Akil Kumarasamy’s intimate and harrowing debut collection of interlinked short stories, Half Gods, takes readers into the lives of a multigenerational Sri Lankan Tamil family. Through ten self-contained, interlinked stories spanning three generations, from what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to New Jersey, Kumarasamy explores what it means to be made to feel like a foreigner in one’s own country, a theme that has become extremely relevant of late. She navigates the diverse history, culture, and trauma of immigrant life and draws the reader in with passionate, articulate prose.
Akil and I conversed over email about family history, writing about war, the nature of borders and the feeling of displacement. Half Gods is available in softcover on July 9.
Your book is full of family history and beautifully depicts the tradition of passing down stories of heritage. Did you grow up in a family of storytellers?
The Jaffna library, which was one of the biggest libraries in Asia, was burned down by soldiers in 1981. It was a burning of a collective Tamil history. I think of humans like libraries, and how a death means a loss of all these stories.
The aftermath and effects of the Civil War in Sri Lanka impact the characters in your stories, even the ones in New Jersey who aren’t witnessing the war but are stilling feeling it from a distance. Can you talk about these borders and why you choose to explore them in your fiction?
Borders are fictitious, but the violence inflicted over them speaks of the realities of our lives. In my work, I wanted to explore the messiness of these so-called borders by questioning how history is told and whose stories are told side by side in a book. Create my own kind of geography, where Haiti, Sri Lanka, Botswana, India, New Jersey are in conversation. Even though the war is distant, it spills into their lives even across the ocean. The television and the computer are portals for news. Some of the characters are still living deeply in the past.
When speaking about the violence and the effects of war, what do you hope your readers take away with them?
Maybe for them to think about who gets to talk about violence and how war is usually framed. Often we get violence through a male gaze when often women are the ones who feel the brunt of it. How often are stories about war filtered through a soldier’s point-of-view rather than a civilian’s? For myself, I was thinking about how do you write about violence in a way that feels inventive without being exploitive. I also wanted the book to feel joyful, which I think comes across even with the cover. There might be a lot of death in the book, but it’s also bursting with life. Death is not the opposite of life; it is what gives life value.
Can you speak about your decision to create interlinked short stories, as opposed to a traditional novel? Was it intentional when you began or did it evolve as the story did?
I knew the story deals with displacement and a fracturing of time. I needed a structure for the book that would be expansive enough to be non-linear and jump across locations. The interlinked short story form allowed me the accumulative, sprawling power of the novel and a tight construction of a short story. For a book that deals with borders, it made sense that the structure would fall between a short story collection and a novel.
Did you always want to be a writer? Can you speak about your writing journey? And also about your writing routine or process?
I kind of stumbled upon writing. I didn’t know any writers growing up. When I got to college, I was actually reading everything besides fiction like plays and screenplays. I took one creative writing class in fiction, and I kind of found myself falling in love with the form. Because of the encouragement of a professor, I ended up pursuing an MFA, but it has been a non-linear journey to this book. Often I have discovered different mediums like films and graphic novels have opened me up to the possibilities of fiction.
What is some of the best advice you have ever received about writing?
Writing is about managing your thoughts, dealing with doubts and uncertainty.
If you could speak to your younger self, what would you tell her?
I would be like girl be more compassionate to yourself. Be more expansive in how you see the writing process. Writing is not just sitting in front of your computer. It’s going to the museum, talking to friends, just living.
Are you working on anything new?
I just finished up a novel, and it’s a female-centric story that takes place in the near future. It has been really exciting to work on it, and I have learned so much about my own writing practice through it. So much of writing is act an of faith, trusting again and again that the words will come.
Akil Kumarasamy is the author of Half Gods. Her work has appeared in Harper's Magazine, American Short Fiction, Boston Review, among others. She has received fellowships from the University of East Anglia, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Schomburg Center. She is a visiting professor in fiction at the Helen Zell Writers' Program.
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