41 of 53 Commonwealth countries criminalize homosexuality. This statistic led Commonwealth Writers, an initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, to organize an event to open discussion on this issue: panellists included Shyam Selvadurai, Thomas Clave and Skye Chirape. The nice thing about living in London is that you can actually go to events that interest you rather than looking out the window at the blowing snow and deciding not to. So I hopped the bus and went to Marlborough House, which is beside St James’s Palace.
From his first novel, Funny Boy, to his most recent, The Hungry Ghosts, Shyam Selvadurai has written about being gay in a country that has a law against sodomy. Selvadurai divides his time between the country of his birth, Sri Lanka, and his home in Canada. Asked by moderator Razia Iqbal (BBC journalist) how he felt when living in Sri Lanka, he pointed out that “the law sits side by side with culture.” On one side, “I feel like I live in Sri Lanka with a sword hanging over my neck,” mentioning that he has seen friends whose lives were “shattered” by an arrest under the sodomy law. On the other side, he said that people liked his work there, that he went into schools to talk about Funny Boy. “I don’t feel silenced at all in Sri Lanka.”
Praised for his courage in writing about sexual identity, and asked how it felt to be a spokesperson on this issue, he replied, “I don’t know. I’m not a brave person. … It had to be done and I was the person. Here’s the thing – I’m a very privileged person. I’ve believed all my life that with privilege comes responsibility.” Adding later, “One has to provide a truer view of how it is.”
April 9th’s event was called, “Choices and Compromises — heard and silenced at home or less heard and labelled away?” Sitting on the panel with Shyam Selvadurai were Thomas Glave (U.S. and Jamaica), and visual artist and activist Skye Chirape, who left Zimbabwe for the U.K. The panellists sat behind a long table on a raised platform, unable to comfortably look at each other and obliged to look down at the audience, who sat in tight rows on chairs in a high-ceilinged room decorated with gold leaf and ornamental plaster mouldings. Not conducive to a relaxing chat on a difficult issue. The panellists looked so ill at ease that I wondered if they had failed to meet beforehand for their own chat and libations. To set us at our ease, the authors began with readings from their work, as this event also functioned as a book launch. (Skye Chirape’s work was on display in the foyer.)
Thomas Glave read first, from his collection of essays, Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh. He read in the voice of a Jamaican who could not accept same-sex relations, who would see “lesbian bitches” raped and “faggots” eviscerated. After that searing start to the proceedings, Shyam Selvadurai joked that he should have gone first as that was hard to follow. His reading, from The Hungry Ghosts, was about the moment in the narrator’s life when he realized he was gay. Asked whether his work was autobiographical, he replied that it was autobiographical in terms of time, place and feeling — but not of the characters. He is not Shivan, and Shivan’s grandmother is not his.
Razia Iqbal asked questions that ought to have stimulated debate: are you labelled and therefore marginalized in your chosen country, and how much do you channel your creativity into activism?
Selvadurai, who earlier mentioned that his identity is as much Sri Lankan as it is gay, and his family name Tamil, denied Canadian marginalization with words of praise: “Canada seems to embrace my multiple identities. Embraced! Provided a boost.”
Too bad there was no one to boost the audience engagement. Iqbal took one question from the floor, then maintained her control of the “conversation” by naming those she wanted to hear speak. Raised hands were ignored for lack of time. Once the conversation was opened, perhaps it was meant to continue over drinks in the reception room.
I want to close with the words of a speaker who summed up the situation optimistically. Jonathan Cooper of Human Dignity Trust asked how the U.K. went from imprisoning men for gay sex 50 years ago to equality now. Suggesting that the law was changed because the culture changed, he concluded, “The real engine for change is culture.”