Book Review: ‘Dominant Genes’ by SJ Sindu

by Akilah White

Dominant Genes by SJ Sindu (Black Lawrence Press, 2022)

I was born by the ocean an island child

the core of me salt water and seagulls howling

As an island child who imagined conifer trees by an oily harbour in my hollowed core when I lived in a foreign mainland, those lines from the poem ‘Gods in the Surf’ were a recognisable code. Growing up in a tourist town bore out an affinity for writers who situated beaches within the locals’ quotidian patterns, the water-borne histories that often connect island states to colonialism and imperialism, rather than the popular image of idyllic pleasure sites. In Dominant Genes, a hybrid collection of poetry and nonfiction, SJ Sindu, a Tamil diaspora author in Canada, reconfigures dominant concepts about place, family, love, gender and sexuality, religion, and herself. She restories how they can be, how they are, and how she is in the world, considered through an exploration of familial and cultural inheritance.

This latest release made me mentally kick myself for letting my copy of Sindu’s debut novel Marriage of a Thousand Lies (2017) languish in the cloud unread. Readers who have followed her writing since then will be familiar with the bright thematic threads spun into the present: How do queer Sri Lankans navigate relationships with themselves, their matriarchal families and community marriage market? What is British colonialism’s impact on indigenous ontology and understandings of Hinduism that obscure its visiblly queer gender and sexual narratives?

The “I” appears often in what Sindu acknowledged to be a directly autobiographical work but the “I” does not stagnate in a limited individualism. To give the work a genetic framing necessitates a focus on self in relation to others. The “I” shifts to “we” in critical thematic pieces in which spatial, temporal, and spiritual boundaries are permeable pathways to consider inheritance: what legacies are within the writer’s power to claim, to reject? Recognising an ancient epic’s unique mutability in its hold over collective consciousness, Sindu restories mythic figures to pose potent questions about epigenetic endowments like anger and violence which are not easy to avow or disavow. 

In the poem ‘Sun God’, Sindu imagines herself in tandem with Karna through framings that implicate her Tamil identity. He is not the chosen one and “…his real story is one of self-destruction” where he ends up on “the wrong side of a holy war”. The speaker sets one of her childhood memories alongside an imagined “little Karna”, asking “bad questions” about identity. His is about perceived godhood, hers about perceived righteousness. 

Whether obliquely or directly addressed, the Sri Lankan civil war that started in 1983, four years before Sindu was born, underpins much of who and what she explores in this collection. Heritage—cultural practices and intangible ideas embodied in offspring across generations—becomes that much more of a contested territory for a displaced people driven out by targeted violence. 

if one man’s freedom fighter

is another man’s terrorist

then are we on the wrong side of this war

But a soldier with a weapon in hand is not the first figure to mete out violence on the page —it is the author’s mother, threaded needle in hand, in ‘The Birth Story’.

My mother, out of love, stitches up my heart, pulling the thread tight to make sure it won’t rupture again at the same spot. My heart is defenseless, ready to come undone at the next crisis. While she’s at it, my mother stitches up my mouth, too, and turns her needle and thread to my brain.

The author is disembodied, represented only as cavity and viscera, vulnerable, in a “birth” that recalls Dr. Frankenstein and his creature. In ‘Dominant Genes’, the last poem, there is a memory of Sindu as a child unknowingly taking advantage of her mother’s ophidiophobia to terrify her—a “favourite pastime” because it placed the mother within the child’s power. The two poems frame the power struggles in a fraught relationship that straddles the entire collection. The glimpses offered into their personal history encompass a mother who denies her gender queerness through the policing of her clothes in ‘Draupadi Walks Alone at Night’, dismisses her love for a woman as a “phase” in ‘Mother’, rediagnoses her depression as “weakness of character, stress, overwork” in ‘Parental Love’. The lens expands to include the aunties, active stockbrokers in a now globalised marriage market conducted online as well as in person. For to be perceived as a single young woman is to ceaselessly exist on an auction block under their commodifying, dissecting gaze – “My worth measured in pigments and strands.” 

Raj Chakrapani, a poet, filmmaker, and professor, in conversation with Sindu for The Rumpus in 2017, probed at the deeper reasons for Sri Lankan parents “obsession with marriage” beyond the typical assumptions, especially those who were war refugees. Sindu answered: 

“I think marriage for many South Asian parents becomes the embodiment of tradition and of maintaining that cultural link back to the homeland. […] The other part, specific to Sri Lankan parents, is that 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 center of that is a happy marriage, according to traditional views of family.”

