These are stories of war and its after effects reflected in the anguished, stress disorder that infects survivors and their progeny.
Half Gods, the debut collection of short stories by Akil Kumarasamy, is an act of audacity. The 10 interconnected stories bounce through time to tell the story of a Sri Lankan family that escaped the civil war in their country between the majority Sinhalese and the northern Tamils for the relative safety of America, specifically New Jersey. The book is part history lesson, drawing on the bloody conflict on the small island nation south of India that claimed over 100,000 lives between 1983 and 2009 to tell the story of Muthu, his daughter, Nalini, and her two sons, Arjun and Karna.
The stories are set in different eras and perspectives, giving each member of the family and the occasional tangential character their due focus. Though structured differently and employing an assortment of tones and techniques, the stories begin to blend together as events glimpsed in one missive become the subject of another. It is a disorienting effect, but not a distracting one. Kumarasamy crafts her stories with great confidence, each sentence and detail devoid of ornamentation. Her great strength is her fully rendered characters, and experiencing their lives in this fractured, disjointed manner becomes more of a comment on the ennui of linear progression than anything else.
These are stories of war and its after effects reflected in the anguished, stress disorder that infects survivors and their progeny. Muthu and Nalini attained asylum in the States when she was just a teenager. Her mother and twin brothers were murdered in the early days of the war. She and Muthu were all that was left, and he had an uncle who sponsored the move to Jersey. Once here, they go through the motions of assimilation, but Sri Lanka haunts them both. The war seems endless, touching the teenage years of Nalini’s American sons. They do not know the island of their ancestry, but they know the stories and Muthu’s obsession with news about Sri Lanka.
War becomes a defining characteristic for those who have suffered through it, and seeing how we live in a world embroiled in endless war, Kumarasamy’s stories take on a greater salience. While all her work has its merits, there is a trifecta of stories towards the middle that showcases her mastery of craft, love of open endings and her wry, unique voice, and it begins with “The Story of Happiness.”
It is the story of Muthu’s escape from Sri Lanka and nondescript life in America. Told in modules, Kumarasamy juxtaposes his first person account with segments of what seems to be a child’s fable about a monstrous angel that sullies everything it touches. As Muthu’s tale goes on, it is revealed that the story was written by Nalini when she was in high school. Muthu hoards everything he finds and has trained his mind in the “art of word memory.” It is a survival trick, and the slow reveal of the meaning of the story is brilliant. When confronted about the story, Nalini asks her father why a few sad events have to make a whole life unhappy, and he realizes he has been the monster in her story. Muthu is a man who holds his misery so tightly that he has missed his many blessings. His story and that of the angel share the same title. He is telling himself Nalini’s story while lying in bed as an old man in hospice, a reveal that is simply devastating.
“The Office of Missing Persons” diverts from the main family to tell a story of one of Muthu’s acquaintances, the entomologist, Jeganathan. He is an unassuming academic who son has gone missing, a fact that disinterests the police. Kidnappings become so commonplace that The Office of Missing Persons is created at the behest of the UN, but those in charge have no intention of finding anyone. Despondent, Jeganathan begins wandering around the college campus where he works, reciting the names of his son and the other missing people. By doing so, he becomes a viral celebrity after a video of his mantra is posted online. The “Bug Professor,” as he is dubbed, gathers a following of students who chant along with him. The story is wonderfully satirical as this reverse Gregor Samsa, a man who would have loved to have been a cockroach, is driven mad by an obstinate bureaucracy.
Finally, “When We Were Children” is Nalini’s story of the first years of her marriage while living in Kentucky. Her life looks idyllic, but she is dissatisfied from the outset and it leads to an affair with her husband’s brother. It is a story about what adulthood requires we abandon and hold onto from childhood.
With Half Gods, Kumarasamy has created the perfect piece of art for this moment in American history. She has written a refugee’s story at a time when this country has forgotten its responsibilities for the displacements its wars have created. She has illustrated the mundaneness of assimilation when too many fear for their way of life. She has created a precision experiment in interconnection and story while simultaneously evoking a sense of nostalgia for some of America’s old myths. Once this was a place people escaped to. Once this was a place of hope.