Marriage of a Thousand Lies: Interview with Author SJ Sindu

 

Publisher’s summary of SJ Sindu’s Marriage of a Thousand Lies:

Lucky and her husband, Krishna, are gay. They present an illusion of marital bliss to their conservative Sri Lankan–American families, while each dates on the side. It’s not ideal, but for Lucky, it seems to be working. But when Lucky’s grandmother has a nasty fall, Lucky returns to her childhood home and unexpectedly reconnects with her former best friend and first lover, Nisha, who is preparing for her own arranged wedding with a man she’s never met. As the connection between the two women is rekindled, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie. But does Nisha really want to be saved? And is Lucky willing to leave the life she’s known behind? A necessary and beautiful addition to both the Sri Lankan-American and LGBTQ canons, SJ Sindu’s debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, offers a moving and sharply rendered exploration of friendship, family, love, and loss.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies has won all kinds of awards, including:

Winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society Goldie Award for Debut Fiction
Winner of the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction
Winner of Silver Medal at Independent Publisher Book Awards
Lambda Literary Award Finalist
American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book

I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s one of those books whose endings linger long after you’ve put the book down. I found myself thinking about the choices that the characters made as if they were my own friends–probably because I do have friends like them. (Go get the book! It’s fantastic!)

We were lucky enough to interview SJ Sindu previously for her chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, and in honour of the paperback release of Marriage of a Thousand Lies tomorrow, July 10th, Sindu graciously agreed to answer our questions about her debut novel.

 

What is the provenance of MARRIAGE OF A THOUSAND LIES? What was the process of writing it like? Did you struggle with the book or was it one of those stories that just poured out in a rush? 

I struggled a lot with this book. It’s the first novel I ever attempted, and when I started it, I was quite young—twenty-one—and I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have the discipline to sit down and make myself write, so I ended up procrastinating a lot. Thankfully, I had a deadline. This was my Master’s thesis.

I wrote the first draft over the first four semesters of my MA, but then when I finished—it was a sprawling story told with three narrators—I showed it to an agent who told me that only one of the narrators was interesting and that I should re-write the whole story from her point of view. I was quite devastated, and so during my thesis year, my final year of my program, I re-wrote the whole entire thing from one character’s point of view. I set it four years later than the original draft, and I wrote it in first person. So only a couple of scenes from the original draft made it in. 95% of the original was thrown out.

This second draft was really the beginning of the novel in its current form. But I still procrastinated. I hadn’t yet mastered the art of sitting my butt down in the chair and writing, so instead I watched the entirety of the Battlestar Galactica reboot over that year. But I also—slowly, painstakingly—wrote the novel, and turned it in as my thesis.

After my master’s program, I moved across the country to live with my parents for two years—quite literally in their basement—so that I could finish this novel. I learned how to have discipline, and it got easier in that sense, but because this novel deals with a lot of stuff personally important to me—queerness, isolation, family, the South Asian diaspora community—it was hard emotionally to enter the space of the novel. I’m very glad that I didn’t have a long-term partner during those two years, because I’m sure this novel writing process would’ve wrought havoc on any intimate relationship.

In all, I worked on the novel for a total of eight years—the majority of my twenties.


The themes of “passing” and cultural versatility are really moving and familiar, and I love how they manifest differently in each character. Lucky’s masculinity makes it more difficult for her to pass as straight, but she has cultural fluidity compared to her immigrant parents. Then there’s Nisha, whose queerness is invisible and thus she moves more fluidly between a different set of communities. Were these themes present from the moment you began writing the book? What moved you to explore them? Could you tell us more about your thoughts on the strange ties between invisibility and privilege?

I knew when I started that I wanted Lucky and Nisha to be foils of each other in the sense of passing. Lucky, who is married to a man, still doesn’t really pass in the sense that her masculinity reads on her body. Nisha, who isn’t married, easily passes because she’s very feminine in the ways that are expected of her as a South Asian woman. I pictured that difference clearly for them from the beginning, because they’re both me.

I came out as genderqueer when I was nineteen or twenty, and for a large portion of my early twenties, I dressed and presented as masculine because it was the only way I thought I could get people to acknowledge my nonbinary gender identity. But then I got tired of it—it’s not the way I felt most comfortable—so I switched back to a feminine presentation and just became more vocal about advocating for my nonbinary identity. I experienced my family and the South Asian diaspora community through both of these gender presentations, and I became fascinated by how passing or not passing can drastically change family and community dynamics.

