Funny Boy


Shyam Selvadurai

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Funny Boy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Shyam Selvadurai

Like his protagonist Arjie, Shyam Selvadurai also grew up gay in Sri Lanka during the 1970s before fleeing at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1983. However, the character of Arjie is in no further sense based on Selvadurai's family or life—indeed, whereas Arjie is Tamil, Selvadurai had a Sinhalese mother and a Tamil father. After moving to Canada, Selvadurai studied theater at York University and wrote a handful of television plays before finding breakout success in 1994 with Funny Boy, which remains his best-known work. Funny Boy won both the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and it is also slotted for a film adaptation by the decorated Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta. His three other novels have covered similar themes: Cinnamon Garden (1999), set in the 1920s, follows both a young feminist pressured to marry by her family and her uncle's reunion with his male lover from decades before; Swimming in the Monsoon Sea (2005) recounts a boy falling in love with his cousin from Canada; and The Hungry Ghosts (2013) portrays the emotional conflicts of a gay Sri Lankan-Canadian man as he sets out to return to Sri Lanka to take care of his elderly grandmother, who rejected his sexuality when he first came out. Selvadurai has explained that one of his writing's fundamental goals is to help queer youth accept their sexuality. Selvadurai has also edited two anthologies: Story-Wallah (2004), a selection of short fiction from the South Asian diaspora, and Many Roads Through Paradise (2014), a similar volume focused on Sri Lanka. His novels have been translated into various languages, and he has also written short stories and nonfiction for publications ranging from The New York Times to Toronto Life Magazine. Selvadurai has also occasionally taught writing and, notably, let a project called Write to Reconcile that helped cultivate Sri Lankan writers interested in narrating the Civil War.
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Historical Context of Funny Boy

Funny Boy is set in the 1970s and early 1980s, during the lead-up to the Sri Lankan Civil War that was still raging at the time of the book's publication. This war, an ethnic conflict between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, is impossible to understand without grasping the historical antecedents that turned ethnicity into the basis for political identity. Ruled by a series of Sinhalese kingdoms until the sixteenth century, Sri Lanka was colonized in three waves by three separate powers. First, the Portuguese set up trading outposts and founded the city of Colombo in the sixteenth century. To defeat the encroaching Portuguese, the king of Sri Lanka agreed to a treaty with the Dutch, who completely ignored their promise to respect the kingdom's sovereignty and instead conquered nearly the whole island in the seventeenth century. (The shrinking but socially prominent group called "burghers" are mostly the descendants of these Dutch colonists.) The British occupied Sri Lanka at the end of the eighteenth century and defeated the remaining local power, the Kingdom of Kandy, before largely turning the island into tea estates and importing Tamil laborers from India to work in slavery-like conditions on them. While a small percentage of Sri Lankan Tamils are the descendants of these indentured laborers, this is a distinct group from the Sri Lankan Tamil population that lives mostly on the island's north tip and east coast, and to which Selvadurai's protagonist Arjie Chelvaratnam belongs. Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948 and tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese soon began to escalate, as the characters in Funny Boy both experience and remember. After independence, the Sri Lankan Parliament defined Indian Tamils as foreigners and deported roughly half to India; later, the Sinhalese-run government passed the infamous "Sinhala Only Act," which defined Sinhala as the nation's only official language and accordingly reinforced Sinhalese control by kicking a substantial number of Tamils out of the government, even in Tamil-majority areas, due to their lack of fluency in Sinhalese. In response to this policy, small acts of violence and larger acts of retaliation turned into full-scale ethnic riots in 1956 and, more seriously, in 1958. The 1960s were relatively peaceful, but a militant separatist group called the Tamil Tigers grew and began demanding their own state soon thereafter, and violence spontaneously broke out various times throughout the 1970s, the period during which Funny Boy is mostly set, culminating in large riots in 1977 and setting the stage for the beginning of the Civil War in 1983. As the Tamil Tigers grew and the Sri Lankan government became more rigidly pro-Sinhalese, assassinations by the Tigers and targeted attacks by the government (even on civilians) became increasingly common. In 1981, government-backed forces burned down the library in the Tamil-majority northern city of Jaffna, and in 1983, the Sri Lankan government supported riots that killed and displaced thousands of its Tamil citizens. The Tigers and the government both retaliated by massacring civilians, and all-out war began soon thereafter. The government nearly won this war by the end of the 1980s, but then India interfered militarily on behalf of the Tamil Tigers. However, Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi then pushed through a peace accord that gave Tamils less autonomy than the Tamil Tigers demanded; in retaliation, the Tigers assassinated Gandhi, losing much of their international credibility. The following years saw much of the war's deadliest conflict, culminating in 1992 battles near Jaffna, frequent suicide bombings by the Tigers, and government-led massacres of civilians in the late 1990s. A peace movement broke out in response to this extreme violence, and Norway managed to broker a peace accord between the sides in 2000, but the Tamil Tigers dropped this accord in 2003 and the government officially did the same in 2007, although all-out war had resumed the previous year. A strong military push by the government drove the Tamil Tigers out of their territory in northern and eastern Sri Lanka by 2009 and killed the organization's leader, ending the war and returning the mostly Sinhalese government to power (although Tamil is now an official language in Sri Lanka). Ethnic tensions remain high after the Civil War, with the Sri Lankan government on trial for war crimes and ethnic riots still common a decade after the war's end.

