The Ability to Pass Becomes Her Cage: Talking with SJ Sindu
The world of SJ Sindu’s Marriage of a Thousand Lies felt instantly familiar: families with ties on two continents, relatives with a lineage of secrets, generational gaps in upbringing and understanding, an urge to oblige family traditions while resisting a status conscious community. Lucky, the main character, goes through a seemingly typical life in the United States, with parties, sports, dances, and makes a living as a digital artist.
However, Lucky is also a lesbian in a marriage to a husband who is gay—a marriage of convenience to appease her family and the conservative community around her. She feels she might be the only lesbian among Boston’s “five hundred Sri Lankan families,” but of course, this is not true. Lucky finds delight and love with another woman who is going through a similar fake marriage.
Marriage of a Thousand Lies reveals a seething sexuality under the appearance of marriage and family. Tenuous conversations take on a heightened tension when Lucky’s sexuality is discovered by family and suppressed. The book is a fascinating study of how women in a Tamil community are allowed to integrate or can choose to flee the community. I interviewed Sindu in August.
The Rumpus: Do you have a favorite Rajinikanth movie? How do you feel Tamil movies and shows inform Tamils abroad with certain stories and family structures?
SJ Sindu: I love Baasha. I still rewatch it every few years. I recently watched all of Rajnikanth’s Tamil movies for a scholarly project analyzing the women characters in the movies and their relationship with both motherhood and virginity. I quite enjoyed watching all the movies, but it was still very hard to have such “traditionally” gendered stories pushed down my throat. And I put “traditional” in quotes because our South Asian culture is ancient, and what is traditional has changed so many times.
But yes, I definitely think Tamil movies and shows inform Tamils in the diaspora. For many Tamils in the diaspora, the home country’s culture goes on pause when they leave. They don’t really have a deep sense of how much Sri Lanka or India have modernized since they left, so they’re in a position where they’re living in a headspace of 1980s South Asia, and they can comfortably ignore the progressions of both the Western country they’re living in and back home. And barring a few exceptions, the movies and shows Tamils are watching reflect that 1980s ideal.
Rumpus: Do you feel Hindu dharma as interpreted by most Hindu parents leads to a lack of understanding between straight parents and gay children? I ask only because of the story you mention about how Vishnu sometimes incarnates as a woman, mostly in order to seduce other men. In the book, Lucky fantasizes that Lakshmi is attracted to this seductive form of Vishnu. It’s a reading of the incarnations of Vishnu that is seldom discussed when it comes to the heterosexual desires of Gods.
Sindu: I do think dharma plays into it. Because if you believe in dharma—that there is a virtuous, dutiful way to live life that is Right, then you also come to expect the sacrifice of personal desires in the fulfillment of that duty. So, for a lot of Hindu parents, dharma means that the queer child should put aside their wayward desires and conform for the greater good of the family and community. And if the child doesn’t, the child is then considered selfish.
As far as the queer reading of the scriptures, new research is showing us that the Hindu scriptures have a lot more queerness and ambiguity woven in than we realize in our post-colonial existence. The British did a lot to sanitize Hinduism through both legal codification (that then resonated outwards into society by dictating value systems), and cultural stigma (especially attached to “queer” parts of society like the devdasis or hijra). I want to work against that, and see Hindu scripture through a non-Catholic, non-sanitized lens.
Rumpus: I love the part where you describe the devdasis, or women who enjoyed privileges of married women in society but answered to no man, and how the British outlawed the practice. Did you do much research into the practice of temple marriage, and do you feel Lucky embodies this unwillingness to leave her education in the arts in pursuit of marriage?
Sindu: I did do a lot of research, both into devdasi history and into Hindu mythology and scripture. I think Lucky is especially attracted to the devdasis because, to her, marriage is not something that should change the core of who she is or what her life looks like. But culture—both Hindu and American—expects her to put aside her desires (both artistic and sexual) and be a Married Woman, so you can see how it would be attractive to her to have an example of a different path, and from Indian history, no less.
Rumpus: What do you think is the difference between Nisha’s character, who chooses to continue living a lie, and Lucky, who at the end of the book says she’s tired of lying. Lucky tells her Amma that she wants to file for divorce. I’m struck by the weaving between conformity and breaking out of oppression, that Lucky can only save herself.
Sindu: I think that last part is definitely true. Lucky has spent her whole life trying to bend herself to other people’s whims—for her mother, for Nisha, even Kris is guilty of expecting this from her. And at this point, she’s learning to be a little selfish, to say that she’s had enough, to walk away for the sake of her own happiness.
But, to me, what really sets the two apart is their gender. Lucky is much more masculine than Nisha, and that masculinity marks her and outs her. Even if she dresses feminine, Lucky is visibly queer by the way she sits, the way she holds herself. And because of that, she is always the outsider who is trying desperately to fit in but can’t. This in a lot of ways makes life harder for Lucky, but in some ways, it’s what saves her, too. She is kept from continuing in the kind of decision Nisha makes because she can’t completely hide inside the lies.
This also makes Nisha, to me, the more tragic character. Nisha’s femininity allows her to pass. She never has to acknowledge her queerness unless she wants to. In some ways, this is a privilege. She is not micromanaged the way that Lucky is. She isn’t subject to the homophobia of her community in the form of rumors and gossip. But this ability to pass also becomes her cage.
