Shehan Karunatilaka is the newly minted winner of this year’s Booker Prize. He is the second Sri Lankan writer to win the prestigious award since Michael Ondaatje’s win in 1992. Karunatilaka is the author of two novels, Chinaman – which won two prizes in 2012, the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature – and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – the book that won him the Booker Prize – one short story collection, The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises, and four books for children. He is also a freelance copywriter.
In an online chat facilitated by the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023, Karunatilaka spoke to Scroll.in about using humour as a coping mechanism, reading pulp for inspiration, writing for children, and his eternal hope for Sri Lanka learning from its history. Excerpts from the conversation:
How did Chinaman come to be? At what juncture in your life did you write this novel?
That’s my first book and I wrote it around 2007-08 when I was working at an ad agency. I would write early in the mornings. I was single and living with my parents, so I quit my job and I thought I would devote six months to the book but I ended up spending two years on it! At that point, I just wanted to write a story about Sri Lanka that did not involve the war or ethnic conflict or violence, and I thought, Is it possible to write a story set in the 1990s that did not have those things?
So that was idea behind two guys who just want to watch cricket and drink arak, while the war is going on in the background. They are obsessed with Sri Lankan cricket. That was our golden age – we won the World Cup in 1996. But of course, it is also about many other things. For example, a forgotten genius. It’s mostly about a spin bowler and Sri Lanka seems to have a unending supply of them! We don’t have a petrol or gas, but we have spin bowlers. We can produce them. They get Covid. We can produce another mystery spin bowler. This was also true of the 1980s and I remember because I was a left-arm chinaman bowler. Sometimes these spinners would just disappear for weeks and I thought to myself, what if one of them was Shane Warne or Muralitharan?
That’s just a silly idea that I had when I stopped playing cricket. You know this is what guys think about. What would make the perfect spin bowler? It kind of escalated from there and I ended up writing about much more than that. It became about this old man drinking himself to death while also trying to track down the spinner. It just seemed to interest me and when I wrote it in my diaries, I thought someone should write this story. After all, it seemed like a fun story. I knew I would love to read it. And then I realised, in 2007, when I was in my early thirties, that no one else was going to write it. It was me who had to give it a go. And so yeah, that’s where it came from.
Cricket is obviously a big thing on the subcontinent. And Sri Lanka too. Did you always want to write about the game in your debut novel?
I’m not a big cricket fan, I mean, there are some really huge cricket nuts in Sri Lanka. I was a casual fan and during the war years, it was the only good thing, you know. We were playing test matches against the world and we would follow the game. I was young when we won the World Cup and it was a great moment. But I was quite surprised when I realised that there has been a lot of fine cricket writing about the game – biographies, the art of cricket, the philosophy of cricket – we’ve got all that but not that many novels, though.
I mean, Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, Ted Dexter wrote about the game but there weren’t many cricket novels. [Joseph O Neill’s] Netherland also came out around the same time and that’s what attracted me to the idea, that maybe, I can tell the story of Sri Lanka by talking about the cricket team, the ups and downs of the cricket team, and about this one character. This hadn’t been really done before and that’s why I thought I should do it. To me, cricket seemed like a under-represented subject in fiction, especially Sri Lankan fiction, and that’s why I chose to write about it.
As a young boy in Sri Lanka, how big was the influence of the sports on you? Do you think that in some ways it was inevitable that your first book also have something to do with cricket?
Not really. I played sports in school and I played a few cricket games when I was in college. Playing a sport takes a lot of time. You gotta give up your whole Saturday for practice! I play some badminton and squash for fitness, but that’s about it. So no, not really. If anything, I was a failed left-arm chinaman bowler and that’s all I had to do with playing cricket.
I think, more than sports, it’s music that I have pursued more seriously. I have as little talent for that as I have for writing, but you know, it’s something that I’ve built into my writing routine. And I see lots of parallels – it really helps with writing and its rhythms, and also you know, just as a break.
Cricket has been more of an influence sport and of course, if you are in Sri Lanka, you follow the game. I have written a story with Andrew Fidel Fernando, the great Sri Lankan cricket writer, a screenplay really, about the 1996 World Cup win. I mean, think about what a moment it was – the country was at the height of the war, and this team of amateurs beat the world’s greatest. We were caught up in that moment where were thought if the Sri Lankan cricket team can do this then the country can do anything. Despite whatever is going on right now, we had some success in this year’s Asia Cup tournament and that seemed to really lift the country too. It is really amazing how big the sport is in Sri Lanka’s psyche.
