Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which won the Booker Prize in 2022, is a thriller that begins in the afterlife, an uproarious murder mystery set amid the tragedies of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. Its protagonist, a war photographer, has become a ghost with just seven moons to find his killer and give his life’s work meaning. This is a historical novel that bends and twists genre and narrative into wondrous and disorienting knots and makes space for the cacophony of ghostly voices of those killed and disappeared in Sri Lanka. Shehan notes that if anything survives the death of your body, it’s probably the voice in your head, and the voice in his head speaks in the second person.
Moving from philosophy to the politics of fiction, Professor Sangeeta Ray, author of En-Gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives (Duke), prompts Shehan to think about Sri Lankan literature’s rise on the global stage, and Shehan makes the case for fiction standing in for the missing records and histories of the dead, lost, and disappeared in a prolonged time of war. The conversation takes us to the surprise Sri Lankan win in the Cricket World Cup of 1996, the role of queer desire in a novel about war tragedies, and whether any story about the Sri Lankan civil war can be optimistic. We end with a signature question that links Shehan and a previous guest, the Argentinian novelist Mariana Enríquez, in their shared (and spooky) writing inspiration.
View a transcript of the episode here.