I’m very interested in issues of passing and femme erasure in the queer community. And it has its own version in the South Asian queer community, which I haven’t seen much explored in literature yet, so I wanted to do that with Nisha’s character.
Rumpus: Why do you think marriage for Sri Lankan parents—especially ones who have escaped a civil war—becomes such an all-encompassing obsession? I feel there is an unexpressed desire at play with the obsession for marriage, not simply that the children must have a better life, and I wonder if you could unpack this desire for a happy marriage.
Sindu: You’re right—the obsession with marriage is much more than just that their children should have a better life. I think marriage for many South Asian parents becomes the embodiment of tradition and of maintaining that cultural link back to the homeland. Even though they’ve immigrated to a new world, most of their nuclear families are still South Asians, so they can retreat into a feeling of home even though they live in a different country. So the idea that their children might have families that look drastically different—whether that means marrying someone not South Asian or marrying someone of their same gender—is terrifying. All of a sudden, the insular comfort of home now has an intruder from the foreign culture they’re trying to retreat from.
The other part, specific to Sri Lankan parents, is that marriage and family are signifiers of security and support. And as people who have experienced war, they know how important the security and support of family can be to survival. When the world turns dangerous, who can you trust? Who can you rely on to protect you? A nuclear family is a great solution to that problem. And at the center of that is a happy marriage, according to traditional views of family. I think also that this obsession with marriage is even greater when the child in question is a woman. And this, I think, also traces back to war in a lot of ways. A “normal” (and horrendous) part of war as it’s been fought for human history includes the rape and sexual torture of many, many women. And this is no different for Sri Lanka, so there’s always that fear, and there’s an idea in many parents’ heads that having a husband to protect you means you won’t be victimized in this way. Independent women who live and travel alone make easier targets, at least in the thinking of many Sri Lankan parents. So marriage and family take on extra importance.
Rumpus: Can you speak some more about the ambivalent relationship Lucky has to the Sri Lankan community. On the one hand, she feels extremely marginalized as a lesbian, yet on the other, she doesn’t flee the community the way her sister did. She appears to go through the motions of being a daughter and moves back home to take care of her grandmother.
Sindu: Lucky, just because of her personality, is far more afraid of confrontation than her sister Vidya, who runs away from home. But Vidya is also straight, which means she doesn’t feel marginalization from the larger American community the way that Lucky does. In many ways, Lucky because of her queerness is marginalized everywhere, and part of her sticks to the Sri Lankan community because it’s the only one she’s known. She doesn’t have a queer community or chosen family to replace the one she’d lose. And that’s a major fear of hers—to be alone in the world. So she goes through the motions, does the least amount to keep her mother and community near her.
Rumpus: After publishing the book, did you ever feel you had been put in a box as a South Asian writer or a gay and lesbian writer?
Sindu: I definitely knew that would be a possibility, if not a probability. But still, I wanted to explore the things that weren’t really being explored in South Asian American fiction. A lot of South Asians I knew were considering or were in straight marriages—even marriages of convenience. There was a lot of pressure for me to get an arranged marriage and conform. But it never actually occurred to me to do it. There was absolutely no way I wanted to enter into an arranged marriage or a marriage of convenience, so I was also fascinated by the kind of person who would make that decision. As I was writing it, this novel was the anti-me story. Lucky is very different from me as a person, which is why it was an interesting story for me to write. But I also knew that when the novel was published, people would just assume that I was Lucky, that this is my story. Part of this is because people assume that you write what you know, and the assumption is especially enforced for women/non-binary writers, queer writers, and writers of color. This brings up a lot of issues of privilege and power. There’s an assumption of white cisgender heterosexual maleness as the default, so any deviation from that and people question whether you’re just writing a thinly veiled memoir.
Rumpus: What’s been the response to your novel from your own family members and the Sri Lankan community in America?
Sindu: I think on the whole, everyone is pretending it doesn’t exist. Most of my family either doesn’t know what the book is about or is choosing to ignore it. And most of the Sri Lankan community is the same. My family didn’t exactly shout it from the rooftops. They are embarrassed. But the best response has actually been from young South Asians, queer and straight, who on the whole are less tied to the old ways and who tend to be much more accepting of queerness. The support I’ve received from my brother and other South Asians in my generation (and older ones who have broken ties with the community) has been wonderful.
Rumpus: Do you have any recommendations for South Asian gay and lesbian literature, especially writing that has informed your work?
Sindu: Yes! Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai, about a Sri Lankan gay boy’s coming of age. Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam, about a Bangladeshi-American young woman’s queer awakening. Bodies in Motion by Mary Anne Mohanraj, a short story collection that features some queer characters. And Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, a YA novel that features a queer subplot between two South Asian women. All of these are close to my heart, but it was Funny Boy and Born Confused that I read before writing Marriage of a Thousand Lies, and both have had enormous impact on my work.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? Has publishing the novel opened up any new creative directions in your life?
Sindu: Right now I’m finishing up my second novel, currently titled Blue-Skinned Gods, so I’m excited about getting that out into the world. I’m also working on a short story collection and starting research for my next novel, which is set in Toronto. Publishing this novel has been pretty exciting—I’m still doing readings and traveling for it—but I also just moved and started a job as a faculty member at Ringling College of Art & Design, which has a new creative writing major. I’m living my dream right now, making a living off of teaching and writing. Not to go in a #blessed direction with this, but how many people get to say that?
Feature photograph of author © Jessie Cohen. Second photograph of author © Ev Evnen.