Shehan Karunatilaka (Photo: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller)
Shehan Karunatilaka (Photo: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksDecember 11, 2022

Not a traditional ghost story: a chat with Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka

Shehan Karunatilaka (Photo: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller)
Shehan Karunatilaka (Photo: Getty Images / Design: Tina Tiller)

The 2022 Booker Prize winner talks Sri Lanka, the trauma of war, cricket, New Zealand, and taking 10 years to write The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Shehan Karunatilaka became only the second Sri Lankan writer to win the Booker Prize with his magnificent novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. The book dives straight into the chaos of 1980s Sri Lanka, as photojournalist, Maali Almeida, discovers that he’s just been murdered. He’s trying to figure out who killed him, which isn’t easy given the dizzying political issues in play in 1989. And the fact that he’s dead. As he wanders through the afterlife, he encounters many other victims of the Sri Lankan Civil War and surrounding political chaos, and the book becomes a caustic and brutal lament for the generations who were destroyed by the 26-year conflict. For this Sri Lankan Tamil, it was both a deeply resonant and educative read.

I chatted to Karunatilaka in his home in Colombo in the aftermath of the Booker win. He said, “Things are less crazy than they were a couple of weeks ago, I’ve managed to get some sleep. I’m much happier in this dingy room where I’ve spent the last seven years, where I feel at home, as opposed to being in London, running around. It’s unnatural. As writers, we sit in rooms, not talking to people. Not even to your wife and kids. And suddenly to talk to everyone, it’s a bit weird. But these are small problems to complain about.”

The book took Karunatilaka 10 years to write. His debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew was released in 2012. Chinaman won the regional Commonwealth Book Prize and was voted by Wisden as the second greatest cricket book of all time. “I consciously wanted to write a book set in the 90s that didn’t mention the War. It was in the background. This was an appealing idea. A bunch of guys who just watch cricket and drink arrack. We know those people in Colombo. The war’s happening outside. They get caught up in their own distractions.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Booker win, New Zealand journalists rushed to find a Kiwi connection to Karunatilaka, who lived in Whanganui as a teenager, and went to Massey University, before drifting back to Asia. They wouldn’t have had to look far to find a New Zealand connection in Chinaman, which is partly set in New Zealand and also features a legendary (and fictional) test match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka as its centrepiece event. And Karunatilaka’s New Zealand cricket experience also filtered into that book. “I used to bowl left-arm chinaman [wrist-spin], and I played for a couple of Wellington social teams, badly. I didn’t have any talent. Bowled a lot of full tosses and got hammered. I had this idea of a perfect bowler, who did all of these magical things.” 

Some of the traces of Maali Almeida can be seen in Chinaman – the mordant humour, the unreliable narrator, the sense of a world raging behind the narrative. “That idea was just a drunken uncle. The thing with drunken uncles is they eventually get to the point. The thing they started off [talking about], when they finally get there, you think, ‘wow what a genius’, but you have to endure these 20 million digressions.” 

Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel Chinaman, which was reviewed in New Zealand in 2013 by CricketGeek.

With Maali Almeida, Karunatilaka approached a much darker story, but with a similar black humour. “I have had to think on this question, [Chinaman] was the ’96 World Cup. This is about a much more grim part of the history. Wisecracking about that, is it in good taste?” It also matched the absurdity and darkness of current times. “Living in 2022 in Sri Lanka – we’ve seen those jumping in the President’s pool. These are uncertain, scary times – you don’t know if this is going to become a massacre.” 

The sardonic humour also sets Karunatilaka apart from some of the other great Sri Lankan writers who have written about the last four decades. “It’s not something you can consciously put in. It may match my sensibility as well. There are a lot of serious writers writing about Sri Lanka – Anuk Arudpragasam, shortlisted [for the Booker] last year, Nayomi Munaweera, [Michael] Ondaatje, [Romesh] Gunasekera – I appreciate. There are a lot of great writers, great craftspeople. But maybe that’s my sensibility, it’s sort of a Sri Lankan sensibility. What I felt was the absurdity. My natural tendency is to see the absurdity as opposed to getting depressed about these things.” 

Maali Almeida started life as a ghost story. “It was a slasher, horror, ten people in a bus, set during the [2004 Indian Ocean] Tsunami. [Approximately 35,000 people were killed by the Tsunami in Sri Lanka.] One by one, they get knocked off. Someone should write that. I still think it’s an awesome idea.” That version of the book stalled – “I just had a family and kids and all of those excuses, but I did return to it. I was working in the advertising scene in Singapore, and it was pretty full-on. You don’t even get time to read books, and I was getting frustrated with all of that stuff.”

One of the characters stuck with him from that original conceit – a dead war photographer called Maali Almeida. And the timeframe shifted from the horror of the Tsunami to the horror of the Civil War and the political chaos of the 80s. “I started off thinking, this is a mystery, this guy investigating his own murder, but then you go deeply into that. I started researching the LTTE, the JVP, the counter-terror death squads and the foreign actors. I’d grown up in that time, I was a teenager, and not very aware. I spent time in New Zealand during that time as well, so I wasn’t very aware that these things were happening. I got more and more caught up in that.”

There was also an immediacy to the narrative. Karunatilaka said, “I grew up with the Vietnam War being mined for action movies, and all sorts of stories. I thought why not Sri Lanka’s turbulent past, the last 40 years, as a canvas for a detective story. I really saw Maali Almeida as more a reporter figure, interviewing these different characters and these different victims. There were these types, the child soldier, the dead terrorist, the dead bodyguard, and so on, but I was interested in all of these people. There’s not necessarily much history written about them. Take a few of these characters and imagine what they’d try to say. I wasn’t thinking about the wider picture and what this would mean. My hope is that the generation of readers who weren’t aware of these things might go back and read about ’83 and ’89.” 

