Shyam Selvadurai comes home to York

On Nov. 24, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented writer Shyam Selvadurai. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

[My] creativity comes not from “Sri Lankan” or “Canadian” but precisely from the space between, that marvelous open space represented by the hyphen, in which the two parts of my identity jostle and rub up against each other like tectonic plates, pushing upwards the eruption that is my work.

from Introducing Myself in the Diaspora
by Shyam Selvadurai

On Nov. 24, York welcomed Shyam Selvadurai (BFA’ 89) as the latest writer to present a reading in the Canadian Writers in Person series. Prior to the reading, the award-winning author mingled with students and faculty at a reception hosted by Atkinson’s Office of the Master.

Left: Shyam Selvadurai

At 19 years of age, Selvadurai immigrated to Canada with his family from war-torn Sri Lanka. Like many immigrants, he was confronted with the question of his personal identity, something that had never troubled him before. He found the term “immigrant” disconcerting because of its emphasis on the arrival of an individual to a new country. “One is a perpetual newcomer, a perpetual outsider,” said Selvadurai.

As he struggled to find an essential “Sri Lankanness” in light of his Canadian experience, he discovered many contradictions. “The emphasis must shift to a sense of cultural identity that is eclectic and diverse, a sense of cultural identity that is transforming itself, making itself new over and over again,” said Selvadurai. “It is a continuous work in progress. This sense of cultural identity stresses not just who one was in the past, but who one might be in the process of becoming.”

Selvadurai considers it useful having a double identity because he can look at both cultures from a slight distance. He is also able to pick and choose what aspects of each country he finds valuable. Though most of his work is set in Sri Lanka, it is informed by his Canadian experience. “Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka and the very real threat of physical violence and intimidation might have stopped me from exploring this theme had I lived there” and not being of a particularly brave disposition, he said and thus he writes “Canadian novels set in Sri Lanka.”

After reading from his latest novel, Selvadurai admitted that he wrote Swimming in the Monsoon Sea (2005) mostly for himself. He was concerned that his ability to write about his childhood was diminishing; the mists were closing around his memory. He wanted to find a repository for these memories, to write for his younger self but also for other young adults, who might be struggling with the same issues he did.

So, where does Selvadurai feel he belongs now? He answers simply that he goes where he feels happy saying, “I’m not really into suffering.” He feels that he has become rooted to the physical place he occupies in Toronto and at York. As he walks York’s hallways, now as a creative writing professor, he is aware of his younger self walking these same halls as an undergrad theatre student. The real Shyam Selvadurai is somewhere in-between these past and present selves: “You give yourself belonging and nobody can take it away from you.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Jan. 12, 2006, Gil Courtemanche will read from his 2004 award-winning novel, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. The Canadian Writers in Person reading series is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Writers’ Union of Canada.