Q&A with Randy Boyagoda

  • October 23, 2012

Beggar’s Feast, Randy Boyagoda’s second novel, is a feast of a picaresque tale that explores issues of identity and morality, tradition and modernity.

Beggar’s Feast, Randy Boyagoda’s second novel, is a feast of a picaresque tale that explores issues of identity and morality, tradition and modernity. Beginning and ending in the countryside of Ceylon, the novel chronicles 100 years of the life and adventures of the amoral Sam Kandy, and the vast historical and cultural changes that transformed this island nation.

Q&A with Randy Boyagoda

There are many beggars in Beggar’s Feast, some physically impoverished, others emotionally impoverished. And certainly your protagonist, Sam Kandy, fits the Tagore quote at the beginning of your novel: “O beggar, to come to beg at thy own door!” What is the origin of Beggar’s Feast? Was the Tagore poem in mind as you wrote this novel? How do you see your book’s title as illuminating your novel?

The novel was inspired by true life. When I was in Sri Lanka a few years ago, I accidentally came across the story of a great-uncle of mine who had a remarkable, difficult and admittedly ugly life. It involved many wives, children, violence, success and tragedy. But at the heart of his story, and at the heart of Beggar’s Feast, is a desire I think many of us have, to let the people who knew you first, the people from your hometown, know what you’ve accomplished in the world. In other words, no matter how successful Sam Kandy is in the great world, he wants his village to know what he’s made of himself — this matters, in some ways, more than anything else to him, because when he was a boy, no one in his village thought he’d make anything of himself. And so, the desire to come back, to beg for attention at your own door, is a natural desire, but one that can prove almost impossible to fulfill, as Sam discovers and the Tagore poem suggests. As for a beggar’s feast itself, this is a Buddhist-inspired act of charity that happens after a great man dies: his family puts on a great feast in his name, for the beggars in the village. This is an event that also figures significantly in the novel, near the end.

Proper names are crucial to many of your characters. (With no name, as your novel illustrates, there is no respect). As a child, your protagonist is Ranjith, and then Samanera, sometimes Squirrel, and for most of his 100 years of life, the name he chooses, Sam Kandy. Other characters change their names. Saul Kurtz, business partner of Sam Kandy, names himself Charles Curzon. Ivory, the second wife that Kandy murders, begins life as Hilda Stevens. Others, like Latha, surrogate mother to Kandy’s first- and second-born children, are denied tea, denied mercy and go to “where she would never be called by name again.” Could you please comment on this major theme?

I’m flattered by how closely you’ve read the book. Thank you! Many of the characters in my novel try to escape fates assigned to them by their original names — by all the implications around those names, about their dim pasts and their necessarily dim prospects for the future. Trying to make a go at life on their own terms, they invent new names for themselves, on their own terms. This offers them a kind of freedom from their pasts, but only so much.

I have read that, like Sam Kandy, you too changed your name. How, if at all, did this name change affect your life?

My full name is Soharn Randy Boyagoda. Try growing up in small-town Canada in the early 1980s with a name like “Soharn”! When I was 4 or 5, I remember, for a whole year, a kid walked behind me, to and from school, saying, “And so on and so on and so on” the entire time. The next year, I asked my parents if I could go by my second name, Randy. I think, in terms of my life, it made for a less difficult walk to and from school straight away, and more generally it alerted me to the power of names themselves.

Sam Kandy is difficult, unpleasant, selfish and self-serving, a risky choice for a protagonist. Why Sam? Which of his characteristics (if any) do you think your readers will identify with? What do you identify with?

There’s a reason why people are fascinated by characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper and also Sam Kandy: These are very successful men who live lives of great pressure because of the secrets and dark dealings they conceal while outwardly enjoying worldly success. We don’t have to like characters to want to follow out their lives; they just have to be permanently interesting in their hopes, worries, choices, actions, tensions, and I hope Sam fits this model. Many readers tell me that they find Sam, as a boy, very sympathetic, and then become more challenged about his character as he becomes a man, before coming around to him again later in his life. I’ve been to a few book club meetings where the likability question has led to some intense debates. As to what my readers and I would identify with, I think it has a lot to do with the universal experience of coming from a small town and going out in the world and making something of yourself, then returning home in hopes of winning some kind of recognition for what you’ve done. In the most personal terms, I’ll say this: I write for places like The New York Times, and yet my tiny hometown newspaper, The Oshawa This Week, won’t even return my calls!

