The Superpowers of Akil Kumarasamy

Akil Kumarasamy and Sara Novic

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

A startlingly beautiful debut, Akil Kumarasamy’s Half Gods brings together the exiled, the disappeared, the seekers. Following the fractured origins and destinies of two brothers named after demigods from the ancient epic the Mahabharata, we meet a family struggling with the reverberations of the past. These ten interlinked stories redraw the map of our world in surprising ways: following an act of violence, a baby girl is renamed after a Hindu goddess but raised as a Muslim; a lonely butcher from Angola finds solace in a family of refugees in New Jersey; a gentle entomologist in Sri Lanka discovers unexpected reserves of courage while searching for his missing son. By turns heartbreaking and fiercely inventive, Half Gods reveals with sharp clarity and gorgeous prose the ways that parents, children, and friends act as unknowing mirrors to one another, revealing in their all-too-human weaknesses, hopes, and sorrows a connection to the divine. Here, Kumarasamy joins Sara Nović, author of Girl at War, in conversation.

Sara Nović: Can you say a bit about your writing process in general, and then how and why this book, specifically, came into being?

Akil Kumarasamy: I remember as a child reading comic book versions of the ancient epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They took place during a time when gods still walked the earth. It all seemed quite thrilling—the battles, the hidden identities, the heartbreak, the secret powers—especially since I lived on the swamplands of New Jersey (my house was built on wetlands officially called “Dismal Swamp”). I eventually moved on to other comics like the X-Men and was convinced I could speak to deer and squirrels like some animal-loving telepathic mutant. When writing the book, I was thinking of the mythic nature of childhood, how we long for our own origin stories, how they take on greater meaning, and how they ultimately cast a light, a shadow on the stretch of our lives.

In your book Girl at War, the murder of Ana’s parents feels supernatural. They were just eating their lunch like a normal family and the next scene they are being shot into a ditch with other corpses. I think the juxtaposition creates a kind of heightened reality. As children, we are more porous to experiences. Myths help us understand our lives and that is probably why as children we gulp them down so readily. When Ana’s father dies, I kept returning to the fairy tale he was reading to Ana earlier in the book about an old woman who decides to suffer rather than lose her son.

In my book Half Gods, two of the main characters are brothers and named after demigods in the Mahabharata. Their grandfather constantly recites ancient tales to them. He left Sri Lanka right when the ethnic conflict broke out and has watched his own intimate losses permeate the lives of these boys, even on the other side of the world. Telling myths becomes a way of survival but it can also be a path to salvation. It allows for the agency to construct one’s own narrative.

I grew up in a town that had a strong South Asian presence. While the Sri Lankan civil war hovered more deeply in my consciousness because of my father’s involvement, I was aware of how violence crafted the histories of many of my neighbors and friends. The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The 1984 massacres in Delhi. They were like open wounds. There was never any justice. Faceless perpetrators. Do you feel the same about the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia?

Nović: Yes, in a lot of ways. Justice is still being sought decades later—we see war criminals from all sides of the Yugoslav conflict being brought to trial in The Hague and elsewhere. Yet even when sentencing goes through, the balance of power doesn’t feel restored—the punishment feels lopsided against the breadth and ugliness of these crimes. And more than that, there are so many ways in which people are still living this war. Rural parts of Bosnia and Croatia are still being de-mined of cluster bombs; Bosnia’s unemployment rate is around 50%, and higher for young people because the governmental system prescribed by the Dayton Accords is stagnant and there’s no clear way to transition out; mass graves are still being excavated.

The thing I worry about most is how the war is being taught to this new generation of children who weren’t alive during the conflict or in its immediate aftermath. It’s such a complex tangle of money and power and hatreds, and it’s easy to flatten or try and ignore completely. It was important to me that Ana came to understand there was more than just her personal suffering, awful as it was, in this war. I think she says something like, “the guilt of one side doesn’t prove the innocence of the other.” That’s a hard message to swallow; it’s easier just to be angry. How the story of this war is written in the history books, and otherwise passed down, will determine whether it happens again.

Kumarasamy: In some ways that’s also how I feel about the war in Sri Lanka. It’s been almost ten years and the war hasn’t ended. The northeast area of the country is still deeply militarized, and disappearances, sexual assault and torture are still rampant. The military has built victory monuments in many of the areas where Tamils were massacred at the last stages of the war. The government has even banned public memorialization by Tamils in the region, so mourning is criminalized. The government clearly tells one narrative of the story so I do wonder how future generations will respond to the war, but I am also startled at the current blindness about what is happening on the island. There’s a really insightful report by the People for Equality and Relief in Lanka that discusses Sri Lanka’s failure in the Transitional Justice Process. Without the truth, without justice, I do not know how the island will move forward. Excavating mass graves is in some ways a reckoning with the past, but the government of Sri Lanka is not willing to do this.

