Friday, August 17

Akil Kumarasamy’s “Half Gods” Troubles the Idea of Homeland

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There is something particular about hearing the same stories repeated again and again by family members. A loving frustration. There are the looks shot between siblings, across kitchen tables, of “this again?” There is the conviction with which a grandfather or a mother or an uncle tells the story, each time like it’s going to change when it never does. There is the guilt that comes with not listening well enough to the story, or the person telling it.

Muthu, the grandfather in Akil Kumarasamy’s debut short story collection Half Gods, is guilty of these repetitions. He relays to his grand kids the same ancient myths and legends while avoiding the details of his own story — one marked by loss, by a lack of hope for himself and his home in Sri Lanka, by loved ones killed during Colombo’s anti-Tamil riots in the 1980s.

With these stories, Kumarasamy bridges everyday, inter-generational frustrations with larger, life-altering tragedies. Stories of teenage angst and lust are paired with the frantic search of a father for his lost son. Stories set on family vacations are mixed with those marked by devastation.

Kumarasamy’s stories surround the lives of Sri Lankan Tamils: those who call Sri Lanka home, those who escape during the war to the United States, and those who never set foot on the island. With all of these viewpoints, she traces delicately how, through generations, a family’s tragedy can transform from obsession to preoccupation to curiosity about a haunting past.

Each story in the collection switches perspectives, giving unique insight into a single family from insider and outsider points of view. These point of view changes are reminiscent Zadie Smith’s NW or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, uncovering what wouldn’t otherwise be seen from a single character. What makes Half Gods stand out among these is its unraveling of a single family — Kumarasamy unearths all that is left unsaid between and about family members who struggle to move forward after immense loss.

From the very first story, “Last Prayer,” the distance between the family’s present and past lives is clear. Arjun, whose mother Nalini moves to the United States with her father, Muthu, as a teenager, speaks of his ignorance about his mother’s life saying, “My mother kept no photographs of her time in Kentucky or her teenage years in Jersey, and sometimes I had difficulty placing her anywhere except in relation to me. Like we were born together.” Here is one of the collection’s biggest strengths: uncovering the complexity that exists when wide emotional gulfs are coupled with intimate entanglements.

Although the stories center around a single family, they are powerful as stand-alone, varied narratives. The stories take us from the streets of Colombo to the hills of Nuwara Eliya all the way to the suburbs of Kentucky and the immigrant communities of Jersey City. Kumarasamy’s demonstrates impressive agility in adapting voice from one setting to another, from one character to another. Taken together, each story answers a question that wasn’t explicitly posed in a previous story. Why does Muthu react so strongly when the Sri Lankan Civil War ends? Why does Nalini not like to talk about her sons’ dead uncle?

The characters’ relationships to Sri Lanka itself play an important role in Half Gods. By centering the stories around Tamil Sri Lankans, predominantly those who are originally brought to the island to work on tea plantations, Kumarasamy brings to light the history of a people whose homeland does not fully claim them.

Kumarasamy includes various immigrants with similar backgrounds — at one point, a character Muthu works with introduces them: “‘I’m Haitian from the Dominican Republic, and my friend here is Tamil from Sri Lanka,’ he’d say to make sure people knew we didn’t fully belong to the countries where we came from.” Another Botswanan immigrant, Marlon, who Nalini meets at the local butcher shop, recognizes the same lack of home, “‘There is nothing for you here,’ his mother told him before she died, leaving him with no reason to return.” With these moments, Kumarasamy forces a confrontation with the idea of homeland itself. What is a family to do when all ties to home are severed, when they know more of the dead than the living? What do you do when there is nowhere left to miss?

While the characters must live with the war’s effects hanging over them, Kumarasamy highlights the small ways that families move forward: trips to the Jersey shore, building snowmen with neighbors, weekend trips to visit adult siblings. Arjun recalls, “Though I had believed we’d been cursed from the beginning, I’d always known, even before my grandfather called to me with the blunted edge of his voice from his deathbed, that we were the lucky ones.”

They are the family that survives. This message, repeated in its own way in each story, never gets old.

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