Every few years, somebody resurrects the old debate over whether reading books can increase a person’s empathy. On the one hand, researchers at The New School and the University of Toronto have conducted studies that suggest that, yes, projecting ourselves into the lives of fictional characters makes us more sensitive toward others. On the other, as essayist Teju Cole has observed, no less than the Nazis harbored a deep admiration for high culture, and Barack Obama’s love for Marilynne Robinson did not stop him from launching drone strikes throughout the Middle East.
I thought of this debate while reading Akil Kumarasamy’s captivating story collection Half Gods, which follows a single Sri Lankan family as they flee their country’s bloody civil war to seek asylum in New Jersey. This massive displacement echoes sharply down the family line, from Muthu, the aging patriarch who grew up on a Sri Lankan tea plantation in the 1950s, to his daughter Nalini, to her two American-born sons, Arjun and Karna. Theirs is a story irrevocably marked by loss and unbelonging, a slow, steady undercurrent of pain that leaves them as emotionally estranged from their new home as they are from their old.
Half Gods’ ten narratives span decades and continents, leaping from character to character to reveal the often-devastating impact immigration has had on each. There is Nalini, who finds herself drawn into a love affair with her brother-in-law, a childhood friend with whom she finds unexpected solace: “their lovemaking had the familiarity of children who had grown up together, witnessed all the unflattering and lasting effects of puberty…[they could] move years into the past, slow down the future, and pause on the present.” There is Muthu, who quietly hordes old clothes and magazines and memorizes whole books to account for the libraries burned by the soldiers back home. Most heartbreakingly, there is Karna, whose alienation is compounded by his queerness, and who turns to acting to escape his own identity: “You are a convenience store owner, a taxi driver, a doctor, a terrorist, an IT worker, an exchange student. An Egyptian, a Pakistani, a Trinidadian, an Indian. You wear your skin like it’s something borrowed, not owned.”
Each of these stories is a fully-formed thing, ten carefully sculpted little worlds. And yet each is so deeply interlinked with its neighbors that to label this a “collection” feels like a disservice to the wider tapestry Kumarasamy has woven. Much like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, Kumarasamy is concerned with the repressed traumas and unspoken resentments that, left alone, can pry families apart piece by piece. Indeed, Half Gods gains its emotional resonance not only from its characters’ nuanced internal lives, but from the cumulative effect of stacking these narratives next to each other. The result is a subtle and complex book that requires and rewards a reader’s attention, one that feels less like a group of individual stories and more like a sweeping family epic in disguise.
It is also, I imagine, a challenging read for anyone not well versed with Sri Lankan history. Half Gods is laced with references to the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Tigers, and the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic from which Arjun and Karna, the two sons, take their names. But Kumarasamy offers little historical context beyond that, no hand-holding: we are expected simply to keep up. As a critic, I was initially tempted to label this a fault in the book. It was a bold choice, I thought, to presume American readers would be familiar with the characters of the Mahabharata, or to understand the tensions and ethnic differences between the Tamils and Sinhalese, or to know the events of the Sri Lankan Civil War. I certainly was not; I suspected I was not alone. Perhaps, I thought, I was simply not the intended audience for the book—and it is true that Half Gods provides important and much-neglected literary representation for Sri Lankan Americans. But this too felt like a lousy excuse to let myself off the hook, to avoid confronting the harder questions I knew were there.
For the more background reading I did, the more uneasy I became with my own knee-jerk reaction. The Sri Lankan Civil War lasted for sixteen years, claimed more than 100,000 lives, and displaced almost a million people. Toward the end of the war, the country had a higher number of missing persons than any in the world except Iraq. (One of Half Gods’ strongest stories, “The Office of Missing Persons,” concerns an entomologist who becomes an activist following his son’s disappearance.) In other words, this was not some small, obscure conflict—and to complain about Half Gods not compensating for my ignorance seemed an act of selfishness. We would not critique a book set during the Civil War for not explaining who Robert E. Lee is, just as we do not criticize Graham Greene’s novels for presuming familiarity with Catholicism. In the same way, it should not be Kumarasamy’s job to catch us up on the facts of the Sri Lankan conflict. That role belongs to us.
This is not limited to Half Gods. As narratives by and about immigrants become increasingly prominent in our national discourse, it is important for us as readers—especially white readers—to meet these books on the author’s terms, rather than critiquing them for venturing out of the realm of our expertise. In the introduction to her classic Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldúa explains her decision to write the book in a hybrid of English and Chicano Spanish. “Chicanos no longer feel that we need to beg entrance, to make the first overture, to translate…apology blurting out of our mouths with every step,” she writes. “Today we ask to be met halfway.” This is the same request Half Gods makes—and if there is a book in the world that can increase a person’s empathy, it is surely a book like this: one that not only presents us with a culture outside our own, but pushes us to consider how we engage with that culture’s narrative: to look beyond the words on the page for answers, to put in the work, to acknowledge and redress the limits of our own blinkered knowledge. I am grateful for it.
Publication date: June 5, 2018
Reviewed by Will Preston