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Breaking the Narrative Ties that Bind in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy
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In the culminating chapter of Shyam Selvadurai’s novel, Funny Boy , are all the necessary ingredients for a possible rescue fantasy: a principal asks a student to read two British poems about the golden days of yesteryear at a school recital. One poem, “The Best School of All,” is meant to help the audience reminisce about their own school days and to rouse sufficient sentiment to back a rescue of the school from government restructuring. The function of the child, as such, is to perform nostalgia. At first glance, Selvadurai’s protagonist, Arjie, seems equipped for this task. An expressive boy, prone to melodrama, Arjie acts out fantasies with his siblings, performs in a community production of The King and I , and basks in any hint of admiration granted him. Indeed, he is singled out as a candidate for the performance due to his effusive reading of the poem in class. Yet the poem bears a troubling logic for Arjie. It is by dint of an oppressive disciplinary code that the principal (nicknamed Black Tie) keeps his vision of “The Best School” intact, and those who fall short of this vision are grouped together and punished as the “future ills and burdens of Sri Lanka” (224). A queer youth whose school experiences are vastly different from those expressed in the poem, Arjie struggles mightily to relate to the poem’s speaker.

It is this tenuous relationship between Arji’s singularity and the exemplary literary youth he is meant to emulate that I take up in this paper. Not only is Arjie’s character overshadowed by the British speaker of the poem he is meant to read, but Funny Boy is haunted by, and written in response to, the very structure of the coming-of-age genre. In an attempt to negotiate an alliance between individual desires and the collective public body, the coming-of-age novel fuses these two realms—singular youth and the cultural moment—so fully that youth becomes valued for its referential function: its ability to index the storm, stress, and putative resolution of social progress. Selvadurai, who includes both Western and postcolonial coming-of-age novels in his account of texts that have inspired him,1 notes an undeniable interconnection between the personal and the political in Funny Boy (Marks 7). However, Arjie’s coming of age is set against the backdrop of a particularly unstable moment in Sri Lankan History.2 His growing awareness of how his homosexuality marginalizes him mirrors his growing awareness of the precarious future of Tamil Sri Lankans within the Sinhalese population. Arjie tries to make sense of the feuds in his upper-middle-class Tamil family, which erupt over issues of Tamil disloyalty, terrorism, violence, death, and ultimately, before he flees to Canada, the burning of his house in the 1983 Tamil riots. In narrating the difficulties of finding a space of belonging or aligning his ambitions with those of his socio-political environs, Arjie indexes a vulnerability to, and subverts, the allegorical platform of the genre.

Critics have noted the various sites of Arjie’s identity that claim difference. Daniel Coleman pays attention to how Arjie’s identity development impinges on many axes of difference, including “gay and straight, Tamil and Sinhalese, upward and downward mobility [and] colonial subject and postcolonial agent” (10). Sharanya Jayawickrama adds that the concerns Selvadurai shows in the novel for the relationships between sex, gender, and class are analogous to the techniques of queer theory but share theoretical energy with the project of minority discourse, which, according to Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd “dra[ws] out solidarities in the form of similarities between modes of repression and struggle that all minorities experience separately but experience precisely as minorities” (quoted in Jayawickrama 125). Indeed, most scholarly approaches to Funny Boy touch on one or more of these sites of difference and place sexuality within multiple discourses. While I engage with these sites of difference, my focus is grounded in children’s studies. In analyzing the strained child-adult relations in Funny Boy , I delineate the ways in which childhood has traditionally been constructed as both an instrument for change and a space for personal...



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