Queer Elements in the Novel Funny Boy

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Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

‘Queer,’ the umbrella term represents the identity of homosexuals. Gay and lesbians are proud enough to say that they belong to queer sexuality. Moreover, it does not fit them into either biological needs or into gender roles. Queer theory differs from gender theory and gay and lesbian studies, but brings out concerns dealing with definitions of man, woman and sexuality. It questions the fixed paradigms on sexual identity developed on normal ideology of sex. Writers like Mahesh Dattani, Alice Walker, Shobha De etc., are some of the eminent authors who write about queerness in their works.

In all three Selvadurai novels, the queer protagonists’ relation to their respective families is ridden with anxieties; while they cannot completely abandon their families, they find it difficult to belong. Selvadurai’s complex narrative of queer desire unfolds against the backdrop of precivil war Colombo, where the Sinhalese government has sutured the notion of a ‘true’ national identity (‘Sri Lankan’) to an ethnic/linguistic identity (‘Sinhalese’) in order to legislatively institute ethno-religious chauvinism at the level of post-colonial civil society.

Shyam Selvadurai’s novel, Funny Boy, explores the implications of imposed performances of identity within national contexts of conflict and displacement. By highlighting doomed love relationships and lifestyles occurring outside of acceptable community borders in Sri Lanka, Selvadurai speaks to the individual traumas that get caught up within national narratives of conflict between communities; specifically the way characters must abandon desires due to pressures to fit into rigid constructs of ethnic and gendered identity. By highlighting these everyday traumas, Selvadurai challenges the acceptance of such bordered identities. He, further, creates fissures in lines between ethnic and gendered spaces and languages to allow queer characters to perform their identities in ways that transcends the borders placed on them. Shyam Selvadurai’s debut novel compellingly speaks of negotiation of the cultural values invested in girls’ play and boys’ games, of strong- headed mothers and emancipated daughters, of the nationalist struggles between Tamils and Sinhalese, and of gay versus heterosexual relationships. It is a story of Arjie, a young boy’s passage to adolescence and
maturity with the upheavals of growing political unrest.

Butler’s theory of the “performativity” of the body, particularly as it applies to gender and ideals of heterosexuality, frames my discussion of the performances of characters in Funny Boy within the political and social landscape of Sri Lanka in the late 20th century. Selvadurai both presents and challenges the requirement, in the text, for characters to “perform” Tamil, Sinhalese, masculine, feminine, and heterosexual identities. Instead, Selvadurai presents a space in which compulsory and limiting performances, based on gendered and ethnic expectations in a highly politicized context of Sri Lankan conflict, can be altered to become “safe” queer performances.

The novel introduces us to Arjie, a sexually transgressive, Tamil adolescent caught in the heteronormative world of family in the troubled landscape of urban Colombo. The narrative chronicles tensions that erupt in the mid-1980s between the Tamil minority in the north and the Sinhalese-dominated south, and that set the backdrop against which Arjie similarly experiences social conflicts pre-figured by spatial relations. The first chapter sets the tone of the plot, directing readers’ attentions to space and its functions in shaping marginal identities. ‘Pigs Can’t Fly’ situates Arjie in a shuttling of spaces within the domestic home that climaxes, by the end of the novel, into the jarring moment of emigration from Sri Lanka to Canada following Black July. Space and the multiple ways it becomes nationalized, gendered, and queered are thus integral to the nonheteronormative development of Arjie. Without the availability of queer social outlets more readily available in the West, the heteronormative dictates of Tamil family life and the violence of Sinhalese nationalism force Arjie to negotiate his burgeoning queer agency in the domestic space of the home and the institutionalized space of the private school. Indeed, the novel begins in the family home, which foreshadows the impending communal violence as it also operates as a key site of disciplinary gender roles that consolidate heteronormative, Tamil kinship. As Sharanya Jayawickrama has argued, the ‘violence of everyday living under the powerful discourses that regulate both gender and ethnic norms initiates the careful negotiation of identity and a new strategy of language’ for Arjie.12 As I demonstrate, Arjie’s deployment of ‘a new strategy of language’ occurs at his school and in the ‘Riot Journal: An Epilogue’ chapter that closes the novel and marks the family’s safe passage from Sri Lanka to Canada. Throughout the traumatic tale, from the family home to the disciplinary school, Arjie appropriates hypernormative spaces, transforming them into ‘heterotopias’ of queer (be) longing that blossom between the hegemonic glare of nationalist heteronormativity and a dearth of available queer spaces.

