#DesiReads: SJ Sindu reads from their hybrid collection, Dominant Genes

Desi Books Ep 68 w/ SJ Sindu Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 68 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have SJ Sindu reading from their latest hybrid collection, Dominant Genes.

#DESIREADS WITH SJ SINDUINTRODUCTION

SJ Sindu is a Tamil diaspora author of two literary novels, two hybrid chapbooks, and two forthcoming graphic novels. Their first novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award and their second novel, Blue-Skinned Gods, was published in November 2021. A 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow, Sindu holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Florida State University and teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough. More at sjsindu.com or @sjsindu on Twitter and Instagram.

Dominant Genes, the new hybrid collection, is equal parts power and astonishing beauty, tenderness and shimmering anger, poetry and lyric essays interwoven in a gorgeous exploration of family, heritage, and the construction of nonbinary and queer identities. “We learn our anger through osmosis,” Sindu writes of the inherited rage of South Asian women, “or maybe it’s in the breast milk, spreading through our veins long before we learn how to look only at the floor and walk without showing our ankles.” There is hope in this collection, and the lead weight of expectation, and warm moments of empathy too. Thematically linked and stylistically nimble, Sindu’s pieces play with the fragmentary nature of memory and identity, her speakers traversing, with intelligence and compassion, the complexities of mental health, love, and pressurized relationships with the people closest to us—those who love us intensely, even when they understand us the least.

We’ve had SJ on before on our #DesiCraftChat channel to discuss the novel, Blue-Skinned Gods. You can catch up with that episode here.

SJ Sindu’s Dominant Genes is a hybrid collection of poetry and lyric essays exploring family, heritage, and the construction of nonbinary and queer identities. A reading by the author in #DesiReads @DesiBooks

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the Desi Books website.

And now, here’s SJ Sindu.


DESIREADS WITH SJ SINDU

[Excerpted with permission from Dominant Genes by SJ Sindu. Copyright © 2022 SJ Sindu.]

Sun God

In the Mahabharata Karna the infant
is set afloat in a basket

illegitimate son of a princess
and the sun, raised by a merchant

his real story is one of self-destruction
I try to be an expert on this subject

Karna grows up to be an archer
the finest in the world

until his little half-brother
comes along to best him

Karna finally makes a friend
just his luck it’s the villain of our tale

and now he’s on the wrong side of a holy war
all the gods get involved

even his mother comes to him
the mother he yearns for

but now she’s come and revealed herself
only to ask him not to kill his half-brother

Karna is no Moses
and he will have no redemption

no hordes of followers
no one to pray over him

no, he will be a symbol
of how even the sun will abandon us

of how the wrong birth
is deserving of pity but not hero-hood

and how exactly did the sun
get a woman pregnant

is what I want to know
I’m told this is a bad question

I’m full of bad questions
like if I peel open my labia in the light

will I too have to send away a child
in a basket on the river

and what about masturbation
was the princess being punished

for digging inside herself
for her own deep pleasure

why can’t women step inside the temple
when they’re bleeding

I imagine little Karna sits at breakfast
while his adoptive mother stirs the sambar

and he is full of bad questions like
if you’re my real mother

then why do I feel like a god
and what I wanted to know at his age

was if one man’s freedom fighter
is another man’s terrorist

then are we on the wrong side of this war
but this a bad question

“[…] if one man’s freedom fighter
is another man’s terrorist

then are we on the wrong side of this war
but this a bad question”

from SJ Sindu’s Dominant Genes; A reading by the author in #DesiReads @DesiBooks


Draupadi Walks Alone at Night

For years now, since I turned twenty, my parents have been trying to marry me off. Aunties cup my chin at parties, turn my head this way and that, and say things like, “she’s so fair, too bad she’s short,” and, “she could use a thicker head of hair, but she’s pretty, so it’ll balance out.” My worth measured in pigments and strands. Point: I look younger than I am. Point: I’m neither skinny nor fat. Point: I come from a dominant caste.

Someone in a Bollywood picture says that progress is when a woman decked in gold can walk alone down the street at night. Of course, a film version of civility would include 22-karat bangles and jumka earrings. In the movie, a woman tries it. Police freak out. Comedy ensues. Centuries of feminine rage unspool on celluloid.

This is a rage we’ve all inherited, folded up in the pleats of cotton sarees, transmuted from the heads of our mothers at the same time they scolded us for not knowing how to cook roti, and how will we keep a man happy? We learn our anger through osmosis, or maybe it’s in the breast milk, spreading through our veins long before we learn how to look only at the floor and walk without showing our ankles.

In rural India, women are still married off to their rapists, a practice considered both a punishment for the rapist and justice for the woman.

My own insides curdle with this anger. I cut off my hair, hoping the outrage will seep out through my scalp, but it lingers.

In the Mahabharata, Draupadi marries five brothers and bears their children, rules as queen and eventually, ends up suffering in exile. For all that, she is called a whore. A queen, and for all that, a man can still gamble her away, a man can still drag her out to the middle of a crowd and order her stripped, a man can still save her body from shame.

Every time I go back home, my mother tells me what to pack. Bring shorts, but not too short, mid-thigh to knee, and for gods’ sake make sure you bought them from the women’s section. If you bring men’s tank tops, I swear I will burn them all. My mother has a problem with androgyny.

By the time I’m twenty, I identify as a lesbian. I’ve cut my hair. I’ve bought twice as many men’s tank tops. And the boy I bring home to my mother still has the girl body he was born with. My little brother, who is eight, is not confused. My mother cries. My father is stone.

