Booker Prize 2022 winner Shehan Karunatilaka: ‘British publishers called my novel inaccessible’
Posted on October 19th, 2022


The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida author talks about struggling to get published in the UK, Salman Rushdie and why his victory is a win for Sri Lanka.

On Monday night, after he was presented with the Booker Prize by the Queen Consort Camilla Parker Bowles at London’s Roundhouse, a stunned Shehan Karunatilaka thanked his family, his publisher and the judges, then said: Finally, I want to say this to the Sri Lankan people…”  

His sense of catharsis was palpable as the 47-year-old author of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida switched to speaking in Sinhalese and Tamil. But what was he saying? 

I said: ‘All Sri Lankans, let’s keep telling our stories,’” Karunatilaka explains the following day. He is wearing a blue shirt, his silvery hair is tied back and he looks surprisingly alert after just two hours sleep.  

I wanted to speak in Sinhalese and Tamil because I didn’t want it to seem that [my winning this prize] was just something for those who read English. I managed to say that I write for Sri Lankans who read and write in these three languages, before I was dragged off the stage,” he jokes.

Success for Karunatilaka, whose second book was an outsider for the prize on a shortlist that featured novels by NoViolet Bulawayo, Percival Everett, Alan Garner, Claire Keegan and Elizabeth Strout, has come at a difficult moment in Sri Lanka. The last year has seen economic turmoil and popular protests that precipitated the resignation of the president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. An ongoing energy crisis has left Karunatilaka and his family cooking on a firewood stove at their home in Colombo and queueing for days for petrol.  

I received the news that Seven Moons was on the Booker longlist while my wife was queueing for petrol and I was walking our two children to school,” says Karunatilaka who, along with Michael Ondaatje in 1992, is the second Sri Lanka-born writer to win the Booker Prize.  

The country has suffered many losses over the last year but this was a win for Sri Lanka… I haven’t had time to check all of my messages but there seems to have been an outpouring of love. I think the president has congratulated me. But I rarely respond to tweets at the best of times.” 

Karunatilaka was born in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 1975. His father was a doctor and, when Karunatilaka was 16, the family moved to New Zealand where he went to university and, after switching from economics, graduated with a degree in English Literature:  

I spent a year on the dole in New Zealand, trying to write my big novel,” he says. I ended up watching daytime TV and getting drunk. Eventually, I got the opportunity to work in an advertising agency in Colombo so I moved back. I kept writing diaries but I was more interested in playing bass in bands then.”  

He worked as a freelance advertising copywriter while living in Singapore, Amsterdam and London. He watched bands at The Roundhouse many times so returning there to win the Booker Prize felt surreal. After he moved back to Colombo again in his thirties, he began writing fiction again and had an idea for a novel about cricket. It became his debut, Chinaman (2011), which won the Commonwealth Prize. In 2011, he began planning a novel about the Sri Lankan civil war which lasted from 1983 to 2009.  

I wanted to write a ghost story where the many victims, the voices that had been silenced, could speak. I had several false starts and, in 2017, abandoned the novel and started writing short stories. When I returned to the manuscript, I noticed this character Maali Almeida, the ghost of a murdered journalist. He was the most interesting character so I decided it would be a mystery where a murdered journalist solves his own murder. Somehow he began speaking in the second person.” 

The second person you-voice, combined with the disturbing subject-matter, gives the novel weight which Karunatilaka counterpoints with black comedy. At the beginning, Maali wakes up in a celestial visa office and observes: The afterlife is a tax office and everyone wants their rebate.”   

Initially, Karunatilaka struggled to get Seven Moons published in Britain. They said: ‘It’s not accessible and we aren’t really sure what’s going on.’ But then I sent it to [the small independent press) Sort Of Books and they replied with detailed notes. They took it on and, with my editors, I took the manuscript apart and put it back together through a lot of drafts.”  

In his Booker Prize acceptance speech Karunatilaka talked about the dispiriting and demoralising writer’s life”. Surely he doesn’t feel that today? 

No. But even to write a bad draft, it takes a lot out of you. I think what separates writers from normal people is that normal people write badly and stop, but writers write badly and keep trying to make it better.” 

He was disturbed by the attack on Salman Rushdie in America in August and says: I’m wary of writing things that can ruffle feathers. It wasn’t an issue with Seven Moons because I was writing about a long time ago and many of the perpetrators in the Sri Lankan civil war are dead. But I have self-censored. When I was compiling a short story collection, there were a couple of stories that I thought may be controversial in Sri Lanka, so I took them out.” 

What will he do with the £50,000 he received for winning the Booker Prize? 

I was already thinking of buying a Fender Precision bass. I have read that Kazuo Ishiguro has nine guitars… But I never anticipated getting such a windfall. I made peace with doing copy-writing two days a week and I haven’t had time to think about whether I will continue with that now.” 

He is already working on his third novel but refuses to say what it’s about:  

That would be telling,” he laughs, then adds: I hoped to finish a first draft by the end of this year but, after last night, I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s a lighter story than Seven Moons, not a violent story. I think I’m more naturally comfortable with writing a lighter story.” 

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