Tag Archives: SJ Sindu

Think Music: SJ Sindu

Sindu-5-3-300x248When I talk about music I listen to during writing, I’m really talking about two things—the music I put on while I’m physically writing at my desk, and the music I listen to for the duration of a project. In other words, there’s the writing music, and then there’s the other music—the stuff I listen to while driving, cooking, exercising, and dancing with my partner. The first kind I call sustenance music; the second, inspirational. Both shape my writing process and voice.

My novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, began with a Coyote Grace number called “Forever’s Song.” I started with images produced by these lyrics:

This life ain’t going no one’s way

Sweet Goddess, she’s gonna do what she do

Miss fickle rolls with God in the hay

And leaves him sleeping under the moon

The harvest is done and she ain’t coming back till June

In these lyrics are images of autumn, and a strong woman who has little use for a man. These images turned into a short story about a young South Asian American woman who runs away from home. But the story grew and grew, and pretty soon I was writing about the woman’s sister, the kindred spirit she leaves behind, the one who dreams of escaping but is too bound to her family. This is how I met Lucky, the protagonist of Marriage of a Thousand Lies.

1497235All through the writing of this novel, I listened to Coyote Grace and Chris Pureka on repeat. Coyote Grace is an indie roots band made up of Joe Stevens (guitar and vocals), Ingrid Elizabeth (cello and vocals), and Michael Connolly. The band is trying to reinvent and bring a radical progressive perspective to roots music. In their work, Coyote Grace often explores queer sexuality and gender transition with nuance and insight. Chris Pureka is a guitarist and vocalist whose work is inspired by bluegrass and folk music. Like Coyote Grace, she also explores queerness and gender in her music.

 

Where Coyote Grace brought me inspiration with their poetic lyrics, Chris Pureka brought me sustenance. There’s a hypnotic quality to Pureka’s music and voice that helped me into the writer’s trance. I can’t help but think of her when I think about my protagonist Lucky’s internal mindspace—alternatively zen and energetic melodies that simmer over a painful, roiling interior.

But the actual rhythm of Lucky’s voice was inspired by Bharatanatyam beats. Lucky’s passion in the novel is dance—specifically, an Indian classical form called Bharatanatyam, which she and her lover Nisha have danced since they were little. Their whole relationship is based around this dancing, and Lucky muses on it often.

When I met Tony Amato, an author and writing coach in Boston, he offered to read the novel in its mid-stages. I remember meeting with him in his study in Somerville to discuss the manuscript. I sat curled in an armchair with Tony’s ancient cat on my lap and a cup of coffee (which I’d defiled, as Tony called it, with sugar and cream). We talked about a lot of things, but my most vivid memory of that afternoon was when Tony turned to me and asked why the voice wasn’t taking its cues from Bharatanatyam. It was one of those lightning-strikes moments.

I went home and started listening to Bharatanatyam songs. Bharatanatyam music is normally headlined by a miruthangam—a double-sided drum that produces a large variety of tones. The thaalam (rhythm) of the beat can be slow or fast, but may sound chaotic to an untrained ear. There is also a certain amount of improvisation. The central thaalam forms the foundation of the music (which often has accompaniment from vocalists, violins, and other instruments). And for my protagonist Lucky, who was trained in Bharatanatyam from the time she was little, it makes sense to me that part of her internal music would be formed by a foundation of this same thaalam.

sindu-white_1000-2I compiled a list of traditional melodies, and re-wrote every single line of the novel with those beats in the background. A lot of things fell into place—Lucky’s voice, her personality, her longing. All the things that seemed barely in my grasp before came into clear focus. If you read closely, you can hear the thaam thakka tham of a miruthangam in the cadence of the novel, but ultimately that’s not the point. The point is to infuse the book with the music that rules Lucky’s life. Without this music, Lucky’s interiority would’ve never fully developed.

 

Now, as I work on a new novel, I’m always thinking about inspirational and sustenance music. There’s a lot of jazz, Fleet Foxes, and Ravi Shankar in my life right now, and I can see those beats and codas working their way into the voice of my current novel project. Of course, the process of writing transforms this music, just as the music transforms the writing. It’s a beautiful, wild cycle.

SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. Her work has be published in Brevity, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches and writes in Tallahassee. Marriage of a Thousand Lies, her first novel, is out now by Soho Press.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Joanna Luloff’s Anticipated Books of 2017

At the end of this tumultuous year, it is tempting to want to move on and train our gaze onto the new. Like many of us, I imagine, I’ve been thinking about what reading and writing can do—politically, socially. To me, these seemingly solitary acts encourage empathy, curiosity, engagement, and self-scrutiny. I hope, too, that they force us to look, carefully and critically, at our present lives in the context of the past and the future. Many writers I’ve long admired and enjoyed have books coming out this year (J.M. Coetzee, Joan Didion, George Saunders, Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami, Hari Kunzru) as well as writers newer to me whose earlier books looked thoughtfully and unflinchingly at the history and the present (Jesmyn Ward, Han King, and Viet Thanh Nguyen). I’m also incredibly excited to read books by friends and colleagues and contributors whose writing has inspired and energized me (Robert Long Foreman, Emily Ruskovitch, Marc McKee, Ian Stansel, Wendy Oleson). But I’ve chosen to focus this post on writers who are very new to me. As I looked back over this list, I saw some common themes developing. Each of these books, in varied ways, is engaging with questions of place and belonging in a quickly changing world. Through ghost stories, dystopian futures, and quieter realism, these novels and stories seem prescient in the questions they are asking about our new year. The close of 2016 also marks the end of my role as fiction editor at Memorious. I feel privileged to have been in the company of so many generous writers and readers and editors at the journal.

akkadwarAmerican War by Omar El Akkad (Knopf, April 4, 2017)
Akkad’s novel takes place in 2074 and imagines a second American Civil War. At its center is Sarat Chestnut, a young girl who grows up witness to flooding and a sky filled by unmanned drones. After her father dies, she grows up at Camp Patience, a community for displaced persons. Here is what Emily St. John Mandel has to say about the novel: “American War is an extraordinary novel. El Akkad’s story of a family caught up in the collapse of an empire is as harrowing as it is brilliant, and has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times.”

hanfairytaleThe Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong (Graywolf Press, March 7, 2017)
The description of Yujoo’s novel reads a bit like Lord of the Flies set at a Korean grade school. The story follows two girls, one spoiled and the other nearly invisible. Here is what Graywolf says about the novel: “At school, their fellow students, whether lucky or luckless or unlucky, seem consumed by an almost murderous rage. Adults are nearly invisible, and the society the children create on their own is marked by cruelty and soul-crushing hierarchies. Then, one day, the Child sneaks into the classroom after hours and adds ominous sentences to her classmates’ notebooks. This sinister but initially inconsequential act unlocks a series of events that end in horrible violence. But that is not the end of this eerie, unpredictable novel. A teacher, who is also this book’s author, wakes from an intense dream. When she arrives at her next class, she recognizes a student: the Child, who knows about the events of the novel’s first half, which took place years before. The Impossible Fairy Tale is a fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect.”

europa20842084: The End of the World by Boualem Sansal, translated by Alison Anderson 
(Europa Editions, January 31, 2017)
Sansal’s novel is in conversation with George Orwell’s 1984. It takes place in Abistan, a kingdom honoring the prophet Abi, where remembering is outlawed and citizens are surveilled at all times. Individual thought is forbidden, but a group of independent thinkers and outlaws live hidden in caves, where they plan a revolution. Europa describes Sansal’s novel: “2084 is a cry of freedom, a call to rebellion, and a gripping satirical novel of ideas.”

arimahskyWhat It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah
(Riverhead Books April 4, 2017)
I’m excited to read Arimah’s collection of stories that engage a range of storytelling strategies and smash fable up against realism. In one story, a woman works as a grief mathematician, whose job it is to “exorcise” trauma and grief from a client’s consciousness. In another story, a woman who longs to have a child creates one out of her own hair. Her stories are imaginative and often unsettling, but written with a contrasting matter-of-fact prose. From Aimee Bender: “How does she make these stories so distilled and spacious at the same time? They are drained of excess but still expand so fearlessly.”

the-gurugu-pledge-cover-rgb-300x460The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar
(And Other Stories, August 2, 2017)
And Other Stories press is publishing some really exciting translations, and I’m eager to read this novel crafted out of first-hand accounts of refugee migrations. Here is how the press describes The Gurugu Pledge: “On Mount Gurugu, overlooking the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the North African coast, desperate migrants gather before attempting to scale the city’s walls and gain asylum on European soil. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel has written an urgent novel, by turns funny and sad, bringing a distinctly African perspective to a major issue of our time.”

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin, May 2, 2017)
Ko’s novel won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice. The story follows eleven-year old Deming Guo who is adopted by a white couple after his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, never comes home from her job at a nail salon. Laila Lalami describes the novel as “a rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages. . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.”

(And briefly, because I’ve already exceeded my limit! SJ Sindu’s A Marriage of a Thousand Lies, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrashnan, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, Things we Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriques, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan, No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts.)

