Even though he now spends much less time with his guitar, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka, 47, has lost none of his rock star grunge. The black nail paint on his fingers — “masculine polish,” he calls — was a tip of the hat to his “youthful rock star ambitions.” “My wife took me for a manicure before the awards ceremony. She said you were going to the Booker, you must be beautiful. Big mistake! I was doing the manicure and I see all these bottles and I said to the manicure, ‘Can you put something black on?’ and here we are!” he laughs. His phone has been buzzing since he became the second writer from Sri Lanka to win the Booker Price for his novel The seven moons of Maali Almeida earlier this week. “We won the Asian Cup (cricket tournament) but we didn’t have many wins in Sri Lanka last year,” he said. In this interview, the Colombo-based writer talks about his literary influences and explains why the novel went through a series of rigorous re-editions. Edited excerpts:
You mentioned in your acceptance speech that you couldn’t set the novel until 1989. Why is that?
My initial idea or conceit was to make it into a ghost story. If the silent voices of Sri Lanka’s conflicts were allowed to speak and speak freely, what stories would they tell? When I was writing in 2010-2011, just after Chinese: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (2010, his first novel), what was freshest in mind was 2009, the end of the war that we thought was eternal. We knew these were huge civilian casualties, the numbers kept shifting. There was neither truth nor reconciliation, not enough. This central thing that they were arguing about was whose fault it was. And so, I thought a ghost story would be a good way to explore that. But I was not comfortable because it was contemporary history and in South Asia you are always wary of offending the wrong people. So I went back. I could have gone all the way back to 83 (when the war started), that would have been obvious, but this story was well documented and I felt it was not my story to tell. I was Sinhalese Buddhist Male. I was the oppressor, it was not me who suffered a great loss during this period. But, as a teenager, I remembered 89. I didn’t know about a lot of politics, but I remember how unique it was for Sri Lanka. We had LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in Sri Lanka), Indian Peacekeeping Force on the ground. As part of a typical murder mystery, I was able to explore this time period that I was not so aware of at 14-15 (years old). It wasn’t until later that I read about it and found out it was more absurd than I ever thought.
You mentioned your debt to Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders, and Douglas Adams. Sri Lanka itself has a strong literary heritage. Did it influence you in any way?
Growing up, there was no Sri Lankan section in the bookstore. We could have had some Sri Lankan books written by teachers. But in the 90s everything changed and Michael Ondaatje deserves a lot of credit for that. He wrote Family run (1982), which was a seminal book. Suddenly, a book was talking about my street and my neighborhood. Then Romesh Gunesekera was shortlisted for the Booker Price for Reef (1995). But these are two expatriate Sri Lankan writers who write very elegant, crafted and beautiful prose, which as a young writer you yearn for, but can never write like. Then there was Shyam Selvadurai, who published funny boy (1994), a fairly groundbreaking coming-of-age story. But for me, Carl Muller was the guru. He was the first writer unlike the others I have described, who wrote as the Sri Lankans spoke, he told stories like us, and I borrowed a lot for Chinese the idea of a drunken uncle telling a story and the style in which they would tell it. It was quite liberating. We could write in our own voice and tell stories about ourselves, not like a stranger looking inside and doing forensic analysis.
Additionally, with Ondaatje winning the Booker, he donated his prize to create the Gratiaen Prize (launched in 1992, the annual prize recognizes a work of outstanding literary merit in English by a Sri Lankan resident). It’s gender neutral, and that was our goal. I wanted to write something that I could present for the Gratiaen Prize (Chinese won in 2008). This is why there have been many Sri Lankan writing In English. But aside from the 90s writers, certainly Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders and Douglas Adams — you can see the commonalities, they write about pretty serious stuff, but they have this loose tone, and it’s almost like a gimmick . They interest you, then you suddenly realize that you have read a very dark subject.
The book was originally released as Chats with the Dead (Penguin India) in 2020. We published a first excerpt of it as a short story in our Sunday magazine. How is it different The seven moons of Maali Almeida of the 2020 version?
When the Chats with the Dead manuscript reached Indian publishers, many were enthusiastic. Chinaman had a group of loyal fans, he was fondly regarded even 10 years later. So there was an appetite for the second book. But it hasn’t been translated anywhere else. I felt like I wasn’t sure. Does he need more work? Is that clear enough? The Indian subcontinent knows Sri Lanka, the LTTE, the war. But, perhaps, this has baffled the British publishing industry. Many said it seemed chaotic and very difficult for UK readers. So when I finally found (an independent UK-based publishing house) Sort of Books and Natania Jansz (co-founder, with husband Mark Ellingham) picked it up, she said, “I think it’s a great job it could be a very big book but we have to do a proper job on it initially we thought and clear and clarify the Sri Lankan situation but when the pandemic happened, we couldn’t publish in 2020. So we had nine months. Then you start watching and going, Well, does this subplot work? Is it a bit boring? Does this character work? There was a lot of deleting 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 with the same character.
Do incidents like the attack on Salman Rushdie earlier this year make it difficult to write about politics?
I have always been careful. In my first book I thought, can you write a Sri Lankan history without mentioning war – that was my challenge to myself, because all the stories we had, war was always part of it – and I thought of cricket and arrack, and I felt safe.
It was obviously more overtly political. But again, I didn’t feel threatened because I was writing about ancient history. It was 30 years ago. The Easter attacks seem like a long time ago, even though it was three years ago. Now we have our 2022. But with my news, Birth lottery and other surprises (Hachette India), which has just been released, was a lot of stories collected over 20 years. During the pandemic, I picked the best and asked this question and self-censored. I excluded a few because I thought it might offend certain political or religious interests. Look, I’m not a hero. I am not an activist. I know we’re talking about freedom of expression as a right. But we have had periods in our history when it has been very dangerous to speak out. I have young children, I would like to live a long and healthy life, and that’s just a short story.
And then ?
I started a third novel. I can’t talk about it, it’s bad luck, but I will say it has to do with Sri Lanka in the 2000s. This was a heavy book to write, the next one will be much lighter. It will have to do with Sri Lankan absurdity, that’s all I can say.