Half Gods is Akil Kumarasamy’s debut collection of interlinked short stories that follows, for the most part, a Sri Lankan family in the United States. As the civil war and its aftermath fracture the country of their ancestors, they stay connected with relatives and home towns through news coverage and phone calls. Kumarasamy takes the reader back and forth through time to show earlier migrations from India to Sri Lanka, the different fates of the brothers Karna and Arjun in contemporary America, the nursing career of their mother, and the families that cross paths with them over time.
For these stories, she draws upon her experiences growing up in a predominantly South Asian community in Dismal Swamp, New Jersey as well as the complex relationships within the Mahabharata. The stories withhold resolutions and revelations while offering clear insights into the ways their various narrators – each markedly different from the other – think and act (especially towards one another). She employs both economy and care in her sentences that move forward one’s understanding of each character. In a scene where Arjun observes his mother pouring coffee for his father who has remarried, he notes, “I wish she had looked more lovely, her face open and startling, a beginning rather than an end.”
Kumarasamy spoke to Scroll.in about the book, sequencing her stories, writing fellowships, the secondary practices that writing profits from, the distinct form used in each story, the fiction that inspired her, and letting go of a first book for the new landscape of a second. Excerpts from the interview:
Would you describe the area you grew up in? What has Dismal Swamp’s impact been on you as a writer?
I grew up in a largely South Asian neighbourhood. I think that gave me a more nuanced take on brownness. Instead of seeing it in the margins, I was able to view it from a place of centrality. Often in the west, we see cultures from the margins juxtaposed by whiteness. By putting brownness against a brown background, it compelled me to dig deeper.
Was it difficult to order the stories? I know you’ve spoken in previous interviews about some of the logic behind it – layered impressions of characters, revealing details at a certain moment, conversations between the histories of different nations. I’d like to understand what that process looked like at a technical level. What were some of the steps in that process? Did the ordering unveil new connections in the text for you?
I ordered the stories based on the emotional arc of the narrative for the different characters. I knew I wanted the revelations to accumulate, and I wanted to start at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war with the family in Jersey so that the shadow of the war hovers over the rest of the stories. At times, the ordering felt quite clear. For example, the entomologist in “Office of Missing Persons” is introduced in the previous story, “A Story of Happiness.” I was also well aware of how the various perspectives sat next to each other. For example, first-person stories never adjoin. Like a music album, I was conscious of how I was modulating perspectives to create tonal variation and a vibrant reading experience.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the ways in which the personalities of the brothers, Karna and Arjun, mirror and oppose the personalities of their namesakes in the Mahabharata.
That was definitely a conscious decision. In some ways it was to deepen the mythology of our childhood, how so much of it is out of our hands. We inherit all this history but then we can also shape it. Arjun and Karna are part myth and part their own making.
Half Gods leaves many questions unanswered, leaves multiple possibilities open for the pasts and futures of the characters. One example of something Half Gods left me curious about was the father of the brothers, Mohinder, whom I wanted to understand better. Do you map out or know the stories that aren’t in the book? How as a writer do you choose what to explicitly include, what to suggest, and what to leave out?
I’m always thinking of the emotional heart of the book and using it as a touchstone to figure out what to include. With Mohinder, there can be so much more. I can discuss his remarriage, how he feels about his children, but there’s power in ambiguity and silence. We mostly see him through Nalini and the children. Still, unlike them, we as the readers might have a fuller picture because we get to see both perspectives.
Even the people closest to us are unable to see everything. It’s truer to life. I show what is vital to the story and hint at the consequences of what happened. The father’s absence is central, and I hope it feels palpable.
What are some short stories or other pieces of writing whose structure has helped you think about new possibilities for your own writing, and how?
Great question. I would definitely point to Hassan Blasim’s collection, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories. His work has stories within stories, ghosts speaking to the living. He plays with what absurdity means in a war-zone. Each story in Half Gods required a different structure, so it was helpful to see how other authors played with the form. I also really love Rabih Alameddine’s I, The Divine. It’s a novel structured around first chapters. It questions where one starts a story of a character’s life.
I’d love to hear about your fellowships at Provincetown and East Anglia. Did you find that time useful for you writing? How did you organise your time at these fellowships?
I found them very useful. I tried to have a regular writing routine, which mainly consisted of writing a certain amount of words a day and also reading. Part of the writing process involved daily walks through the very startling landscapes of Provincetown and East Anglia. Over time I have developed a more expansive view of the writing process and that includes time away from the desk. Sometimes you need to sit with an idea for a while or watch a film to reinvigorate your approach to the craft.
In the past, you’ve mentioned that drawing aids the writing process for you. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I think it’s helpful to work in another medium to further your thinking in the craft of writing. I don’t draw as often but I am very interested in film. It helps me with editing the work and figuring out how to create both clarity and ambiguity in a scene. Any sort of interests outside of writing is undeniably helpful for a writer. If you are an expert in fishing, it will give you material and also another way of seeing.
You’re currently working on your second book, right? What has that transition of moving from one text to another been like?
I begin working on the second book while finishing up Half Gods. It’s been wonderful diving into a new project, which has led me in directions I had not expected. I am a different person now than when I started Half Gods, and though the door to that world of Karna and Arjun has closed for me, it’s been so enjoyable to be in the thick of new characters.