I confessed to Karunatilaka that when I was reading the book, I was frantically taking notes. Karunatilaka uses polyphonic voices to demonstrate the sheer chaos of the times. The ’83 Riots form a key narrative part of Maali Almeida. As a Tamil who was also born in 1983, I was well aware of the ’83 riots, a government-led pogrom in which thousands of Tamils were murdered in a few days. My mother (who was pregnant with me) and grandparents were almost killed in it. I was also well familiar of the atrocities committed by the Indian Peacekeeping Force up north (I had close family killed by the IPKF). And the War, and the horror meted out against Tamils up north and the east. But, perhaps reflecting the partisan nature of history, I was completely unaware of the JVP and some of the other tragedies that other ethnic groups suffered from. There’s also the nature of a conflict that goes on for a quarter of a century – horror upon horror pile up on each other, with the effect that things get forgotten.

Karunatilaka noted in the immediate aftermath of the Booker win, he saw an article on families of the JVP, who’d disappeared during the late 1980s. “[Tamil] families of the North and the East who’d disappeared, those protests have been ongoing, but, yes, it no longer makes the news. But it was unique, families of the South who’d lost to the JVP, on either side, were doing a protest. It was moving, a lot of these families have not had a semblance of justice.”

The initial idea for the character of Maali Almeida came from the assassinated journalist Richard de Zoysa. De Zoysa was a journalist and political activist who was kidnapped and murdered by government death squads in 1990. “When I thought I’d write about ’89, I saw a depressingly long list, documented on Wikipedia, of the atrocities in the Sri Lankan conflict. Richard de Zoysa was the biggest name, simply because he was a Colombo middle-class English-speaking, so-called ‘one of us’.” 

Other figures, however, started to filter in. “A lot of anonymous journalists and activists got killed up North or down South. Richard de Zoysa was an obvious one, but there was also Dr Rajini Thiranagama, again murdered around the same time [Thiranagama was a Tamil activist who was murdered by the Tamil LTTE for criticising its tactics]. Less well-known activist was Daya Pathirana, probably the first JVP, first campus radical who was murdered around ’86 [the JVP was a Marxist organisation, which was brutally suppressed by the government]. I looked at these biographies, and I thought what if these three guys were floating around the afterlife, arguing with each other. That was the starting point. But they moved on to become fictional characters. Richard de Zoysa was not a war photographer or a gambler as far as I know, but he was a closeted gay man. He was more politically active than Maali was, so I think those details changed.” Spending 10 years with the characters also meant they changed considerably from any resemblance to a real person.

Sri Lankan journalist Richard de Zoysa.

The book is written in the second person. “It was one of those technical things you have to solve when you’re writing from the point of view of a ghost. I reveal this on the first page. Usually a ghost is revealed later in a book, in a traditional ghost story. The first thing, I had to imagine an afterlife and set some rules that these spirits can operate by. But what does a disembodied character sound like? I can’t describe them. What would they sound like? I went through lots of banging my head on walls. I thought the only thing that survives the death of your body is the voice in your head, and the voice in my head is in the second person, for some reason. For me, it’s someone telling you, ‘you should have said that’ or ‘why did you do this’? In the book, there’s an unpacking of who the ‘you’ is, who the voice in your head and whether it’s your own or it’s external. We act on the voices in our head – are they our own? It’s rich stuff to philosophise on.” He found it a revelation that in recording a recent audiobook, the actor took on a different voice for the “dead” second-person voice of Maali to the Maali voice in the flashbacks to when the character was alive.

I ask Karunatilaka whether he thought he’d finish the book, let alone end up talking about it non-stop. “I kept going with it, because starting a new thing would be depressing. Also, you know, from having written one book at least, it’s possible. You know that if you keep going, it’ll get done.” Karunatilaka had realistic expectations, though. “You’re not thinking shortlists or this list or that list. I’d written the first book that was quite successful and published widely. But that doesn’t guarantee that the second book would write itself. There’s no guarantee the second book is even going to get published, living in Colombo, writing about Sri Lanka.” Instead, he said, “by the time you get stuck in, you’re not thinking beyond can I get this chapter to work.”

The book had a curious publishing story as well, not uncommon with writing from the Subcontinent. It was published in India in 2020 under the name Chats with the Dead. It never made it beyond the Subcontinent, only for it to be picked up by the small UK indie press, Sort of Books, and required significant revision. “I write copy, and that’s the nature of that – the client comes back and changes everything. You just suck it up and get the thing done again.” 

Before that UK release, Sri Lanka’s economy and political situation collapsed, resulting in the hurried resignation by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his cabinet. The release “was also happening during the Aragalaya. Sri Lanka was in absolute turmoil, chaos. This book is coming in August, but I was preoccupied. I got a text saying that it was long-listed, and since then, I’ve just been riding the journey.”

While he’s processing the Booker win, Karunatilaka admits that he’s also hoping to move back to New Zealand. He’s “trying to convince his wife. And she’s like, Auckland looks like a city”. He’s more attracted to Wellington. “I used to live on Cuba Street, above the Hotel Bristol.” He also plans on following the Sri Lankan cricket team, who are touring New Zealand early next year, so that he could catch up with friends. I suppose it’s only natural that Karunatilaka’s New Zealand past has meant that folk here have been keen to claim some credit for Maali Almeida. But this very Sri Lankan book – the intoxicating mix of people, the fury at those who’ve misused their power, the unbelievable trauma, and its people who’ve survived in spite of, well everything – will hopefully springboard not only this fantastic book, but its other storytellers, to a much deserved and necessary global reach.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, (Sort of Books, $49) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland

Keep going!