Funny Boy is a coming-of-age novel by Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. First published by McClelland and Stewart in September 1994, the novel won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award.
Shyam Selvadurair’s Funny Boy is narrated from an adolescent’s perspective, where the presumed innocence and naivety of the child offers an alternative view to the political, cultural, social and historical tensions in India and Sri Lanka and the effect that it has on the developing child in terms of identity. The child narrator in each text is an outsider as they do not merge with the cultural norms imposed upon by society. Arjie, the product of an upper-class Tamil family in Funny Boy, crosses borders in his awakening as a homosexual, falling in love with a Sinhalese, despite his parents attempt to create a masculine identity for him, in order that he may abide by the boundaries and social order that has been imposed upon him. The need to understand identity determines the characters individual relationship to the tensions surrounding them. Although children might not understand what is going on, they offer a new angle in which the readers may make sense of what they are being told and how it is important to the work as a whole.
The title of Funny Boy itself evokes the nature of the environment in which the main character and narrator Arjie negotiates his sexuality amidst family and political tensions. As a child and young adult, Arjie displays “certain tendencies” (162), as his father calls them, that defy accepted norms of the ways men and women are expected to behave. During spend-the-days at his grandparent’s house, Arjie relishes in donning a sari and jewelry to play the role of a female in “bride-bride,” his favorite game. The older Arjie describes this ritual as
a “transfiguration” (5) in which he “was able to leave the constraints of [him]self and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self” (5). The experience of dressing in women’s clothing somehow allows him to attain a level of freedom and appreciation of himself that remaining within the confines of a boy’s world does not. Although this ritual is nearly sacred to him, it earns him the adjective of “funny,” a word whose significance he does not fully understand, but that he can sense nonetheless has a shameful connotation.
Before Arjie is even aware of the repercussions of his “tendencies,” any un-stereotypical gender inclinations he may have are discouraged by his family. His parents (particularly his father), out of fear that he will turn out “funny,” forbid him from playing “bride-bride”. However, when playing with the boy children proves equally problematic because of his “girlie-boy” (25) status, thus separating him from the possibility of being either a girl or a boy. Gender stereotypes imposed by his family explicitly demarcate the separate worlds of
boy and girl, leaving Arjie “caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either” (39). Within these early episodes, Arjie’s sexuality is negotiated solely within the confines of gender, male and female. His exclusion from both the boys and girls suggests that Arjie himself inhabits some third space in between these two, but that third space is merely described as funny and never named. Just as the space Arjie occupies between male and female is not clearly defined, so too are the words employed to describe this space vague and shifting.
First, Selvadurai uses the word “funny” to signify Arjie’s practices that fall outside of heterosexual norms. Rather than using normative language that would signify Arjie’s sexuality as being either hetero or homo, his use of the word “funny” transcends these confining categories by keeping its meaning ambiguous. Arjie reflects, after being called a “funny one” by his male family members, “I thought of what my father had said about turning out ‘funny’. The word ‘funny’ as I understood it meant either humorous or strange, as in the expression, ‘that’s funny’. Neither of these fitted in the sense in which my father had used the word, for there had been a hint of disgust in his tone” (17). Here, one can see the ambiguous nuances surrounding the word “funny” as being the signifier for Arjie’s difference. Because of his naivety, Arjie does not understand the implications that his family makes when they use the term “funny” to describe him. Though he knows that it means something, the ambiguity of the word to him allows him to transcend a potentially dangerous categorization of homosexuality. Instead, Selvadurai uses this term so that Arjie is not placed in one category or another, nor is his identity conflated with normative ideas of acceptable and unacceptable sexuality.