Other Books Related to Funny Boy

Beyond Shyam Selvadurai's three other novels (Cinnamon Garden, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, and The Hungry Ghosts), other prominent works of South Asian LGBT literature include the volume of gay fiction Yaraana (1999), edited by Hoshang Merchant; Hijra trans woman writer and activist A. Revathi's memoir, The Truth About Me (2011); Vivek Shraya's She of the Mountains (2014), which integrates Hindu mythology and the life of a queer Indo-Canadian; many of the works of Hanif Kureishi, such as the novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and the screenplay for the film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985); and Divya Sood's lesbian romance novel Nights Like This (2016). Selvadurai has named Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let Him Know (2015) as a personal favorite. Some celebrated works of Sri Lankan fiction dealing with the Civil War include burgher novelist Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost (2000), whose title character is a Sri Lankan forensic pathologist who returns home to try and identify victims of the Civil War; Nihal de Silva's The Road from Elephant Pass (2003), which interweaves meditations on birdwatching with the tale of an Army commander and Tamil Tiger fighter forced to survive together in the jungle; and Anuk Arudpragasam's The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016), which follows two children's arranged marriage during the closing days of the war. The Sri Lankan Civil War has attracted even more nonfiction, from third-party accounts like Samanth Subramanian's wide-ranging history This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War (2014), journalist Frances Harrison's history of government abuses against Tamils Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War (2012) to first-person memoirs like that of a child soldier, Tamil Tigress (2011), and former army Major General Kamal Gunaratne's Road to Nandikadal (2016).
Key Facts about Funny Boy
  • Full Title: Funny Boy: A Novel in Six Stories
  • When Written: 1990s
  • Where Written: Toronto, Canada
  • When Published: 1994
  • Literary Period: Contemporary fiction
  • Genre: Coming-of-age fiction, South Asian diaspora fiction, Queer/LGBT fiction
  • Setting: Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • Climax: Arjie and his family flee their home in Colombo and then Sri Lanka as anti-Tamil riots break out in 1983.
  • Antagonist: Homophobia, Sinhalese rioters, the Sri Lankan government
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for Funny Boy

Write to Reconcile Anthologies. The “Write to Reconcile” program for young, aspiring Sri Lankan writers that Selvadurai helps lead has put out a series of anthologies of its participants’ work, all of which include introductions by Selvadurai and are available online for free at

Radio and Screen Versions. The upcoming film adaptation of Funny Boy is not the novel’s first; Selvadurai wrote a screenplay version in 1995 and produced a live radio play based on the book in 2006, also in conjunction with the acclaimed director Deepa Mehta (who will be directing the new movie version).