How did Chats With the Dead become The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida? Do you think that a change of name, for the lack of a better word, alters the ‘personality’ of a book in any way? What are the differences between the two and what was eliminated or modified during the reworking?
Well, it was more than a change of name, much more than that, because Chats With the Dead was just completed and by then Chinaman had already got a loyal following. You know, in the Indian subcontinent, at least it did then. So I think publishers were eager to take the second book and well, it got published. Since it was published just before the pandemic, the book really struggled to find publishers in the west. Publishers in the UK and US who had liked Chinaman were a bit puzzled by this book. They found it confusing and didn’t think it would engage a Western reader.
So when I finally found the publisher, Sort of Books, I developed an editorial relationship with them. They would give me feedback on my work and I gave them the book. They read it and they said, Yes, we think it’s terrific, but it needs significant work. The Sri Lankan conflict of 1989 was quite complex and we tried to make it clearer. Then there was the stuff about afterlife like rebirth, pretas, and demons, that are quite familiar to us in Asia but still we had to make it simpler. The idea was to make the quest simpler because there was a lot of confusion. That was the initial brief.
Then the pandemic happened. The book could not come out in 2020 and in 2021 we started taking a look at the pacing because there is a lot of moving parts in this book – the murder mystery, the political thriller, the afterlife vision, the ghost story, and even a love story at the heart of it. We had to be careful with the pacing so the reader wouldn’t get lost. That took more than two years!
There’s a gruesome scene right at the beginning of Chats With the Dead, where bodies are being fed to cats and that is a scene straight out of nightmares, and we just thought, you know it’s going to turn off readers, and there’s enough violence anyway so maybe we should take it out. Maali was a lot more promiscuous and originally there was a lot more gay sex – this version has less of that. So just stuff like that...but this meant it was ongoing work. When you’ve finished a book, and you have to rewrite it, you just want to get it done with. But I could see that with each rewrite, it got better. We took out what was not needed and suddenly the book had more room to breathe.
It’s the same book but there was some extensive rewriting – for example, making the character also a bit more nuanced and a bit less unlikable, and things like that. We spent a lot of time doing that so it seemed disingenuous to publish it under the same title since this was a significantly altered book. I think that good editing is the reason for its Booker win. I mean, Chats With the Dead did okay but the fact that we had success with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida so early, I think, is because of the two years of really skilful editing by Natania Jansz. I owe a lot to Sort of Books.
Tell us a bit about how came to write the novel. What was the spark that set you off to write about the afterlife, the dead, the missing, the ghosts?
It was a long process that lasted most part of the decade. When I was writing Chinaman, I was a copywriter who just wrote on the side. You don’t expect to be published, you hope, but you don’t expect to have a writing career. So then, after the first book got published around the world and won some prizes, then it was like, Yeah, what’s your next trick?
At that time I was working in Singapore. I got married and I wanted to start a family, so I didn’t really think about it. But I remember it was 2009 and the war in Sri Lanka had just ended. There was much triumphalism, but there was also a lot of unhealed wounds, many were missing, and there was also the question of what happened in the final phase of war. The current figure says that 40,000 civilians died in the war and rather than looking into the causes or any wrongdoing, it was all about laying blame. Each party was saying that the Tigers used them as human shields, the diaspora was saying that the Sri Lankan army targeted civilians, and it turned into a battle of documentary.
I was in Singapore watching this argument and I was like, We just had the Thirty Year War. Why don’t we deal with our past and correct it. And I thought, what if the dead could speak, you know, because the living were just arguing and what if the the victims of Sri Lanka’s wars could speak? What would they have to say? It was also appealing to me to write a ghost story, because I was a bit tired of talking and writing about cricket, and also the Sri Lankan team was going through a slump and I thought, Yeah, a ghost story. So that that was the initial spark.
We started a family and moved back to Sri Lanka. Life was happening and the second novel is always difficult. It started as a slasher-horror, of a bus during the tsunami time going around the coast – ten people on a bus and one by one they die. A classic slasher-horror trope. But it didn’t really work. I couldn’t make it work and I came back to it a year later, and the only thing that survived was one ghost on the bus, that of the dead war photographer called Maali Almeida. And I thought, let me write about this character. Just this one ghost rather than try and write a traditional ghost story. The voice just started speaking in the second person.
