Struggle for Identity Amid Political Chaos: Reviewing ‘Funny Boy’ by Shyam Selvadurai

Book Review Funny Boy Shyam Selvadurai

Shyam Selvadurai’s debut novel Funny Boy (1994) is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Arjie Chelvaratnam who struggles to find his identity and navigate his place in a society marked by ethnic tensions and traditional expectations. Often considered semi-autobiographical, the novel is set in Sri Lanka against the Tamil Diaspora and the Sri Lankan Civil War, highlighting conflicts between Tamils and Sinhalese throughout Arjie’s life experiences.

Along with political tensions, the novel also portrays the sexuality and identity crisis experienced by Arjie as he grows. The culture of a large Tamil family is showcased as the novel sketches characters like Arjie, his family members, friends, and his romantic interests. Additionally, the book has been adapted into a drama film of the same name in 2020, directed by Deepa Mehta.

The following features explain why Funny Boy could make for your next read…

Why is ‘Funny Boy’ not funny but serious?

Narrative Style

The novel Funny Boy consists of a first-person narration divided into six chapters that tell us about the different phases of Arjie’s life. The reader is provided an insight into his thoughts, feelings, and perceptions directly, creating an intimate connection with his character. The novel follows the coming-of-age tradition, tracing Arjie’s growth from childhood to adolescence. It captures his personal development, sexual awakening, and the complexities of his identity within a conservative society.

Selvadurai uses rich, descriptive language to paint vivid pictures of the Sri Lankan setting, from bustling cityscapes to serene rural areas. This detailed imagery helps immerse readers in the cultural and physical landscape of the story. The thematic approach is interwoven with diverse themes ranging from ethnic conflict and family dynamics to the struggle for personal identity. This interconnection adds depth and complexity to the story, wherein Arjie is not only learning through his own experiences but also from those of other characters. For instance, he observes Radha aunty quite closely and her actions make him introspect his inner feelings.

The novel features realistic and engaging dialogues that reveal the personalities and relationships of the characters. These interactions are crucial for understanding the social and familial context in which Arjie grows up. The narrative style is deeply emotional, capturing the highs and lows of his journey. Selvadurai’s portrayal of his inner turmoil and external challenges evokes feelings of empathy and reflection in readers.

Through the character of Arjie, the narrative becomes rich in commentary on broader social and cultural issues, such as the impact of the riots between Tamils and Sinhalese, societal expectations, and the marginalization of LGBTQ+ individuals.

Thematic Appreciation

Funny Boy is richly layered with complex themes that stay consistent for most of the novel.

  • Coming-of-age: The novel deals with the struggle of finding oneself amidst chaos. The journey of self-discovery and acceptance is masterfully delineated through Arjie’s journey of understanding and embracing his sexual identity while also dealing with societal and familial pressures. This highlights the universal quest for personal authenticity and the confusion one faces in finding oneself. At the same time, one also seeks answers from other people and their actions only to realize one’s identity as an ‘individual’ after all, least affected by what other people say or do.
  • Gender and sexuality: These two terms constantly engage in an interplay throughout the novel with distinctions being drawn between what a boy and what a girl is supposed to act like. This is symbolized through the ‘bride-bride’ game that Arjie and her cousins participate in, as is seen in the first chapter. Arjie’s fascination with womanly dressing is portrayed through the way he keenly observes his mother draping a saree. This and many other instances in the novel not only highlight the constraints imposed by rigid gender norms but also challenge them.
  • Identity: The novel portrays the concept of ‘identity’ in two branches- cultural and personal. Arjie, being from a Tamil family is expected to behave a certain way, to belong, and to act as a boy is believed to. Simultaneously, being a Tamillian, he also faces discrimination which adds another layer of complexity to his coming-of-age journey. Concurrently, the personal identity of Arjie keeps unleashing itself gradually through every chapter as he understands the world around and within him. One can draw a contrast between how he is not able to understand why he is forced to play cricket with the boys as a kid, to how he can acknowledge his love for the person he is romantically attracted to.
  • Concept of marriage and love: Marriage is a pivotal concept in the novel. We see how the intensity of this idea keeps shifting- from the ‘bride-bride’ game being played with innocence to the chaos in finding and/or marrying a partner of one’s choice eventually. Radha Aunty’s story shows how one can not blindly be guided by passion in love without thinking of cultural differences. Instances of betrayal, both personal and political, underscore the narrative, like in the case of Arjie’s mother. Arjie himself experiences various forms of love, spanning from profound emotional connections to ones that fear the social taboo or are fraught with secrecy.
  • Familial Ties: The novel explores how one’s family members leave a huge impression on one’s overall personality growing up. Arjie’s relationships with his parents are central to the narrative. His father’s disapproval of his feminine behavior and his mother’s protective instincts illustrate the struggles within traditional family structures. At the same time, Arjie’s interactions with his siblings, particularly his older brother, provide insight into familial roles and expectations, crucially contributing to shaping his sense of self.
  • Political Chaos: Funny Boy vividly captures how political chaos permeates daily life. The novel depicts the rise of violence and prejudice between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, impacting personal relationships and individual identities. This backdrop of civil unrest underscores the protagonist’s struggle for self-acceptance and his idea of love, life, and self-identity.

