Story Wallah, edited by Shyam Selvadurai is the most comprehensive collection of south Asian diasporic writing that I have encountered. All the authors included in this anthology were either born outside the Indian subcontinent or emigrated out of there. Many of the contributors were new to me and others are old hands. The book is a collection of short fiction - short stories and excerpts from novels. Difficult as it is to cogently review the literary merits of a collection featuring twenty six writers with eclectic styles, I will refrain from doing so. Instead, let me quote a portion of the excellent introduction by Selvadurai, describing the inspiration behind the publication. As with any diaspora tale, it is largely about identity and finding one's voice within the tug of war between more than one "native" culture.
I am often invited to read from my novels in public, and, if there is a question period aftenvards, someone inevitably stands up to ask the following: “What kind of a writer do you consider yourself to be? Are you a Canadian writer or a Sri Lankan writer?”
It is perplexing, this matter of cultural identity, and I am tempted, like some other writers of multiple identities, to reply grumpily, “I’m just a bloody writer Period.”
Yet this response would be disingenuous. I suppose I could answer, “Sri Lankan-Canadian writer,” or “Canadian-Sri Lankan writer.” But this also does not get to the heart of what I consider my identity to be as a writer (and we are talking of my writing identity here). For, in terms of being a writer, my creativity comes not from “Sri Lankan” or “Canadian” but precisely from the space between, that marvellous open space represented by the hyphen, in which the two parts of my identity jostle and rub up against each other like tectonic plates, pushing upwards the eruption that is my work. It is from this space between that the novels come. From a double-visionness, a bicultutalism.
For the majority of people, a dual identity is a burden forced on them by the fact that their bodies, or their skins to be precise, do not represent the nation-state they are in, thus compelling them to constantly wear their difference on their sleeve and carry it around on their back. In my day-to-day interactions with the world outside, I share the irritation, the burden, the occasional danger of this visible otherness. But when I close the door to my study and sit at my computer, that biculturalism becomes the site of great excitement, of great marvel, the very source of my creativity. It is from’ this space in- between, represented by the hyphen, that I have written what I consider Canadian novels set exclusively in Sri Lanka. For though the material may be Sri Lankan, the shaping of that material and the inclusion, for example, of themes of gay liberation or feminism ate drawn from the life I have lived in Canada. Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka and the very real threat of physical violence and intimidation might have stopped me from exploring this theme had I lived there (being not of a particularly brave disposition). My thoughts and attitudes, indeed my craft as a writer, have been shaped by my life here in Canada. It is from the clash of these cultures, which occurs in the space between, that the conflicts in my plot lines arise. Without them my novels would be deathly boring to read.
I enjoyed Story Wallah for the most part. Featured are many fresh faces (pens?) across the map. Besides the US, Canada and Great Britain, it was interesting to encounter south Asian voices out of Australia, Malaysia, Fiji, Singapore, the Caribbeans and Africa. In the end though, the familiar voices of the big boys and girls rang out above others . Salman Rushdie (The Courter), Rohinton Mistry (The Collectors), Anita Desai (Winterscape) and Hanif Kureishi (We're Not Jews) tell the liveliest tales of the anthology, in my opinion. Selvadurai's own contribution is an excerpt from his very commendable novel, "Funny Boy." One other story worth mentioning is "Just Between Indians" by Ginu Kamani. It is about an arranged marriage - only, there is no marriage but rather a creepy attempt at arranging one. This one left me feeling slightly jolted. As I said, Story Wallah is a good enough collection - a perfect read on a long plane ride or a relaxing vacation.