SJ Sindu, author of Blue-Skinned Gods
When SJ Sindu was younger, she couldn’t wait for her annual family vacation to Scarborough.
“Scarborough was a whole different world from where I grew up,” says Sindu, assistant professor in the English department at the University of Toronto in Scarborough.
“You could go to Tamil stores, buy Tamil food and just be surrounded by Tamils. It was very meaningful to me.
She says her early experiences – growing up in a conflict zone, immigrating to the United States, and exploring her own identity as a Tamil living in the predominantly white suburban town of Amherst, Mass. – helped shape his voice as an author.
His first novel, The marriage of a thousand lies, tells the story of Lucky and her husband Krishna, who got married to hide their homosexuality from their conservative Sri Lankan-American families. His new novel, Blue-skinned gods, follows Kalki, a boy born with blue skin and black blood who would be the reincarnation of Vishnu. He begins to doubt his divinity as his personal life and relationships crumble, then moves to New York where he becomes part of the underground punk scene.
Published in Canada by Penguin Random House, the book has been described by Roxane Gay as a brilliant novel “that will grab you and never let you go” and received rave reviews in The Guardian and The New York Times among others. It will be launch at Glad Day Books as part of their Naked Heart festival December 18.
UTSC News spoke to Sindu about his early influences and how faith, identity and family continue to shape his writing.
How did your early influences shape you as a writer?
I was born and lived in North East Sri Lanka until I was seven years old. Much of my childhood and early years were shaped by the war and being a Tamil living in Jaffna during the war.
The other immigrated to the United States. I was very isolated when I was a child. There were other Indians around, but there were no Sri Lankan Tamils. So I read a lot of books and I escaped into stories. It was a way of dealing with coming out of a war situation and being put into this very suburban American life with no peer or way to explore my own identity.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I only really started writing at university. I actually started in IT and then fell in love with creative writing. I loved the potential of writing fiction to communicate the ideas that obsessed me.
Where does the inspiration come from for Blue-skinned gods comes from?
The inspiration came in part because I lost my faith in religion. I was raised as a Hindu and as a teenager I started to lose my faith and explore atheism. At the same time, my family has become more and more religious. So I wanted to explore this relationship.
I also saw a documentary by Vikram Ghandi titled Kimāré where he claims to be an Indian guru and ends up gathering this large audience. I also observed closely the growing popularity of the BJP, a right-wing nationalist party in India, and was interested in exploring what it meant to have a growing fundamentalist Hindu strain in India and how it might affect the region.
In your first novel, The marriage of a thousand lies, you also explore themes of identity, sexuality, faith and family. Why do these themes inspire your writing?
There are things that I am still trying to resolve in my own life. I’m trying to understand my relationship with my family, especially my extended family now that I live in Toronto. How to be part of a family that fundamentally rejects parts of who I am – homosexuality, atheism, the progressive beliefs that I have. Negotiating this with the older family members has been interesting. I’m still trying to figure it out, and I think I explore these things in my writing.
Did you have a favorite book or a book that influenced you as a writer?
There are two. The first is The things they carried by Tim O’Brien. It was the first novel I read where I realized I had to and could write about my experiences with the war. It’s the book that made me want to be a writer.
The second is Funny boy by Shyam Selvadurai. For the first time, I saw Tamil and Queerness explored together, and it was very important to see, especially in my development as a writer.
What advice do you give to your students and future writers?
Write the stories you want to read. Many of my students at UTSC are racialized, many are from immigrant families, and they haven’t read many stories that reflect that experience. I hope they can be inspired to write about their own experiences.