The harmful implications of normative performances of ethnic and gendered identity are most evident in the failure of love relationships occurring outside the boundaries of normative community borders. Selvadurai exposes the ultimate futility of these relationships as they fall outside these accepted performances of identity. He subsequently challenges the operations that render such relationships futile by considering the everyday traumas that result in the forced abandonment of desire. Arjie quickly realizes that practices falling outside of normative gender boundaries are subject to punishment. As a child, Arjie finds himself aligned spatially and bodily with the feminine. He reflects, “Territorially, the area around my grandparents’ house was divided into two […] The second territory was called ‘the girls’, included in which, however, was myself, a boy.” (Selvadurai 3). Within this space, Arjie performs a gendered identity that falls outside of the expected boundaries of “male” and “heterosexual”. His participation as the title subject in the game “bride-bride” involves his marriage to a hypothetical groom and cross dressing in order to embody a female. These “queer” activities, however, make Arjie the object of shame once his queerness becomes visible to his adult family. He details the experience of being discovered by his family, saying: “They gazed at me in amazement as if I had suddenly made myself visible, like a spirit […] I lowered my eyes. The sari suddenly felt suffocating around my body, and the hairpins, which held the veil in place, pricked at my scalp” (13). Here, the clothing Arjie uses to transcend the boundaries of gender is, quite literally, confining as the material embodiment of shame: his cross-dressing is the target of ridicule by his family. Following this incident, Arjie is “banned” from spaces designated to be female: particularly his mother’s room, wherein his ritual of watching her dress and apply makeup is denied (16). This shaming results in Arjie’s personal trauma: he experiences confusion and humiliation because his actions fall outside “acceptable” identity boundaries.

Adding to this trauma at the hands of gendered boundaries is Arjie and Shehan’s ultimate separation due to ethnic difference. At their final encounter, prior to Arjie’s diaspora to Canada to escape Tamil persecution at the hands of Sinhalese, Arjie says “”I dreaded our parting so much that, for fear of pain, I had withdrawn from him” (310). Here, Arjie’s personal trauma is a result of the ethnic boundaries of identity that separate he and Shehan. Thus, Arjie’s performances outside of what is considered acceptable heterosexual, masculine and
Tamil behaviour results in his personal traumas of being separated from his love relationship, excluded from particular spaces, and shamed at his queer desires. In her book Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, Gayatri Gopinath considers the relationships of “queer desire” in the text as they fall outside of “dominant ethnic and state nationalisms, and their particular investments in gender and sexual normativity” (175). Radha Aunty’s relationship with Anil, a Sinhalese man, is characterized by love and desire but is ultimately consumed by the pressure to perform ethnic identity and gender for nationalist projects. Indeed, Radha Aunty does not initially perform the Sri Lankan embodiment of femininity: having lived in the United States, she has dark “labourer” skin, is thin “like a boy”, and wears the Western clothing of a “haltertop and strange trousers that [Arjie…] had never seen before” (46). She does not evoke traditional, desiring images of Sinhala film stars, as Arjie imagines, or play into the traditional performances of her sari-wearing female family members. Here, this pressure to perform bordered ethnic and gendered identity results in Radha Aunty’s forcible abandonment of her desire to marry Anil. She experiences both physical and mental trauma as a result of the requirement for her to fit within ethnic and gendered boundaries, by giving up her true “queer” desires for normative performances.

One can consider the personal trauma of the everyday that existed in forgoing love to perform particular ethnic and gendered duties: Nalini fulfills the prescribed role of “Tamil” and “mother” in her day to day, but her desires align her with a different solidarity with another. It is only in Nalini, Arjie and Daryl Uncle’s apparent abandonment of the “real world” that their “queer” desires can be realized. Nalini is quite literally, to use Ahmed’s words, “moved by” her desire, and abandons her home, wherein she is expected to fulfill a role of
Tamil mother, and enters a surreal Eden-like hill country in which she can free herself from the boundaries of the “real world” (114). Here, she can Daryl Uncle can engage in their illicit love relationship, free from the boundaries of bordered ethnic identities. The everyday traumas experienced by characters within the context of national conflict shows that the normative spaces and identity constructions within Sri Lanka serve to deconstruct queer relationships. However, Selvadurai queers these normative constructs in order to provide
possibilities for solidarity across or between identity and community borders.

A method employed by Selvadurai to queer bordered communities is his complicating of language. This is central to his creation of a space that does not fit within normative constructs of community and identity, as language is central to exclusive notions of belonging in the text. Selvadurai further complicates his use of language to signify queer bodies and practices by removing their “signifiers” from his writing altogether. When trying to explain Arjie’s “queerness” to Jegan, his father says, “You know … he used to play with dolls, always reading” (166). Here, Selvadurai uses an ellipses in place of a signifier that would place Arjie in a “queer” category. Rather than linguistically identifying him in any particular category, his father simply goes silent in the midst of his speech, preserving the ambiguous “meaning” of Arjie’s sexual and gendered identity by abandoning the use of a signifier altogether. This is furthered by Selvadurai’s use of an ellipses when Jegan, in conversation with Arjie, reminisces on his relationship with a “good friend” during his association with the Tamil Tigers.

There is an ambiguous possibility here that the ellipses, again, signifies a queer relationship between Jegan and his friend. Through his use of the ellipses, Selvadurai effectively divorces “queerness” from linguistic discourses that place bodies and practices into particular gendered and sexualized identities. Through divorcing from language itself to signify queerness, and in his use of the ambiguous term “funny” to signify Arjie’s queerness, Selvadurai “queers” gendered language in his text. In his formation of a space in which
communities can be “queered”, and solidarity conceptualized as moving across borders, Selvadurai also “queers” language that is used to signify ethnic identity. In a project to legitimize the Tamil presence at Victoria Academy, Arjie is petitioned by his principal, “Black Tie”, to recite poems to a chief guest of the school. However, Arjie aligns himself with Shehan, across ethnic identity, instead of with Black Tie who shares his Tamil ethnicity. Selvadurai ultimately writes a new language to signify queerness, one that is characterized by desire and does not operate within normative languages of binaries and confining signifiers. Arjie, as he begins to realize his desires and define “funny” for himself, acclimatizes himself to a new language- one that has meanings outside of what he has been exposed to.

In his attempt to provide a space for the queer subject, Selvadurai also queers the space of the national “homeland”. Within the text, the space of Sri Lanka is largely tied up with ethnic identity. Indeed, Selvadurai gestures toward the idea that such a “queer space” across communities is possible in the text. Arjie, after publicly confirming his solidarity with Shehan across borders of gender and ethnicity, realizes “I was no longer a part of my family in the same way. I now inhabited a world they didn’t understand and into which they couldn’t follow me.” (285) and following his displacement from his home, declares “”I find it impossible to imagine that the world will ever be normal again.” (308). Both quotes show Arjie’s realization that there are possibilities to rethink his world: he does not need to fit within ethnic, gendered or national boundaries of identity or community as his family does.

Selvadurai proposes, solidarity can be conceptualized as extending across or between community borders of ethnicity, gender and even nationality. He creates a space in which this could be possible by “queering” language and space in the text; breaking both from normative linguistic signifiers of gender and ethnicity and from notions of home as upholding similar normative values. This “queering” creates liminal spaces of ambiguity in which queer subjects can align themselves with bodies across boundaries of ethnicity, gender, and nationality; occupying a different “community” characterized by liberated ideas of solidarity.

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