When I finished my first novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, I searched for months for the topic of my second, and wrote short stories in the meantime. I was part of a writing circle in Boston called Write Here Write Now, and one night I started a short story there about a boy who grows wings. In the story, everyone around the boy starts to believe that feathers from his wings can heal people, and he almost dies in everyone’s pursuit of a miracle as they strip his wings forcibly. I was trying to get at the sometimes violent nature of belief, and the complex lives of those who are believed by others to be holy.
At the same time, I read an article about a young girl in rural India who was born with multiple limbs. People in her village believed that she was the goddess incarnate, and protested her parents’ decision to have the extra limbs amputated. Again, I was thinking a lot about the nature of faith and religion.
The final piece of inspiration for BSG was a documentary I watched called Kumaré, made by Indian American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi, who pretends to be a swami and ends up amassing a huge cult following. I was fascinated by how many people wanted so badly to believe in him that even after he outed himself as a fraud, people still believed him to be a guru.
With these three pieces of inspiration, I began to think about how after I came out as queer, my family started to become more and more religious, following this Indian swami named Sai Baba—a figure immersed in scandal and zealotry. And how, in the last decade, India has swung politically to be a Hindu nationalist state. And as all these small pieces swirled around in my head, I had a light-bulb moment when Blue-Skinned Gods first occurred to me.
I myself am not at all religious. I was raised Hindu by scientist parents in a country where being Hindu could get you killed. I remember praying when I was young, and having a favorite god. But by the time I was a teenager, I’d stopped believing. I’ve identified as an atheist now for a long time. For me, my awe and peace comes from nature, and sometimes, the belief that people have good in them. So this put me in a unique position from which to write the story.
I am a survivor of war, specifically the Sri Lankan civil war that lasted twenty-six years and finally ended in 2009. I experienced this war as a child, living in battleground cities. This experience, and the complex PTSD that resulted, made me interested as a writer in the ways we process, write, and relate to trauma using art, the ways in which writers craft their trauma into novels. In Blue-Skinned Gods, I turned my focus toward trauma caused by religion.
I also identify as a queer, genderqueer femme. I believe strongly in representation, and want to create queer and queer-adjacent characters that are unforgettable and idiosyncratic. I want them to have adventures. I believe that we need both stories that focus on queerness, and stories in which queer characters have narratives separate from their sexuality and gender. My first novel featured a protagonist who was struggling to come out as a lesbian. In Blue-Skinned Gods, I was more interested in creating a protagonist whose bisexuality, while a fact of his life, is not a large focus of his story but simply present. I wanted a protagonist who was allowed to access queer joy without having to focus on it.
I began writing Blue-Skinned Gods when I moved to Tallahassee, Florida, to pursue my PhD in creative writing. I’d just completed my first novel and handed it off to my agent that spring. I came to Florida with just an idea and a writing schedule, and I ground it out, every single day at the computer. I was living alone for the first time, and I had a funding deal with Florida State University where I didn’t have to teach for the first year. I stacked all my classes on Wednesdays, when I’d go from the morning to late at night on campus. And every other day when I wasn’t doing homework, I was writing. I had a great schedule that first year, which allowed me to finish the first draft.
I was also part of several novel writing workshops at the university where I could get feedback on the novel at different points in the writing process. With this feedback, I revised and revised, and at the end, I had eighteen drafts by the end. I also got intensive and thorough feedback from my writing group and my agents. And my partner Geoff Bouvier, who is a poet, edited the book heavily. And of course, my editor at Soho gave feedback, as well. The end product is a collaborative work. It’s my vision, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that so many people helped me realize it.
Blue-Skinned Gods was my dissertation for my PhD, and after I graduated, I worked with my agents for two years trying to get it into shape for submission. This was a difficult time, because I was coming up against the wall of my own limitations. I knew that something about the novel wasn’t working—it needed interiority and stakes—but I didn’t know how to revise toward that. I went to therapy to work on my mental block in writing interiority, and I found a brilliant psychologist in Tampa who helped me break through and access my protagonist’s psyche.
I felt an enormous relief when the novel was finally done. Every novel feels like an accomplishment—to take all these disparate ideas and combine them over many years into a relatively seamless whole—and Blue-Skinned Gods was a demanding and rewarding journey.
I started Blue-Skinned Gods trying to understand my family’s growing religiosity, but I ended up learning far more about myself and my own faithlessness as I grew to love the protagonist in the book. In many ways, Kalki’s journey follows my own—beginning with a self-conception of invincibility and leading, ultimately, to freedom.
(c) SJ Sindu
About Blue-Skinned Gods:
In Tamil Nadu, India, a boy named Kalki is born with blue skin. He believes that he is the Hindu god Vishnu and that he can perform miracles. The truth, however, is much darker…
As Kalki struggles to extract himself from under the thumb of his controlling father, he must also reconcile with the idea that everything he’s ever been told might not be true. When his father drags him on a tour to America, Kalki seizes his chance to explore what life as an ordinary man might be like.
Pulled between India and America, and his father’s web of control, Kalki must find his true place in the world.
‘Rich, beautifully told and moving’ Guardian
‘It is impossible not to be hypnotized… Sindu masterfully renders how our environments bake into our skin’ The New York Times
Order your copy online here.