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18 October 2022

Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka: “You don’t know who you’re going to offend”

The Sri Lankan novelist on growing up amid civil war, turning trauma into satire, and winning the 2022 prize.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“I don’t particularly want to be a controversial writer,” said Shehan Karunatilaka. He doesn’t even want to be a political writer, really. But his second novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which was awarded the 2022 Booker Prize for fiction on Monday (17 October), can’t escape the politics of Sri Lanka’s violent past. “I began wanting to write a murder mystery and a ghost story,” he said. It was in the many thousands of unsolved murders of his home country that he found apt material.

The Seven Moons, which was published by Sort Of Books in August this year, is Karunatilaka’s second novel. It follows Chinaman, first published in 2010, which won the Commonwealth Prize and which Wisden named the second finest cricket book ever written.

The Seven Moons is a satirical murder mystery – only it is Maali Almeida, the victim, who is trying to solve the crime. He wakes up, dead, in what seems to be a visa or tax office – “Everyone wants their rebate”, Karunatilaka jibes – that is overrun with ghosts. 

Maali, a closeted gay gambling addict, was a photojournalist who documented the atrocities of war in his home country. He is given seven “moons” – days – to find out who killed him. His highly dangerous work was shrouded in secrecy, and the suspects, it soon becomes clear, might come from any number of factions: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“Tamil Tigers”), who fought for a Tamil state; the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Marxist militants who wanted to overthrow the capitalist state; and the Special Task Force, who worked on behalf of the government.

The Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted from 1983 to 2009, was still in very recent memory when Karunatilaka, now 47, first started thinking about writing this novel around 2011. “I didn’t want to write about contemporary things,” he said. “Because you don’t know who you’re going to offend, and it could be quite dangerous. But also, as a writer, I didn’t feel like enough time had passed – I don’t do hot takes in the moment.” 

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He looked instead to 1989, the year he turned 14. “We had a full blown civil war, we had an occupied force, we had a Marxist insurrection, we had government death squads, and there were people disappearing” – the perfect cast for a ghost story. “I felt that I could write freely and imagine freely about that period. I felt it was unlikely to offend anyone because most of the antagonists were dead, and also Sri Lankans have very short memories – ’89 is like ancient history. It’s not seen as recent, because since then we’ve had the escalation of the war in the Nineties, the ceasefire, the final days of the war, the 2019 Easter attacks… this is like seven catastrophes ago.”

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Karunatilaka seemed remarkably calm as he sat on the sixth floor of a modern office block in Whitechapel, east London, on the day following the Booker announcement. He wore a blue shirt, chinos, and bright yellow trainers. Black nail polish coated his fingernails, and studs in his eyebrow, nose and earlobes shone in the early afternoon sunlight that came through the large glass windows. After the award ceremony at the Roundhouse, he had gone to bed “reasonably early. But the phone – look at it,” he said, pulling it out of his pocket, “it’s pinging and pinging and pinging. 200 unread messages, yeah.”

Karunatilaka was born in Galle, a major city in southern Sri Lanka, in 1975, and grew up in Colombo, the country’s commercial capital. As a “middle-class kid”, he was “insulated” from much of the violence of war. He remembers, during the anti-Tamil pogroms of July 1983, walking home from school with his mother aged eight. “We’d see mobs and fire and stuff, and my mum would turn my head away from it. Later I read about how people were pulled out of their cars and set on fire for not being able to speak Sinhalese.” He began to understand the historic complexities of the relationship between Sinhalese people, Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group, and Tamil people, the minority group who predominantly live in the country’s northern and eastern provinces.

His memories of 1989, when he was 14, are more vivid: “I did see bodies burning on the street. That was common.” The troubles were “normalised. There were curfews, and bombs going off. But it didn’t feel like a war zone, because in Colombo, bands were still playing and there were parties and all that. When I look back on it, I think how horrific it was – and of course if I’d grown up in Jaffna, up north” – where much of the violence occurred – “I’d have a very different story to tell.”

When Karunatilaka was 15, he and his family moved to New Zealand, where his father, a doctor, had found work. Many families were leaving the country, and still are: “That’s one of the tragedies of Sri Lanka, that since the 1950s we’ve been driving out our people.”

He finished high school in Whanganui, and attended Massey University in Palmerston North. Aged 23 he moved back to Sri Lanka, where he played bass guitar in rock bands and began a career in advertising. He lived in London and then Singapore before settling with his wife back in Colombo, where the couple have two children – an eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. In recent years he has worked freelance, balancing copywriting with his fiction.

2022 has been yet another politically turbulent year in Sri Lanka. In July “the whole nation got onto the street and took over the state buildings” – there is video footage of protestors using the gym and swimming pool in the presidential residence – “and drove away a president”. A financial crisis, in which fuel and gas were sparse, and people were reportedly waiting ten days in line to fill their cars with petrol, emerged. It’s a desperate economic situation, Karunatilaka said, in which “we’re borrowing more money to pay off more debts”. Poverty is rising, as is crime. But it is nowhere near as devastating as the atrocities of the civil war.

In The Seven Moons, Maali’s insistence on bearing witness to horrific acts – and in photographing them, so that the culture will be unable to forget – leads to his death. Following the attack on Salman Rushdie, a former Booker Prize-winner, in August this year, conversations on the importance of freedom of speech in literature have re-emerged. 

“Salman Rushdie is a towering figure,” Karunatilaka said. “Midnight’s Children is what we all read as teenagers, as young writers. It inspired us to write in our own voices, our own type of English. We didn’t have to emulate anyone else – that was liberating.” The Seven Moons is written in an attention-grabbing second person; in conversation, Karunatilaka often spoke in a warm, communal first-person plural, whether he was referring to South Asian authors of his generation, or the Sri Lankan electorate.

“This recent attack is nothing new: we’ve had the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and The Satanic Verses is more than 30 years old.” But the event did make him reconsider a recent project. He is currently preparing a collection of short stories for publication. Following the attack on Rushdie, Karunatilaka removed a couple of the tales, one of which he described as “a cheeky little story”. His publisher didn’t think removing it was necessary, but for his own safety, he chose to. “Even though I don’t think it was an offensive story… it just takes a few people to take offence, and suddenly you’re branded.”

“My wife was like, ‘It’s not even a good story’,” he laughed. “‘It’s not good enough to risk your family’”. 

[See also: How the greatest minds of the Enlightenment united in a small town in Germany]