The word “funny” does not only imply otherness and the comical, but also carries political connotations. Following Edward Said’s influential thesis in Orientalism, the colonized is feminized by the colonizer: “The Oriental was linked thusto elementsin Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor) having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien” (207).2 Colonial discourse categorizes the native, the Other, as “funny,” but in the novel it is not colonial discourse that describes the narrator as “funny,” but postcolonial (or, in the historical context of Funny Boy, neocolonial) discourse, which perpetuates the language of colonialism. The culture that Arjie reacts to is dominated by patriarchal power. The novel shows how queer sexuality critiques the national identity-building of modern Sri Lanka. Butsince nationalism is partly induced by the Sinhalese forces, as opposed to the Tamil minority seeking autonomy, that critique comes from a double marginalization: from a position which is “homosexual,” not heterosexual, and Tamil, not Sinhalese (Hawley 124). Colonial history under the British, the Sinhalese/Tamil split in postcolonial Sri Lanka, and the clash between two major religions (Buddhist/Hindu) threaten to shatter the nation by creating the civil war that appears in full force at the end of the novel. There have been attempts to read the text as a “gay novel,” or even as one about “coming out,” but homosexuality understood as subjectivity, I argue, only imposes another form of violence by giving closure to the text.3 Instead of forging a single identity for the nation and the individual, the concept of funniness subverts the idea of a unified personal and national identity.
The word “funny” appears nine times in the novel, including in the book title. The first instance occurs when the family discovers Arjie’s cross-dressing during “bride-bride,” a children’s imitation game of playing the wedding couple; Cyril Uncle cries out “jovially” to Appa, Arjie’s father, “looks like you have a funny one here” (Funny Boy 14). “Funny” here, as in all other instances in the book, is ambiguous in meaning. It is the description of the tone of Cyril’s comment as “jovial” that illuminates the meaning of “funny,” steering the signification of the word to the first definition given by the OED: “affording fun, mirth-producing, comical,
facetious.” Arjie nonetheless does not know what his uncle means. Through the off-stage “Rankotwera boy,” the Chelvaratnams communicates with each other. Everything in the word “funny” depends on its euphemistic force, which is powerful and determining because of its lack of definition. The differences between Cyril’s usage of the word (“a funny one”) and Appa’s (“turns out funny”) are suggestive. Cyril’s exclamation implies that Arjie is already “funny,” whereas Appa sees a potentiality in Arjie’s behavior—“if he turns out funny.” The first is accompanied by Cyril’s laughter, so Arjie’s funniness is already being laughed at, but Appa’s statement is a warning against Arjie becoming a “laughingstock,” which is not “funny” at all. The two instances of “funny” are different in their usage.
The fourth use of “funny” in the novel appears in chapter 2, “Radha Aunty,” when Radha, a Tamil woman engaged to a man of the same ethnicity, is allegedly having an affair with Anil, who is Sinhalese. Radha’s mother, Ammachi, confronts her over this disrespectful act:
“You think this is funny?” Ammachi said after a few moments. I could
tell she was really trying to control herself.
“No,” she replied brightly. “I think it’s very serious.”
“Let’s see how serious it is when Amma [mother] puts an end to your
acting in The King and I,” Kanthi Aunty said. (74)
“Funny” is contrasted by Radha with her “serious” love toward Anil, who does not fit into Arjie’s childish idea of a lover because he was “not serious enough” (66). But even so, Anil is not regarded as “funny.” Radha’s response to her mother’s question plays upon the binary opposition of serious/funny. Radha deliberately exploits the double meaning of the word “funny” in Ammachi’s rhetorical question, managing to announce her anti-traditional attitude towards the cross-ethnic relationship. Radha’s ability to exploit language’s ambiguity allows her to temporarily resist that dominating power. When Arjie’s other aunty asks Radha if she is in love with “this boy” Anil, Radha replies, “No . . . I don’t know,” and “The funny thing is I never thought of him like that [as a lover] until Amma started to make a fuss. It was only after she went to speak to his parents that I began to see him differently” (76; ellipsis in original). This fifth “funny” connotes a sense of irony in cause and effect. Radha’s first reaction is negation, and the indicator for being in love is that apart from her fiancé, she is “thinking of Anil as well” (76).
