Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
Hope and Destruction: A Conversation with Akil Kumarasamy

The author of Half Gods talks self-orientalism, writing in the diaspora, and the art of the short story.

By Zena Agha

I was sent Akil Kumarasamy’s intimate and dazzling debut collection of interlinked short stories, Half Gods, by an assistant editor at FSG with an attached note reading “they’re beautiful.” Kumarasamy’s collection comprises ten self-contained, tenderly interlinked stories spanning three generations of a Tamil family, from what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to New Jersey.

While each story stands alone, the magic of the collection comes from the clues and arcs that weave them together. Characters I was initially endeared by evolved into multi-faceted and tortured personalities. Kumarasamy deftly navigates the diverse history, culture, and trauma of immigrant life and draws the reader in with a controlled but passionate prose that is as rich as it is tragic.

Hearing about her literary journey confirmed to me that success for women writers is not a finite thing. Kumarasamy, like those who came before and those who will come after, is engaged in the radical act of speaking poetic truths to people who are unaccustomed to listening to them. And by the time you’ve finished reading, she leaves you thanking her.

—Zena Agha


Zena Agha: Let’s start at the beginning, how did you start writing Half Gods?

Akil Kumarasamy: I initially started with Karna and Arjun, the two brothers in the book, because their names already evoke a mythic and complicated sibling relationship from the ancient epic the Mahabharata, but I always had the family in mind, particularly the mother and the grandfather. I needed to tell their stories as well to get closer to the truth, so in the end the reader has a more encompassing understanding of these characters, a view that the characters themselves are not privy to. Displacement often means fracturing the self. It’s the breakdown of continuity, but it also signifies a new kind of geography. In Half Gods, Haiti is mentioned side by side with Sri Lanka. An Angolan butcher from Botswana has dinner with the family of Tamil refugees in New Jersey. I always envisioned the book as feeling expansive and non-linear but also tightly connected. I see it living somewhere between a novel and a short story collection.

So, did capturing this family have an effect on the way you ordered the stories?

I was thinking about emotional throughlines and emotional narratives of the characters. I knew I wanted certain revelations to emerge at specific moments of the book. For instance, there’s this one storyline about a tea plantation worker who leaves Ceylon and I knew his storyline would somehow intersect with the family of refugees in Jersey. We see him early on in the story “New World,” which is the earliest story in the book that takes place on the eve of independence in 1948, and then he’s mentioned again mid-way in the book in a story called “Shade” that takes place on the Jersey shore. The reader has a different, layered perspective of all these characters.

So, by the time you get to “The Butcher,” the penultimate story, you already know so much about the family. This dissonance makes the stories strangely bittersweet. You already know the future for some of these characters but each story feels so lived in, so full of possibilities for perhaps other choices and other possible lives.

Another aim in ordering the stories was to have different countries in dialogue with each other like India and Sri Lanka, even Angola. Often histories of various struggles are contained within borders. It’s a colonial technique to isolate everyone. It’s important to get a sense of the history of conquest and also open up the idea of borders because they’re all artificial.

Right, I mean look at the fact that the Arab world was split into 22 different nations. What does it mean when we speak the same language, share similar food? Until recently, our history isn’t one of 22 nations. Look at Iraq for instance. When the Mandate of Iraq was first created, the currency was the rupee! The British didn’t know what to do with its new acquisition. They deliberately violated the natural ethnic flows and the result is war, destruction, colonialism and, eventually, exile. It had nothing to do with us. We’re still powerless in the face of it.

I know. They made these decisions without any sort of context. Sometimes without even going to the place!

So much of the book is about the intimacy of distance, whether it’s the distance between a boy holding a dying old man’s hand or the distance between continents and cultures. Even the civil war in Sri Lanka, which is referred to but not witnessed directly by the characters—the experience is both visceral and second hand, viewed after a battle or on TV. Can you talk a little about that balance?

I think the “intimacy of distance” is a particularly apt phrase for the book. These characters cannot disentangle the war from their personal lives, even thousands of miles away. The television and the computer act as portals, allowing footage and stories to spill into the seemingly safe space of the family room. As civilians are being killed in “safety zones,” the work questions what a “safety zone” might look like. In the suburbs of Jersey, this family is physically safe but their lives move in relation to the war as if tethered by an invisible rope. They are not free from it. The distance becomes a means of survival and a reason for guilt. All these characters are wrestling with what this distance signifies for them, and they have internalized this distance even as a family unit. Sitting together, they are worlds apart.

Throughout the book, I’m pushing against the idea of borders, that even a war can be contained within geographic lines. And how does a war end if there is no clear battlefield? I also wanted to directly deal with individuals who are in danger of being wiped out by state forces. When you have a gun to your neck, distance is a privilege. Some experience the massacres/killings directly while others have a more second-hand experience, and I think by zooming in and out, I am able to show how far-reaching the effects are and how you cannot unravel the political from the domestic. Parents are trying to understand their children through the distance of their disappearances. As you mentioned, there’s distance even when a boy is holding a dying old man’s hand. The “intimacy of distance” sounds like an oxymoron but it speaks to the reality of these characters’ lives.

