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Award-Winning Tamil-American Author And Educator SJ Sindu, Releases Second Novel Called "Blue-Skinned Gods" That Explores Identity, Faith, Family & Sexuality
"I was so scared leading up to its publication. I was scared of my family’s reaction because Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a queer story. I was scared of the community reaction, too."
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how that potentially played a part to become a storyteller (in multiple formats including books and graphic novels).

I was born in Sri Lanka and lived in the north and eastern parts during the civil war, so the early part of my childhood was shaped by war and survival. I moved to the U.S. with my family when I was seven, where I stood out as a brown immigrant kid who didn’t know English and who wore pottus and homemade clothes. I was teased relentlessly.  When I was a teenager, 9/11 happened, throwing our safety as brown-skinned South Asians into question in the U.S. as hate crimes increased against South Asians in the aftermath of the attacks. With all of these experiences, I struggled to find representations of my own life in books and media. I didn’t read a single book featuring a South Asian protagonist until I was in high school—Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused. And even then, there were no Tamil protagonists to be found. I felt like Tamilness might never be represented in books.

Of course, there’s more and more Tamil representation every day now, but back in the early 2000s the literary landscape seemed bleak, a dream that might never manifest. So I started to write my own original stories and fanfiction. I didn’t really approach any issues of war or of my own experience; I wrote mostly fantasy. I based my stories off of the ones I loved—epic fantasy and manga. I wrote both prose and comics/manga.

It wasn’t until I was in university that I got serious about my writing, but my upbringing as a displaced Tamil—one with no home state, discriminated against and in danger—made me want to tell the stories I wasn’t seeing out there, stories that featured people like me.

What was the reception like to your first book "Marriage Of A Thousand Lies"?

I was so scared leading up to its publication. I was scared of my family’s reaction because Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a queer story. I was scared of the community reaction, too. But in many ways, the reception was amazing beyond anything I was expecting. The book has slowly gained readers over the last few years, and I got a lot of emails from queer Tamils and queer South Asians in general who said that the book made them feel seen for the first time. That’s all I want as a writer.

I also got a lot of positive support from my brother and cousins—everyone in my family who is of my generation. And that’s meant the world to me.

How does an author apply or get discovered for awards like the ones you won in the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award and finalist for Lambda Literary Award?

Usually your publisher enters you into these awards, and my publisher, Soho Press, was very supportive about entering Marriage of a Thousand Lies into awards.

What did you learn from the experience of writing and publishing your first book that you applied to your newest book "Blue Skinned Gods"?

I learned a lot about the process of writing something so large and unwieldy as a novel. It’s not like writing a short story. It’s a much larger, longer commitment, and the revision process can be long and exhausting. I had something like twenty drafts of Marriage of a Thousand Lies. I also learned how slow the publishing process is. It tests your patience.

So for Blue-Skinned Gods, I was able to trust the process more, to trust that if I work steadily and have patience, a finished product will emerge at the end of many years. A lot of people give up on writing books because they get frustrated that the quality of the work isn’t up to their expectations, but it takes years and years of slow, steady work to take a novel from first draft to published.

You also have a graphic novel out in Shakti - what is the difference in creating a story in these 2 mediums (book vs graphic novel)?

The graphic novel is similar to a prose novel in that the story structure is similar. What makes a good story doesn’t change between these forms. But the addition of the visual element to the graphic novel makes the form different to work with. Like with a film, there is so much that can be communicated through the pictures themselves, but there’s also little interiority, so the characters have to be fleshed out through dialogue and action. Voice matters a lot in a prose novel, but in the graphic novel form, it’s about the visuals and creating story through the panels.

What was the inspiration behind writing "Blue Skinned Gods"?

I watched this documentary, Kumare, about a filmmaker who pretends to be a guru and amasses a big following. I found it fascinating that even when he tells his followers that he’s not a guru, many still wanted to believe in him. That power of human will—the need to believe—was interesting to me. And of course, I always knew about gurus and spiritual leaders in India. I started researching more about these movements, and the story started to come together in my head.

How long did it take you to write this book?  What was the most challenging part about the journey?

From the first page to the finished product, seven years and three months. Almost three years of that was the publishing process, so the bulk of the book took about four and a half years to write. The most challenging part was revision. Something just wasn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out why. I changed the chronology multiple times. I produced about five different versions (in eighteen drafts) of the book before something finally clicked and I wrote the final version.

How do you balance your time & attention between writing and your teaching job at the U of T Scarborough?

I’m lucky enough that a professor’s job includes working on our own writing. But it does take a lot of time management. I usually carve out about three days for my teaching and preparation, and three days for writing. I schedule out my time every day so that I know what I need to be working on when. I have two calendars and to-do lists for every week. I’ve learned to be extremely organized so that when I’m writing, I can focus fully on that. I try to have one day a week where I don’t work, but that’s not always possible.

Summers are a boon, because I don’t have the teaching part of the job, so that I can concentrate on writing.

