Shehan Karunatilaka won Britain’s most prestigious literary prize for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a brutal satire on the Sri Lankan civil war he witnessed as a child. He talks to Writer at Large Neil Mackay

SHEHAN Karunatilaka looks every inch the louche GenXer when we meet: black painted nails, eyebrow ring, silver-fox hair swept back in waves. Appearances, however, are deceptive. There’s none of the jaded, detached irony - the couldn’t-give-a-damn flippancy - which typifies and blights our generation. Karunatilaka gives plenty of damns.

His novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, is a raging condemnation of his country Sri Lanka, a brutal satire on the civil war which soaked the nation in blood. He mocks, accuses, and shames; he points the finger directly at every gunman and politician who ruined the land he loves.

Little wonder it made him the current Booker Prize winner, catapulting him to fame, with comparisons to Salman Rushdie. Like Rushdie, some wish Karunatilaka would shut his mouth. He picks at festering scabs, and there's Sri Lankans who want those wounds left untouched. Yet also like Rushdie, there’s many thankful for his bravery, and how he’s burned the truth about their country into the page.

We catch up in London, where he’s staying with his wife and children - enjoying a vacation-meets-publicity-tour - ahead his trip to Edinburgh as star of the Book Festival.

To some extent, Karunatilaka’s anger seems driven by guilt. Sri Lanka’s Civil War was barbaric: a litany of death squads, terrorism, state collusion, suicide bombings, assassinations, disappearances, torture … you name an atrocity, it stalked the land.


Sri Lankan attendees read through names of fallen soldiers on a memorial for those who died in the decades-long conflict against the Tamil Tigers, during a commemorative ceremony marking the 9th anniversary of the end of the islands civil war, in the

Sri Lankan attendees read through names of fallen soldiers on a memorial for those who died in the decades-long conflict against the Tamil Tigers, during a commemorative ceremony marking the 9th anniversary of the end of the island's civil war, in the



He was eight when war began in 1983. “I grew up in the Colombo bubble,” he says, of life in the island’s capital, a place he feels was “insulated from the real horrors of the conflict”.

‘Insulation’ is in the eye of the beholder, however. Although he says he mostly played cricket as a schoolboy during the war, Karunatilaka vividly remembers Black July - the inter-ethnic rioting which lead to mass murder, lynchings, and pogroms as Sinhalese turned on Tamil. There’s shades of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ in Sri Lanka’s war, with the majority Sinhalese in conflict with the minority Tamils.

Yet the difference in death toll is extraordinary. In Northern Ireland, 3500 people died in 30 years. In Sri Lanka, at least 100,000 died between 1983 and 2009, when the conflict officially ended amid mass carnage.

“Suddenly, you’d this city under siege,” he says of Black July. “You’d checkpoints, bomb blasts, assassinations.” He remembers school closing for months, and “fear in my parents’ eyes”.

Then Karunatilaka says something which brings home just how horrific life was, even for a kid in supposedly sheltered Colombo. He recalls 1989, when Marxist guerrillas were embroiled in the conflict. “There were dead bodies on the roadside, in tyres, burning. The grown-ups pushed your face away, saying ‘don’t look’. The question I asked was, ‘who was that? Why were they killed?’ It could have been anyone: Tamil, Sinhalese, Marxist, civilian”.

His novel, Seven Moons, attempts to answer that question: why did they die? It tells the story of Maali Almeida, a gay war photographer, killed by one of Sri Lanka’s brutal factions. Maali awakes in the afterlife and begins a quest to discover a box of his old negatives which, if he can only bring them to the eyes of the living, will prove the truth of Black July and the causes of conflict. In essence, Karunatilaka’s novel is ‘a plague on all their houses’: damning every side, denouncing the state for crimes as monstrous as the terrorists.

In a land still recovering, it’s not a lesson everyone wants to hear, and Karunatilaka is, he says: “A Sinhalese Buddhist. I’m the majority chauvinist oppressor.” Many on his own ‘side’ - a phrase Karunatilaka would surely shudder at - won’t like his literary calling-to-account.