I found reading Hassan Blasim very pivotal. There are so many books about war and we have to ask ourselves: how are we doing it differently? And how are you going to be imaginative and inventive in how you’re talking about the war? I remember reading the The Iraqi Christ. I read it so many times.

That story was my favorite. I also loved “The Archive” from that collection, do you remember that one? The protagonist arrives at a detention centre in Europe and when asked about his story, the tale gets ever more elaborate and ludicrous. It plays with the concept of a reliable narrator.

I love the story because it has a story within the story. I think “The Story of Happiness” speaks to that—embedding stories within stories to speak to how our identities are an act of storytelling.

“The Story of Happiness” actually reminded me a lot of Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red—it’s a novel in verse—and the child with scales and wings, Santhosham, reminded me greatly of Herakles. One of the bits of the book I enjoyed most was the re-telling of a story in the Mahabharata, I found it so captivating. I wasn’t sure if that was because I had studied Sanskrit and the ancient texts or if the ethereal way you told the story created this all-consuming world. You slip into lots of different forms: you play with mythology, different stanza sizes. Were you afraid to play with different forms?

I went all for it. I was thinking of the stage as a platform, as a vehicle. I was reading a lot of plays at the time and was experimenting with form. I was thinking about screenwriting’s power to create ambiguity in film—the grey-zone. In film you can never completely know what a character is thinking and that’s quite a pleasuring thing: you can get a sense but you can never know. In fiction you can write anything. For me, it was about bringing those elements of silence and ambiguity into the work. I was constantly thinking about it. How do you convey that feeling of mystery? There’s a lot of dramatic irony in the book and while the reader knows, the other characters don’t know a lot of things about each other’s lives. I think film uses a lot of dramatic irony too. How do you see yourself working in this medium of fiction?

You know, I’m an Arab, writing in English in the West. What does that mean for positionality? Who am I writing for? If it never gets translated into Arabic, are Iraqis even going to have access to it? Is it voyeurism then? Is it orientalism? And I know on some level, Iraqis aren’t concerned with those questions in the same way. I know for sure it doesn’t concern my mother.

A lot of it is tied up with the rise of identity politics and it’s important to be critical of that. But at the same time, I don’t want to fetishize my own identity for the sake of success or desirability. I could probably write more authentically about sitting on the tube in London, because it’s my lived experience, than about a family in ’60s Baghdad which I’m currently doing. I’m hyper-critical. I think it’s a question of finding confidence in yourself and your work, even though you may not be born, bred, and breathing that world that you’re writing about. But knowing you have a claim to that story.

If you are just writing exactly what you have experienced, you are not fully exploring the possibilities and potential in fiction writing. I think it’s important to be questioning the gaze you bring to your fiction. Who is it serving? I think of Toni Morrison when she points at the white gaze implicit in the title of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Often when writers are too explanatory, it is sometimes to serve that gaze. When you read British literature, no one is explaining what a crumpet is or the reasons for World War II. It is seen as common knowledge. If you see yourself as the epicentre then you’re not going to explain yourself. When you are someone in the margins, you have to bring the center towards you. Write fearlessly into that space. There will always be questions about balancing context, but they are secondary.

I am also very conscious of the fact that I’m writing in English, this colonial language. It gives you a broader audience, more access, but then that comes with a level of privilege. A very small fraction of books are ever translated into English, and the English language is currency.

I guess, what I am trying to also say, is that you have to write the work that feels true and meaningful to you. If you are just fetishizing your own identity for the sake of success, it might make a lot of money but it will ring false and you will know it too.

Right, I read somewhere that if every writer only wrote about what they know, most commercial literature would be about white middle class suburbia.

You know being able to write fiction and seeing it as some viable path is a privilege.

“Office of Missing Persons” was my favorite story of the collection because it felt so familiar: that keen sense of loss. A loss through war and the madness that comes with it. It reminded me a bit of The God of Small Things.

It’s funny you mentioned that. The New Yorker review of my book actually compared me with [Arundhati Roy], and I got to give her the book, which was really fulfilling.

What I liked about your collection was that I was left with questions. It was satisfying in a clever way. I enjoyed the fact that the author wasn’t there saying, “Well, as you can see.” As someone who knows all the moving parts, do you have a least and most favorite story?

I love them in different ways. “When We Were Children” was difficult to write, not because of the structure necessarily but mostly the emotional content. “The Butcher” was the first story I wrote and I kept tinkering with it for years, so I feel a bit distant and nostalgic about it all at once. The short story as a form is made for perfectionists: you have to nail the ending, like a tight-wire rope. They have to stand alone and stand together all at the same time. While in a novel, you can lapse, it’s more forgiving. Short stories feel much more high-stakes. Especially because they’re so underrated, people don’t like short stories in the industry. But I love them, it feels so much closer to life. It’s so distilled. It’s such an art.