In her debut short story collection, Half Gods, Akil Kumarasamy takes readers into the lives of a multigenerational Sri Lankan Tamil family, tracing their history from the plantations of what was then the British colony of Ceylon to the beaches of the Jersey Shore. Across 10 interconnected stories, Kumarasamy explores what it means to be made to feel like a foreigner in one’s own country, a theme made all the more affecting by recent events.
When the British left Ceylon in 1948, independence from the British Empire had been secured through relatively peaceful means. The newly free Dominion of Ceylon entered the world with a number of advantages, including representative democratic institutions that were expected to provide stability and continuity. But the seeds of conflict between the majority Sinhalese (who made up roughly two-thirds of the island’s population) and the minority Tamils were nourished by an increasingly fervent nationalism that had subtly infiltrated the push for independence.
The British had long practiced the policy of “divide and rule” in its overseas colonies, and Ceylon was no exception. During the colonial period, the British set themselves up in the northern, Tamil-dominated region of the island. Access to British educational institutions and employment opportunities in the colonial government allowed Tamils to assert a level of power and influence that belied their minority status. This inflamed Sinhalese resentment; while the two groups had long been separated by their languages and religion, they were now, for the first time, separated by an ever-widening economic inequality.
In “New World,” Kumarasamy shows the departure of British authorities through the eyes of an Indian Tamil woman working on a tea plantation. It’s here that we get our first long look at Muthulingham Padmanathan, or Muthu, the patriarch of the family around which Half Gods is centered. Here he is a schoolboy, the son of the owner of the plantation’s company store. His father, Mr. Padmanathan, and Mr. Balakumar, the stern overseer of the plantation, take great pains to distinguish themselves from the laborers; though they are all Tamil, the laborers are descended from Indian immigrants rather than native-born Ceylon Tamils.
“He was Tamil too,” the narrator says about Muthu’s father, “but we didn’t call him brother, and after we paid, he whispered about us, called us Indian coolies. None of us had ever visited India, but he didn’t care about those details.”
Mr. Padmanathan and Mr. Balakumar adopt the habits and manners of the departed British, doling out beatings and adopting the Western style of dress. “We all remembered Mr. Balakumar weeping as Sir William drove away,” the narrator recalls, “but we could not tell if it was from sadness or joy as he hugged the blue lapels of the suit jacket Sir William left for him.” The new world the plantation workers hoped for, in the end, differed little from the old one.
Paradoxically, while the British presence on the island exacerbated ethnic tensions that had previously been virtually nonexistent, it also cloaked them and held them at bay. Once they left, Sinhalese politicians saw much to gain in stoking anti-Tamil sentiment and quickly moved to take advantage. In 1949, Indian Tamils were stripped of their citizenship in an effort to ensure a Sinhalese majority in the government. In 1956, passage of the “Sinhala Only” Act mandated that all government business would be conducted in the Sinhala language, effectively expelling Tamils from civil service. It was a transparently cynical move; “I have never found anything to excite the people in quite the way this language issue does,” said Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike. In 1972, the name of the country was changed from Ceylon (believed to originate from an archaic Tamil word and applied to the island by European colonizers) to Sri Lanka. As the government wrote their second-class status into law, the Tamil people increasingly became the target of violence from people emboldened by the bigotry of their leaders.
With no opportunity for legal or governmental redress and harried by recurring pogroms, some Tamils turned to what they felt was their only option—violence. In 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers), a militant group later labeled a terrorist organization by 32 countries, launched a campaign of military assaults, assassinations and suicide bombings against the government.
The resulting civil war lasted for 26 years and killed over 100,000 people before government forces finally defeated the Tigers in 2009. More than 800,000 people were displaced, with many fleeing the country as refugees to India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
In “A Story of Happiness,” a now-adult Muthu seeks asylum at the U.S. embassy with his daughter, Nalini, following the murder of his wife and two sons at the hands of Sinhalese in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. He recounts the story of his country’s downward spiral frankly, step by step, interspersed with short snippets of a poetic fable that Nalini has written for school three years after their escape, when they are settled in New Jersey. It’s a remarkable story, part history lesson, part emotional journey, and Kumarasamy balances each part well, helping readers unfamiliar with the events in Sri Lanka get a foothold while still maintaining momentum in the narrative with her graceful prose.
