An Interview with SJ Sindu

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

SJ Sindu’s second novel, Blue Skinned Gods, is narrated by Kalki, a boy with blue skin who is raised in an ashram to believe he is a childgod. As Kalki grows up, he is expected to heal the sick and constantly tested in ways that reinforce or discourage his belief. A local celebrity, Kalki is coached and bullied by his violent, exploitative father. Eventually, Kalki’s father raises their profile enough for them to leave India on a world tour with several stops, including New York City. There, Kalki finds a new kind of fame, takes to drinking, and tries to find a new sense of self.

Blue Skinned Gods is remarkable in its deft intersectional exploration of adolescence, so I wasn’t surprised that during our discussion of the novel Sindu told me, “I actually didn’t even think of it as a bildungsroman.” In part, this might be because Kalki learns so much through the people close to him, and for much of the novel—divided into several books named after family members—is telling the stories of others. Kalki has to balance the selfishness and selflessness of being divine.

Sindu’s first novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award and was a Stonewall Honor Book and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. An assistant professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Sindu took the time to correspond with me over email. This interview has been lightly edited. 

—Aram Mrjoian

TriQuarterly: Something I talk with my students about a lot is that it's difficult to really see and understand the vision for a piece of writing until it's fully drafted, and that they'll likely revise their work many times before knowing its shape. One thing I really enjoyed about your second novel, Blue Skinned Gods, is that I could feel a larger sense of vision from start to finish. Can you talk a little bit about how this novel came together and your ability as a writer to see the full picture for a book-length work of fiction?

SJ Sindu: I absolutely had a strong vision going in. But that doesn’t mean I had any idea what would happen or the structure that it would take! I moved to Florida for my PhD with an idea of a little blue boy who was believed to be a childgod living at a rural Indian ashram. That’s all I really had when I sat down to write the day after I moved into my solo apartment. I have this weird thing when I write that I have to do it from page one and move forward toward the end. I hate jumping around. I feel like the story (for me) is a boulder rolling down a hill, wherein the prose accumulates all these nuances and threads and motifs, all of which I can only do justice to if I write like a reader would read—from beginning to end. Which is to say that the story revealed itself to me as I wrote the first draft.

But though the characters, the events, the stakes, and the voice became clearer to me with every draft, and though I experimented a lot with structure—there were a few versions where the timeline of adult Kalki in New York was intercut with child Kalki at the ashram, jumping back and forth—it’s always felt like the same story to me as what I put down in the first draft.

TQ: This question is somewhat related, but (without spoilers) the novel ends on a note I wasn't expecting. How did you know where the novel closed and what do you think makes a good ending?

SJS: The ending that exists now has existed in some form or another from the very first draft, though a lot about it has changed. The novel is, at its core, a push and pull of power between a father and a son, so there was only one ending to me that would satisfy the tension that’s been building the whole time—the son has to confront the father. I guess that’s my answer to the second part of the question—the ending has to address (but not necessarily answer) the main dramatic questions that have kept us reading the story.

TQ: Blue Skinned Gods is a bildungsroman, but to me that feels like an oversimplification. My sense as a reader was that you were challenging some of the traditional expectations and conventions of this genre. Was that part of your thought process when writing the novel?

SJS: I actually didn’t even think of it as a bildungsroman. I didn’t believe I was really writing in or contributing to that genre. But you’re right, of course, it is a bildungsroman in many ways. But I didn’t picture it or structure it as one, and I wrote the story that I wanted to write. But of course, in later drafts, once I figured out what genre it would most likely be put in, I did attempt to subvert some of the conventions.

TQ: Your narrator and protagonist, Kalki, has blue skin and is believed by his followers to be the tenth human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Kalki and the characters around him experience major shifts in their understandings of identity in part because of his godliness, but also in simply breaking away from the strict and problematic traditions enforced by Kalki's father at their ashram. This is kind of a two-part question: Are you developing complex characters to critique larger religious and cultural structures, and how were you thinking about the fluidity of identity constructs when writing this?

