SJ Sindu broke into the literary scene last year with the debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, which will be released in paperback form this summer. Along with this much-lauded and awarded book–seriously, check out all of the praise–Sindu also has a chapbook out called, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, which we thoroughly love.
Sindu graciously answered our questions about writing below, and we’ll be doing another follow up when the paperback edition of Marriage of a Thousand Lies comes out!
Just to introduce you to our readers who may not be familiar with your work, can you tell us how you got started writing? What were the books or who were the writers that inspired you?
I started seriously writing in college. Before that, I was writing a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction, and before that, in fifth and sixth grade, I was writing Sailor Moon fanfiction. So I’ve been writing for a long time, but it wasn’t until college that I was inspired to write my own stories. I think of the first time I read a book and saw my experience reflected back at me—strangely, it was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I’m a war survivor, and I’d never before seen war depicted like that—messy, unreliable, and gut-wrenchingly beautiful in its gore. It inspired me to write my own war stories. Eventually, I also read a host of other writers—John Rechy, Julia Alvarez, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, Eli Claire, Audre Lorde, Junot Diaz—who also inspired me.
What was the most important thing you learned or did that improved your skills as a writer?
For a long time I never thought of writing as a practical, muscle-memory-type skill. I thought it was all about craft. But I had some great teachers in college—Jonis Agee, Joy Castro, Timothy Schaffert, Amelia Montes, Judith Slater—who taught me that writing is more than craft, though of course craft is very important. Writing is also about the discipline to sit down at your desk every day. It’s about the tenacity to get back up and keep writing after a rejection. It’s about having the unshakable belief that you have a story to tell, and the follow through to put it out there in the world. That was so, so important for me to learn. Being an author isn’t just about learning the tricks of the trade. It’s also about crafting your body and mind into the pursuit of good art.
You followed your debut novel with a chapbook, which is a medium that we’re sure many of our readers are curious about. Could you tell us more about this decision?
I actually had the chapbook come out before the novel, about six months before it. It was a complete accident. When I was putting the novel on submission, I also happened to have this chapbook, so I started entering it in contests. I was shooting in the dark at everything, hoping something would hit. And a month after I signed my book contract, I found out I won this chapbook contest and that they wanted to publish the chapbook, which was wonderful. I love the chapbook form—it merges the beauty of a book with the conciseness of a short story. And traditionally, chapbooks meant poetry. But lately there have been a proliferation of prose chapbooks, and it’s a great opportunity to put together work that doesn’t really fit with your other stuff.
What was the process of getting the chapbook together like? How did you choose which works would go into it?
Originally, the chapbook was much longer, but then I cut out everything that didn’t fit. I think it’s a mistake to just put all your best work into a collection and hope it’ll fit. I was very intentional with the chapbook. Every piece spoke in some way to war or gender or both. That was my criteria, and I also wanted a good mix of fiction and nonfiction. It was a long, messy process. In the end, I chose pieces that were all written around the same time—during my Master’s program—a three-year period when my concerns were similar in every piece I wrote. So those pieces melded together well.
We love the stories in the chapbook but “Playing Princess” and “Husband Hunting” stand out for us because of the complexity of love, relationships, obligations, and even violence that bind and divide the characters from each other. What was the genesis of these two stories?
“Husband Hunting” was written when I was very, very angry at the world. My family had started pressuring me into an arranged marriage, and I was even being taken to all these cities to meet eligible young men. My repeated answers of “no” weren’t being taken seriously, and my pleas of “never again” were dismissed out of hand. I was angry. I was furious. And I learned a lot about the kind of pressure cooker that women in the South Asian community can be put into when they reach a certain age. So I wrote “Husband Hunting” from those experiences, and I think you can feel the energy there because of how strongly I was feeling it at the time.
“Playing Princess” came about a little differently. It’s based on an experience I had as a child in Sri Lanka—only I was the bully in that instance. I was quite a little bully when I was young, because in Sri Lanka I had a lot of privilege relative to other kids that I was around. My parents had college degrees and government jobs. We were of a relatively high caste. And I was a very light-skinned, very cute kid. That got me a lot of leeway with adults. I was spoiled rotten and a brat. This story was partly about me reckoning with those experiences—particularly because they were so short lived. When I was seven, I moved to the U.S. and quickly became the target of bullies for the rest of my K12 education. So to me as an adult, there’s a lot of interesting tension between my little bully self and the bullied kid I was later in my childhood, thanks to immigration. I also wanted to put this story of personal violence on top of this backdrop of the violence of war, how all these undercurrents shape kids and their interactions with each other.
