SJ Sindu on her debut novel and growing up in Mass as a queer Sri Lankan immigrant
“Marriage of a Thousand Lies” tells the story of Lucky, a gay Sri Lankan immigrant who is torn between her sexuality and her family’s expectations. Lucky’s marriage of convenience to her friend Kris, who is also gay, allows her to keep her sexuality hidden—at least until she has to move back home to Boston to care for her ailing grandmother. I talked to the book’s author, SJ Sindu, about growing up in Mass, avoiding an arranged marriage, and women’s rugby.
Before we get to the book, can you talk a little bit about your experiences growing up as a queer immigrant in Boston? Did you have a lot of experience with racism or xenophobia?
I think Boston is a very segregated city still. A lot of the racism stems from that, and stems from the fact that the older generation didn’t grow up in integrated schools. Boston was one of the last cities to implement the busing system to desegregate schools. But in the mid-’90s, when I was growing up in Massachusetts, it was much better than most other places, I have to say. I went to middle school and high school around the Boston area, and then I moved to South Dakota during high school. And in comparison, Boston is a haven.
In South Dakota, the racism is just so explicit and out there for everyone to see. And in Boston I think it’s more internal, it’s subtle. It’s pernicious in that way. I didn’t really encounter any outward racism in Boston. I was bullied because I was an immigrant and I looked different and I wore different clothes and had a bindi all the time. So I got bullied for that, but that was pretty much the extent of it for me.
For me in Boston, it’s been kind of great. The only other way in which I felt racism is in the dating scene. I feel like it’s Bostonians not knowing how to engage with race, and really interrogate their own views about race. I don’t think its more pernicious than that.
I live in the South now, and whenever we encounter racism here it’s explicit, people know they’re being racist. In Boston, it’s like, “Well I just prefer this kind of person as my partner” without interrogating what that means. In the queer scene there’s a preference for this manic, androgynous, crusty vegan pink-haired type, without interrogating who has access to that.
Something that comes up in the book a lot is this tension between being liberal and highly educated and living in a metropolitan area and voting for Obama, and yet still having these outdated views about queerness and homosexuality. Do you think that’s unique to Sri Lankan communities, or to immigrant communities?
I’ve encountered it in a lot of different immigrant communities. But especially in Asian-American and in South-Asian communities, there tends to be a lot more stigma around homosexuality because of the legacy of colonialism. The British penal code that’s still on the books back home, the home that our parents know, is what they cling to. So even though there’s a lot of queer activism going on in Sri Lanka right now, my parents aren’t aware of it. And a lot of that homophobia is wrapped up in nostalgia, which makes it so much harder to get rid of.
Right. You’ve talked before about how your parents pressured you to have an arranged marriage.
It wasn’t so much my parents as my entire community. The South Asian community took it upon themselves to get me married off. I think it’s scary to the older community members to see young Sri Lankans growing up in the US with American values, and not knowing what’s going to become of their future. So they often wade into the arranged marriage issue far earlier than when they would at home.
My mom was married at 26, which was a little early. Most people wait until they’re 27 or 28. But here, they’re afraid that if they wait too long we’re going to go awry. So a lot of the older community members were really pressuring my parents into pressuring me. They’d find people all across the US and call my parents and say, “I found this guy in San Diego, you should have your daughter meet him.” So that was difficult, and I used a lot of that experience for the book.
A number of reviews mention how the book doesn’t dwell on Lucky’s internal thoughts—it’s very show, not tell. Was that a conscious choice, or was it just a result of Lucky being sort of numbed by the pressures of her family and her community?
A lot of it was her being numb. That to me was the hardest part of writing the book. I had this narrator who was super unemotional, who just did not show emotion at all ever. So the question of how to have a glimpse into her interiority without her telling us how she’s feeling became the biggest obstacle in the book. Part of it is that there’s this stoicism in South Asian culture—you’re encouraged to not show emotion, especially out of the family. Lucky’s also a lot more masculine than her female family members, so she would have taken cues not just from her mother but also from her father. And she’s a child of divorce and she hides her emotions pretty well. So all these things combined into this problem. My response to it was to really concentrate on her body, where she’s feeling in her body. In her chest, her stomach, her muscles, her head. I feel like I leaned on that to give an idea of what she was thinking.
Lucky’s physicality is very important to her. In fact, rugby plays an important role in her process. At least in my experience, women’s rugby is a pretty queer sport. What do you think makes rugby in particular such a powerful site of female and queer female bonding?
It’s so violent and so masculine that there is a certain sense of physicality, of showing your strength. It’s not like other sports where agility is the most important thing. It’s really about strength and stamina and these very masculine things. And I also think it’s the only sport where none of the rules change between men and women’s rugby. So I think that’s a draw too. And there’s a real companion culture that’s kind of like queer community, where competing teams will have a social together after. In the queer community there’s this camaraderie that’s very similar.
Lucky is quite masculine. How do you think her ideas of gender and gender roles are affected by being Sri Lankan?
Her ideas of gender are more polarized because of her South Asian upbringing. I wanted Lucky to be masculine because I wanted her to not be able to hide. She can hide her sexuality through her marriage, but her body is marked by her gender. Her body moves in ways that she can’t hide. Unlike Nisha she can’t blend in. A lot of how Lucky feels her gender is how I’ve felt my gender. Outwardly I present very feminine, but being genderqueer is part of my identity and has been for a long time, and we don’t get that enough in queer literature. Back in the day, there were always masculine lesbian characters. Nowadays that’s sort of not trendy.
So much of the novel draws on your own experiences, either explicitly or implicitly. Have you always wanted to write this book?
It took me a long time to write it. It took me eight years to write it. I don’t know if I’ve always wanted to write this book, but I’ve always wanted to read it. I’ve always needed to read it.