SJS: I just think it’s good craft to develop complex characters who change and shift in their identities throughout a novel. So it wasn’t for the specific purpose of critiquing the global spiritual industrial complex, but I did definitely have that in mind for how the characters shifted in identity. I wanted to explore the question of the nature of faith, and what happens if you lose it. Because I spent so much time in the queer community, I watched everyone around me question their relationship with religion and spirituality—this was a time when most major religions believed queerness to be a sin against God. A lot of that experience went into the fluid identity constructs of these characters.

TQ: To shift a little bit, the novel's last act introduces a "post-punk" band called Blue Skinned Gods. What role does music play in this novel and, more generally, in your writing?

SJS: To be honest, the New York stuff really surprised me when I first wrote it. I wasn’t expecting quite that much of a voice shift, though I realized that ultimately it was important for Kalki’s journey and reflecting the intense changes he himself was going through, even if that shift is uncomfortable for the reader.

But to answer your question about music—that was a surprise, too, how much music is interwoven into the novel. I usually don’t write about music much. I think in this story, though, music is ultimately an escape for Kalki, both a way to have access to the wider world that he can’t be a part of, and something that consistently reaffirms his outsider status.

TQ: The last act also brings in a lot of social media and the idea of virality, particularly the relationship between viral content and belief. I wondered what your thoughts were on this relationship and the ways we increasingly rely on fast and convenient information found online.

SJS: I never imagined when I was starting writing this novel that it would hit shelves after another stolen US election and during a global pandemic, a world in which the virality of misinformation—and, let’s face it, blatant propaganda to destabilize our belief in science—would result in the deaths of millions. But I was definitely aware when I was starting on this novel that our refusal to believe in and try to reverse climate change would have disastrous consequences. I was aware of the kind of misinformation being pushed about climate change in the media and online. I was also aware of the rise of gurus in the West—a rise propelled in large part due to social media. I watched friends get sucked into these almost-cults. And I wanted to write about the relationship between online misinformation and belief because I think our early dreams of the Internet democratizing information have been stolen from us by late capitalism run amok and greedy corporations who are hacking our brains with increasingly sophisticated algorithms. That sounds kind of like woo woo conspiracy theory stuff, but it’s terrifyingly true.

TQ: This is your second novel. Has your writing process changed at all after going through the whole publishing process once before?

SJS: I really want to tell you I was much calmer about it this time around, but that is definitely not true! What I did have faith in this time around was that the novel would sell. I didn’t know why or how, but I believed that it would, if only because my first novel had earned out and I thought that publishing companies wouldn’t see me as a risky investment. But I didn’t feel the luxury of time like I did with the first novel. I was eager to get this one done, and so I despaired more during the revision process because it wasn’t happening as fast as I wanted it to. I do have to say that after the novel came out, I faced two months of debilitating self-doubt where I felt like a fraud—and that caused me to not be able to write. I’m writing again, though. I keep hoping that I’d suddenly learn how to write a novel after writing two, but it’s back to square one with each.

TQ: Lastly, and I guess this is kind of a non-question, but as a critic I know authors often get asked a lot of the same questions in interviews about their books. As I was jotting some of these down, I thought, I bet Sindu has already been asked this a bunch. I'm curious, what question about Blue Skinned Gods do you wish people asked that hasn't really come up? Or, what are you really excited to talk about related to this novel that not enough people ask?

SJS: Strangely enough, a lot of interviews have asked me this question, and I’m kind of out of novel ways to talk about this story. But can I use this space to talk about what I have coming up?

I have a hybrid nonfiction and poetry chapbook called Dominant Genes that will be released from Black Lawrence Press in February 2022, and fantasy graphic novel called Shakti that will be released by Harper Collins in 2023.

Currently, I’m working on a literary novel titled War Child, which follows three Tamil immigrants as they deal with their personal traumas as a result of the Sri Lankan civil war. It’s a very different book than Blue-Skinned Gods, in that there are multiple storylines, multiple timelines, and the themes are quite a bit darker and grittier. But I’m really excited about it, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.