Born in Sri Lanka, novelist Shyam Selvadurai is of mixed Tamil and Sinhala heritage. The possibilities and impossibilities of similar "mixings" dominate his fiction. When he was 19, Selvadurai immigrated with his family to Canada following the 1983 riots in Colombo. His skill lies in his ability to portray a world threatened by various types of intolerance yet still possessed of beauty, humour and humanity.
Shyam Selvadurai's first novel, Funny Boy, won the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Men's Fiction. The novel is at once innocent and wise, fanciful and uncompromisingly frank in its depiction of Arjie Chelvaratnam's happy and harrowing childhood. The novel focuses on Arjie's coming of age during the tumultuous years before the riots in 1983, when Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese violently turned on the minority Tamils. Arjie realizes that he is doubly endangered as a homosexual and a Tamil, because both identities have become intolerable in the Sri Lanka of 1983. Selvadurai's novel details Arjie's struggles and eventual acceptance of himself as a gay man, a Tamil and a citizen of the world. Funny Boy led to Selvadurai being classified and studied as both a "postcolonial" and "gay" writer.
Selvadurai's second novel, Cinnamon Gardens (1998), returns to Sri Lanka but this time in the 1920s, when the country was known as Ceylon. Selvadurai's characters navigate an uncertain world accompanied by their own insecurities. The political and the personal merge as they do in Funny Boy, as the main characters struggle to understand their true desires and identities in a world that will not tolerate either.
In 2003, Selvadurai turned from fiction to autobiography in the essay "Coming Out," published in an issue of Time Asia dedicated to the Asian diaspora. The problems faced by Selvadurai and his partner in Sri Lanka show that the themes of political and personal persecution in his novels are drawn from his own experiences. In 2005, Selvadurai published a novel for young adults, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, which garnered him another Lambda Literary Award, this time for best Children's and Youth Literature.