"Look back, deal with our past and learn"

Shehan Karunatilaka with his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Photo: BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION

Shehan Karunatilaka, 47, is a Sri Lankan writer who won the Booker Prize this year for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Growing up in Colombo, Karunatilaka studied in New Zealand and has lived and worked in London, Amsterdam and Singapore.

Seven Moon was published 12 years after Karunatilaka’s first novel Chinaman: The Legacy of Pradeep Matthew and marks the first Booker win by a Sri Lankan author since Michael Ondaatje who got the prize in 1992 for The English Patient. He is also the first South Asian to win since Aravind Adiga in 2008 for The White Tiger.

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Set during the Sri Lankan civil war and narrated by a dead man, Seven Moons is a gripping story of lives caught in conflict. Part-murder mystery, part-political satire it is also a love story narrated in second person and set in an afterlife visa control office, as spirits and the living engage in their own violent tugs-of-war.

Karunatilaka spoke with Nepali Times ahead of the 2022 Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara from 21–25 December. Excerpts:

Nepali Times: How did winning the Booker feel? 

Shehan Karunatilaka: It was quite stressful and quite surreal. When the longlist was announced we were preoccupied with the economic meltdown in Sri Lanka, I was in the petrol queue and protests. So, that was a bit strange. You look at the longlisted books and they are all exceptional. They were not importing books at the time, so, I could not read them, but I did follow up on the book talks. My attitude then was you accept what you get, and the longlist is good enough. But I appreciated the fact that the book was now going to get a wider readership.

Coming to the final day, it is a 6-1 chance, and when my name was called out, it was pure adrenaline. I just made sure I had my speech ready and did the thing. It has been relentless since, but leading up to the Booker, I was just grateful for whatever bits of fortune I was getting. But no, I did not dare expect that I would win.

An earlier, unrevised version of the novel was originally published in India as Chats with the Dead in 2020. To what extent did you rework the novel before it became The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?

It seems that I am destined to write my books a couple of times. Even Chinaman (2010) has an original 500-page version which I self-published, and it sold pretty well in Sri Lanka. But that got replaced when Random House India took it on and now that’s the version you find everywhere. Similarly, India was quite enthusiastic about Chats with the Dead and I was also kind of exhausted after five years of writing it. I did have an inkling that it needed some editing, but I suppose there was a demand in the Subcontinent since Chinaman had done well and India was also familiar with Sri Lanka’s conflict and mythologies. But, despite couple reviews and readers, Chats struggled to find a publisher outside the Subcontinent which puzzled many.

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That’s when I shared the manuscript with Mark Ellingham and Natania Jansz of Sort of Books with whom I had already an editorial relationship. They have a real eye and ear for what works and what the UK readers respond to, and said that it had something, but it needed work to connect with the Western audience who do not know about Sri Lanka and its mythologies.

We then began the process, initially to clarify things such that the JVP, the LTTE, the Indian Peace Keeping Force, who the key players were and their agenda, and also the mythos behind the seven moons, which we take for granted here.

We had hoped to come out with the book in 2021 but it was not possible because of Covid-19, and we had nine more months. The editor and I began more surgery, tinkering with it for two years. We took out a bit more gruesome bits, added in a few characters. It is roughly the same book, but Seven Moons is paced better.

But as demoralising as it is to rewrite the book you thought was done and published, I appreciate the fact that it got better, and now Seven Moons is the definitive version.

Can this be seen as a simplification for western readers, if authors from, say South Asia, must write particular books for the West?

Simplifying may not be the right word as it implies ‘dumbing down’. Is Seven Moons a simpler book than Chat? It is certainly clearer. When I wrote my first book, I did not expect it to published, or be read in New York, Paris or London. I put those dreams out of my head, thinking more of readers like myself. I was interested in obscure cricketeers of the 80s, I did not know there would be a global readership for that.

Same with Seven Moons. I was thinking of South Asian audience, readers like me, writing as authentically as I could. Writing for particular audience, say a Londoner, would have made it a very different book. There may be an element of pandering as well, but I suppose this is also a question of marketing. Writing in English, you want to write for the widest possible reader sphere. Still, I was trying to make it as universal as I could.

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But we also should not take for granted that South Asia is of interest to the rest of the world. There is a richness of writing here, we know the quality of literature here, but even the big names, you would be surprised, probably do not sell as much in the US or the UK. It is not ideal to write the same book twice, but I think it is a time well spent to work on your writing to get to the wider audience.

Often the way death is woven in our stories is that it is a release into salvation, but your afterlife is rather bleak, bureaucratic. Even in death the spirits do not leave the land of the living, influencing actions, whispering, protecting.

When I realised that I was going to write a ghost story, I knew the basic framework was that of a murder mystery: a ghost has seven days to solve his own murder. But thinking about it more, it made more sense that after death, you would wake up more confused, in a waiting room with a piece of paper that you should stamp somewhere but the guy there has gone for lunch. This is something we have all been through in South Asian offices and, for me, this idea was absurd enough to keep me interested.

Every culture has an original sin origin story and for Sri Lankans it is the curse of Kuveni. I grew up with this idea that has persisted for two thousand years. But when you look at the country, the resources, wandering around the landscape, it looks pretty blessed to me. We peddle both these ideas in this beautiful paradise isle.

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So, when I was writing, it seemed to me that Sri Lanka is neither cursed nor blessed but simply disorganised. And the spirit world reflects that. There are these spirits, the victims of our previous conflicts that have not had resolutions are walking about, whispering thoughts into peoples’ ears.

