This summer we’ll be reading three books based on a singular concept: The Summer of Love, LGBT Edition. The books will be love stories, loosely defined, by and about the LGBT community. We’ve chosen our first two books: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (meeting July 27th) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (meeting August 31st). Now we must choose our third book. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some of the suggestions people have made. These will be cut and paste reviews, and not my personal thought (I have not read any of these yet). Feel free to post suggestions below. We’ll be meeting June 29th at BookPeople to discuss Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and make our decision.
Reviewed by Edward Hower in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/04/14/books/coming-of-age-in-sri-lanka.html
Coming of Age in Sri Lanka
By Edward Hower
Published: April 14, 1996
FUNNY BOY By Shyam Selvadurai. 310 pp. New York: William Morrow & Company. $23.
When you’re a child, you’re free to play any roles you like; you needn’t pay attention to the ethnic, religious or even sexual identities that adults regard as important. Thus, at the opening of “Funny Boy,” a lyrical first novel by Shyam Selvadurai, the young male narrator loves acting like a girl, and none of his playmates seem to mind at all.
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. While the other boys are busy at cricket, he revels in the “free play of fantasy” this game allows him. “I was able to leave the constraints of my self,” he explains, “and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self.”
In a family where the men, including his father, are distant and business-like, a capacity for intimacy and an appreciation of beauty are feminine attributes. Arjie feels closest to his mother when he watches her dress up for parties, making herself as elegant as the cinema goddesses he adores.
But the little boy’s idyll, like all states of innocence, must come to an end. And it’s not long before the older members of Arjie’s family try to force him to take up more masculine pursuits. The results, as one might expect, are sometimes amusing, sometimes sad and always futile. By the book’s end, Arjie may have left behind his dreamy childhood fantasies, but he’s well on his way to accepting himself as a homosexual. He has also become a confirmed rebel against all forms of hypocrisy.
Yet “Funny Boy” is a great deal more than a gay coming-of-age novel, for Arjie’s loss of innocence is as much a political process as a personal one. The action takes place in the 1970’s, when Sri Lanka, a land of breathtaking tropical beauty, has become bitterly divided by ethnic tensions between the Tamil community, descended from Hindu tea-plantation workers brought from India in the 19th century, and the Buddhist Sinhalese, who outnumber the Tamils almost five to one. Though wealthy and close-knit, Arjie’s Tamil family cannot insulate itself from the hatred politicians are stirring up against this vulnerable minority. For some of Arjie’s compatriots, ethnic identity has become a death warrant.
In one story, he watches helplessly as his vivacious young 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 Government power. Seeking to learn whether her lover has been murdered, she discovers that a police official, a man who plays squash with her husband, is one of those responsible for the torture of suspected Tamil dissidents. The extent of the upper class’s ignorance about the plight of the poor — who are the Government’s main victims — becomes clear when Arjie and his mother are chased out of a peasant village. Seeking information about the reporter, she has inadvertently risked exposing the local people to brutal violence.
In the book’s longest story, political and personal issues become tightly interwoven as Arjie’s father enrolls him in an elite colonial-style school that he hopes will make a man of his son. It does, in a way: Arjie, now 14, falls in love with a Sinhalese boy and suddenly finds himself caught up in the bitter political tensions that divide both students and teachers. When the sadistic headmaster tries to make Arjie a pawn in his own power struggle, Arjie plots to defeat him and at the same time save his friend from persecution. For a brief moment, love triumphs over ethnic strife, but reality soon sets in. Outside the school walls, mobs are approaching Arjie’s beautiful home with torches blazing. What’s left of his innocence goes up in flames.
Throughout “Funny Boy,” Shyam Selvadurai writes as sensitively about the emotional intensity of adolescence as he does about the wonder of childhood. He also paints an affectionate picture of an imperfect family in a lost paradise, struggling to stay together in troubled times. Arjie’s parents and relatives may not be able to understand his inability to fit into a conventional sexual identity — but he learns that despite this, he can always count on their love.