It’s interesting because now, even though I’m queer, I’m feminine enough that in the community, I can pass easily. I don’t get the micromanaging, the unsolicited advice, the glances and the rumors that I used to get when I presented as more masculine. But I also have friends who are not queer at all, but who are simply more masculine-presenting women, and they get all of that. They’re treated as suspicious for their lack of femininity.

So to me it’s a double-edged sword, regardless of if we’re talking about the South Asian diaspora or white America. If you pass, your queerness and nonbinary identities are erased, and that sort of erasure can be painful. But if you don’t pass, then your emotional and physical wellbeing are in danger. This tension is interesting to me, and I tried to explore it in the novel.


There’s a lot of compassion in the book for the different characters, even though they may be filtered through Lucky’s point of view. I’m very struck by that since many books dealing with immigrant families often portray these families as unyielding, narrow-minded, and bigoted, but your story makes it possible to see the fear, love, humanity, and even trauma underneath. Can you tell us more about the decision behind this? Did you feel any responsibility to show the characters in a certain way? 

I wanted complexity and honesty. I grew up with South Asian American literature and media that told stories of confused immigrant kids who are born in the West. The arc of these stories is that these kids are embarrassed of their culture, but then they go on a journey discovering the culture and traditions of their ancestors and find their South Asian pride. I didn’t want to write that story, because I think it simplifies the problems in South Asian culture while presenting a very neat, easy story to cling to.

The story I wanted to write was of the homophobia in the South Asian diaspora, but also where it comes from. In a large part, resistance to change and difference comes from fear—the very immigrant fear of being a brown person in a land of white people. So we cling to the old ways. But I also wanted to acknowledge the intense courage that it takes for immigrants to leave their lives behind and move to another country.

In a lot of ways, my compassion for these characters comes from the fact that this story was my way of trying to understand my family. I often failed in my twenties to give this compassion and understanding in real life, in real time. I’d become distracted by my own needs and wants, by my journeys of self-discovery, and often I would get very angry with my parents and with other family and community members. But then when I returned to the page, I was able to see and imagine their points of view, and try to come to a more holistic understanding of the tensions I was feeling in real life.


Can you talk us through your publishing experience with MARRIAGE OF A THOUSAND LIES? What was the process like for you? You’ve mentioned editors who wondered about the absence of white protagonists—was this something you experienced for MARRIAGE OF A THOUSAND LIES?

The publishing experience was intense and long. A lot of agents turned it down because it was “too quiet.” Some agents advised me to put in a happy ending. Then when I finally found an agent who loved it and didn’t want to change it drastically, the book spent eighteen months in the submission process to editors. It got rejected from around 30 publishing houses, whose editors said that while they liked the book, they didn’t know who would read it. They kept imagining the potential audience as South Asian and queer, which to be honest is a small subsection, but they didn’t see the story as universal. We’re not trained to see someone with as many marginalized identities as Lucky as a universal hero. One editor literally said the book was too gay, and that it needed to be either South Asian or gay, but not both. Some editors also balked at the idea that someone could be closeted in 2012.

But eventually, the book was picked up by Soho Press. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the agent who sold the book, and the editor who bought the book, are both gay. It’s also not a coincidence that the people who reviewed the book and interviewed me and helped push the book are also either queer or South Asian, or both.


Did you write with a specific audience in mind? And in relation to that: is there anything that you would like readers to understand or at least witness in your story?

I really wrote this for myself. What I mean by that is that I wrote it for myself in the past. So my ideal audience was queer South Asian women who have never seen themselves reflected in a story. But I also think that Lucky is a universal hero.

What I want readers to most take away from the book is that many South Asian queer people live this story, or variations of it. I’ve seen a lot of liberal white people dismiss homophobia in other cultures by saying, “Well, that’s their tradition, though.” To me, that’s appalling. The South Asian community—both in South Asia and in the diaspora—needs to change in relation to gender and sexuality, and that change needs to come from within. I hope Lucky’s story helps a tiny bit to push the progress forward.

 

 

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.

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