Writing Half Gods, I was thinking of the ways we pass down our trauma in the diaspora, especially the secondhand pain that is left for children. At school, we might swap stories but history is often told in isolation, contained within borders. I didn’t necessarily see myself fitting easily into any construct of nationality. My parents grew up in southern India and my grandfather worked in a rubber plantation in Malaysia so some of my uncles were born there. India is more of a continent than a country. For all I knew, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could have all been one country. They were carved out of some colonial dream. Incidental and destructive lines on a map. Why would I want the limiting view of colonists to define me? Borders are fictitious, but the violence inflicted over them speaks of the realities of our lives. Many of the conflicts we see in the world today go back to these colonial lines. 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. I wanted to write a book that would be hard to reduce. I wanted to create my own kind of geography. Uniting colonies and histories was a kind of subversion to the current order of the world. The two main brothers are Tamil Punjabi American and Hindu Sikh Sri Lankan (though they go by the Tamil name for the island Eelam). The 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic is described in the same sentence as the 1983 massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

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. I wanted to write a book that would be hard to reduce. I wanted to create my own kind of geography.

Often people have mentioned that the story in Half Gods “The Butcher,” where an Angolan butcher from Botswana visits the Tamil family in New Jersey for dinner on a snowy evening, reminds them of Joyce’s “The Dead.” Did you have that kind of association?

Nović: That’s so interesting! I hadn’t thought of it initially, but now that you mention it, it does feel quite a lot like “The Dead”—not only in its premise, but also on a technical level. Something I find impressive about this story, and about Half Gods in general, is the way in which the narrator can quickly shift from a close-third to a more sweeping perspective, or from the story’s present into a memory (or the future) without it ever feeling jarring or like, “HERE’S A FLASHBACK!” It’s something that at first I’m tempted to call stream-of-consciousness, but in reality is more precise. At times I find the third person very challenging and the breadth it gives me as the author overwhelming—but you command it well, and never in a way that feels authorial. I love that about this book.

Was Joyce an influence for you in this project? Who are some of your other writing role models?

Kumarasamy: I do love Joyce and the Dubliners! I didn’t necessarily study English literature in college so I definitely had literary gaps of knowledge. I actually read “The Dead” in graduate school after I wrote “The Butcher,” and looking back on it I can see how it speaks to its content and structure in surprising ways. The story is a get-together of immigrants and refugees in central Jersey and I stayed near the mind of the main character, Marlon, which was really helpful in navigating through the crowd of people and also essential for the narrative development of the story. I did draw inspiration from many Irish writers like Maeve Brennan and William Trevor. Also authors like Aleksandar Hemon, Edwidge Danticat, and Hassan Blasim were definitely on my mind throughout the writing process.

Nović: Hemon is a personal favorite. The Question of Bruno definitely comes to mind.

At what point did you realize some of these characters were growing beyond the bounds of a single story? How did you decide to write an interconnected collection versus a novel? Was it difficult to strike that balance of writing complete and self-contained stories within the larger thread of the collection or character arcs?

Kumarasamy: I first wrote this book as a play and it only focused on the family and the story of the Mahabharata ran tangentially to it. I had these large monologues where Gods in their full regalia talked about their lives on earth. It was strange but it opened up the book in my mind. There is a scene in Half Gods where Karna shows his class a picture of his family and one of the drawings is of the sun dressed up in a suit. I am interested in how the mystical or divine brush up against the ordinary—something that often happens when the pressure is building, when reality becomes unbearable.

Nović: A play? That’s fascinating! Do you have a background in theater? Was there a reason you were drawn to a script as a form? And how did it then transform into a collection?

Kumarasamy: I have always loved film and theater, and in college I read fiction alongside scripts and plays. I don’t have a background in theater but I did take many film classes. In my fiction I do see aspects of film and plays filtering into the work. I love the intimacy and the ambiguity of film. You may sense what a character is feeling but you don’t know exactly. Also, you have a budget, so you have to be very selective with scenes. All this is useful when editing fiction, where one can have a tendency to overwrite because the budget is seemingly nonexistent. In plays, there is quite a visceral immediacy—the relationship between the actors and the spectators—as if they are creating the experience together, which I feel happens for fiction as well. The reader is willing the language into life.