In 1990, Karunatilaka’s family fled the war, emigrating to New Zealand. His dad, a gynaecologist, had received warnings from guerrillas “not to go to work. Then you’d find shopkeepers strung up on lampposts because they’d defied [the order] and went to work. That’s the reason we left”.

In New Zealand, Karunatilaka “tried to shed” Sri Lanka, attempting to “adopt the accent and not stand out”. He was the “brown face” at his “macho” boarding school. Despite the culture-shock, his love of western culture helped him settle in, especially pop music and horror movies.

He later returned home, where he lives today, after a peripatetic life in Britain and Singapore. His first book, Chinaman, mocked the middle class bubble he emerged from. “It was about characters who just watched cricket and drank, while the war happened elsewhere”.

He fizzes with anger at Colombo’s apathy. After last year’s political crisis in Sri Lanka, when the economy crashed and the President fled, wealthy Colombo returned to “partying. It was almost, like, ‘okay, the crisis is over’. Yeah, it’s over for you, but for the majority - the working class, the poor - it’s only begun.”

When he returned home, he made friends with folk from the north and east of the island, where the fighting was hardest. His wife’s family comes from tea plantation areas. “They’d harrowing experiences,” Karunatilaka adds.






Fittingly, his Booker-winning novel is told in the voices of ghosts - the civilian dead who still haunt the island - and demons, who in the novel are the henchmen of terrorists and politicians. The book has shades of magical realism - thus the Rushdie comparison - but in truth, it’s more a wild adult fairy tale, meets horror story, meets hard-boiled detective noir: a sparklingly dark novel.

Seven Moons fictionalises many real victims of the war. Richard de Zoysa, the Sri Lankan journalist likely killed by government death squads, inspired the anti-hero Maali Almeida. Rajani Thiranagama, an outspoken assassinated academic, stars as a bureaucrat in the afterlife; and murdered left-winger Daya Pathirana appears as a vengeful spirit.

De Zoysa’s death “sent shockwaves through middle class Colombo,” Karunatilaka says. “Suddenly they’d got one of us - an English-speaking liberal. It proved the state could go after anyone”. Thiranagama’s daughter wrote of the “privilege of seeing her mother alive 40 years later in the pages of this book. That was the best feedback I got”.

Like most civil conflicts, Karunatilaka says the Sri Lankan war “began with worthy causes. Certainly, there was a case for Tamil people asking for autonomy; for rural youth asking for opportunities”.

Seven Moons, Karunatilaka explains, is about the battle within Sri Lanka’s soul to either “forget the past” or “address these injustices”. Why is there still no memorial to Black July, no official acknowledgement of the state’s role in pogroms, he asks. “We don’t hear the full extent of atrocities.

But there’s narratives spun by Sinhalese to make themselves feel better - like Sinhalese shielded Tamils in their homes to keep the mob away, which is true, but that narrative seems to dominate. There’s certainly no apology. There’s no official death count, yet Black July fractured everything.”

Only a handful of pictures exist of Black July - including one appalling image of a Tamil youth stripped naked, about to be lynched by a Sinhalese mob. That’s why the theme of images, which would prove just how complicit the state was in the pogrom, lies at the heart of Seven Moons.

The war ended - with huge numbers of civilian dead - yet, says Karunatilaka, “there’s no effort to address the causes of what made us tear each other apart for 30 years”.

History has left Karunatilaka deeply suspicious of Sri Lanka’s leaders. He says of the 2019 Islamist Easter bomb attacks: “Ten years after the war, in a country where the Muslim population was largely peaceful, and victims of the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil, suddenly we’ve radical Islamic terrorism. Churches blown up. Then within a month - it’s done. We no longer have it anymore. There’s many conspiracies over that. You can’t help but wonder: was this manufactured?”


