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Dhaka Tribune

‘You have to welcome the flak you get when you get it wrong’

Booker Winner Shehan Karunatilaka on his literary journey

Update : 08 Jan 2023, 11:55 PM

The 10th edition of the Dhaka Lit Fest promised some big things this year, and delivered some truly big moments, featuring a star-studded roster of celebrities from all fields. Big names in writing and publishing, rockstars of science, top musicians and A-listers from screens big and small, they pulled out all the bells and whistles for this comeback edition.

Perhaps one of the most interesting names amidst these luminaries was that of Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka, whose The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida won the Booker Prize last year. The author charmed his audiences with his approachable manner, and his witty, insightful statements during his panels this year. The much-awaited panel on his prizewinning masterpiece was a great way to round off the DLF experience on the final day of the festival.

“The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” panel was moderated by Kanishka Gupta, founder of the Writer's Side literary agency. 

Kanishka opened the panel by asking Shehan to recount the mood and flavour of the past year, which included the experience of being in Utah when he heard Maali Almeida had been longlisted for the Booker, and the strange feeling the author had when news about the Aragalaya broke. Shehan then flew back to Sri Lanka, joining his countrymen in the petrol lines and immersing himself in the situation, and it was during the peak of the turmoil that he heard about the win. 

Author and agent then took a few moments to discuss how Shehan's books have a tendency to be written and published twice, starting from his award-winning debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew, which was originally self-published, before being picked up by Random House India, after which a revised version of the same was published by Random House India and internationally by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Random House. Maali Almeida, too, began its journey as Devil Dance and was published internally as Chats with the Dead, before being reworked into The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida as its final iteration. Shehan credits his day job in advertising with bestowing in him the discipline of consistently producing work, and instilling a humility in him that allows him to be open to suggestions about revisions. It was here that he made the distinction between a lay person and someone with the soul of a writer. “Normal people give up on a project if it is crap. Writers try to go back and make it better” he said, reconfirming that the ‘real' work of writing a book is in the revisions.

Asked why it took so long for Sri Lankan writers to start writing about the civil war, Shehan repeated what he had mentioned in previous panels, alluding to the post-war ‘Battle of the Documentaries” when a lot of misinformation was spread as multiple narratives about the war began to surface, making it hard to parse through the actual events.

Trying to evade dropping spoilers about his book, when asked about the decision to make the protagonist of Maali Almeida a homosexual, Shehan talked about the research behind the character development, his concerns and rationalizations, before moving on to details about world building, and how he created the ‘rules' of his fantasy world.

Kanishka referenced the Galle Literary Fest which has shut down, and asked Shehan what he hopes his contributions to the literary scene will be, to which the author stressed about the need to get more Sri Lankan authors translated for a wider readership, and the need for more libraries to encourage a future generation of readers.

The pair briefly touched upon Shehan's own publishing company Papaya books, and the author charmed the crowd with anecdotes about the children's books he has authored.

The panel ended with a lively Q&A session and to thunderous applause.

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