Joanna Luloff is a fiction editor at Memorious. Her short story collection The Beach at Galle Road was published by Algonquin Books in 2012. Her novel is forthcoming from Algonquin. She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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Brian Trapp’s Anticipated Books of 2017

Since 2010, Memorious editors and contributors have compiled lists of our most anticipated titles of the new year. Last year’s picks included Emma Cline’s masterful novel The Girls, Han King’s Man Booker-winning drama The Vegetarian, and our new Assistant Poetry Editor Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water, which Mary Szybist selected for the A. Poulin Jr. Award. For the next several days, our staff and contributors will be posting the books they are most excited about in 2017. We hope you enjoy our picks, and we’d love to hear what you’re excited to read, so let us know in the Comments section what we’ve missed!

Fiction Editor Brian Trapp kicks off this year’s round with his list:

Kevin Wilson, Perfect Little World (Ecco, January)

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Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, was one of my favorite books in recent years. The novel (about two aging performance artists and their traumatized adult children) hit all the right notes: hilarious set pieces, tonal complexity, and heart-punching pathos. In addition, one of its main characters gets smashed in the face by a rocket-launched potato. In Wilson’s sophomore effort, Perfect Little World, he writes another absurdist family novel, following Isabella Pool, a young new mother looking for answers and resources to raise her child. She soon joins “The Infinite Family Project,” a utopian experiment in which ten children are raised collectively, without knowing who their biological parents are. The community starts off with promise, but soon begins to fracture. Wilson is a razor sharp sentence writer and a careful observer of people. He has the comic chops and the emotional intelligence to transcend even the most absurd premise and ask: What makes and breaks a family?

Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande, February)

animals-passarelloPassarello melted my face with her first essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat, a tour-de-force meditation on all things voice, from competing in a “Stella!” screaming contest in New Orleans to the origins and applications of the Wilhelm scream, the reused scream sound you hear during deaths in countless films. In her next collection, modeled after a medieval bestiary, she investigates famous animals named and immortalized by humans, starting with a 39,000-year-old wooly mammoth. Kirkus writes that Passarello “makes connections among disparate elements and wields keen perceptions on the creatures she encounters. There are some real dazzlers. Passarello manages to chronicle humanity’s cavalier exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals without getting preachy in the process—no mean feat.” Passarello is talented enough to bring her voice to bear on any subject, animal, vegetable or mineral.

Woody Skinner, A Thousand Distant Radios (Atelier26, late 2017)

Skinner’s work is reminiscent of other great voice-driven comic writers of the American South: Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, Padgett Powell. Like these writers, Skinner, winner of Mid-American Review’s Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, is funny, sure, but also capable of affecting pathos within the strangest of premises. In the title story, a man goes about burning his grandfather’s body by pouring gasoline into his mouth: “I bent over his body, pressed my ear onto his bloated belly, and listened to the gasoline slurp and fizz inside of him. It sounded like the static of a thousand distant radios, like stories and sounds refusing to take shape.” What follows is a meditation on death and the unbearable weight of American history. If his title story is any indication, the stories that do take shape in this collection will be wildly inventive and darkly comic, but always moving.

SJ Sindu, Marriage of a Thousand Lies (Soho Press, June)

sindu_cover_final_smallIn SJ Sindu’s debut novel, we meet Lakshmi, called Lucky, an unemployed programmer, and her husband, Krishna, an editor for a greeting card company. Both are secretly gay—their marriage a front for their conservative Sri Lankan-American families. Sindu, a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow, writes deeply sensuous and evocative prose, telling an unconventional immigrant story of queer love and loss. You can read an excerpt here. Soho Press had this to say about the novel: “It doesn’t always get better. To live openly means that Lucky would lose most of the community she was born into—a community she loves, an irreplaceable home. As Lucky, an outsider no matter what choices she makes, is pushed to the breaking point, Marriage of a Thousand Lies offers a moving exploration of friendship, family, and love, shot through with humor and loss.”

Other Intriguing Titles:

The Dark and Other Love Stories, Debbie Willis (Norton, February)

Rabbit Cake, Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books, March)

The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge (Penguin, March)

Love Is No Small Thing, Meghan Kenny (LSU Press, March)

A Horse Walks into a Bar, David Grossman (Penguin, February)

Sirens, Joshua Mohr (Two Dollar Radio, January)

Brian Trapp is the fiction editor of Memorious. His short stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Sun, the Gettysburg ReviewNarrativeNinth Letter, MELUS, and Black Warrior Review, among other places. An essay of his was named Notable in Best American Essays 2013. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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