Funny Boy: A Novel

Funny Boy: A Novel

4.9 7
by Shyam Selvadurai

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An evocative coming-of-age novel about growing up gay in Sri Lanka during the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict—one of the country’s most turbulent and deadly periods.

Arjie is “funny.”

The second son of a privileged family in Sri Lanka, he prefers staging make-believe wedding pageants with his female cousins to battling balls with the other boys


An evocative coming-of-age novel about growing up gay in Sri Lanka during the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict—one of the country’s most turbulent and deadly periods.

Arjie is “funny.”

The second son of a privileged family in Sri Lanka, he prefers staging make-believe wedding pageants with his female cousins to battling balls with the other boys. When his parents discover his innocent pastime, Arjie is forced to abandon his idyllic childhood games and adopt the rigid rules of an adult world. Bewildered by his incipient sexual awakening, mortified by the bloody Tamil-Sinhalese conflicts that threaten to tear apart his homeland, Arjie painfully grows toward manhood and an understanding of his own “different” identity.

Refreshing, raw, and poignant, Funny Boy is an exquisitely written, compassionate tale of a boy’s coming-of-age that quietly confounds expectations of love, family, and country as it delivers the powerful message of staying true to one’s self no matter the obstacles.

Editorial Reviews

“Through the details of family life, the intimacies and exchanges, Selvadurai, much like E. M. Forster, reveals truths subtly, with poignancy and grace.”
New York Times Book Review
“Selvadurai writes as sensitively about the emotional intensity of adolescence as he does about the wonder of childhood.”
Library Journal
This Lambda Literary Award-winning 1994 coming-of-age story tracks a boy from a wealthy Tamil family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from ages seven to 14, culminating in the 1983 Sinhala-Tamil riots.
A. Scott Cardwell

Shyam Selvadurai, a native Sri Lankan, weaves a spider web of a narrative in Funny Boy, a delicate yet potent first novel that concerns itself with love, politics, gender, race, sexuality and terrorism. While Selvadurai's gestures are grand, his execution is disarmingly modest. His narrator is Arjie Chelvaratnam, a Tamil boy from Columbo. Arjie's fresh, exuberant voice carries us along from idyllic Sundays when his ripe imagination wins him the honor of playing the main character in his female cousins' game called bride-bride -- "by the transfiguration I saw taking place in Janaki's cracked full-length mirror ... I was able to ascend to another, more brilliant, more beautiful self" -- to the hellish Sinhalese-Tamil riots of 1983, when he and his family sleep in their shoes so they can flee the fire and hate when it knocks at their door.

Although we follow young Arjie through almost a decade of his life and witness his awakening homosexuality, this book is, happily, much more than a coming-of age (and coming out) novel. Selvadurai's rich prose style, gently spiced with humor, captures the political as well as the personal in Arjie's world. Whether crowning an upstart cousin "Her Fatness" or jeering the regime -- "they have witnesses for everything these days" -- self-indulgence never tiptoes in. All this is contained in a series of six chapters, each a complete episode in Arjie's life. But clearly, the only reason any of this works is Selvadurai's shrewd storytelling -- he creates stories fat with all the good stuff: characters, plot and action. Funny Boy is a very promising debut. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set in Sri Lanka, this poignant coming-of-age novel charts a boy's loss of innocence as he grapples with family conflict, political realities and his homosexuality. At seven, narrator Arjun Chelvaratnam hates sports and enjoys wearing his aunt's jewelry and playing the role of bride in imaginary weddings; yet his playmates' taunts of "girlie-boy'' and "faggot'' don't seem all that different from the monickers that attach to other children (e.g., "fatty-boom-boom'' and "Diggy-Nose''). But when Arjun enters his teens, his worried father, a wealthy hotelier, sends him to a strict private academy, hoping it will force his son "to become a man.'' Instead, Arjun, rebelling against a sadistic principal, strikes up an intense friendship with a fellow renegade pupil, Shehan, who is rumored to be gay. After their first sexual encounter. Arjun's immediate feelings are anger and guilt, but he gradually comes to accept his sexuality and his love for Shehan. The story is shot through with the tensions and bloody violence between Sri Lanka's Buddhist Sinhalese majority and its Hindu Tamil minority. In loving Shehan, a Sinhalese, Arjun, who is Tamil, breaks two taboos. Retribution follows, and in 1983 Arjun and his family migrate to Canada as penniless refugees. With deft humor and a keen eye, Selvadurai, who was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Toronto, captures his protagonist's difficult passage into his own identity-of which his homosexuality is just one component. And it is with deep, wistful feeling that he ties that story to larger themes of family and country.
Kirkus Reviews
A marvelous first novel, about growing up gay in Sri Lanka, that displays a precociously assured command of structure, pace, and tone.