Yet, in this collection, Sindu never entertains the notion that her feminism and queerness renders her as other in relation to her culture. With the evocatively titled “Draupadi Walks Alone at Night”, the longest of the mini-essays, Sindu pins Draupadi’s story at the centre of the Mahābhārata to map and sequence the patriarchal norms embedded in its narrative code, and how it connects and reinforces the objectification of and violence against femmes, whether cis or genderqueer, detailed in varying degrees throughout the collection.

‘To all My Suitors and the Aunties Who Send Them My Way’ the family’s treatment of Sindu as a child creates an image that recalls divinity. “…my aunts and uncles took turns fanning the [chicken pox] sores with bundles of curry leaves so I wouldn’t be tempted to scratch”. That touch of the divine appears in Draupadi’s story, her birth a prayer granted to Drupada, her father, to aid in his revenge plans. To help grant his desire, she participates in his plan to make an advantageous alliance via marriage. At no point is the reader given the impression that Sindu felt any true desire to do the same, there was a period during which she met with “potential suitors” from the belief that her parents’ mental health depended on her performing conformity, however limited. Draupadi ends up in a polyamorous marriage to five brothers not by choice but through her mother-in-law’s mistake. Yet not even five husbands could protect her from abuse and public humiliation—indeed others cite it as the reason she deserves it—and so she has fallen from a created feminine virtue. As an example of the most extreme practices to uphold this ideal, in an earlier section the reader learns that women are forced to marry their rapists in parts of rural India.

Through this and poems like “Sun God”—about Karna, who called Draupadi a “whore”—Dominant Genes becomes a part of a centuries-long previously mentioned tradition of reinterpreting the ancient Sanskrit epics to sustain its relevance to the ever changing times. At the end of the essay, after detailing the extent to which Draupadi and so many like her are wronged, Sindu names what she desires for them all: anger. Not just the intergenerational trait “folded up in the pleats of sarees”, sucked through breast milk, as mentioned at the beginning—the anger she tries to exorcise through haircuts, the anger her mother tries to quiet through prayer. She wants a transformative anger that can destabilise and rebuild worlds. She morphs the thread imagery in ‘The Birth Story’ from her mother’s oppressive, confining intent to one that rage cuts through to unleash its creative generative possibilities. Sindu herself can spin it into her own protective boundaries, reconciling not only the differences between her mother and the writer-offspring, but also the different selves within the writer.

Is it fair to say that hybrid collections such as this are trending in the literary marketplace? True or not, they are my new favourites, especially ones like this where the combination of two writing genres, poetry and nonfiction, reflect the theme of twoness in the collection as coexistence and conflict. On average a little over a page long, the essays’ brevity and internal associative logic forced me to break their hold to remind myself which ones were the poems. It may not sync with the author’s categorisation but a more traditional or relaxed adherence to writing conventions proved the easiest tells. The poems feature a very limited use of capitalizations, except for proper nouns in most instances, and a few commas or colons for specific clarity. This sharpened meaning in poems like ‘Gods in the Surf’ that revolve around the different locations—“America”, the “Gulf” ocean—and the different meanings they hold, and in the silence of the landmass that is not named except in geographical terms. It also offered Sindu the freedom to play with how language creates meaning. With little punctuation, reading the poems aloud encouraged a sensitivity to rhythm and proximity to discern meaning. A stanza could be a complete statement on its own or it could be split, a part of it easily read and understood as belonging to the next. From ‘How to Survive a Pandemic’:

these were the happy days

before the plague

and then after

it was out of necessity

is what we tell ourselves

giving up our skin

was the only way we knew

how to stay inside

and still be human

In the title poem, Sindu traces her “serpent-tongue” through her “foggy ancestral memory” to her snake worshipping ancestors. She names it both a “gift” and a “liability”, the latter word weighted with its own ambiguity in this context. Who or what does it put at a disadvantage? Is that a bad thing? Her mother’s instruction to “write nice stories” is received as a move to cage her tongue, a negative image. Yet Dominant Genes shows Sindu’s awareness of the risk that comes with any kind of destructive power. Book marketing language can enervate overused words but I hope some of mine conveyed what courage, what rebellious love lives in this text. May it be a literary heirloom to families born, found, and yet to come.

AKILAH WHITE is a Jamaican freelance book reviewer and sensitivity reader living in the shark’s mouth. Her writing has appeared in The Book Slut, Rebel Women Lit Magazine, and Intersect‘s Caribbean Queer Feminist Stories Vol 1 amongst other venues. When not doom scrolling on Twitter she bookstagrams at @ifthisisparadise