Author SJ Sindu’s “Shakti” brings gay-positive fantasy to the middle school space.
SJ Sindu says that there’s a thread running throughout her output. “I’m kind of obsessed with the outsider, loner artist figure,” says the Sri Lankan-American writer and educator, “and that comes out quite a lot in my work.”
The author of two acclaimed literary novels, “Marriage of a Thousand Lies,” and “Blue-Skinned Gods,” Sindu explores new territory with “Shakti,” her debut graphic novel for Harper-Collins. It’s a sweeping fantasy comic aimed at middle schoolers that she crafted in collaboration with illustrator Nabi H. Ali. It recounts the story of a 12-year-old Indian-American girl, raised by two moms, who is forced to learn the power of her ancestral magic to save her family and the town she lives in. “Shakti,” like her earlier novels, has been winning rave reviews. Library Journal writes that “Sindu’s debut graphic novel braids Hindu mythology with the importance of family and friendship, creating an accessible book that will be of interest to many readers.”
Sindu also works as an assistant professor of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and she’ll be on hand at Shelf Life Books on Friday, June 2 to talk about “Shakti” and sign copies. Style Weekly recently caught up with her via Zoom while she was on sabbatical in Sri Lanka, her home place, working on not one but two new books. “I’m here to do research on the novel I’m currently writing,” the 35-year-old Tamil diaspora author says, “and also to take reference photos for my second graphic novel, which is coming out in 2024, called ‘Tall Water.'” The book is geared to an older, young adult audience, she adds. “It tells the story of the 2004 tsunami that hit Sri Lanka.”
Style Weekly: “Shakti” is your first graphic novel? Are you a fan of the medium?
SJ Sindu: Yes, I have been reading graphic novels for a long time, since I was young and I was obsessed with manga, the Japanese graphic novels. Back then they were very hard to find, but now Barnes and Noble has shelves and shelves.
How did you hook up with Nabi H. Ali, the illustrator?
I found him on Twitter and I’ve been following him for a while. He’s young and wildly talented. When my press brought me a couple of artist portfolios and asked who I wanted to work with, I asked them if they could get Nabi and they emailed back in five days and said, ‘Nabi has signed on.’
You had the story first?
I originally wrote the story as a prose novel, a straight-up middle-grade prose novel. I’ve always been interested in fantasy, especially high fantasy. I grew up reading a lot of those books, especially the ones by Mercedes Lackey, and I hadn’t seen a ton of fantasy, especially in the middle grade space, set within South Asian worlds using South Asian mythology. There’s more of that now but when I first conceptualized the novel, it was something [new that] I wanted to do – I wanted to give the world a South Asian-inspired witch.
But something wasn’t working. I couldn’t quite nail the voice down. It was always very visual to me, so one day I had this crazy idea to try writing it as a graphic novel, which I hadn’t done before. So I got a couple of books, and read a bunch of comic scripts, and once I started transferring the novel I’d written to the visual space, it just clicked. I think I wrote the entire script in, like, three weeks over Christmas
How autobiographical is the book? Are you Shakti?
Except for the magic [laughs], it is very autobiographical in that I went to this middle school that Shakti goes to, Amherst Pelham Regional Middle School in Amherst Mass. It’s where I went to school after I moved from Sri Lanka when I was seven, I lived there for five years and went to elementary and middle school there. I wanted to set something in that space. Amherst is full of art and culture and learning. And because there are five colleges in that area, it was an exciting place to be and I wanted to bring that to this graphic novel. A lot of what Shakti experiences in terms of her school [is from my life]. I had a really good friend that was a lot like Shakti’s first friend, her best friend.
In the book, Shakti has two moms. Do you have two moms?
I do not, although I identify as queer. I’m bisexual and wanted to bring positive representations of queer families to middle grade literature.
Considering the political environment right now, do you expect any blowback to that?
Absolutely. I think that if anyone tries to teach this, or brings it into a middle school in Florida, there will absolutely be blowback. But sometimes when a book is banned it helps other readers find it easier, so you never know what’s going to happen. I certainly didn’t expect this kind of political environment when I wrote it years ago. So, yeah, I’m not worried, I’m just anxious to see what happens.
Talk about translating your story to a visual medium. How did you work with Ali?
Nabi was somebody that could understand what I was trying to say. Not that we’ve had the same experiences or anything, but we are both queer and we’ve both had the same experience of being a queer South Asian artist in a white world, and because of that shared experience, I didn’t really have to explain much to Nabi. He has a history of working with South Asian mythologies of all kinds, and that’s part of why I wanted him on board because I knew that if I was talking about the goddess Durga or the goddess Kali, he would know exactly how to depict them. We connected over this shared experience and this story where we could both see pieces of ourselves, both real and aspirational, within the story. It was a magical experience and I hope I have it again with other artists.
You say you are working on your second graphic novel now. Talk about it.
It’s done. I handed it in almost a year ago now. We have picked an artist. His artist name is Dion Mbd and he was one of the most talented students of Ringling College of Art and Design when I taught there, but I didn’t pick him because of that. My publishers just sent me his portfolio and I was, like, yes, this seems like the right person for this book. But I knew I would have to take reference photos and do a lot more explaining because the entire book is set in Sri Lanka. If you’ve never been, it’s visually a very different place to anywhere in the West and I wanted to get that accuracy.
You’ve written two acclaimed adult novels. How does “Shakti” fit in with those works?
I feel like I’m interested, thematically, in a lot of the same things. “Marriage of a Thousand Lies” is about a Sri Lankan American lesbian who is in a marriage of convenience with a gay man and they are pretending to be straight for their families. It’s a coming out story about coming out late in your ’20s after you’ve already been married, and it was my first attempt at a novel, my master’s thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and I’m grateful that it got published. It was a work that was very difficult for me to make because it outed me in public in a way I’d never been outed before. There was no going back into the closet after that. It made me into a queer writer, that label, and I was scared of being pigeonholed, the political blowback, the family blowback, but I’m happy it had the reception that it did. It was still early, so there was no mainstream acceptance of that kind of novel yet but it’s good to see that the acceptance is there now. I mean, The New York Times now covers gay South Asian books, which is amazing to see.
“Blue Skinned Gods” is about a young boy who is believed to be the last avatar of Visnu. He’s believed to have healing powers and grows up in an ashram where he is coddled and worshipped, almost like a cult. It’s about him growing up in the world and doubting his own divinity and then losing his faith eventually.
Is being gay accepted in Sri Lankan culture?
It’s something that is rarely talked about in the open. Acceptance has been slow and it’s still not a very public thing. There is sort of a tacit acceptance, especially among young people … a “live and let live” attitude but it’s still not something you see in the streets. For the most part, they are still in the closet. And that’s true even in the diaspora when you’re talking about South Asians living in the U.S. or Canada or even Europe. Some are out and happy and accepted by their families but there’s still community blowback. It’s changing for sure but change is always slow and always hard.