I didn’t necessarily set out to write a novel or a short story collection. I would love if I didn’t have to categorize it as anything, but I suppose since it deals with the messiness of borders it makes sense that the structure falls somewhere between the two. I knew the main family was fractured by violence and I was trying to tell a story that was marked by absence but still feels full of life. For me that meant working with multiple points-of-view and a non-linear storyline. War messes with any conception of chronology, and the past can feel more lived-in than the present. Also, since the work deals with displacement, I knew it would not be fixed by one geographic location. I eventually found that the interlinked short story form allowed me both expansiveness and a tight construction for the work. I could jump from New Jersey to a tea plantation in pre-independent Ceylon somewhat seamlessly while also building on the narrative. Sometimes I thought of the stories as chapters as I shuffled across time. I wanted the work to accumulate power as the stories progressed, revealing different layers of the characters, and also for each story to be able to stand individually.

I wasn’t too nervous about repeating information because I felt each “chapter” was achieving something different and was revealing in its own specific way. I was more focused on tightening connections between the stories and making sure details followed through to the end, so it could offer a richer experience with each potential re-read (assuming someone picks up the book again). Even if no one else notices those details except me that’s fine too. As readers, we all grasp different layers and details of books and that’s part of the joy of it.

I am often wary of a book structure that feels too clean or that is obviously following a pattern. It might make the work feel too constructed and I don’t want the reader to feel my authorial presence so strongly. I want the reader to disappear into the world of the book, for it to exist without me. Part of my intent in writing this book was to capture the nuances of brownness, placing brownness against a brown wall. In other words, seeing brownness from the point of centrality rather than from the margins. I want the book to feel capacious and full of life while feeling deeply connected for purposeful reasons. When an Angolan butcher from Botswana visits the family in New Jersey for dinner, it needs to feel integral to the narrative arc of the book.

As a writer, what I can play with is point of view and tense so I really tried to utilize it for maximum effect. Especially since I am working with stories, there is more understanding if sudden jumps in time, place, or even characters, occur. I did find the chronological and geographical jump from the first section of Girl at War to be especially startling, partly because section one ends with such devastation. It was very refreshing to see that kind of break in time so early in the book. Also, it reinforces how Ana is trying to block her own access to memory—we feel that absence on a very visceral level.

I too was questioning how to write about violence in a way that felt inventive without being exploitive. And I wanted the book to feel joyful, which I think comes across even when you look at the cover. There is 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. How did you think about representing violence in your work? When I think of the end of the first section of Girl at War, it is the accumulation of the everyday love of a family that makes that final scene in the forest so unbearable.

There is 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.

Nović: You’ve phrased that so well—death being what gives life value. Since one of the motivations for writing Girl at War was the fact that so few people knew the details of this conflict, there was part of me that wanted to make it ugly, to force people to look at that violence up close. I think there are moments in the book where that happens and it works to shock people or get their attention, but ultimately, it’s not what carries the emotional heft of the story. That scene in the forest was one of the first parts of this manuscript I wrote, and there’s an intimacy to it because of that—there weren’t yet a lot of other moving parts or characters in play, so the focus is completely on the relationship of that family. Which is to say, I sort of stumbled into the thing that became my central philosophy about writing war and violence—that it should be intimate and should rub up against the everyday of people’s lives, as it does for so many.

Kumarasamy: I was also struck by the section in your book where Ana becomes a child soldier. Often when political structures mention child soldiers, it’s used as a point of criticism, especially in association with rebel groups. For Ana, the war recontextualizes what childhood means. Applying our norms of childhood to her reality no longer feels relevant. How do you see her role in the war? What does a female fighter mean to you? Also, I was very interested in how you spoke about the United Nations. When Ana goes to give testimony, it reminded me of the ways that organizations try to reduce individuals to the moment of their trauma (rape victim, child soldier, etc.) Srebrencia is an example of how the United Nations breaks down. I also see the end of the war in Sri Lanka as an example of how international agents allow genocide to happen.

Nović: And that was actually my “light” take on the UN. The thing I find so frustrating about the UN is its impotence even in a situation as overt as Srebrenica, and many genocides before and since. But really its problems are just representative of all the ways we as countries and individuals allow busyness—or bureaucracy—to serve as an excuse for stepping back and averting our eyes when it comes to genocide and mass murder. And, as Ana’s time in the UN explores, there are also these very specific ways certain peoples’ plights can be packaged in order to get people to care about it.

