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Shyam Selvaduri's Lyrical First Novel Is A Well-Crafted Tale Of Exile

By Richard Siken

Funny Boy, by Shyam Selvadurai (Harvest/Harcourt Brace). Paper, $12.

COMING-OF-AGE stories necessarily deal with a certain amount of exile, for it is impossible to keep moving forward if you're reluctant to leave something behind. Not that the person doing the growing up has much of a choice. They don't, which is why such stories often seem melancholy and bittersweet. The author's goal is to find hinges, the moments in a life where sudden realizations propel a young person out of childhood and into a less comfortable, more complicated adult world. Depending on the author's view of childhood and adulthood, these stories usually boil down to escapes into freedom or descents into Hell. Regardless of the outcome, however, the protagonist is never allowed to return to the realm of the young and uninformed.

In Funny Boy, a lyrical first novel by Shyam Selvadurai, the issues of exile are more literal, and the hinges more multiplicitous. For rather than limiting his focus to one aspect of innocence lost, Selvadurai grapples with family conflict, political realities, racial hatred, and sexual identity. Set in the author's native Sri Lanka, the novel follows the progress of a boy named Arjie from childhood through adolescence in six chapters that work like interrelated stories. The first, entitled "Pigs Can't Fly," centers on a pageant the children call "bride-bride," in which 7-year-old Arjie dresses in a sequined wedding sari and holds court over his female cousins while the other boys, on the other side of the house, are busy playing cricket.

In a family where men, including his father, are distant and business-like, a capacity for intimacy and an appreciation of beauty are feminine attributes. And though he hates sports and enjoys wearing his aunt's jewelry, it isn't long before members of Arjie's family try to force him to take up more masculine pursuits. Exiled from the "free play of fantasy" he was allowed in the girls' world, and unable to reconcile himself to the rough-and-tumble world of the boys, Arjie becomes aware of the unstated constrictions that are a way of life in his family and his culture.

Arjie's loss of innocence is as much a political process as a personal one. Unable to make a place for himself in either the all-male or all-female realms of childhood play, Arjie is befriended first by one of his young aunts, and later by his mother. Initially used as a foil to provide the women with excuses to meet with their lovers, Arjie soon becomes a co-conspirator in these escapades, and witnesses the devastating consequences of a new set of social constrictions.

It is not so much the illicitness of these encounters that causes such trouble, but rather the affiliations of the men involved, for Arjie's homeland is being torn apart by bloody conflicts between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, who outnumber the Tamils by almost five to one. Though wealthy and close-knit, Arjie's Tamil family cannot insulate itself from the hatred that politicians are stirring up against this vulnerable minority. In one story, Arjie watches helplessly as his aunt's love for a Sinhalese man is destroyed by community prejudice. In another, violence disrupts his mother's relationship with a reporter investigating abuses of governmental power.

In the book's longest story, personal and political issues become intertwined as Arjie's father enrolls him in an elite colonial-style school he hopes will make a man out of his son. Instead, to his father's disappointment, Arjie rebels against the sadistic principal and the social and political constraints the school tries to place upon him, and strikes up an intense friendship with a fellow renegade student who is Sinhalese and rumored to be gay, thus breaking the two taboos Arjie's father most fears. For a brief moment love triumphs over all, but reality soon sets in. Outside the school walls, Sinhalese mobs are approaching Arjie's Tamil home with torches blazing, and the family is forced first into hiding, and then into exile in Canada.

Extraordinarily powerful and exquisitely written, Selvadurai's compassionate tale of a boy's coming-of-age quietly confounds expectations of love, family and country. With its multiple revelations and its subtle, understated tone, it's easy to see why this well-crafted book won the Lambda Literary Award, the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was named an American Library Association Notable Book.

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