SJ Sindu is a Tamil diaspora author and an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Sindu holds an M.A. in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a PhD in English from Florida State University. Her first novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and the Golden Crown Literary Society Award for Debut Fiction, was selected by the American Library Association as a Stonewall Honor Book, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the VCU First Novelist Award. Sindu is also the author of two hybrid chapbooks, including I Once Met You But You Were Dead, which won the Split Lip Press Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest.
Blue-Skinned Gods, her second novel, follows Kalki, a boy with blue skin who is believed to be the tenth human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Kalki is confronted with three trials when he turns ten that will prove his divine status and, his father tells him, spread his fame worldwide. Over the next decade, as the story of his family unravels, his relationships to everyone—his dominating father, his beloved cousin, his cancer-stricken aunt, and the young woman he imagines he will marry—threaten to fall apart.
Sindu is being interviewed by Brianna Bock.
Brianna Bock (BB): What made you want to explore a story of discovering/a crisis of identity, faith, family and sexuality from the perspective of a childgod rather than a quote-unquote regular person going through the same thing?
SJ Sindu (SS): The perspective of a childgod just seemed much more interesting to me. Instead of an outsider perspective, entering the world of what could be considered a cult, I wanted to imagine what it would be like from inside. I also think a lot of children think of themselves as little gods, especially at early ages, so I wanted to take that to the extreme. Because if you’re a regular person who loses their faith, of course it can be devastating but it’s not the same as losing your faith when you think of yourself as divine.
BB: There are several moments in the novel where Kalki mentions that the text of Hinduism directly contradicts Ayya’s interpretations of it. A few standout moments to me were the thirunangaigal being blessed by Vishnu’s incarnation Rama but Kalki being told to avoid them, and Kalki’s relationship with Roopa. In another, lesser, story, I think that this side of Hinduism wouldn’t have been shown, sticking only to Ayya’s interpretations with Kalki not bringing these moments up at all. What made you include them?
SS: I wanted complications at every turn. We think of Hinduism as this monolith, especially in the Global North, but it’s really a patchwork of belief systems that have changed over centuries. Plus, New Age spiritualists in the Global North often venerate Hinduism, but like any religion, there are a lot of problematic elements baked in, like casteism. In light of the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, I wanted to knock it down a few pegs, too, and show the differences in how people interpret and teach the religion.
BB: Your previous work, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, also dealt with themes of identity along with the intersection of race and family. Both of your main characters in Marriage of a Thousand Lies and Blue-Skinned Gods grapple with various lies they tell themselves and their family tells them in return. I couldn’t help but notice the very human drama playing out at the heart of Kalki’s claims of Godhood. What is it about these themes and ideas that you want to explore in your work?
SS: I’m really interested in the conflict between individual identity and the wishes and reputation of the collective, in this case of the family. As an immigrant, I moved from a collectivist culture to an individualist one, and I want to show the problems involved in both. Neither extreme is going to work for everyone. But that push and pull of both sides is, for me, emblematic of the immigrant experience, and of the human experience in general. Which will win out, the desires of the identity or the needs of the group? I’m fascinated by this question.
BB: One of things that drew me into Blue-Skinned Gods was the intimacy of the writing. With the hook that Kalki is believed to be the tenth incarnation of Vishnu, I was half-expecting the story to be big and bombastic, like a God. Going in, I thought the story was going to be in-line with ‘magical realism’ but the attention to the raw human family drama unfolding around Kalki felt so much more gripping, compelling and devastating in certain parts, and magical in others. Kalki himself mentions that when he reads The Awakening that it is “more exciting and more unrealistic than bloody battles or powerful demons.” Is this something you want your work to highlight specifically? Was this a theme you wanted to work into Blue-Skinned Gods, or was it those writing moments that just appeared out of nowhere?
SS: It’s funny you ask this question, because I quite love fantasy as a genre. Magic and swords and the whole thing. But I guess what I’m interested in isn’t usually the worldbuilding, though I love that, too. What draws me in is what you called the “raw human drama” that exists at the heart of any story, even an epic one. I wanted to have the scales of an epic here, but explore the small human complications of a young boy who grows up believing he’s a god.
BB: Another moment that I absolutely loved was Kalki reflecting on everything he’s lost over the course of the story which is centred on the loss of his language, Tamil, during his time in America when he explains the different words that Tamil has for love. It just seemed to perfectly capture what he was going through in just one page. And the moment afterwards where he got to speak Tamil again felt like a well-deserved small victory. What made you focus on his relationship to language in this one moment?
SS: I moved to the U.S. from Sri Lanka when I was seven. Because my parents kept speaking Tamil in the home, I was able to keep my connection to it. But when I moved away from home, it felt so strange to me not to hear Tamil every day. It’s a sort of alienation that we don’t often talk about when it comes to immigration and displacement. Wittgenstein theorizes about how language affects the way you think and how you relate to the world. And so when you’re an immigrant with a different first language than the place where you live, it also means that you think and live in the world differently, which is a lonely experience. I experienced it when I moved to the U.S. This is why I always loved vacationing in Scarborough (before I moved to Toronto), because I could be surrounded by Tamil speakers. It was validating and made me feel less alone. So when I wrote Kalki, I wanted to incorporate that experience into his life in New York.
BB: Looking back on the novel’s third act, one of the things Kalki is grappling with is ultimately the loss of his old life. It isn’t an easy victory and while Kalki never considers seriously returning to his old life, it keeps circling him in new ways with his involvement in the band. Again, I think a lesser story wouldn’t have included Kalki’s confusion over what to do next, or the longing for the familiar. Up until the very end of the novel, that loss is so strongly felt. Was this something you always wanted to include in the story, something essential to the story as a whole?
SS: Yes, it’s been there since the first draft. I don’t think the story is complete without Kalki grappling with the loss of the very things he’s been trying to escape his whole life, the whole book. He has to accept that loss ultimately, but only after struggling with it. So narratively, yes it’s something I’ve always envisioned for the book.
BB: Hypothetically, if everything went according to Ayya’s plan, do you think Kalki would have eventually figured out what was going on or would he have continued to live the life Ayya planned out for him?
SS: I don’t think Kalki is the kind of person who would’ve never rebelled. Of course, his early experiences with Lakshman, and then his encounters with Kalyani, Roopa, Brad, and later the crowd in New York sort of push him to make the realizations faster. But even if left to his own devices, I think eventually, he would’ve figured it out. But at that point, it might have been too late. Because if everything goes according to Ayya’s plan, Kalki would eventually gain enough power and influence to cast Ayya out of the equation. Kalki even as a child is shrewd and smart, and yes, I think he would’ve figured it out either way.