It took a while though since there was a lot of technical challenges, you know, How do I visualise the afterlife? What are the rules? What is this person’s quest? If it’s a murder mystery, then I need to research that era and if it is a classic murder mystery, then there’s got to be many suspects. There was a lot of work to be done but the voice flowed and that’s what culminated in Chats With the Dead. And again it was Maali, the war photographer interviewing the victims of the war. That’s how it started. Soon it evolved into a military and a political thriller, and perhaps more of a human drama than I had anticipated. But yeah, that’s the germ to the writing and then the rest was all editing, painstaking editing.
Coming to The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises, your latest collection of short fiction, could you tell me a bit about deviating from the traditional styles of writing and experimenting with forms? There is a story written in the online chat style, another as social media comments, and then there’s an interview. How long did it take to put together the collection?
It’s a bit strange to have these stories out now because this is the stuff that I did in between drafts. When you are procrastinating, you do a story and when the novel is not working out, you go and write something. So the earliest one, I think, is “Second Person” and it dates back to even before Chinaman. That’s the oldest story there. After Chinaman, I wrote some stories as a warm up exercise.
There’s the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize and the Sunday Times Audible that pays like £30,000, and a few others prizes for which I would write these stories. I never got shortlisted or longlisted…nothing! But every year I would write two stories – it was education. Over the years, I thought, Forget all that. I’m gonna write a story like it’s an SMS. I’m gonna write a story like it’s a Facebook post. That’s why there’s a few experimental or even boring science fiction stories in there. Then during the pandemic, I realised that there’s about thirty stories here and so I put them together. But yeah, this is just a selection of random writings and I guess there’s nothing really in common between them apart from the fact that these are bits and pieces of what I have written in the last ten years.
Now that you have published novels and an entire collection of short stories – which form challenges you more as a writer?
The short story is far more challenging, I think. Because with a novel, there’s a process – you do your research, you immerse yourself into that world for a while, you get in that zone and once you are in it, the writing starts. However, with a short story, I think, you have to have the same process, but for a much shorter piece. You still have to go through the entire process but in a much shorter time – for example, I dedicated six months of my time to the short story, “My Name is Not Malini.” I’m not quite sure I have mastered the form, not that I have mastered the novel by any stretch.
I was initially attracted to the very dull, twisty stories that might be gripping but where there may not be a lot of depth. Then there’s Raymond Carver’s stories where there’s a lot of unwritten stuff and I kind of became a student of that. I think I’m still learning the form and that’s why this collection is quite eclectic, because it’s got different experiments.
Though I do think it’s the novel that I’m most comfortable with. But I would like to try different mediums. For a novel, once you have done the initial work, then it’s just a matter of putting in the years to get the thing completed. The short story can be challenging but I suppose you’ve only wasted six months if it doesn’t work!
Tell us about writing for children. How did you come to the genre? Does your creative process change when you are writing for children?
I generally have a bunch of things on the go. So when you’re doing the difficult novel, you have a short story and maybe also kids books. I mean, those are easy. It takes your mind off things for a while. I think it helps to have multiple things because you always end up doing the least urgent thing and eventually complete all your tasks.
While I was struggling with Chats With the Dead, I had two kids in quick succession. So you have got toddlers and babies and you are reading stories to them, and you’re buying a lot of books for them. There’s this book called The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which anyone who has kids knows about. It has been selling a million copies every year since 1967! And you read it. It’s an okay book but it’s not like a Julia Donaldson or a Dr Seuss. The language is very plain and the illustrations are alright. So I showed the book to my brother [Lalith Karunatilaka] and said, Hey, we should do this. Forget writing three novels that take seven years. Let’s try and do a Very Hungry Caterpillar and sell a million copies every year! That was our ambition.
So the Baby-Baba books were inspired by my children. They would constantly put stuff in their mouth so I did a book on the dangers of putting things in your mouth. And then potty training, sleeping…very practical problems that you’ve observed. I just did them for fun.
My brother has a very droll style of illustrating and he illustrated these books. My kids were growing up and I started writing about things that they were interested in. These books take a month and they are a fun project and since we’re running the business ourselves, we can make a bit of profit from it. My next book will be on insects so now I am furiously researching them. If one them becomes The Very Hungry Caterpillar, then, oh well! But mind you, this was before the Booker Prize and I was not anticipating the win. But yes, I will keep writing for children.
