By Jennifer M. Dean
SJ Sindu’s debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, uses the classic love story/tragedy arc of young lovers re-united as adults only to be kept apart by circumstances, culture, and perhaps even tragic flaws of the characters themselves to chronicle the unique and often painful choices faced by queer South Asians of the Diaspora. Set in twenty-first century Boston, the lovers are two women - Lucky and Nisha - both from Sri Lankan Hindu families, who commit to marriages of convenience to preserve ties with their families. SJ Sindu and I discuss the inspiration for Marriage of a Thousand Lies and the work of crafting the novel.
For some readers, this particular point of the plot - that in Boston, in the United States - a young woman would feel compelled to enter a marriage of convenience to be incredible, yet your writing is such that not only can a reader imagine it as true they ache for Lucky, Kris, and Nisha. How much research - interviews and so on - were a part of your preparation for writing this book and how much of it stemmed from your own experience as a queer desi growing up in a very traditional Sri Lankan family?
A lot of the novel, and especially the experience of Lucky and Kris, were based on my own experience. I know it does seem incredible to some readers--often white readers who are surrounded by a liberal bubble and live in larger cities--that there are arranged marriages and marriages of convenience happening in 2017, in current-day America, in the very cities they live in. One early reader even said that he couldn’t believe a queer person would be in the closet in 2012, when the novel takes place. After the book sold and people were starting to hear about it, I got emails and confessions at author events from other South Asians who have been in marriages of convenience to hide their queerness, or who have agreed to arranged marriages against their will. I knew that Lucky’s story was common, but I didn’t know just how pervasive it is until people started telling me. It’s amazing, actually, and I hope that this story helps to shine some light on that underbelly of South Asian queer life.
A lot of people don’t realize the absoluteness of the closet, especially if you haven’t been in it. For a lot of heterosexual American liberals, the closet is a place you can leave and never go back to again, but that’s just not true. The closet is something that lives inside you, not the other way around. For someone like my protagonist Lucky, the closet has taken over her life--it’s imprisoned her mind, and it’s extremely difficult to escape that kind of chain.
I lived under its grip for years, and it’s a constant process of coming out over and over--coming out is a perpetual action, not a border you can cross and never go back to. I based a lot of Lucky’s internal emotional state on my experience. I also used the experiences of people I knew--fellow South Asian queers who were in the closet in their own ways. Kris’s story is based on one of my close friends from college. But even though Lucky and Kris are often miserable, I consider them better off than Nisha. It’s Nisha I have the greatest sympathy for--she’s trapped in a loop of thinking where she’s closeted even from herself. At least Lucky and Kris know who they are. Nisha’s denial of her own feelings makes her, to me, the most tragic character in the book (aside from Lucky’s mother).
What was the beginning point- for you - in writing this story? How did you come to write this novel?
When I was twenty, about three years after I came out, my family started trying to arrange my marriage. My information was passed around all over the world, and meetings were set up between me and my suitors. I was caught between threats of disownment and sacrificing my life to make my family and the community happy. I was also furious that they’d ask this of me. And I was also furious that the larger South Asian community would pressure my parents so much into pressuring me. My parents also faced disownment from the community if I didn’t fall in line.
I started writing a lot about this experience, and in particular I started writing a short story about a woman who was being forced into an arranged marriage. This is a pretty common early subject for South Asian women writers.
Around that time, a gay desi friend of mine asked me to marry him. We’d appease both our families, he argued, and we’d get to maintain our queerness in our private lives. We’d be great roommates and partners, albeit not in the romantic sense. I said no. But that question haunted me. I wondered what kind of person I would’ve had to be to say yes.
This novel grew out of that time and out of that short story.
Concerns of personal identity and independence vs community identity and obligation are a key area of conflict in your novel. There's definitely a high cost to the life Lucky is forced to lead. What was it like to depict the emotional and psychological toll of that dual life, that mental calculus always at work for young people attempting to negotiate their own identity and what their elders expect and demand of them?
I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of the central conflict in the story. There is a huge psychological and emotional toll for everyone navigating this path--and especially for the women, who are disenfranchised in a culture as patriarchal as the one of modern day South Asian American diaspora. Every woman in the story is forced into the position of deciding between herself (her own happiness, independence, individuality) and obligation to the community. And on top of that, this choice is underscored by Hindu mythology and traditions.
I wanted this novel to be an exploration of that particular aspect of South Asian womanhood, so I created characters who would each make a different choice. Each of them has to sacrifice something, whether it be their individual identity or their family. But Lucky tries to have it both ways, to live out her queer life on the side and still appease her family, but that choice also has the grave cost of her inner peace. It’s a painful place to be, and all of Lucky’s interiority is shaped by that pain. She’s alternatively angry and numb. She’s both fighting against her family and wanting to be near them. These contradictions shape her, as they shape every other woman character in the book.
It was difficult writing this book because of Lucky’s inner turmoil--and the book is told from her point of view, so I had to sink my toes into her interiority. Getting into her headspace day after day was painful. I was often angry and sad while writing, and it took me a long time to climb out of that headspace after finishing the novel.
But there are elements to Lucky’s experience that make her anguish unique, too.
Of course, for Lucky this choice is compounded by her queerness. Her South Asianness keeps her from fully embracing the queer community--which is largely white and Euro-centric. Her queerness keeps her from feeling belonging in her family or South Asian community. She’s always an outsider. I think there’s a temptation to view this story as entirely universal, that these are choices every woman faces, and there’s some truth to that. But it’s also a very particular story of a queer South Asian woman, and the specificity of her experience with homophobia in the South Asian community and with ethnocentrism in the queer community.
You are also a creative writing teacher. What do you tell your students about the process of writing a novel? What do you tell them about revision?
I tell them that it’s hard, that there are no signposts or guidelines or rules when you’re in the thick of it. But I tell them they should do it anyway. I utilize terrible running metaphors. But what I hope my students get out of it is that if you want to write a novel, it takes a lot of dedication and tenacity--far more than writing a single poem or short story. A novel can eat up years of your life. This one took me five years to write and three years to publish.
And even after the tremendous feat of writing a full draft, the real work has just started. My writing process involves a lot of revision. Not everyone works that way, but every novel goes through at least some revision. This novel in its final version is the 19th draft I wrote. The process made me respect revision far more than I did before I started. But at the end, it’s worth it for me. And I tell my students to find a story they want to tell bad enough that it’s worth it for them, too.
Jennifer M. Dean writes, works, and lives in Fresno, California. She is a Contributing Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Poetry Quarterly, Midwestern Gothic and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her first essay collection.