After 2019’s attacks, Sri Lanka spiralled into economic chaos. “We still find ourselves this underachieving country, bankrupt. There’s no bullets now, but we go from catastrophe to catastrophe. Sri Lankans still argue about whose fault the war was, rather than coming together as a united country.”

It’s not ordinary people Karunatilaka blames, but politicians. “Sri Lankans aren’t inherently bigoted or racist. If you travel the country, you’ll see people working together, all sorts of languages spoken, people believing in whatever gods they want. But during election cycles, there’s an easy, lazy way to win: ‘watch out for that minority, they’re out to get you. Vote for us, we’ll keep you safe’.”

Seven Moons was first released in India under the title Chats with the Dead in 2020, but initially struggled to find a western publisher. It was seen as too difficult, too ‘Sri Lankan’, too strange. More fool those publishers. The indie outfit, Sort Of Books, picked it up, helping Karunatilaka tweak it for western audiences. Karunatilaka says he “owes them everything”.

Yet when the book was first printed nobody back home could buy it. It appeared mid-economic crisis. “Books weren’t being brought to Sri Lanka then. We didn’t even have petrol or gas.”

When it finally appeared, many older folk told him “why are you writing these horrible things?” But young Sri Lankans loved it. They tell him: “Our parents don’t talk about the war, teachers don’t talk about it.” Karunatilaka grimaces: “I tell them, this is the fictionalised version, the real story is far more gruesome.”

Sometimes, as happens with Sri Lankan film-makers who win at Cannes with movies of the war, Karunatilaka is asked: “Why are you depicting your country as savages who kill each other? Is this how you win awards in the west - portraying dystopia?”. Karunatilaka adds dryly: “I didn’t make this stuff up … but in Sri Lanka you can’t be too vocal politically.”

To the people who tell him “why write about this, just move on”, he replies: “Many can’t move on, they’re still holding up photographs of their missing children.”

Despite the negativity, there’s been plenty of praise. But he jokes, self-deprecatingly, that in a country as battered and bruised as Sri Lanka, “we celebrate any victory”. Though he’s glad “no politician invited me to tea. It would be awkward for all concerned”.


Sri Lankan officials inspect St. Sebastians Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, in Negombo, Sri Lanka. At least 207 people have been killed and hundreds more

Sri Lankan officials inspect St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, in Negombo, Sri Lanka. At least 207 people have been killed and hundreds more



He was buoyed by the recent protests which ousted the president - demonstrations he took part in. The economic collapse was down to “decades of corruption and pillage. It was a great moment when the country unified. We’d a common cause - grandmas and kids.”

He feared security forces would open fire on demonstrators but they didn’t and the people “stormed the president’s palace, jumped in his pool, sat on his couch watching cricket on his telly”. All the while, young protestors held placards in Sinhalese and Tamil telling folk not to destroy anything, exhorting them that “we’re not looters, we’re good people. I felt the younger generation weren’t tainted by the ideas our parents had, that we inherited - that maybe there’s hope.”

Now, though, the spirit of the demonstrations has faded. “The president went, we got new leadership but it’s still the same old guys”. Today, with petrol, food and water available once again, Colombo’s middle-class bubble doesn’t want the boat rocked anymore. “Dissent is being stifled softly. We’ve had stand-up comics arrested. Hold a placard and the police will give you a tough time.” It’s not the “brutality” of the past, but “the message from the state is ‘we’re not going to tolerate this nonsense’.”


Karunatilaka feels no guilt for showing the world Sri Lanka’s ugly face. After all, for years he worked as a copywriter in the tourist industry, spinning yarns of island paradise. It was while travelling Sri Lanka for these travel reports that he came to understand the extent of Scotland’s involvement in the island’s colonial past. The nation’s giant tea industry was built by two Scots: James Taylor - who we know little of here at home - and Thomas Lipton, of Lipton’s tea fame.