Despite the seriousness of what you write, readers (and reviewers) agree that it’s the levity in your writing that make the books so delightful. How has humour helped you make sense of Sri Lanka’s tragedy?
The word I would like to use here is absurdity. Sri Lanka has had a lot of absurd problems throughout. I mean, just take a look at last year. Look at some of the headlines, some of the images that came out of the protests…people jumping into the President’s pool, sitting on his bed and watching cricket. It was an uncertain, tense time but people were cracking jokes. They could see the humour in it. In a way, that sums up the whole Sri Lankan experience – especially how we deal with our tragedies.
So even when people were suffering, and are still suffering, with the petrol queues and the rising costs, and had to take to the streets, yet on Twitter you could see how people were mocking the situation! And it’s not just Sri Lanka, we have seen the same in the UK too. Think about Liz Truss and the lettuce. That became part of the public discourse – how you get through when you have leadership challenges. You make jokes about it.
But probably some of the humour comes from my characters as well. In Chinaman, the narrator is a drunk uncle and his story is sad, but the drunk uncle archetype – and we all know the jolly drunk – we know what it is about. The cricket team, just like the country, has had its own share of absurd moments too.
Rather than just pointing out the grimness, I think it does better to point out how ridiculous or ludicrous the situation we find ourselves in is. And I think the same of Maali Almeida – he’s a closet gay man with a bit of a catty tongue, and I just seem to be drawn to such characters. Maybe that’s my sensibility that you know, you look for the joke in grim situations.
But its also definitely a part of being a Sri Lankan. We are portrayed as as a very smiley, happy bunch of islanders and I think that it is true. We are warm hearted people but we are also capable of great violence, as our history has shown. So there’s two sides to this humor and you have to ask – what is it masking? It’s almost like we feel like we have to laugh, because if we don’t, we get angry. I would rather we turn to laughter, which I think is great. Laughter is a good coping mechanism.
The civil unrest of Sri Lanka has been at the forefront of all the English-language writings to have emerged from the country. In your Booker Prize acceptance speech, you said you hope for your country to learn from its stories. I would like to ask how receptive your countrymen have been to your win and more importantly to your stories.
I don’t really know. I check Facebook and Twitter and there’s a lot of messages of congratulations. Generally I think the the speech has played well. They give you only a minute which is a bit silly because I wanted to mention the names of all the people who had helped me and I also wanted to speak in Sinhala and Tamil. The speech was well received but you know, I expect there will be some backlash as well. Wherever there is hype, there will also be a backlash and Sri Lanka is famous for these kind of debates.
Sri Lanka learning from its mistakes…well, that’s the main theme of this book. The question has always been this – Should we dig up our past or should we bury it? We don’t have the best track record of learning from the past. I can write a book about our history but it takes real political and public will to bring real change. The general feeling is why dredge up 1983, 1989…it’ll just stir up more conflicts and so on.
I believe that these conflicts haven’t been resolved. This time, there was a unified Sri Lankan voice – the race differences that come up at election time didn’t really play and I’ hope that is the way forward. But you know, we can easily descend back into how we used to be. I hope the speech was received well because this is my hope for Sri Lanka: that we learn from our mistakes and move forward; we have had enough turmoil.
I wrote about 1989 and people can still find parallels in 2022 and that is not on me, that is on the country. I thought I was writing history – when I was writing it was a period of hope and right after the war there was a lot of hope. We thought we’d ended the war and ow we can go forward. For a brief moment there were highways and public parks, the country had opened for tourism and so I thought, people may not believe that these terrible things happened but then it happened again in 2022 following the Easter attacks, the pandemic, and the economic crisis. Suddenly I realised I am commenting on current affairs which was not the intention.
So yeah, I do hope for the country’s sake that we learn from our mistakes, from our economic mistakes in the short term, and in the longer term, from the mistakes we made as a nation – especially, embracing racial division over the ideas of the true Sri Lankan. I think I spoke about this in Chinaman as well – how India has this notion of Indianness, even though there are divisions within whereas in Sri Lanka, we we tend to focus on race first.
