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"I wanted the past to be very present" - Interview with Akil Kumarasamy

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“Why is it so unbearable to look in the face of human vulnerability?” asks author Akil Kumarasamy, in her latest literary offering “Meet us by the Roaring Sea” - a question apt for a society grappling with a loneliness epidemic. 

Weaving a story of people contending with personal loss and systemic violence (racism, genocide), Akil prompts the reader to consider how we are shaped by our life experiences and interpersonal relationships. Reaching through space and time, a young scientist finds herself fundamentally changed as she, with loving reverence, painstakingly translates an ancient Tamil text; an esoteric text that speaks of radical compassion, the collective dream of a group of young medical students as they grapple with powerlessness in the face of immense human tragedy and pain. As she unravels their story, and understands them on a deeper level, she begins to question how the young women would view her translation. Would it be welcomed or is she transgressing against their passionate Tamil pride? 

In your portrayal of the reality TV show 'The Soldiers' Diaries,' I could see parallels to what is currently unfolding in Gaza - especially the propaganda of the IDF soldiers. What were you hoping to convey here? 

I was very interested in these media representations of war, and how we consume war. You just mentioned the IDF and we're getting a very subjective perspective, a kind of propaganda or government perspective of what is happening. I wanted to explore what would it look like to have more of an everyday chronicle of a war zone. There's always going to be a filter, like a specific kind of angle, and in my novel, I’m looking at it in the context of American soldiers. 

We're all witnessing what is happening right now. What does it mean to witness such horrific things, to be numb to it and to also feel helpless? Having it come as a TV show means you're getting fed some of it every day. What does that accumulation of just seeing violence and not doing anything do to our collective consciousness? Our consumption and craving for reality TV, of what seems real. 

When we're talking about Gaza, people are debating what is happening and not really happening. This idea of reality feels very slippery. 

I found the way we see the suffering of your female characters in different places and time lines throughout your book interesting. Was it important to portray that and draw attention to that? 

I was very interested in thinking about female perspectives in dealing with violence or a war space. How do people show resistance in a war zone? In the translated manuscript, there's a group of young women who come up with this idea of radical compassion. That feels very different from what we might think of as resistance normally - usually that would be a militant form of resistance. Compassion almost seems like it can't even be counted as a form of resistance… like it’s too soft. 

I wanted to talk about compassion from different angles, also from a female perspective. Even in the near future world of the book, the main character has to work on a project that deals with artificial intelligence. She has to reconcile what that means and [with] her ethical, [and] moral role in that space. Then you have her cousin, someone in a more scientific space dealing with a drug experiment. You also have soldiers in the TV show who may even be torturing people, specifically female torturers in a military context. I wanted to have a larger conversation about all these kinds of women [in the story] and how they grapple with their positionality and power in different spaces. 

I found the way you used the imagery of blood interesting, especially in a Tamil cultural context. Are there specific ideas you wanted to evoke here? 

I mentioned menstruation quite a few times in thinking about just the fact that going into a temple while you have your period is such a sacrilegious thing to do. Just being a woman could become unholy. Like you transform from this pure to impure thing. I wanted to grapple with the significance of blood and how it’s used to make something impure. These characters really grapple with blood in a very in-your-face way. There's one point where they're holding up period-stained articles of clothing, like underwear. 

They're all in this women's hostel, where they can be, in a sense, shameless. They don't care. There's a sense that propriety has broken down in this space too. Because they're also trying to recalibrate how they connect with the world [through] this idea of radical compassion, so they have to break down a lot of norms. What does it mean to be a girl, a woman? 

Reading the name Avvaiyar took me back to memories of Tamil school. Did you intend to evoke imagery of the famed Tamil poetess? 

I wanted this group of young women to evoke ancient Tamil history. I wanted the past to be very present. It's also probably a rare name to give. I don't think I know that many people who are named Avvaiyar, especially in our generation. I think for me, it was just a way to evoke the past in the present. We usually see Avvaiyar as an old woman, and I wondered what teenage Avvaiyar would've been like, too, so I was trying to play around with that. 

My favourite Avvaiyar story is of how, as a young woman, she prayed to be turned into essentially ‘an old crone’ so she could escape the confines of womanhood (in marriage). So instead, she could be free and wander the continent. 

That's a really good story... she had to escape womanhood to get freedom. I was also playing with those stories and trying to be like, 'Oh, what if Avvaiyar could just be Avvaiyar as a teen?' These characters grapple with societal constraints but push against them in their own way. I felt portraying Avvaiyar in a teenage form was very subversive. Here, she doesn't have to renounce her femininity to attain freedom of thought. 

Esoteric and spiritual narratives, especially in the South Asian context, seem to be dominated by men. Was it a deliberate choice to have female characters in the spiritual group led by women? 

We get this kind of male-centred view of where wisdom comes from. So Avvaiyar does represent this contrary perspective, even though the only way she's acceptable is as an old woman. I think I brought in Avvaiyar for us to reflect on… ancient Tamil texts and ideas of wisdom, because we don’t usually think about these texts in relation to women. 

I was also thinking about Sangam poetry and how we engage with it and how it’s passed down. I was interested in having these [young women] at a medical college interact and reinterpret it. 

There were a couple of smaller but incredibly intense stories of connection and loss. For instance, Happy and David. Why was it important for you to tell these stories?

[In the real world] We have a lot of intense interactions that are also very fleeting. In the book, with the story of David and Happy, they meet at a suicide prevention centre. It's a space where you're not supposed to necessarily make a connection even though it's a very intimate space. You're supposed to be somewhat objective. You're supposed to connect, but only to a certain level, with the person on the phone. 

And similarly in the translated manuscript, with Divya and the refugee, it's a fleeting moment with individuals in extreme moments of suffering and pain and they're trying to help each other. I was playing around with this idea of what it means to connect with other people, and what does it mean to care for other people in these spaces? There's this line you're not supposed to cross. In both cases, these characters cross it because they care too much for this other person. 

What does it mean to show care? What does it mean to care too much? To care so much that you might fall in love with someone? Throughout the book, I'm talking about the boundaries of compassion and how much can you care and what does it look like. What's the risk of that too? Is it better to care too much? You know, how do you navigate those borders? 

I enjoyed your portrayal of Indian cinema and T.V. in that time and place in Tamil culture. How would you describe the effects of the cinema industry on the collective psyche of the Tamil community?  

It's so bizarre that the biggest politicians are actors and people from the movie industry, and it's because cinema was such a radical force. Cinema represented the possibility of another way of living and existing. It was used as a tool to think about a different kind of society. For example, film imagined a world where the caste system was destroyed, and other forms of hierarchy. This kind of cinema really touched and moved people. These individuals making more cinema about social change didn’t have much backing, and it was very much a grassroots effort. There’s a revolutionary element to it. People fell in love with these heroes/heroines as if they were going to save them. These individuals moved into the political space and became politicians. Then, all this corruption and other forces come in. Those promises and dreams of television, of the cinema screen never fully manifested.

‘Meet Us By the Roaring Sea’ is a book that reflects the global awakening to injustice, and an impressive follow up to Akil’s debut novel ‘Half Gods.’ 

Five works of art which have influenced Akil:

1) Photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto

2) Anne Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World

3) Hong Sung-eun’s Aloners 

4) Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Touch Sanitation 

5) Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang 

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