Your doctoral dissertation was on race, immigration and identity in the works of Salman Rushdie, Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. I am curious about the influence of these masters on your work — not only themes but craft. What other writers or works influenced you in creating Beggar’s Feast?

Beyond Rushdie, Ellison and Faulkner, I’d say F. Scott Fitzgerald was a major influence, and actually a lot of reviewers have praised the novel by making parallels between Sam Kandy’s story and The Great Gatsby: in both cases, nobodies from nowhere become somebodies, and then try to survive intact through the tragedies that come with their efforts to keep secret their lowly origins.

Your novel is mainly set in Ceylon (with excursions to Australia and Singapore.) Your narrative includes the history, customs, folklore, myths, superstition and the work-a-day village life of a country not many Westerners have visited. (I now know much about the drying of peppercorns and how to disguise stale cardamom as fresh.) I found myself immersed in the sights, sounds, smells of the life you portray. Is some of your description firsthand knowledge? What comes from research? (How do you research a sound? A smell?)

Again, I’m very flattered by the detailed question. The details of the story came through a combination of family stories — my parents are both Sri Lankan and came to Canada in the 1960s and have been telling me stories of the island my whole life — direct trips there and various kinds of research. I also transpose a lot, as do many writers: Seeing two children fight over an iPad in a 21st-century Paris airport lounge can become, through a writer’s skills, an image of two children fighting over, say, a pepper-grinding slab of rock in a 1920s Sri Lankan village.

Although Beggar’s Feast is Sam Kandy’s story, it is also the story of Ceylon, now the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (another name change!). It can be very tricky in writing fiction to make sure that the reader has the background to understand the story without preaching, lecturing, educating — slowing down or actually stopping the narrative by inserting facts. You avoid this problem by immersing your reader in the scene with minimal explanation about, for example, who Bracegirdle is, or Xavier Joseph De Moraes. But the price to be paid for not being more informative is to sometimes leave your reader wanting to know more. It must not have been easy deciding how to present historical material. Could you discuss your decisions about this?

Moby-Dick was the guide here. It’s full of information about whaling, and if we stopped to confirm, clarify, verify, etc., every detail, imagine how awful a reading experience this would be. My hope, with Beggar’s Feast, is that you will be carried along by the story and feel, as you read, that all of these details don’t matter in and of themselves, but only as they reveal Sam Kandy and his world to you in only more vivid ways.

With historical events and people — I was already familiar with, for example,  Mountbatten and the Tamil Tigers — my understanding of your already moving scenes deepened. In the 1980s, the boys rushing at Sam, “boys like none that he had ever known in his own hard-running days,” were chilling and revelatory, all the more so because I was bringing my newspaper knowledge to the scene. Which brings me to a burning question about Mountbatten? In Beggar’s Feast, there are many scenes of brutality, murderous indifference to the suffering of others, callousness about the infliction of pain. Yet of all these images, the one I will never forget (and would like to!) is that of the “caged Ethiopians with padlocks driven through their lips,” prisoners of war that Mountbatten forces on Sam Kandy. Their treatment, their ultimate fates, continue to horrify me. Were these men, their horrific situation, an act of imagination or did you draw from an actual event?

This is certainly one of the most difficult parts of the novel, and it came from a combination of public history and personal memory. The public history part concerns Mountbatten and the British presence in Ceylon during WWII, which involved prisoners-of-war camps. Most of those housed here were Italians, captured in the North African theater. My grandmother remembered seeing prisoners being trouped off Allied warships in Colombo harbor in the 1940s; she specifically remembered seeing African men with tiny padlocks dangling from their lips. That image stayed with me long after I heard the story, and a little historical research was enough to suggest that African POWs were plausible presences in Ceylon during this time. I have no firm confirmation about the padlocks, but at a reading I gave last year in Toronto, I was asked about this and an elderly Sri Lankan man in the audience affirmed that he too had seen such terrible sights directly, as a wartime boy in Ceylon.

Beggar’s Feast tells of the 100 years of the life of Sam Kandy. What do we have to look forward to as your next writing project?

I’m changing gears pretty radically with a biography of Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009), the controversial Roman Catholic priest, neoconservative intellectual and political activist. This will be published by Random House in 2014. I’m also at work on a new novel, set in small-town America and starring a 50-something widower and his children trying to make sense of their lives after a family tragedy. Again, we’re pretty far away from the subtropical intensities of Sam Kandy and Sri Lanka!

Interviewed by Linda Morefield

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