Selvadurai's protagonist and narrator is Arjun ("Arjie") Chelvaratnam, the second son of a prosperous Tamil family who cast a common disapproving eye on Arjie's avoidance of other boys and their games, and on his disturbing preference for playing "bride- bride" with the neighborhood girls and trying on his favorite aunt's clothing and makeup. Arjie's emotional passage—through both a fractious boyhood and a culture marked by ethnic conflict and recurring violence—is charted in a series of elaborately developed extended episodes that Selvadurai handles with an almost casual mastery. Such episodes include Arjie's hilarious confrontation with a stentorian playmate and rival (whom he mockingly titles "Her Fatness"); his fascinated observation of a young aunt's foredoomed flirtation with a young man their family can't accept; his incipient crush on a handsome young family employee; and eventually his experiences at a Dickensian boarding school (which, Arjie's father had proclaimed, "will force you to become a man"), where he discovers both sex and the courage to defy the abuses practiced by those who wield arbitrary power ("How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not, just or unjust?"). Selvadurai can make family squabbles resonate with almost epic force and weight, and his beautifully manipulated plot powerfully expresses the manifold connections among familial, political, and sexual identity and destiny. Arjie himself is only the most appealing of a dozen or more generously observed and vividly rendered characters. And, almost as an incidental bonus, the novel delicately, knowingly records the subtlest permutations of mistrust and contention among Sri Lanka's Sinhalese (Buddhist) and Tamil (Hindu) populace.

First-rate fiction, from a brilliant new writer whose next book cannot arrive here quickly enough. The Toronto-based Selvadurai has already won the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award for 1994.

From the Publisher
“Shyam Selvadurai has brought back from his Sri Lankan childhood a glittering and wise novel. Funny Boy keeps repeating with quiet conviction that the human condition can, in spite of everything, be joyful. You are not alone, it says to the reader I understand you. I was there. I remember.”
–Alberto Manguel

“He spins a subtle web that holds readers captive.…”
Saskatoon StarPhoenix

“A powerful and beautifully written novel.…”
Literary Review (U.K.)

“Lyrical, moving, and deeply perceptive. This isn’t the first coming-of-age story ever written, but I doubt there’s been one quite like it.”
Halifax Chronicle-Herald

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

What People are saying about this

Amitav Ghosh
An extraordinarily powerful, deeply moving novel.
Andrew Holleran
Completely fascinating, this touching novel of a childhood in Sir Lanka juxtaposes innocence and knowledge, love and hatred, in an unforgettable evocation of what family Samioi means.
Alberto Manguel
A glittering and wise novel. Funny Boy keeps repeating with quiet conviction that the human condition can, in spite of everything, be joyful. You are not alone, it says to the reader.

Meet the Author

Shyam Selvadurai was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Funny Boy, his first novel, won the W.H. Smith/ Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Lambda Literary Award in the United States. He is the author of Cinnamon Gardens and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, and the editor of an anthology, Story-wallah! A Celebration of South Asian Fiction. His books have been published in the United States, United Kingdom, and India, and in translation.

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Funny Boy 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Arjie is a 'funny boy' who prefers dressing as a girl. This novel follows the life of his family through Arjie's eyes as he struggles to come to terms both with his own homosexuality and with the racism of the society in which he lives. In the north of Sri Lanka there's a war going on between the army and the Tamil Tigers, and gradually it begins to encroach on the family's comfortable life. Sporadic acts of violence flare into full-scale riots and lead, ultimately, to tragedy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Funny Boy is a very moving novel about Shyam Selvadurai growing up in Sri Lanka. Selvaduri was born into a Tamil family, but was exposed to both the Sinhalese and the Tamil culture. It was difficult for his family to practice both lifestyles because there was a great controversy going on between the two societies. The entire novel is divided between important chapters of Selvaduri¿s life. It begins with stories when Arjie(his childhood name), his siblings, and cousins would visit their grandparents for ¿spend-the-days.¿ Later, it progressed to stories of his aunt¿s visits, his mother¿s affair, and his school days. Throughout the novel, Arjie is accused of being ¿Funny¿(gay) by his family because of his famine characteristics. Because he is still growing up, he is not sure of his sexual identity, but when he enters a new school he learns a lot about himself. At this school he meets a particular individual who changed his life and helps Arjie discover who he truly is. This book is touching and a great read. I would recommend it to all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A gay fiction book that you can't put down, and is for everyone to read! A very touching and powerful story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great book--beautiful, touching, powerful. Great by any measure--better than most self-consciously 'gay fiction,' this is profound human drama against a powerful historical backdrop.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I always wonder if the people who write these reviews are friends of the author. Trust me--this is a fantastic read, and I don't know anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A beautiful story of a personal journey and a wonderful trip into the people and politics of Sri Lanka. One of the best gay fiction books I have ever read - will touch, move and inform you. Comparable to 'The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon.'