To me that is a possible explanation for our history of catastrophes. In the book I talk about 1989 but it is not like everything has been fine after. We have had Easter Attacks, the economic meltdown. I was not going for any effect in my writing as such, I was thinking more about how all of this made sense, what the reasons were: is it just human incompetence or is there something metaphysical and spiritual about them? That is the idea I was playing with: Sri Lanka must be full of restless ghosts who have not had justice in their lives.

Why the unusual second person narrator?

I was playing with the idea of the voice in our head, which I believe speaks in second person. At least that is so in my experience. But who does it actually belong to? Do we mistake it for our own thoughts? But then sometimes we wonder “What was I thinking, why did I do that?” And it seemed plausible that these voices perhaps come from the spirits whispering into our ears.

It is spooky but it is also useful. Even Maali looks back on his life and questions why he did things, why he gambled, cheat on his loved ones, go to dangerous places. He is not quite able to answer that, but this idea that there is a spirit sitting on your shoulders, whispering thoughts into ears stayed with me.

I did not intend to write a horror book; it was more a comedy and a lot of other things. But also, when you write in a close room like I did, you kind of wonder these things, spirits walking about, telling you things.

Shehan Karunatilaka reads from The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida at the Shaw Theatre, London. Photo: DAVID PARRY/BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION

This is also a historical novel. Why is it important for Sri Lankans and Nepalis to remember the brutal parts of our conflicts? 

In Sri Lankan literature, there is escapism but there is also brutal realism, like A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam shortlisted for Booker in 2021. The true story of what happened to Sri Lanka is much more gruesome than anything in literature, and I think we have a tendency as a nation to forget. I doubt if we are even being taught about the last 40 years in schools. This idea that bad things happened but we should now move on is convenient for people who can, but the trauma is there for those who lost loved ones and still have no answers. But, apart from few documentaries and activists, it does not get mainstream.

You cannot just pretend these things happen because you would have thought after the 30 years of war there would no more racial divisions in Sri Lanka. It is not that we have not learnt anything, some media talk about it, but within five years there was tensions between the Sinhalese and the Muslims.

I think it is essential that we look back, deal with our past and learn. In Sri Lanka’s case we see it, we go from catastrophe to catastrophe, we still vote in the same old men who got us in this position.

Why did you choose this setting and time for the novel?

As I grew older, I met people who grew up in Jafna, in refugee camps. My wife’s family were in the plantations and saw some harrowing things during the war. In some ways, Seven Moons was also a reaction to my first book which was a light-hearted romp about cricket and drinking. So, in early 2000s, I decided to write a ghost story where victims of Sri Lanka’s wars speak. It was also motivated by the fact that I did not suffer in those times.

The obvious setting would have 2009, the final phase of war, which is still part of heated debates over how many civilians were killed and whose fault it was. That would have also been quite dangerous. So, I took the idea to the 80s when I was a teenager and started reading about it, talking to people.

I spent a lot of time researching the unsolved murders and the different players and that informed a lot of characters and the set-up. Even though it is a fantastical work, most of the things happened, many characters were real.

Maali is a gay war photographer, and this serves a narrative purpose, reflecting the world of secrecy, surviving in a time of constant threat. How did he evolve as a character?

The LGBTQ+ community in the 80s were pretty much invisible, like in most parts of the world. Maali’s evolution is the result of many drafts, but the starting point was Richard de Zoysa who was a gay man and an actor, an activist brutally murdered in 1990. This hit the middle-class Colombo and we still talk about it. But the idea to make him a war photographer, as opposed to, say an actor, in the story meant that there would be a motive and that he would also deal with many factions.

I was looking at Maali’s motivation, and the fact that he could be more himself when he went to war-torn areas and engage with also his desires. With each page I wanted to question his actions and speech. Maali is certainly not a terribly likeable character but the build is that he does something selfless for his loved ones in the end, and the readers get where he is coming from and his issues.

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I started writing the book in 2014 and I suppose if I were to write the book now, I would be thinking more seriously whether it is possible for me to write a book from the perspective of a gay man. But I spoke to my friends who are gay and lived in those times, understand the pressures, the world. In the end, the book is also about a love triangle, and I think sometimes people in love behave badly to their partners regardless of their sexual orientation.

I would certainly consider this more carefully now. But there is also the fact that if novelists must stay in their own lane, I can only write about Sinhalese Buddhist middle-aged men. It is often interesting and liberating to write about people who are often different than us. But, of course, if I do it badly, I should be taken to task.

What are some of your literary influences? 

The writer I pay homage to all the time is Kurt Vonnegut. Carl Muller was, for me, one of the first Sri Lankan writers who wrote how we spoke. There are also Douglas Adams, George Saunders and Margaret Atwood.

When Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo came out and won the Booker in 2017, I had just abandoned a draft of Seven Moons. Saunders's novel also features the world between the living and the dead, talking ghosts, and it was a bit traumatising at first, since I was working on a similar book. But when I got the book, which is a masterpiece, and read it, I found that it was very different than my own.

From the Booker list, the obvious one is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger are also inspiring. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is another such novel. I remember reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas which had a huge effect on me. Same with Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

What are you reading now?

I am half-way through Dickens’s Great Expectations and am reading Ashok Ferrey. Recently, I finished Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I also read a lot of thrillers and mysteries. I am working on a book set in the corporate world right now – no ghosts or cricket this time. So, I am reading books on that. I do not feel guilty about books, but the problem is there are so many good books to read but such little time.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

by Shehan Karunatilaka

Penguin, 2022 (Originally published by Sort of Books, UK)

400 pages

Paperback: Rs640

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