The seventh instance appears in “The Best School of All” (ch. 5), when Arjie asks his brother Diggy why he must be sent to the ex-British colonial school, Queen Victoria Academy. Diggy says that Appa “doesn’t want you turning out funny or anything like that” (205). Arjie feels “a flush rise into [his] face,” and he refuses to meet Diggy’s accusing gaze when the latter asks, “You’re not, are you?” (205). Arjie’s flush is a sign of shame and desire. It suggests shame, as though he is being looked at by an imagined internalized authority, creating desire, signaled in a flush, or in Norman Brown’s words, as “a mild erection of the entire head” (194). For
Michel Foucault, normative desire and disgust are produced discursively. The function of confession is to produce a split subject: the more a subject confesses, the more developed and more vulnerable his subjectivity becomes (62). The word exists in discourse with the power to define and marginalize, as Foucault suggests that language always does, but its power is its imprecision, that it is not clear whether someone is funny or not.
The eighth use of the word “funny” appears when Black Tie cuts Shehan Soyza’s hair as a punishment in Queen Victoria Academy. Arjie says:
“It’s not fair. He can’t get away with this.”
Soyza studied me with mock pity. “You poor thing,” he said, “you
really are fresh meat, aren’t you.”
“Stop joking,” I cried at him. “It’s not funny.”
“Why not? I think it’s extremely funny.” (219)
“Funny” here functions like the reply which Radha makes, as the opposite of “serious”: Arjie does not like being called “fresh meat,” which has sexual implications, nor that Shehan has had his hair cut. It is not clear what Arjie protests against more, Shehan’s hair or being called fresh meat. The joke may be on him as vulnerable (fresh meat) or on Shehan, who thinks “it” funny. “Funny” may be read beyond Shehan’s sense, meaning that Arjie’s response shows his “funniness”—his affection toward Shehan, which makes “funny” positive. Sharanya Jayawickrama maintains, “The word ‘funny’ that is initially used derogatively to refer to
Arjie’s identity is reclaimed by the end of the novel when he himself initiates laughter that proves redemptive of his position” (133). Lastly, the word “funny” appears in the title Funny Boy: A Novel in Six Stories. “Pig Can’t Fly,” the first chapter, was first published as a short story in The Toronto South Asian Review, and was also collected in the “gay stories” anthology Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest. The title Funny Boy simultaneously unifies by giving a sense of identity (however ambiguous and plural the word is) to the protagonist, and fragments the chapters of which the novel is composed, because the subtitle suggests that the six stories may be read as separable and independent works.
“Funniness” betrays Arjie when the ambiguous nature of the word is denied and its signification fixed, expelling not only him, but also those who are “funny”: anyone who is not regarded as “proper” within the dominant ideology is banished simply by labelling them “funny.” Such violent expulsion accumulates not as a direct force, but within repeated forward and backward steps. In this “Novel in Six Stories,” each chapter begins with what Freud calls “the return of the repressed” (“Repression” 154), and ends with a compromise,
or a further repression. This structure can be illustrated through the fourth “story,” “Small Choices,” which gives an example of repression in the father, both sexual and political.
The title of the novel is based upon its protagonist i.e. Arjie. The word ‘Funny’ not only refers to Arjie being humorous, but has a wider meaning behind it. Here, funny is referred to being socially unacceptable or ‘funny’. Funny is used in the sense of describing his sexuality as a joke. Arjie’s choices put him out as a queer boy, different from the rest. Being a homosexual in the Asian society was not taken well by the people in the 80’s. Therefore, when the family members notice him in a sari, they make fun of him, calling him a ‘funny boy’. This scene takes place in the first chapter ‘Pigs can’t Fly’. Later, in several other chapters also, Arjie is
regarded as a Funny Boy by his father, and sent to a boarding school to develop manly qualities.
Arjie’s parents want him to behave like a normal boy just like his siblings. However, his urges make him do things that are considered as inappropriate in the society. He enjoys a sexual encounter with another queer boy Shehan whom he meets in Victoria Academy. After this incident, Arjie fully recognizes his true self and his urges to get involved with the same gender. Even though at first he thinks if he had committed any sin, later he realizes that it is what he wants, and it is what makes him truly happy. Shyam Selvadurai, who also belonged to this community has painted the character of Arjie mixing up the struggles that he might have faced himself. Therefore, the title of the novel has ironically been chosen in reference to the story.