SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. She is the author of the novel Marriage of a Thousand Lies and the hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead. Her work has been published in Brevity, LitHub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches creative writing at Ringling College of Art and Design. We caught up with the author to chat about her latest novel on a Sri Lankan American lesbian’s coming out story, and is one of the first Anglophone novels to feature a queer South Asian woman protagonist.
Q. What made you write your debut novel on the subject of queer identity?
I think it’s an extremely important subject to talk about, and especially timely since the queer rights movement in South Asia is picking up speed and there are more and more discussions of queerness within the South Asian diaspora in the West. South Asian queer women are also not written about often. There are only a handful of books in English that have South Asian queer women characters, and even fewer who make those characters the protagonists of stories. I wanted to write into that silence, and help fill it.
Q. Do you identify as queer?
Yes. It was so important to me to have my first South Asian queer books I could read and see myself in—Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai, which is about a Sri Lankan queer boy’s coming of age, and Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, which features a subplot with South Asian queer women. These books changed my life.
Q. We want to know a little bit about how understanding your gender helped you write the characters of your book, ‘Marriage of a Thousand Lies’.
I think besides sexuality, gender is another issue at the heart of the novel. Lucky, my protagonist, isn’t just queer, she’s also very masculine, and because her body is marked by masculinity, she is unable to hide the way that more feminine characters are. Her masculinity outs her, and she has to contend with that, or force it down.
As a scholar, gender studies is a field I’m very interested in, and have studied extensively. I wanted each of the women in the novel to have a different gender, and all of them to negotiate societal rules and norms of gender in their own unique ways. And of course, I wanted to also talk about how gender is viewed in the Western vs. South Asian culture. Especially in the South Asian diaspora, bucking gender norms can often be seen as a bucking of South Asian culture in general, which can cause a lot of pain and conflict within families. I wanted to explore that.
Q. What are your views of the institution of marriage?
I think it’s not for everyone, and I hate the attaching of legal or social privilege to marriage in any way. I think as we’ve defined it right now, it’s too small a box. But I don’t denounce the institution entirely. I do think it’s a little outdated, and we need to re-think it. We certainly shouldn’t tie all of queer rights into marriage equality, but at the same time, that can make a huge difference in terms of social acceptance. I think marriage should be more of a social/civil contract, and one that shouldn’t be enforced or expected to work in any prescribed (straight/monogamous/forever) way. Or, you know, we can get rid of it entirely. I’d be for that, too. I recently got married, and I have to say, it doesn’t really make a difference to me whether my partner and I are officially married or not. We love each other, we’re making a family with just the two of us, and that’s all that matters. We got married to appease my South Asian family and community, but honestly, if that hadn’t been a factor, I don’t know if we would have.
Definitely not. Although I do know that marriages of convenience work for some people, I also know a lot that have failed, and a lot that have been painful. There’s a reason the novel starts with Lucky already in a marriage of convenience. The story is about her realization that it doesn’t align with who she wants to be.
Q. Do you think mainstream television is to be blamed for heteronormative mindsets, affinity for matrimony and intolerance of alternate sexualities?
If you mean mainstream television in South Asia, yes, partly. Western media is changing and starting to show a lot of queer representation, but I have yet to see that kind of progress in South Asian media. But I think a lot of it just has to do with culture—and by culture, I mean the homophobia that the British left behind in their legal codes and their infection into the South Asian mindset. But it gives me hope that queer movements are gaining traction in South Asia.
Q. And finally, do you believe in ‘love conquers all’?
I wish I could believe that, but I don’t. I tend to be fairly realistic and say that on any small scale, love is not enough. But on the large scale of what we need to work as a progressive society? Yes, love is essential. Love for our fellow humans, love for the natural world, love for science, and a love for a just society.