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‘You shouldn’t place visas on where your imagination can go’: Shehan Karunatilaka at JLF 2023

Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka, Booker Prize winner for 2022, on penning fiction from perspectives that aren't one's own with empathy and without resorting to stereotypes

Shehan KarunatilakaAlexandra Pringle in conversation with Shehan Karunatilaka, Amit Chaudhuri, Ruth Ozeki and Deepti Kapoor
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‘You shouldn’t place visas on where your imagination can go’: Shehan Karunatilaka at JLF 2023
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In response to a question by British publishing legend Alexandra Pringle on whether writers are being “over-constrained” in the ongoing “culture wars”, referring to charges laid against writers of certain sexual, gender, ethnic, or religious identities for penning fiction from the perspectives of characters without the same identities, Shehan Karunatilaka, winner of the Booker Prize 2022, said that “you shouldn’t place visas on where your imagination can go” and that “there are enough visas and border controls in the real world.”

But one should tread carefully, Karunatilaka added. “If you get it wrong or you are patronising [certain communities] or resorting to stereotypes, then you deserve all the flack you’re going to get. So if you do it with empathy and respect and you do your research, then there’s no reason you can’t travel into other heads and write,” he said.

Karunatilaka, who was speaking at a JLF 2023 panel on ‘Where does fiction come from?’ with authors Ruth Ozeki, Amit Chaudhuri, and Deepti Kapoor, mentioned his Booker-winning novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which features a gay protagonist, for which he researched the lives of closeted homosexual men as he couldn’t speak from lived experience: “I do have questions asked about having a gay protagonist, like, ‘Are you allowed as a cis-gendered heteronormative dude to enter this territory?’”

Speaking of the Sri Lankan war, Karunatilaka added that because of the current state that his country is in, he does not see enough stories coming out of the country anymore. “I’m interested in hearing other perspectives. We do have some ex-Tamil Tigers gunmen and gunwomen writing, but if we don’t have enough, I’d like to tend to that. And would I be able to, as a Sinhala Buddhist man, write from that perspective?” he said.

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Ozeki, the winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction and daughter of a Japanese mother and a Caucasian-American father, said, “I made a decision early on to always have mixed race protagonists in my books for various reasons — plot, symbolism, metaphor or structure — because it made sense to do that.” She added that at the same she admired Hanya Yanagihara, the Japanese-American writer who writes completely outside her cultural and sexual identity. “The choice for me is a personal and artistic one and one I’ve chosen because it serves my literary purpose. When it stops doing that then I will change, and I don’t know what it’ll feel like yet. I don’t think I’m ready to do or interested in doing what Hanya has done. At some point, I might be, and then I will,” she said.

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First published on: 21-01-2023 at 18:54 IST
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