Draupadi spends the first year of her marriage with the oldest brother, the second year with the second oldest, and so on. This so that everyone will know which son belongs to which father. She is the lynchpin of the story, a victim of masculine sexuality like Sita of the Ramayana. The narrative revolves around her, but unlike Sita, no parents today name their daughters Draupadi. Sita the virgin and Draupadi the whore.

The questions are simple. But no one asks them. No one wants answers. No one even wants the questions. The questions are landfills that loom like mountains.

I tell my mother I’m bisexual. Bi, from the Latin dui, the Greek di, the Sanskrit dvi. Meaning double. Having two. Living in two. I have bifurcated: my life, brown and white; my family, my parents and me; my body, masculine and feminine. Bi, meaning two. Draupadi, the wife and the whore. Bi, meaning co-existence, meaning contradiction, meaning war.

I spend years meeting potential suitors who are arranged by my parents. I don’t think they’ll work out, but I want to keep my parents from the breaking point. My mother calls to say that I’m not trying hard enough, and why can’t I just be a good daughter and make them happy?

One suitor asks me to cook for him, watches me as I make curried beets, assures me that he can handle the spice I dump in. He can’t.

Later, in a bar, a drunk white man asks us when we are getting married. You both have good teeth, he says, and you’re both from the Hindu Kush, so why wouldn’t you marry each other? Because I like women. Because my white boyfriend is holding empty my space in his bed, wondering when I’ll come home. I can tell the drunk man that I will marry this suitor and make my parents happy, but that would be a lie.

Before Draupadi is a mother, she is a wife, and before she is a wife, she is a daughter, begotten through prayer from the fire god Agni. A princess so otherworldly that only a man who can shoot a fish in the eye can have her. But she is still a woman, and so she is an object, a prize to be won and a prize to be shared. 

As I near thirty, my parents grow more desperate. They consult astrologists, cross-check with priests and mystics expert in past lives. They learn that I was a landowner named Indrani who treated her workers poorly and was doomed to pay for it in the next life. She didn’t allow her female workers to take time off to be with their husbands, and so my married life will be rocky.

My mother prays for me, fasts for me, chants the Lord’s 108 names every day for me. She says the chanting is supposed to help with her own anger, too. All I can tell is that my rebellion has numbed her, and I’ve inherited her anger. 

Some say Draupadi got what was coming to her, because she had insulted kings and scoffed at their bids for her hand. She laughed at one king when he fell, the blind son of blind parents, she had said. Of another king, she had said, I will not marry a man of unknown parentage. So they called her a whore. They wanted her bared naked in front of her court. They wanted her fallen. And still some say they loved her.

You’re going to end up alone, my mother tells me. It’s because of your anger. Your anger pushes men away.

When Draupadi’s mother-in-law mistakenly orders her sons to share the prize they’ve won, Draupadi becomes angry and tries to leave. What if she had left? She could have married one man and been happy. She could have still been queen. At least it would have been her choice.

I come out to my mother three times. Each time she consoles me, sits by me while I cry, strokes my hair and tells me that I can still marry a man and have children, that I don’t have to be different if I don’t want to. Bi, meaning two paths. One path lets me stay in their lives. The other sees me cast out. My mother tells me to choose.

“I come out to my mother three times. Each time she consoles me, sits by me while I cry, strokes my hair and tells me that I can still marry a man and have children . . .” a reading by SJ Sindu from Dominant Genes in #DesiReads @DesiBooks

Lord Krishna explains to Draupadi that in her past life, she asked for a husband with five qualities. And since no perfect man exists, she got five husbands. In the end, it’s all still her fault, and still not her choice. In the end, she gets no choices. In the end, she swallows her anger, marries the men and becomes a devoted wife, which my mother would say is a good choice.

At my cousin’s wedding, everyone tells me I’m next. The stars are lining up, they say. You’ll be married within the year, they say. No one seems to be worried that I’m still single. They’re hoping the next suitor will work out.

At a coffee shop after the bar, I tell the next suitor about my bisexuality, my polyamory, my plans to not have children. He blinks, sips at his latte, avoids eye contact. You didn’t have to tell me that, he says. You could have hidden that from me. You’ll have to hide it from everyone if we get married. I drink my coffee to keep the anger down.

My therapist is worried about my health. Have you had suicidal ideation? This world needs you. My boyfriend is tiring of my anger. This rage sits between us, grates against our skins like sand pressed too hard. I contemplate being alone. If Draupadi had given in to her anger and walked away, she might have died alone. That’s the kind of story my mother would use to scare me into obedience.

Progress—like a woman’s worth—is not measured in gold. It’s not measured in gossip, eyelashes, or honor. Progress is the ways in which our gendered roles have blended and blurred. My mother went to grad school. My father cooks half the nights. My brother grew up in day care. But my mother says that we’ve had enough. She says, further progress will unravel us.

Draupadi, I want to rewrite your story. I want you to walk away. I want you to get world-shakingly mad. I want your rage to cut through everything and spin the world into new string. I want to use that string to bind my mother’s idea of progress to mine, to weave my own rage into an armor, to wrap up tired old gender ideas and burn them in effigy. Draupadi, I want to inherit your anger and use your string to stitch my two selves back together.


SJ Sindu’s Dominant Genes is a hybrid collection of poetry and lyric essays exploring family, heritage, and the construction of nonbinary and queer identities. A reading by the author in #DesiReads @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 68 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads segment was with SJ Sindu reading from their latest hybrid collection, Dominant Genes.

Episode 69 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. And please share this via social media to support the writer and help raise the tide of South Asian literature. Thank you.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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