Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how that potentially played a part to become a storyteller (in multiple formats including books and graphic novels).
I was born in Sri Lanka and lived in the north and eastern parts during the civil war, so the early part of my childhood was shaped by war and survival. I moved to the U.S. with my family when I was seven, where I stood out as a brown immigrant kid who didn’t know English and who wore pottus and homemade clothes. I was teased relentlessly. When I was a teenager, 9/11 happened, throwing our safety as brown-skinned South Asians into question in the U.S. as hate crimes increased against South Asians in the aftermath of the attacks. With all of these experiences, I struggled to find representations of my own life in books and media. I didn’t read a single book featuring a South Asian protagonist until I was in high school—Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused. And even then, there were no Tamil protagonists to be found. I felt like Tamilness might never be represented in books.
Of course, there’s more and more Tamil representation every day now, but back in the early 2000s the literary landscape seemed bleak, a dream that might never manifest. So I started to write my own original stories and fanfiction. I didn’t really approach any issues of war or of my own experience; I wrote mostly fantasy. I based my stories off of the ones I loved—epic fantasy and manga. I wrote both prose and comics/manga.
It wasn’t until I was in university that I got serious about my writing, but my upbringing as a displaced Tamil—one with no home state, discriminated against and in danger—made me want to tell the stories I wasn’t seeing out there, stories that featured people like me.
What was the reception like to your first book “Marriage Of A Thousand Lies”?
I was so scared leading up to its publication. I was scared of my family’s reaction because Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a queer story. I was scared of the community reaction, too. But in many ways, the reception was amazing beyond anything I was expecting. The book has slowly gained readers over the last few years, and I got a lot of emails from queer Tamils and queer South Asians in general who said that the book made them feel seen for the first time. That’s all I want as a writer.
I also got a lot of positive support from my brother and cousins—everyone in my family who is of my generation. And that’s meant the world to me.
How does an author apply or get discovered for awards like the ones you won in the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award and finalist for Lambda Literary Award?
Usually your publisher enters you into these awards, and my publisher, Soho Press, was very supportive about entering Marriage of a Thousand Lies into awards.
What did you learn from the experience of writing and publishing your first book that you applied to your newest book “Blue Skinned Gods”?
I learned a lot about the process of writing something so large and unwieldy as a novel. It’s not like writing a short story. It’s a much larger, longer commitment, and the revision process can be long and exhausting. I had something like twenty drafts of Marriage of a Thousand Lies. I also learned how slow the publishing process is. It tests your patience.
So for Blue-Skinned Gods, I was able to trust the process more, to trust that if I work steadily and have patience, a finished product will emerge at the end of many years. A lot of people give up on writing books because they get frustrated that the quality of the work isn’t up to their expectations, but it takes years and years of slow, steady work to take a novel from first draft to published.
You also have a graphic novel out in Shakti – what is the difference in creating a story in these 2 mediums (book vs graphic novel)?
The graphic novel is similar to a prose novel in that the story structure is similar. What makes a good story doesn’t change between these forms. But the addition of the visual element to the graphic novel makes the form different to work with. Like with a film, there is so much that can be communicated through the pictures themselves, but there’s also little interiority, so the characters have to be fleshed out through dialogue and action. Voice matters a lot in a prose novel, but in the graphic novel form, it’s about the visuals and creating story through the panels.
What was the inspiration behind writing “Blue Skinned Gods”?
I watched this documentary, Kumare, about a filmmaker who pretends to be a guru and amasses a big following. I found it fascinating that even when he tells his followers that he’s not a guru, many still wanted to believe in him. That power of human will—the need to believe—was interesting to me. And of course, I always knew about gurus and spiritual leaders in India. I started researching more about these movements, and the story started to come together in my head.