Junglee Girl, Funny Boy

Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai; Morrow. 310 pp. $23

Junglee Girl by Ginu Kamani; aunt lute books. 200 pp. $9.95

In the past few years, writing by Asian North Americans has attained a certain critical mass. On the heels of Amy Tan's success with The Joy Luck Club, a particularly virulent strain of family melodrama has proven about as tough to stamp out as the new TB. The emphasis is on intergenerational conflict between immigrant parents and assimilated offspring, Old World communality versus New World individualism.

The ideological value of this model is apparent: it gives the lie to the melting-pot theory of immigration and reduces ethnic identity or racial difference from a homogenized mainstream to matters of personal choice. History is obscured, the sociopolitical factors behind a given group's movement from one country to the next, in favor of Issues Lite-e.g., will my parents freak if I bring home a white yuppie boyfriend? The banality of such themes can weigh down fiction based on identity politics, where the imaginative field is often restricted to the author's firsthand experience and attempts at self-definition. While comforting to the like-minded reader, they hardly make up for a lack of fundamentals like narrative, plot, or character.

Writing whose sole premise is the validation of real experience contains the germ of paradox - the circumscription of figurative and arguably more profound meaning. So it goes with literature about sexual identity: the exploration of marginalized perspectives frequently turns into little more than a disappointing exercise in prurience or-perhaps worse-sheer boosterism. Is it possible, then, for those who write from minority positions to resist the tendency toward the apolitical while transcending the status of mere cheerleaders?

Two recent books by South Asians in Canada and the U.S., respectively, give it the old college try. Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy and Ginu Kamani's Junglee Girl are debut short story collections that address sexuality as well as race and other concerns. In Selvadurai's book, the notion of queerness-never explicitly named-emerges within a larger trajectory of Tamil-Sinhalese tensions in Sri Lanka. Kamani writes specifically about sexuality that challenges norms of patriarchy and class divisions in India. Their narrative strategies differ wildly: Selvadurai relies on straightforward realism while Kamani has a flair for the fantastic but both represent minority identity in terms beyond the limits of the private self.

Selvadurai's prose is full of symmetries, subplots, parallel structures. The short stories, which are interconnected and arranged in chronological order, feature a first-person Tamil narrator named Arjie at various stages in his life and sexual development. Rather than concentrating exclusively on the details of Arjie's coming-out process, Selvadurai provides a historical context for Sri Lanka in the '70s and '80s that anchors the book in a public consciousness. In "The Best School of All," the teenaged Arjie has his first sexual encounter with a Sinhalese boy against a backdrop of growing anti-Tamil sentiment.

The principal at Arjie's school, nicknamed Black Tie, wants to use Arjie as a symbol of successful integration at a prize-giving ceremony. Black Tie picks Arjie to recite poetry in hopes of impressing the chief guest, a minister of the cabinet. The old principal, however, is abusive to Arjie's lover and to Arjie, who recognizes the principal not as an ally but a martinet. "How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not, just or unjust? It had to do with who was in charge; everything had to do with who held power and who didn't." When Arjie recites on the night of the ceremony, he finds a way to revolt. This is typical of Funny Boy: the depiction of pageantry that mirrors the action and motifs of the primary story.

Selvadurai deploys a production of The King and I in "Radha Aunty," where a romance between Arjie's favorite aunt and a Sinhalese man is aborted with the intrusion of anti-Tamil riots. In "Pigs Can't Fly," a very young Arjie plays the bride in wedding scenarios with his female cousins. Selvadurai seems to suggest by analogy that gender and sexual identity are also staged or enacted in relation to others. This reinforces the constant dialectic in his work between private and public dramas.

Identity in Junglee Girl is rendered more extravagantly, in the overlooked and unlighted corners of a domestic space that threatens to overwhelm its inhabitants. Most of the stories have surreal elements that amplify Kamani's obsessions: erotic autonomy, maverick feminism, class schisms. In "Maria," the child who is the narrator gives herself pleasure by laying claim to the body of the family servant Maria. Haunted by a sexualized dream of a woman, the narrator wakes up one night and finds Maria in bed with the male cook. The child manipulates the discovery to her advantage. As she declares earlier, "Maria was afraid of me, even though she was a grown woman and I was a child. There was never any doubt in my mind about who was in charge." When the mother does learn of the affair, Maria is punished and the narrator suffers no lasting consequences.

"The Cure" also presents a pivotal relationship between a servant and the employer's daughter. In this case, the narrator is diagnosed as a giant with an overactive sexuality. The mother consults a male doctor to make her child marriageable. In the course of the bizarre treatments, the narrator cultivates her capacity for sexual pleasure and seeks refuge with the driver Ramdass. Too aware of class barriers, Ramdass conspires with the mother and doctor against the narrator. Her fate is sealed, despite the potential for escape from the constraints of conventional femininity that her giantism affords. What distinguishes Selvadurai and Kamani is their ability to delve beyond autobiography in the elaboration of story and collective identity.

Articulating shared oppression is not inherently an act of fiction, which these two writers seem to intuit. The common paradigm of a gay rite-of-passage tale, with its highlighting of the personal anguish that ensues from the disturbance of bourgeois family standards, is simultaneously enriched and subverted by Selvadurai through his insistence on the centrality of the Sri Lankan narrative. And if at times the quality of Kamani's writing is uneven, her willingness to experiment with familiar storytelling modes and domestic situations-particularly in the recurrence of power struggles between children and family servants-compensates for her failings. In their eagerness to make their points, both Selvadurai and Kamani lapse into moments of didacticism. But the flaws of Funny Boy and Junglee Girl remain secondary to the scope of the authors' visions and their inclination to take risks-ultimately the most indispensable prerogatives of minority fiction.


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