With Half Gods, a striking debut collection of short stories, American-born Akil Kumarasamy has drawn the sort of praise that greeted Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy before the big prizes started rolling in.
“The prose itself is a marvel,” Tania James gushed in the New York Times Book Review, noting what she described as Kumarasamy’s “attention to ugliness”. In an admiring essay in the New Yorker, Katy Waldman described the diverse stories as supporting, contradicting and arguing with one another to create “a rich disorder”, like a complicated family around the dinner table.
Such attention to wordsmithing sometimes signals the sort of dreary ruminations that have given the short story a bad name in recent years. But Kumarasamy’s stories of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Kentucky and New Jersey—more James Joyce than James Patterson, to be sure—communicate a visceral sense of tension and longing.
“My work questions the idea of borders, how they are fictional constructs. What we call India and Sri Lanka is part of a colonial dream,” says Kumarasamy, whose parents grew up in Tamil Nadu. “I have never been to Sri Lanka.”
The “half gods” of the title refers to two recurring characters, Arjun and Karna, named after the warring protagonists of the Mahabharata and, through various linked stories in which they appear, it’s almost possible to piece together a sort of novel. But Kumarasamy points out that Half Gods is not strictly a book about the Sri Lankan diaspora.
“The two brothers… are half-Eelam Tamil and half-Punjabi Sikh,” she says. “They are also American. They don’t even refer to themselves as Sri Lankan, which is the Sinhala name for the island. In this book, there are Bengalis, Punjabis, Eelam
Tamils, Muslims, Sikhs, stateless Tamil tea plantation workers, an Angolan man from Botswana. For me, it’s important to put
brownness against a brown landscape because that gives a more nuanced look.”
Many of the stories hinge on the difficulties of assimilation and the ever-widening gap—like the ocean they may never cross again—between the first-generation exiles and their children and grandchildren. They’re notable because they’re not about the usual cute-exotic clashes portrayed in East is East and the like, but hit at something more profound—if not so amusing.
“There are all different kinds of guilt for these characters. Guilt from parents disappointing their children and children disappointing their parents. Guilt for leaving and living comfortable lives while others fought in the war and suffered,” Kumarasamy says.
“I am interested in guilt because it can submerge our lives, but I’m also interested in notions of forgiveness and happiness. Can you still see your own life as one full of happiness even after all these traumatic events?”
HALF GODS by AKIL KUMARASAMY Farrar, Straus and Giroux $25 ; 224 pages