The younger generation, you know, just seeing them on Twitter, I don’t think they have the hang ups that the previous generations or my generation have. They are a knowledgeable bunch and a few days ago I was looking at images from a pride parade in Sri Lanka – something I have never seen in my time there! That gives me hope about the young, who were born in 1989 and later, and that reading about this period prompts them to go back and learn. That would be a great thing.
That’s what I always say, I was only writing a murder mystery with ghosts and a cricket detective story – I wasn’t trying to make a big statement. But yeah, if we can learn we should.
How will the Booker Prize win change things for you as a writer? The £50,000 cash prize, for instance?
I didn’t even know I had a career as a writer, even after a relatively successful first book. It did well but it took a long time to write a second book and I was also working as a freelance copywriter…that was life. You know, you work and you do the novel on the side. Now I guess I have a career!
The book is now getting published in various languages. I suppose Chinaman will also come out again and I guess that’s the key difference – now I have to write a third book and a fourth book and hopefully it will be read. I am coming to terms with that.
But as for my lifestyle…I still have half a mind to continue my copywriting career. I enjoy it and it’s a good break. I’m eager to get away from the publicity trail and go back home, start typing again, and inhabiting another world. I don’t think my lifestyle will really change but the money will take the pressure off. I can invest it for my kids…something I struggled with, I suppose, with a young family and being a freelance writer during a pandemic. The money will ease me for the next couple of years at least.
Till now I was just another Sri Lankan writer but now the Booker win will mean that people around the world will read me. That’s no pressure [laughs] but maybe I will do some yoga, meditate, and stay away from the internet!
What is your reading habit like? Who are the writers who inspire you?
I usually read books related to what I’m writing. While writing Seven Moons, I read a lot of pulp and I enjoyed them. I’m calling them pulp because there was a lot of exorcism and stuff like that. I also read the classics of Stephen King. As a reader too you go through phases where you absorb and read a particular genre of books. The most horrific novel I read was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I read it a few times, heard the audio book, and I find it horrific because it’s all true and it’s written in an unsparing language.
In my acknowledgments, I have thanked Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, George Saunders, Margaret Atwood…the writers who write about grim subjects. I mean, think about how Adams is writing about the meaninglessness of life and man’s insignificance in the universe. These are funny books and that’s the kind of writings that I naturally gravitate to. But you know, you try and read widely. I try to read as many Sri Lankan and South Asian writers as I can. Recently I went through a phase of science fiction short stories written by Americans of Chinese descent, especially those of Ted Chiang and Ken Liu. This was also because I was trying to write short stories in that genre.
My publishers managed to get me the books on the Booker longlist. I’m reading Percival Everett’s The Trees, which I’m loving, and the other one is Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout, which I’m also liking very much. This is the gift that the Booker gives every year – they curate a bunch of books, they may be controversial and subjective, but it’s always such a wonderful selection of books, such different voices. I try to make good use of that. I read Kurt Vonnegut every year, so I think that would be my staple diet but I mostly read whatever is related to what I’m writing at the time.
Which was your favourite book in the Booker Prize shortlist and who did you think had the best chance of winning?
I didn’t play that game! I know there were people betting and I looked at the bets and I remember I was outside of winning chances. I think a few people put some bets on me early on and they told me they won a few thousand pounds. I once thought that I should bet on everyone else as a strategy, but I’m not a gambler like Maali!
I did follow the progress though. There’s now BookTube, BookTok, and all of that and I discovered a bunch of really devoted readers, you know, people who love reading and go deep into each book. I was following them and I realised there was such a diverse range.
I remember Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies, which was on the longlist, was told from the point of view of a cancer patient and I thought, wow this is a book I want to read. I thought it should have been on the shortlist but it wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking who could or who couldn’t win, because if you looked at it any which way, you could pursue a scenario where every book on the longlist had made it all the way.
I didn’t get into that trap. You have to just be grateful. We were standing in line for petrol and suddenly your book is on the Booker longlist. . .you accept the honour. Then came the shortlist and I was happy with that. I think that’s true for most writers here – we were all lottery winners. I did not play any favourites.
I was grateful to be there and when your name is called out, it is actually scary. Terrifying. It was a stressful week – you know, all this is not natural to writers. We don’t talk to anyone and suddenly we have lot of interviews, panel discussions, readings, and other events. All of this was quite stressful. But the Monday of the Booker was the least stressful. All you had to do was put on a suit, talk to people, have some food, and watch the show.