One of the things we’ve noticed in the publishing industry is that there are two different types of pressure on POC writers: some writers are pressured to add white characters–or only write about white characters–in order to appeal to a wider market and avoid being placed in a POC niche while on the other hand, other POC writers are pressured to exotify their stories, to add details and elements that support an Orientalist narrative of their cultures. Have you experienced with this and how did you deal with it, if so? And do you have any advice especially for young or emerging writers about navigating this?
I’ve felt both kinds of pressures. On the one hand, there were editors asking me who was going to read my stories if there were no white protagonists at all. Then on the other hand, if I was definitely going to write about brown people, then there were editors telling me I should add more spice, or add recipes, or set the story in Sri Lanka or India instead of the U.S.
It’s also important to note that a lot of times, the pressure is subtle. I don’t write the kind of lush, multi-generational Jhumpa-Lahiri-like or Arundhati-Roy-like stories that South Asian women are often expected to write. My prose style shares more in common with Hemingway than it does with other South Asian writers. It’s definitely masculine, whatever that means when applied to voice. And that’s hard for people—most people tend to devalue writing that flaunts their expectations.
It’s a difficult place to be. I struggle with these contrary expectations still. But what I do know with certainty is that I’m not going to change my voice or my content—the things that are the most important core of my writing—to bow to these pressures. I tend to be thick-headed about these things. I’d probably have an easier time if I wasn’t.
My advice to emerging or aspiring writers is this: if you’re like me, if there are some lines you just can’t or won’t cross, then be tenacious. Stick to it. I’m going to paraphrase a Captain America movie and say that you should plant your feet like a tree, and refuse to move. But on the other hand, if you don’t mind acquiescing to hegemonic pressures in order to be published, then do it. Just make sure that you can live with your decision, whatever that is. Know yourself. And make sure that whatever path you choose, you can make peace with it.
Some writers are also afraid to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of further marginalization. What are your thoughts on the and how have you dealt with this?
Again, I’m pretty thick headed. I never feared further marginalization, though perhaps that has to do with my other privileges—I’m able-bodied, educated, and even though I’m queer and genderqueer, I am read as a cis het woman. This affords me a lot of safety in my day to day life, though my brown female body is endangered in other ways. I came of age as a young queer in a small radical community with lesbian liberation lavender menace dykes as my mentors. I read Eli Clare, Gloria Anzaldúa, Angela Davis, Judith Butler, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Chrystos, Pat Parker, Adrienne Rich, tatiana de la tierra, Elana Dykewomon, Jewel Gomez, Leslie Feinberg, Jack Halberstam, and Lillian Faderman. I was forged as an adult in the politics of queer activism, so staying in the closet in my writing was never an option for me.
My fear of revealing had more to do with the backlash I knew would happen for me from my family and for my family from their communities. So the years I was working on my novel, I knew that once it came out, it would also pull me out of the closet in a big way. Once I signed the book contract, it all became very real. As the release date drew closer, I gritted my teeth and prepared myself. And for a little while, it was painful. The backlash of course happened. My family to this day pretends (or doesn’t know, for the extended family) that I even wrote and published a book. It’s still painful. The novel was named a Stonewall Honor Book, and was a finalist for both the Publishing Triangle Awards and the Lambda Literary Awards. It was painful to not even be able to share this good news with my parents, and even if I did, that they wouldn’t be able to share it with their friends and community members—and that this would hurt them. So I just don’t share the news. I try to spare them the pain.
It’s very complicated. I think white queer culture has venerated the coming out process as the end-all be-all of coming of age as a queer person. But for people of color and immigrants, this coming out isn’t always possible. It’s hard to just cut yourself off from your family when the alternative is to try and make a chosen family among a still-often-racist, ableist queer culture—especially when queer culture is based on white culture and if you’re a person of color, you can find yourself at odds with or just isolated from entry. Coming out is an individual decision and the only person who gets to make that decision is you.
About SJ Sindu:
SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. Sindu is the author of the novel Marriage of a Thousand Lies, which is a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Publishing Triangle Award, and which was selected by the American Library Association as a Stonewall Honor Book. Sindu is also the author of the hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook I Once Met You But You Were Dead, which won the Split Lip Press Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest. A 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow, Sindu holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University, and currently teaches at Ringling College of Art & Design.