Can you tell us about a failure you’ve experienced in the last 5 years and what you learned from it?

A writer’s life is full of rejection. So I can’t think of a big failure, but I have lots of little failures—every time that a book doesn’t sell, or things sour with an agent, or a book doesn’t get onto a best-of list, or a story gets rejected by a magazine. All of it has taught me to keep going. Resilience and tenacity are important if you want to be a writer. You’ll get rejected and knocked down a lot. You have to get up and keep going.

What advice would you give to someone out there considering writing a book?

Be prepared for the long haul. It takes years to write a good book. Sometimes many, many years. It takes steady work, discipline, patience, and trust in yourself and your work. Writing a book is a collaboration between all the different versions of you that work on the book over the years. And because it’s a long process, you have to really love writing. You have to enjoy the process, or else it’s not worth it.

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What role has your family played in the choices that you’ve made in your life so far?

They’ve generally tried to talk me out of all the major choices I’ve made. When I was in university, I switched my major to English against my family’s wishes. I went to graduate school for creative writing against my family’s wishes. I lived on my own against my family’s wishes. I married my partner against my family’s wishes. I pursued a career as a writer against my family’s wishes. I wrote about queerness and the Sri Lankan civil war against my family’s wishes. It’s kind of a miracle that I’m still very close to my family despite all that. They did what they thought was best, and because every choice I made was something new for them, it was scary. But I’ve always made choices that were best for me, hoping that it’ll all work out.

Do you feel like social media is a necessary “evil” in the line of work that you do?  Has it been useful as a networking tool or generating opportunities for you?

I enjoy connecting with the writing community through social media. Most of my friends are writers and thanks to social media, I’ve been able to follow their careers and still stay in touch despite the fact that we live scattered all over the world. I’ve also made friends with writers through social media, gotten connected to community, and met readers of my work. And I get to celebrate my friends and their accomplishments, which is my favorite part of social media. But in general, I try not to spend too much time on social media. I don’t like that my posts are highly curated (because whose isn’t?) and I feel like social media communicates a false sense of who I am. But the benefits outweigh the challenges for me.

What do you do outside of work for fun?

I love socializing with friends, which has been hard to live without in the pandemic. My partner and I like hiking and traveling together. I also homebrew beer and mead, and enjoy paper crafts for relaxation.

What is an insecurity you have?

I’ve always been somewhat of a people pleaser. It scares me to consider not being liked.

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

I want to be remembered as kind and generous, but also as independent, someone who charted their own way. I want my cousins to see that you don’t always have to do what’s expected of you, and that you can pick and choose what suits you from Tamil culture and tradition.

What do you think you would tell 16-year Sindu looking back?

Sixteen-year-old Sindu was lonely and angry, and I would tell her to trust her instincts, to forge her own way, and that it’s all going to work out well.

How would you describe your dream life?  

In many ways, I have my dream life. I love that I get to write and teach for a living. I love my partner and our relationship. I love my family. I’d like to buy a house someday, and have the money to travel all over the world with my partner. I’d also like my books to have a bigger reach in terms of audience. Something I’d also love is to have my books translated into Tamil.

What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?

My partner and I went on a road trip this summer, and while we were traveling, I read Art and Lies by Jeanette Winterson, one of my favorite writers. I’m so in awe of the way she uses language. That book in particular achieved a type of poetic storytelling that I aspire to.

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

I started doing yoga every morning, and taking a yoga class every Saturday with a Tamil instructor. This practice has improved my bodily well-being by leaps and bounds, which helps to also manage my stress and keep me happier.

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

Something I’ve learned from my time as an activist is that money talks. And in order to make long-lasting change, we as a world need better politicians and better, more accessible education. I would invest in progressive education and gender equity. I would also invest in the campaigns of progressive politicians in the most powerful countries in the world, and invest in start-ups and NGOs that are trying to fix issues like climate change, world hunger, sanitation, and human rights.

How would you describe the Tamil community in Canada? 

It’s very diverse, much more than other diaspora Tamil communities I’ve seen in the U.S. and Australia. There’s a sort of critical mass of Tamil in Canada that allows us to continue many of our community traditions. But there’re also smaller pockets of Tamil artists, queer Tamils, and progressive Tamils here that’s exciting to see.

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

I love really spicy kottu roti, paal appam with sugar, and idiyappam with sambal and sothi.

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

Baasha. I think it’s a great movie, aside from the sexism. I love the way the story is revealed to us. I’d actually really love, at some point in my career, to write an English-language adaptation of Baasha.

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

To me, Tamil culture isn’t about religion or about keeping traditions that don’t serve us anymore. All traditions and worldviews must evolve with the times. And a lot of what we sometimes consider traditional, especially when it comes to women, is outdated and harmful. 

True Tamil culture is the art, the language, and the knowledge of our history. These are what we should be preserving and passing down to our kids.

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Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host | TamilCulture
Canada
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