Shehan Karunatilaka, 47, is a Sri Lankan writer who won the Booker Prize this year for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Growing up in Colombo, Karunatilaka studied in New Zealand and has lived and worked in London, Amsterdam and Singapore.
Seven Moon was published 12 years after Karunatilaka’s first novel Chinaman: The Legacy of Pradeep Matthew and marks the first Booker win by a Sri Lankan author since Michael Ondaatje who got the prize in 1992 for The English Patient. He is also the first South Asian to win since Aravind Adiga in 2008 for The White Tiger.
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Set during the Sri Lankan civil war and narrated by a dead man, Seven Moons is a gripping story of lives caught in conflict. Part-murder mystery, part-political satire it is also a love story narrated in second person and set in an afterlife visa control office, as spirits and the living engage in their own violent tugs-of-war.
Karunatilaka spoke with Nepali Times ahead of the 2022 Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara from 21–25 December. Excerpts:
Nepali Times: How did winning the Booker feel?
Shehan Karunatilaka: It was quite stressful and quite surreal. When the longlist was announced we were preoccupied with the economic meltdown in Sri Lanka, I was in the petrol queue and protests. So, that was a bit strange. You look at the longlisted books and they are all exceptional. They were not importing books at the time, so, I could not read them, but I did follow up on the book talks. My attitude then was you accept what you get, and the longlist is good enough. But I appreciated the fact that the book was now going to get a wider readership.
Coming to the final day, it is a 6-1 chance, and when my name was called out, it was pure adrenaline. I just made sure I had my speech ready and did the thing. It has been relentless since, but leading up to the Booker, I was just grateful for whatever bits of fortune I was getting. But no, I did not dare expect that I would win.
An earlier, unrevised version of the novel was originally published in India as Chats with the Dead in 2020. To what extent did you rework the novel before it became The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?
It seems that I am destined to write my books a couple of times. Even Chinaman (2010) has an original 500-page version which I self-published, and it sold pretty well in Sri Lanka. But that got replaced when Random House India took it on and now that’s the version you find everywhere. Similarly, India was quite enthusiastic about Chats with the Dead and I was also kind of exhausted after five years of writing it. I did have an inkling that it needed some editing, but I suppose there was a demand in the Subcontinent since Chinaman had done well and India was also familiar with Sri Lanka’s conflict and mythologies. But, despite couple reviews and readers, Chats struggled to find a publisher outside the Subcontinent which puzzled many.
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That’s when I shared the manuscript with Mark Ellingham and Natania Jansz of Sort of Books with whom I had already an editorial relationship. They have a real eye and ear for what works and what the UK readers respond to, and said that it had something, but it needed work to connect with the Western audience who do not know about Sri Lanka and its mythologies.
We then began the process, initially to clarify things such that the JVP, the LTTE, the Indian Peace Keeping Force, who the key players were and their agenda, and also the mythos behind the seven moons, which we take for granted here.
We had hoped to come out with the book in 2021 but it was not possible because of Covid-19, and we had nine more months. The editor and I began more surgery, tinkering with it for two years. We took out a bit more gruesome bits, added in a few characters. It is roughly the same book, but Seven Moons is paced better.
But as demoralising as it is to rewrite the book you thought was done and published, I appreciate the fact that it got better, and now Seven Moons is the definitive version.
Can this be seen as a simplification for western readers, if authors from, say South Asia, must write particular books for the West?
Simplifying may not be the right word as it implies ‘dumbing down’. Is Seven Moons a simpler book than Chat? It is certainly clearer. When I wrote my first book, I did not expect it to published, or be read in New York, Paris or London. I put those dreams out of my head, thinking more of readers like myself. I was interested in obscure cricketeers of the 80s, I did not know there would be a global readership for that.
Same with Seven Moons. I was thinking of South Asian audience, readers like me, writing as authentically as I could. Writing for particular audience, say a Londoner, would have made it a very different book. There may be an element of pandering as well, but I suppose this is also a question of marketing. Writing in English, you want to write for the widest possible reader sphere. Still, I was trying to make it as universal as I could.
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But we also should not take for granted that South Asia is of interest to the rest of the world. There is a richness of writing here, we know the quality of literature here, but even the big names, you would be surprised, probably do not sell as much in the US or the UK. It is not ideal to write the same book twice, but I think it is a time well spent to work on your writing to get to the wider audience.
Often the way death is woven in our stories is that it is a release into salvation, but your afterlife is rather bleak, bureaucratic. Even in death the spirits do not leave the land of the living, influencing actions, whispering, protecting.
When I realised that I was going to write a ghost story, I knew the basic framework was that of a murder mystery: a ghost has seven days to solve his own murder. But thinking about it more, it made more sense that after death, you would wake up more confused, in a waiting room with a piece of paper that you should stamp somewhere but the guy there has gone for lunch. This is something we have all been through in South Asian offices and, for me, this idea was absurd enough to keep me interested.
Every culture has an original sin origin story and for Sri Lankans it is the curse of Kuveni. I grew up with this idea that has persisted for two thousand years. But when you look at the country, the resources, wandering around the landscape, it looks pretty blessed to me. We peddle both these ideas in this beautiful paradise isle.
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So, when I was writing, it seemed to me that Sri Lanka is neither cursed nor blessed but simply disorganised. And the spirit world reflects that. There are these spirits, the victims of our previous conflicts that have not had resolutions are walking about, whispering thoughts into peoples’ ears.
To me that is a possible explanation for our history of catastrophes. In the book I talk about 1989 but it is not like everything has been fine after. We have had Easter Attacks, the economic meltdown. I was not going for any effect in my writing as such, I was thinking more about how all of this made sense, what the reasons were: is it just human incompetence or is there something metaphysical and spiritual about them? That is the idea I was playing with: Sri Lanka must be full of restless ghosts who have not had justice in their lives.
Why the unusual second person narrator?
I was playing with the idea of the voice in our head, which I believe speaks in second person. At least that is so in my experience. But who does it actually belong to? Do we mistake it for our own thoughts? But then sometimes we wonder “What was I thinking, why did I do that?” And it seemed plausible that these voices perhaps come from the spirits whispering into our ears.
It is spooky but it is also useful. Even Maali looks back on his life and questions why he did things, why he gambled, cheat on his loved ones, go to dangerous places. He is not quite able to answer that, but this idea that there is a spirit sitting on your shoulders, whispering thoughts into ears stayed with me.
I did not intend to write a horror book; it was more a comedy and a lot of other things. But also, when you write in a close room like I did, you kind of wonder these things, spirits walking about, telling you things.