Importance in Sri Lankan Literature

Funny Boy holds a significant place in Sri Lankan literature for its candid exploration of themes as discussed above. Shyam Selvadurai’s nuanced portrayal of a young Tamil boy’s coming-of-age journey amidst the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war provides a unique perspective on the intersection of personal and political struggles. The Sinhala-Tamil tensions resulting in the 1983 riots have been vividly shown from almost a ground-level point of view. Selvadurai, himself belonging to Sri Lanka, paints the image in a very diligent manner for his first novel.

The novel received the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Apart from this, it has also been widely acclaimed for its poignant portrayal of identity and has contributed significantly to discussions on LGBTQ+ issues within the context of Sri Lankan society. Critics have commended the novel’s effective intertwining of personal narrative with broader political issues. The novel has also been lauded for providing valuable insights into Sri Lankan culture and the experiences of the Tamil community.

It should also be noted that some critics have noted that the episodic structure of the novel, while effective in illustrating different stages of Arjie’s life, can at times disrupt the narrative flow concerning the chaotic scenario on the political front. Hence, the novel seems to be driven solely according to what Arjie is experiencing through the stages of his life. A few critics have also mentioned that while the novel provides a personal perspective on the ethnic conflict, it might not fully capture the complexity and scale of the political situation in Sri Lanka. Thus, the Sri Lankan Civil serves as a mere background impacting Arjie’s perspective towards what is labeled as ‘us’ and ‘them’ at times in the book.

The Title And Contemporary Approach

The title Funny Boy comes from the first chapter wherein an uncle tells Arjie’s father “You have a funny one here” when they get to know about Arjie’s participation in the ‘bride-bride’ game. In its metaphorical sense, the term ‘funny’ is likely used to describe Arjie’s non-conformity to traditional gender roles and expectations. An oversimplified term for abnormal, ‘funny’ reflects the societal discomfort and prejudice towards homosexuality. Generally, it could refer to something amusing or harmless. However, quite ironically Arjie’s experiences are far from humorous.

Selvadurai also comments on the broader cultural and societal attitudes towards gender and sexuality in Sri Lanka through the title, inviting readers to reflect on the implications of labeling. If examined through a contemporary lens, Funny Boy offers several implications. It could help readers draw parallels between Arjie’s experiences and current discussions on LGBTQ+ rights, identity politics, and cultural acceptance. The concept of individual and sexual identities of all types could be substantiated.

The book could help encourage readers to critical engagement with the power dynamics and social hierarchies depicted in the novel. This includes analyzing how issues of privilege, marginalization, and resistance manifest in Arjie’s experiences and relationships. With a theme as new and as universal as this, one could recognize one’s approach toward the development of the issue and understand people’s stances on the same. This approach facilitates discussions on the role of literature in challenging societal conventions, promoting social change, and recording transitions in perspectives on homosexuality through different times.

  • What is the main theme of Funny Boy?

    While Shyam Selvadurai’s ‘Funny Boy’ deals with an array of different themes, ‘exploring one’s identity’ could be considered its main theme. This is brought to life with the way the protagonist, Arjie, discovers his personal and sexual identity through various life experiences that unfold in the six chapters of the novel.

  • Is Funny Boy a true story?

    Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai is often considered to be a semi-autobiographical novel. Set in Sri Lanka, where Selvadurai was born, the book not only deals with the protagonist’s self-discovery but also portrays how the political chaos of Sri Lanka shapes his perspective toward life and the world. These instances are real and have significant historical value in the history of Sri Lanka.

  • How many chapters are there in Funny Boy?

    The novel Funny Boy by the Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai consists of six chapters. Each chapter describes a different phase of the life of the protagonist, Arjie, growing from the age of 7 to 14.

  • Is Funny Boy worth reading?

    Funny Boy by the Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai is one of the best additions to Sri Lankan literature so far. It is well known for its different approach which is an amalgamation of personal as well as political struggles the protagonist, Arjie, goes through. The novel has also received the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award.

Jennis Jacob, a passionate literary enthusiast in her 20s, is a writer and poet. With eight years of experience in literature, she is currently a master in English and finds inspiration in Womanist, American, and Indian Partition Literatures. Her works have appeared in anthologies such as ‘Carved Words Of Creative Minds’ and ‘100 Splendid Voices,’ and she is working on upcoming books. Through LitWithASip, she aims to ignite a love for literature and empower individuals to embrace their true selves.

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