When the Padmanathans reach the United States, Kumarasamy uses Nalini and her sons, the U.S.-born Arjun and Karna, to illustrate the challenges faced by first- and second-generation immigrant families, particularly those who don’t fit neatly into the boxes that their new countrymen are inclined to sort them into. “You are a convenience store owner, a taxi driver, a doctor, a terrorist, an IT worker, an exchange student,” Karna muses. “An Egyptian, a Pakistani, a Trinidadian, an Indian. You wear your skin like it’s something borrowed, not owned.”
While the tug-of-war between Muthu’s longing for his lost homeland and Arjun and Karna’s coming of age in their new one drive much of the action, Kumarasamy makes Nalini the heart of the book with two beautifully vivid stories, “When We Were Children” and “The Butcher.” The first recounts her affair with her husband’s brother, Dilraj; the second is told from the perspective of Marlon, a lonely Angolan-Botswanan butcher who is drawn toward Nalini’s warmth and friendliness. Kumarasamy depicts the affair with Dilraj not as torrid but rather as desperate, an encounter between two lost innocents seeking comfort. “She had thought it was their grief that led them to kiss in the convenience store, their clothes still smelling of seawater and ash, but it was a human-shaped void, and standing at the edge, they had both wanted a closer look,” she writes. “When he held her, he was cautious not to give her pain and from his tenderness, she felt certainty in how their bodies progressed, each limb entwining in accord.” Kumarasamy’s writing is lush and evocative, capable of wresting beauty from sadness and finding slivers of hope amidst great tragedy.
Though the stories in Half Gods are rooted in a conflict that began decades ago and on the other side of the world, many of its themes are startlingly relevant to our current situation in the U.S.: politicians exploiting ethnic tensions, lacking either the vision to see where such acts would lead or the empathy to care; the suppression of votes, the narrowing of citizenship, and the weaponization of government institutions; a refugee seeking asylum with his child, their fates in the hands of distracted bureaucrats and petty tyrants. Akil Kumarasamy has written a book for our time and our place, showing us that others have been down this road before and warning us where we might end up if we aren’t vigilant.
Out this week: Kudos by Rachel Cusk; There There by Tommy Orange; The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward; Days of Awe by A.M. Homes; The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong; Upstate by James Wood; Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy; Sweet and Low by Nick White; Sick by Porochista Khakpour; The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut; Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson; Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt; and Florida by Lauren Groff.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments, and get excited for the GREAT SECOND-HALF PREVIEW, which we will roll out in the second week of July.
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Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk’s writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It’s true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has “renovated” the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: “I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live.” (Anne)
There There by Tommy Orange: Set mostly in Oakland, Orange’s polyphonic novel describes the disparate but connected lives of group of Native Americans, many of them self-identified “urban Indians,” who come together for the Great Oakland Powwow. There, personal and communal and national histories propel events–and his cast of characters–toward a shocking denouement. Orange’s novel has been called a “new kind of American epic” by the New York Times; read more here. (Lydia)
Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Barack Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, Groff’s next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, “the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind.” Included is ”Dogs Go Wolf,” the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. In a recent interview, Groff gave us the lay of the land: “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years...I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you.” (Claire)
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li’s debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, “her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising.” Read an excerpt from the novel here at Buzzfeed. (Lydia)
The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward: A poet’s memoir in prose and verse about a tempestuous adolescence in England, where the author was born to immigrant parents and raised by Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents. The memoir describes her experiences with drugs and alcohol, her relationships with men and with sex work, the struggles of her brother, and her development as an artist. A starred Kirkus review says “Daley-Ward has quite a ferociously moving story to tell.” (Lydia)
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg: A work of speculative historical fiction exploring queer and trans histories through the story of notorious 19th-century London thieves Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess. This is a publishing event, the first work of fiction to be released by esteemed editor Chris Jackson’s One World imprint, and it has received accolades from every trade publication and a host of writers including Victor LaValle, China Miéville, and Maggie Nelson. (Lydia)