I wrote Ana’s time as a child soldier as pushback against that. Just as you mentioned the joy amidst the death in Half Gods (the cover nails it, by the way), for me Ana’s time in the safe house is actually about coming back to life, rather than the death she encounters there. She becomes part of a community; she has agency, and though part of that is very dark and disturbing, it’s also essential in drawing her out of that trauma of the forest. I wanted to challenge readers to think about war differently than so many Americans do as a thing that happens “over there,” and also an adult (male) thing. For so many, the reality of war is inextricable from childhood, from family—war in your home. That’s something I hope readers grapple with in the Safe House section, and the whole novel, really. And because Ana regains some of her childhood in the Safe House I found it the most compelling part of the novel to write, as if I was rooting for her, even though it was the least familiar territory with respect to where I sat at the time—scribbling into a notebook on the NJ Transit.

Regarding the dual settings for your collection: one part is set in places more familiar to your own everyday experience, while the other is more tethered to your family’s history and culture. When I was writing across a similar divide, I found the further place from where I sat at any given moment much easier to write about. Did you experience something similar? Did one side lend itself to fiction more readily? And how did you render both places equally vividly?

Kumarasamy: In this book I am writing about places that are both familiar and unfamiliar to me simultaneously. I’ve never been to Sri Lanka but the war has inhabited such a vast part of my consciousness growing up. Even New Jersey feels like an imagined homeland. Though I grew up there, it still feels strange and mysterious to me. I remember there was a baseball field by my house where everyone used to play cricket. A group of grandfathers would regularly sit on the bench and watch. They were all from different places around the world and couldn’t speak to each other but were bound by their love for cricket. There was something subversive in seeing cricket being played on a baseball field but I also felt the invisible hand of the empire. The fact that this was all happening in a place called Dismal Swamp strengthened my theories that Jersey was a kind of twilight zone.

I wrote a bulk of an early draft of this book in Michigan, so I do think being away from Jersey helped me write about it. Distance from the Garden State Parkway surely gave me some clarity. Maybe just being away from people, places, and stories that feel familiar to you allows a new channel of access, a kind of beginner’s mind in seeing your own experiences. Also, I’m deeply impressed that you got so much writing done on the NJ Transit!

Just being away from people, places, and stories that feel familiar to you allows a new channel of access, a kind of beginner’s mind in seeing your own experiences.

Nović: Do you have a secret favorite character?

Kumarasamy: I feel like this is a trick question. Like when someone asks a parent if they have a favorite child. I kind of love them all, even though they are deeply flawed and awful sometimes. I do feel especially sympathetic for Gurmit in “Brown Smurf.” I see him beyond the story and he’s grown and I just hope he finds love, that he finds people who understand him. I guess that’s a very parent-like inclination though I am not a parent. But fiction is wonderful in that way, giving you a feeling of something that you have not experienced.

Nović: And now an even worse question! What’s next for you? I remember after turning in Girl at War to my editor there was an acute emptiness, like, “well, those were all my thoughts!” and it took a while for me to feel I had something interesting to say again. Did you feel that kind of book hangover? Do you have new projects percolating?

Kumarasamy: I think I had that kind of emptiness a few years back when my father suddenly passed away and I found myself back in Dismal Swamp, living with my mum and sleeping in my childhood bed. I didn’t have much interest in reading or writing fiction. I remember opening books and staring at the curves of ink and not being able to alchemize anything. I felt like I had lost a secret power that had sustained me for so many years.

My mom was the one who found the manuscript of Half Gods, my recent grad school thesis, while she was cleaning. I had somehow forgotten about it but on reading it again, I had the strange sensation that I had written the book for my future self, when I would lose a parent. I had never thought that I could get comfort from my younger self, but how affirming it was that the person I had least expected was looking out for me.

While finishing Half Gods, I began working on a second book, which is very much informed by that time. Agnes Varda’s Vagabond and Alice Coltrane are definitely big influences. I’m excited to finish it. After this first book, I have become more comfortable with the uncertainty in the artistic process, how much writing is an act of faith, and how necessary it is to trust again and again that the words will come.

Akil Kumarasamy is a writer from New Jersey. Her fiction has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, American Short Fiction, Boston Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, and has been a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the University of East Anglia. Half Gods is her first book.

Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War, which won an American Library Association Award, was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, and is forthcoming in thirteen more languages. She holds an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University, and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University, a public liberal arts school in southern New Jersey. She lives in Philadelphia.