Adilah Ismail meets award-winning author of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka has won the Booker Prize 2022, one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes, for his second novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.
Shehan received the award from Britain’s Queen Consort Camilla at an awards ceremony in London on Monday. Pop singer Dua Lipa was the featured guest.
“My hope for Seven Moons is this: that in the not too distant future – ten years, or however long it takes – it will be read in a Sri Lanka that has understood that these ideas of corruption and racial baiting and cronyism have not worked and will never work. And that it is read in a Sri Lanka […] who learns from his stories and that Seven Moons will be in the fantasy section of the bookstore, next to dragons and unicorns, and will not be mistaken for realism or political satire,” he said in his speech. of acceptance, concluding the speech in Sinhalese and Tamil. In his speech, he also drew attention to journalists, activists, civilians and politicians murdered by the Sri Lankan state or those who oppose it.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is published in the UK by independent publisher Sort Of Books. An earlier version of the novel was originally published in India in 2020 with the title Chats with the Dead. In an email interview with this newspaper in July, Shehan explained that it was the same story, “with pretty much the same characters, but with some revised subplots. The new version may be tighter, softer, more textured and nuanced and hopefully more accessible to a wider audience.Written in the second person and set in 1989 Colombo, the novel tells the story of Maali Almeida, a photographer from war and gamer who wakes up to find he is dead, not knowing who killed him, he has seven days to solve the mystery of his murder and uncover a cache of explosive photographs.
“What the judges particularly admired and appreciated in The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was the ambition of its scale, and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. This is a metaphysical thriller, a noir from the afterlife that dissolves the boundaries not only of different genres, but of life and death, of body and mind, of east and west,” commented Neil MacGregor, 2022 Jury President.
Born in 1975 in Galle, Sri Lanka, Shehan grew up in Colombo, studied in New Zealand and lived and worked in London, Amsterdam and Singapore. He currently lives in Sri Lanka and worked as a copywriter. He has published two novels and three children’s books. His debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Gratiaen Prize. A collection of short stories, The Birth Lottery and other Surprises, was released this year by Hachette India and will be published in 2023 by Little, Brown UK.
Shehan is the second Sri Lankan-born writer to receive the Booker Prize. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was co-winner of the Booker Prize in 1992 and the Golden Booker in 2018, while A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021 last year, as was Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef In 1994.
The £50,000 prize is awarded annually to the best work of fiction published in the UK in English. Past winners include writers such as Arundhati Roy, VS Naipaul, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel and Ben Okri.
The Sunday Times caught up with Shehan via email to discuss his win.
Q: Congratulations on your victory, Shehan. 50,000 pounds. What’s the most wildly irrational purchase you’re going to make with it?
I spend money on the same things I spent pocket money on when I was a teenager. Books, music, movies, gadgets. But I bought a drum kit just before leaving for the Booker, my helmet works well and I already have too many guitars. I think I made my irrational purchases of the year. I will probably buy a ton of books and a few records, but the rest I hope to invest sensibly for my children.
Q: In your speech at the Booker Prize ceremony, you highlighted the deaths of journalists, activists and civilians, as well as corruption, race baiting and cronyism in Sri Lanka. After your victory, the President’s Media Division, politicians and MPs took to Twitter to congratulate you – many of whom were or are currently part of the systems of violence you refer to. What was your reaction when you saw these messages? Do you think they read the book?
I haven’t been able to keep up with the volumes of texts and tweets being sent to me. Most of our politicians aren’t considered big readers, although I hope I’m wrong about that. I’ve never really been involved with social media and see no reason to start now. I’m always happy to accept congratulations from anyone. But I will let the comment sections answer on my behalf.
Q: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida takes place during an extremely violent and turbulent time in the country’s recent history where the horrors that are perpetuated are still part of the lived experiences of many people. Maali’s character is based on a closeted gay man living in the 80s – this also brings layers of complexity around sexuality in Sri Lanka. There are many conversations about writers ethically and empathetically approaching this material and these experiences and wondering who can tell whose stories and how.
How did you approach these questions when writing and collecting material for the book?
I think you are asking if a Sinhalese Cishet Buddhist living in Colombo can write about the wars in Jaffna or about homosexuals or about the suffering of other ethnicities. I think if the writer does thorough research, writes honestly, and does so with respect and empathy, then yes, I think you can.
Q: In your talk, you talked about the personal support systems and creative communities that helped shape the book. How important have they been for you in your writing practice?
Vital. You’re stuck in a room for years, reading to yourself and having conversations with ghosts. You are never sure if it works or if someone else will read it. It is therefore essential to have nice people around you to encourage you, keep you sane and tell you kindly when the writing is not good.
Q: What has been the best part of the Booker experience over the past few months?
Read the long list and meet the short list. Such wonderful writers and such intelligent books. I haven’t finished any yet, but the ones I’ve started are spectacular, especially The Trees by Percival Everett and Oh William by Elizabeth Stroud!
But just meeting readers and talking to them has been life changing. I spent so much time alone with this story, it’s good to see it in the world.
Q: In recent years, with the exception of a few, many Sri Lankans writing in English who have achieved literary success and international recognition are largely based outside the country. The creative and publishing industries in Sri Lanka are small and are also affected by the current crisis. What advice do you have for writers based in Sri Lanka, writing in English?
Why only in English? Sri Lanka is filled with so many stories, conflicts and absurdities that we should tell our stories in whichever of our three languages we choose. I would like to see more books in translation, so we can all read each other’s stories.
For Sri Lankan writers, I would say find the story that touches you and no one else can tell. And then make time and space in your life to read and write every day. If you spend an hour writing every day, in 12 months you will have something. It might not be good, but it will be something you can build on. Be patient. Be kind to yourself and ruthless with work. But please keep writing, there are so many Sri Lankan stories to tell.
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