Ayiti by Roxane Gay: This is a reissue of Roxane Gay’s first book, a collection of short stories about Haiti and the diaspora, with two new stories. Ayiti was first published by the small press Artistically Declined Press in 2011, before the author was routinely at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Kirkus says “Gay has addressed these subjects with more complexity since, but this debut amply contains the righteous energy that drives all her work.” (Lydia)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael)
Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom)
Days of Awe by A.M. Homes: A new collection of stories from the prolific author of May We Be Forgiven featuring humorous, melancholy reflections on American life. The title story involves friends becoming lovers at a conference about genocides. The great Zadie Smith calls it “a razor-sharp story collection from a writer who is always ‘furiously good.'” (Lydia)
The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong (translated by Chi-Young Kim): South Korea’s best-selling crime novelist is a woman, although she is nonetheless marketed as “the Stephen King of Korea.” This novel, a sensation in South Korea and her first to be translated into English, is a psychological thriller involving a possible matricide, for “fans of Jo Nesbo and Patricia Highsmith.” (Lydia)
Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah)
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori): A 36-year-old woman in modern-day Tokyo has worked a convenience store for 18 years of her life, watching family and friends pairing off, having children, or climbing professional ladders. She eventually enters into a sham marriage with a coworker to embody an idealized notion of adulthood, but the plan backfires, and the book is a meditation on work, life, and “normalcy.” Kirkus says “Murata skillfully navigates the line between the book’s wry and weighty concerns and ensures readers will never conceive of the ‘pristine aquarium’ of a convenience store in quite the same way.” (Lydia)
Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy: A collection of linked stories about a family devastated by the Sri Lankan civil war, which claims the lives of a mother and two sons. The father and remaining daughter flee to New Jersey, and the collection moves across time and place and between points of view to describe the dislocation of its characters and the enduring consequences of trauma. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “a wonderful, auspicious debut.” (Lydia)
History of Violence by Édouard Louis (translated by Lorin Stein): A fictionalized account of a true story. The author survived a violent sexual assault and this novelization exploring the aftermath, including his return to his family’s village, became a bestseller in France for its frank reckoning with the effects of sexual violence, as well a broader look at French society. (Lydia)
Sweet and Low by Nick White: A new entry in the field of southern gothic (complete with Faulkner homage), a collection of stories exploring masculinity, sexuality, and place in the deep south that has garnered praise from Jesmyn Ward and Alissa Nutting. Publisher’s Weekly called it “an atmospheric and expertly crafted collection.” (Lydia)
We Begin Our Ascent by Joe Mungo Reed: A debut novel that follows the travails of a team of professional cyclists–who happen to be doping–in the Tour de France, exploring ideas of competition, ambition, and team dynamics. The novel has drawn several comparisons to Don DeLillo, and George Saunders raved: “A dazzling debut by an exciting and essential new talent: fast, harrowing, compelling, masterfully structured, genuinely moving. Reed is a true stylist.” (Lydia)
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: A collection of essays exploring the ubiquitous “dead girl” in popular culture, using shows like Twin Peaks and Pretty Little Liars to point to the misogyny that thrums through so many of the cultural products we consume. These are interwoven with personal essays about her arrival in Los Angeles. Kirkus calls it “an illuminating study on the role women play in the media and in their own lives.” (Lydia)
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Read an excellent piece in The New Yorker here.) (Zoë)
The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut: Immergut published a collection of short stories in 1992, shortly after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but her debut novel comes over 25 years later, a literary thriller that takes place in a prison where a woman is serving a sentence for second-degree murder. Her appointed psychologist once pined for her in high schhol. Publishers’ Weekly says “Immergut’s book begins as in incisive psychological portrait of two mismatched individuals and morphs into a nail-biting thriller.” (Lydia)
Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson’s essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher’s debut has been called “racingly good…refreshing and welcome” by Maggie Nelson. (Tess)
Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie)
Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.” The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera. Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt’s mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can’t stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya)