“I wanted to understand my family’s pull toward faith because I don’t feel that pull.”
SJ Sindu’s second novel, Blue-Skinned Gods (2021), follows a blue-skinned, black-blooded child-god narrator, Kalki, who is named after the tenth avatar of the Hindu god, Vishnu. Kalki’s father, Ayya, sets up an ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, and makes a living off the many pilgrims who flock there for the healing power of Kalki’s blessings. But Kalki must negotiate the friction between being a child-god and his very human desires—his love for Roopa, a young girl he cures early in the book, and for Kalyani, a trans girl who is part of a thirunangaigal troupe. The narrative engages with queer sexual and gender identity, queer kinship, toxic masculinity, familial abuse, superstition, and faith. It ricochets from Tamil Nadu and Delhi in India to New York, New Jersey, and Charleston, West Virginia, in the United States, looking at the ways in which a perpetual outsider comes of age on his terms.
With a vast cast of intriguing characters as well as two powerful climaxes at the end of the book—thematic and emotional—Blue-Skinned Gods demonstrates Sindu’s narrative power. I reached out to Sindu earlier this winter to discuss their sophomore novel. During our video chat, Sindu and I discussed the careful choices they made as a writer in creating the world of Kalki, one that is filled with despair as well as joy.
Following Blue-Skinned Gods, Sindu has published a hybrid fiction-poetry chapbook, Dominant Genes (Black Lawrence Press, 2022) and written a forthcoming middle-grade graphic novel, Shakti (HarperCollins, 2023). The author is currently working on a third novel, War Child, that traces the journey of several Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka to Toronto.
I’m interested in your motivations behind writing this book. For example, your first novel is set partly in Sri Lanka, your country of birth. Why was a large part of this book set in India?
I wanted a place where Hinduism was the norm, where it was expected and where it was dominant and hegemonic. In Kalki’s childhood, it would have been the late ’90s, and then into the 2000s. We see this rise of Hindu nationalism, or the beginnings of the rise. I wanted to set it against that backdrop, because I wanted any sort of critique of religion or religiosity or cultishness to reflect back directly on Hindu nationalism and Brahmanism. I think the other motivation was that my family is extremely religious and I’m not, and I wanted to understand them better. I wanted to understand their pull toward faith because I don’t feel that pull. I do feel a connection to my culture, but I feel it’s devoid of religion.
Tell me a little bit about what the journey has been like from when you began dreaming of this book to its release. In an NPR interview, you mentioned that you were a teenager when this idea came to you. But you have also mentioned the 2011 documentary Kumaré as a direct inspiration in a recent interview in Chatelaine.
I was interested in writing about religion. From the time I was a teenager, me and my family were heading in opposite directions in terms of our religious beliefs, but I wasn’t really thinking specifically about this book until 2014. I had just finished Marriage of a Thousand Lies (Soho Press, 2017). I sent it off to my agent, and we were getting ready to send it out to publishers. I was also getting ready to move to Florida for a PhD. I started writing a novel about a hate crime that happened on the heels of 9/11, and I thought that was going to be my next book. I wrote twenty thousand words of it and ended up turning it into a short story instead.
But then, [there was this other] short story I wrote during that time. It was about a boy who grows wings, who is then believed to be able to heal people if they have one of his feathers. And so people end up devouring him and stripping him of his feathers forcibly. I really liked writing that story. And I liked the kinds of critique it made toward religiosity. I watched Kumaré, and I saw a headline in the news about a young girl born in India with multiple limbs, who is believed to be a goddess. I had also watched Dasavatharam (2008), the Tamil movie with Kamal Haasan, this terrible movie. I was sort of thinking about all of these things, and I conceived of Kalki as a young child-god because I was also thinking, “How do I situate this within mythology that makes sense?” He’s not just a random child-god, but specifically the tenth incarnation of Vishnu.
I started writing the book when I moved to Florida, because I knew it was going to be my dissertation. I was living alone for the first time, and I had this and me and my cat. And I just wrote, from beginning to end, chronologically. I think it’s the most consistent writing schedule I’ve had, maybe ever. I was writing almost every day, churning out words. It was a great experience.
Unlike many other projects I’ve worked on that have changed significantly over the course of time, I’ve felt like every revision of Blue-Skinned Gods seemed to be about capturing Kalki’s voice, because if I could capture that, then everything else would fall into place. It was a lot of very ephemeral, language-based, voice-based stuff I was doing in every draft.
Since you mentioned a Tamil movie, I was very struck by Ayya, Kalki’s father, and the almost South Asian pop culture–villainesque violence he exhibits towards Kalki, Roopa, his brother and his family, and even his own wife. Who or what was your inspiration for Ayya?
I don’t think I had a specific person in mind, but I can’t help but be inspired by the Tamil movies that I watched. I wanted Ayya to take on characteristics of not just the stereotypical villain, but also the ways in which Tamil heroes sometimes act specifically toward women. They’re sort of self-righteous, religious, very confident in what they think is right and wrong—how women should act, how their family should act. I wanted to incorporate those aspects, too, because I think they are villainous, and to combine aspects of the typical Tamil heroes, specifically from Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. I wanted to show what is traditionally accepted as heroic behavior in Tamil culture in a negative light, to show its sinister side.
I don’t think it’s just limited to Tamil culture. I’ve seen this in Bollywood and Bengali movies—this kind of toxic masculinity of the father that has been normalized, and where emotional violence is so normal that the physical violence is not even surprising. I think the fact that I wasn’t surprised by the physical violence in the book shocked me more.
The critique a lot of people have of this book is that they don’t understand why Ayya acts the way he does, why he’s so terrible. As a fiction writer, I maintain that having a reason why people are bad is not true to life. Some people are just greedy. Or just mean. And I wanted to have that too. It’s not really about Ayya. It’s about how Kalki reacts to him. It’s not Ayya’s story. The fact is, Kalki is telling the story, and he doesn’t care why Ayya is the way he is.
Thematically, I found that the book explores trauma and overcoming multiple traumas while coming of age. How difficult—or not—was it for you to encounter trauma that wasn’t your own, as traumatic moments you inhabited while writing them?
I think it was a more pleasurable experience to write this book than it was to write the first one, because Marriage of a Thousand Lies is my trauma, right? It’s very close to the kinds of trauma I have. So, it was difficult to write that book, whereas this one is more of a head book than a heart book.
I really liked the character of Kalki. I found him to be a good headspace to embody even when he was processing trauma, because he is a fairly resilient kid and has all of these weird ways in which he copes—part of that is his training, part of that is the fact that he thinks he’s God, and part of that is his relationships with other people who are supportive to him.
That said, I was resistant to inhabiting the interiority of Kalki. My agents could tell, and I could tell. They kept pushing me by saying, “You’re not doing it, you’re not mapping his psyche the way he needs to be.” I got really, really frustrated because I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. We went back and forth for a year, and I finally decided to seek out a therapist who could help me. I’ve been in therapy most of my adult life, but I’d never thought about seeking therapy specifically for this reason. I did find a therapist who was able to help me break through that psychological barrier and access Kalki’s interiority. And I think that completely transformed the writing, that allowed me to fully embody him in a way I hadn’t been able to. I think it was mostly that I had my own traumas to deal with, and I did not want to inhabit or take on traumas that weren’t already there.
Kalki seems to interact only with two avatars of Vishnu, Ram and Krishna. But there are so many other avatars that you mention in passing, notably, the nonhuman ones of Matsya, Narasimha, and Varaha. They did not make an appearance. Can you speak to your choice of limiting Kalki’s interactions to only Ram and Krishna until the very end?
I wanted the interactions to be able to be explained away logically. Kalki imagines Ram and Krishna when he’s young—he sort of “feels” them there. He never sees anything. But then later whenever he sees them, he’s really high or just blackout drunk. I wanted it to be him talking to himself, essentially. He’s outsourcing his own interior monologue and making it into a dialogue. It didn’t quite work to have any nonhuman versions.
As a kid, Kalki idolises Ram and Krishna. Ram is serious, he comes from a book [the Rāmāyana] that doesn’t have a ton of interiority in it and is sort of like, “This is my dharma. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is duty.” And then Krishna comes from a book [the Mahābhārata] where it’s all interiority. He is like, “No one is fully good. No one is really bad. Everyone is in the middle. Everyone has grey morality. In some way, everyone is implicated.” I love that sort of moral ambiguity in the Mahābhārata. I wanted those two to be the two poles, with Kalki right in the middle.
Let’s segue into the ambiguity of Kalki’s gender and sexuality. In his body, he’s already visibly queer because of his blue skin. In his desires as well, he seems to be pansexual—there are his attractions to thirunangaigal [trans] Kalyani; his cousin’s bisexual trans roommate, Han; a former Kumari [a worshipped child-goddess in Nepal] Sunita; the gay man he meets in a bar, Julian; and sometimes in fleeting moments, even to his cishet cousin, Lakshman. You state in your Chatelaine interview that Kalki is nonbinary. Can you speak to the ambiguity of Kalki’s gender and sexuality?
I wanted Kalki to have a little piece of me, and he got it in little bits. He’s sort of bookish, he’s a little awkward. He’s not always sure what the right thing to do is. But he also got my pansexual feelings, my nonbinary identity. And it made him much easier to write. It made him closer to me. But I also think that if you truly believe yourself to be a Hindu god, you can’t really have a strong attachment to gender or sexuality, because everybody changes. Does a god have gender? We ascribe certain genders to Krishna and Ram, but they don’t actually, in truth, have gender. I was thinking about all of that while at the same time thinking if gods embody the energy of the universe in some way, which is feminine, then they all are sort of fluid. I wanted Kalki to think of himself that way, but I didn’t want it to be about gender and sexuality. I just wanted him to be queer in many ways, but that’s not what the story is about.
For me, the most alive scenes in the book were Kalki’s interactions with queer and trans characters like Kalyani, Han, and Sunita. Can you talk about your thought process behind crafting those interactions?
I specifically wanted this to be a feminist work, and I felt weird centering what seems to be a male story. I wanted the women around Kalki to be the lifeblood of the story. They provide the wisdom, the complications, the complexities. They push him on his beliefs and everything he’s been taught. And they provide the other perspective, the non-patriarchal perspective. If there’s nobody to provide that, then I don’t know how Kalki would access it.
Most of them happened to become queer in the writing, including his mother. But I think the proliferation of queer women is important to the story because not only are they outside of a male perspective, they’re also outside of a heteronormative perspective, and they pull Kalki out of his ascribed maleness or prescribed maleness and heteronormative thinking. I wanted him to have enough encounters where his mind and heart expand. And for me, my experience has been that my mind and heart have expanded through interactions with queer woman, cis and trans and nonbinary. So that’s what I know and what I know of the world, and that’s how it came out in the book.
I’m very struck by the absence of actual sex in the book. The scenes start with kissing and touching, and the sex is over. And I’m curious to know why we never see the characters actually having sex.
It’s a good question [laughs]! I think it’s more of a personal take. I grew up writing a lot of very explicit erotic fan fiction, and I read a lot of erotic fan fiction, and most of it is just bad. I know how hard it is to write a sex scene that’s sexy. I still haven’t figured out a way to do it. I did it once in my first book but even then, it was in very ephemeral terms. It wasn’t explicit. I still haven’t figured out a way to do a good explicit sex scene. Maybe, eventually, I will be a good enough writer to do it. But right now, I am not [laughs]!