of the white sari, allows him to “leave the constraints of [his] self and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self, a self to whom this day was dedicated” (5). Marriage serves as a source of bonding with Radha Aunty, who is due to marry Rajan Nagendra.
As the novel is set during and at the start of the Sri Lankan civil war, the characters are impacted, and constrained, on an individual level by the tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, which includes Arjie and his family. For example, the relationship between Radha Aunty and Anil cannot progress because Anil is Sinhalese. Arjie’s father foresees the difficulties of being a minority Tamil and enrolls his sons in Sinhalese language classes at school, so that future opportunities are not limited to them. Arjie’s father is optimistic and is eager to see the tensions between the two ethnic groups end, and is reluctant to see that the best option for his family is to immigrate to Canada.
Stripped to its most fundamental form, the novel documents Arjie’s journey to his own sexual identity. His sexuality, while a topic of discussion for his family, is not confronted directly. Instead he is always referred to as “funny.” He recognizes that this term carries a negative connotation, but doesn’t understand its complexity, stating that “It was clear to me that I had done something wrong, but what it was I couldn’t comprehend” (17). Throughout the novel, Arjie is also increasingly aware of his feelings towards the boys in his school, accepting that he thinks of the shorts they wear and longs to be with them (208). However, he only fully grasps his sexual identity and its familial implications after a sexual encounter with one of his male classmates. Arjie then understands his father’s concern and “why there had been such worry in his voice whenever he talked about me. He had been right to try and protect me from what he feared was inside me, but he had failed” (256).
Tamil Diaspora and Sri Lankan Civil War
The origin of many important themes in Funny Boy is the increasingly serious tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese while Arjie is growing up in Sri Lanka. This underlying conflict leads to many of the novel's elements of diaspora, identity, and ethnicity found in several sections of Funny Boy.
The broader ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka are addressed and manifest themselves through various instances and interactions in Arjie's life. The relationship between Radha Aunty and Anil is one such example. In this chapter, Arjie begins to learn about the history of the ethnic conflict and begins to realize the magnitude of the impact it may have on his life. Additionally, in "The Best School of All" chapter, Arjie experiences this tension firsthand in many interactions at school.
These themes continue throughout the novel, and their importance in Arjie's life continues to increase until his family is forced into diaspora due to the instability in Sri Lanka and the start of the Civil War, as chronicled by Riot Journal: An Epilogue.
The book has found strong positive reception both in scholarly reviews and in reviews by online reading communities. On GoodReads, for example, the novel gained an average rating of 3.81 (of 5) with about 1,500 ratings.
- Jazeel, Tariq (2005): Because Pigs Can Fly: Sexuality, race and the geographies of difference in Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy. In: CGPC 12 (2), S. 231–249.
- Rao, R. Raj (1997): Because Most People Marry Their Own Kind: A Reading of Selvadurai's "Funny Boy". In: ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature Vol. 28 (1) 1997
- Salgado, Minoli (2004): Writing Sri Lanka, Reading Resistance: Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and A. Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies. In: The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2004 Vol. 39 (1) p. 5-18. DOI: 10.1177/002198904043283
- Selvadurai, Shyam (2013): Funny Boy on his personal website, featuring information about the book, some reviews as well as an excerpt from the text.
- Sujala Singh (2004): Postcolonial children representing the nation in Arundhati Roy, Bapsi Sidhwa and Shyaaa Selvadurai. Wasafiri, 19:41, p. 13-18
- The Portrayal of Clashing Cultural Values in the Novel Funny Boy by Syam Selvadurai. 123HelpMe.com. 28 Apr 2013
- Thomas, Harry (2012): Shyam Selvadurai. (Review of Funny Boy).