I read a proof copy of Marriage of a Thousand Lies last year. It was published in hardback in 2017, and over the last twelve months it’s been incredible to see the book pull in praise, win awards and then pull in more praise, and its author, SJ Sindu, go from an unknown debut writer to an author to keenly watch – a really fantastic thing for a queer South Asian writer in today’s less-than-minority-friendly publishing climate. The novel won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, a silver medal in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards, was a 2018 Stonewall Book Award nominee and a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Lesbian Fiction. The absolute hero Roxane Gay called it a “gorgeous, heartbreaking novel” and Autostraddle called it “an important intervention in the canons of both LGBTQ and South Asian literature.”
At the novel’s centre is Lakshmi, who goes by Lucky, an unemployed programmer who makes seedy fan art on commission. Lucky is married to Kris, an editor for a greeting card company. In the eyes of their conservative Sri Lankan families they are a perfect young married couple. But their families have no idea that they are both gay and that, despite loving each other, theirs is a marriage of convenience. They present to the world as straight while dating on the side, and it’s an arrangement that works for them – until Lucky finds herself having to move back in with her mother to help take care of her ailing grandma. As a reader you can feel the tension as soon as Lucky moves back. It’s not just the tension of having to hide her sexuality; she has already come out to her family once before – to their total horror. The claustrophobia of having to go back into the closet is tangible, made even more visceral by Lucky’s love for her mother and her almost self-destructive quest to maintain a good relationship with her.
Around the same time she moves back in with her family, her childhood friend and ex-lover Nisha comes back into her life. Lucky’s feelings about Nisha are strong and wanting; it’s about sex, sure, but it’s also about a strong longing to live in an open, healthy lesbian relationship. Nisha has just agreed to an arranged marriage, and although Lucky knows their time together is fleeting, she lets Nisha introduce her to some friends, a group of rugby-playing lesbians who welcome Lucky into the first queer community she’s ever really known outside of visiting gay bars with Kris. You can sense that Lucky is on the verge of something; of adulthood, of finding the courage to live openly, of rejecting the parts of her culture that don’t accept her.
This isn’t a coming out story in the typical sense. It’s not the story of a young person who finds themselves in a same-sex relationship and battles to overcome their demons about it. In many ways, Lucky is already out and proud – if it wasn’t for the confines of her Sri Lankan culture she’d be super openly gay. That’s what makes Marriage of a Thousand Lies so powerful – seeing not only the homophobia within her conservative Sri Lankan community but also the sexism and the oppression that is so ingrained within it. It’s rare to read a work of fiction that is so candid in exploring those levels of oppression – it’s actually rare to read a work of fiction that explores what it means to be South Asian and queer in general.
In an interview with the Rumpus, Sindu talks about Lucky as masculine-presenting, and how this adds a whole new level of conflict. “Even if she dresses feminine, Lucky is visibly queer by the way she sits, the way she holds herself. And because of that, she is always the outsider who is trying desperately to fit in but can’t.” Nisha, on the other hand, is femme-presenting and this allows her to pass as straight. Sindu continues “I’m very interested in issues of passing and femme erasure in the queer community. And it has its own version in the South Asian queer community, which I haven’t seen much explored in literature yet, so I wanted to do that with Nisha’s character.”
In the same interview, she explains some of the reasons for her mother’s behaviour: “…to Sri Lankan parents… marriage and family are signifiers of security and support. And as people who have experienced war, they know how important the security and support of family can be to survival. When the world turns dangerous, who can you trust? Who can you rely on to protect you? A nuclear family is a great solution to that problem. And at the centre of that is a happy marriage, according to traditional views of family.” It’s complicated, and Lucky is left to navigate it alone while trying to figure out her own place within it as a lesbian and as a South Asian woman.
Not only is Marriage of a Thousand Lies a massively important addition to the queer literary canon, it’s also just a beautifully written, moving, smart, and funny novel. It’s basically just a really, really good debut. It has the kind of sentences you want to underline; the prose is tidy and helps to build tension in all the right places while allowing Lucky to experience queer desire in the more descriptive, pacier sections. It’s a really arresting work of contemporary LGBTQ fiction that deserves all the praise it’s been lavished with, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Sindu writes next.
“A remarkable novel rich with interlocking issues both timeless and timely. SJ Sindu’s debut is more than impressive; it’s important.”— Robert Olen Butler
“Enthralling . . . Sindu is a skilled writer, and this is a remarkable first novel.” — Los Angeles Review of Books
“Perceptive, subtle, and provocative… Sindu’s characters, including Lucky’s divorced parents, are all believably complicated and compassionately observed…in a moving and memorable story.” — Publisher’s Weekly
“Sindu’s heart-wrenching debut novel . . . incorporates love, loss, family, rebirth and growth to tell a captivating story you won’t be able to put down.” — Ms. Magazine
“Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a fascinating work.” — PASTE Magazine
“Sindu takes on the conflict between love of family and of oneself with clarity and laughs.” — NOW Magazine
“So good . . . heartbreaking in the way it portrayed the characters torn between happiness and custom. SJ Sindu does a beautiful job describing how Lucky feels about living a secret life and her fear of disappointing her parents, and the language and imagery is gorgeous.” — BookRiot
“SJ Sindu’s fine debut [is] a timely tale with themes of immigration, free will, identity, and personal choice.” — Booklist
Marriage of a Thousand Lies is published in paperback on the 12th July 2018 by Soho Press (9781616959470, £9.99)