Unlike many Sri Lankans, Karunatilaka doesn’t blame British colonial rule for exacerbating the ethnic tensions which exploded into civil war. “We can interrogate the sins of colonials, of which there’s many”, Karunatilaka says, pointing out that the Dutch and Portuguese also colonised Sri Lanka, “but if you’re looking at the last 75 years, we messed it up all by ourselves. I’m reluctant to blame the Brits. They’ve much to answer for, all round the globe, but the Sri Lankan conflict was a catastrophe of our own making.”

In fact, he’s rather fond of some colonial hangovers. Near where he lives there’s an old colonial-style hotel, “where we go for sundown drinks and every evening a Scottish piper in a kilt plays the bagpipes and takes down the flag”.

He seems remarkably forgiving. “Maybe that’s just me,” Karunatilaka adds. “I’m anglophile.”


Perhaps it’s all that British pop culture he consumed as a kid. One of the demons in Seven Moons is, he admits, as influenced by the horror movie Hellraiser as eastern myths. He remembers the excitement of Top of the Pops appearing on Sri Lankan TV, six months after airing in Britain, and how folk waited for shipments of western albums, books and movies arriving.

He also fell in love with the absurdist satires of Kurt Vonnegut, the dark fiction of Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King’s mastery of storytelling.

Culturally, though, Karunatilaka owes as much to Asia’s great modern writers - Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Michael Ondaatje - who broke though in the west, telling stories of the east, as he does western literature and pop culture.

Sri Lankan novels once imitated “Englishmen writing in the 1920s”, and sat on the bottom shelves of Colombo bookstores. “Now it’s possible for Sri Lankan writers with long names,” he jokes, “to be read everywhere.” He just hopes Sri Lankan music catches up with Sri Lankan literature, and finds its own unique voice. Sri Lankan bands always “sound like their playing covers of Nirvana or Led Zep”.

He’s loves hip-hop. Wherever he goes in the world, the poetry of rap tells a nation’s authentic story, Karunatilaka believes. He has fond memories of visiting Scotland’s T in the Park festival when he lived in Britain. His face falls when he hears it’s defunct. “Oh shit,” he says.

Literary glory aside, rockstar daydreams linger. That’s why those finger-nails are painted black. It looks cool, he thinks, when he strums the guitar he’s taken with him to Britain. His wife disapproves of the goth look. She took him for a manicure before he met Queen Camilla at the Booker.

Right now, his brain is buzzing. He’s trapped in “the circus” of post-Booker craziness. It’s not a world he likes. He hates even answering emails.


For a literary rebel, his preferred lifestyle is rather sedate. He longs to be beneath a tree, back home, writing again.

For a while, between his first book, and his second, Seven Moons, Karunatilaka thought he’d just be another “one-hit wonder”. But he stripped back his career in advertising - where he’d met his wife, an art director-turned-interior-designer - to just three days each week so he could concentrate on writing.

It was hard with a young family - though his wife “bore the brunt as the Uber driver taking the kids to football practice and swimming” - but it was the only way to finish the novel that made his name. “I could pay the bills, look after the kids. The 13-year-old me would have thought: if you could have a career where you listen to music, type and sit in pyjamas ‘that’s victory’.”

He’s now relishing his two children, aged six and nine, one day getting him into “cool music and movies”, so he stays up to date with the pop culture that’s so shaped him.

In return, his children get to be his first readers. Not of his dark fiction like Seven Moons, but the kids’ books he writes and his brother illustrates. “We didn’t even talk about ‘Where Shall I Poop?, which is perhaps my masterpiece,” he laughs as the discussion closes.

The kids’ books keep him creative when he’s struggling with his novels. Right now, he’s got a third novel, about Sri Lanka in the early 2000s, underway, but he’s hardly written a word since last October, as the Booker madness engulfed him.

Instead, he and his brother have been working on a kids’ book about “an insect. We write one a year,” he says. “If one becomes the Hungry Caterpillar, then…” Karunatilaka pauses and thinks for a moment before adding, in a moment of very GenX irony: “That thing sells a million copies every year since 1969 - more than any Booker yet.”