The premise to SJ Sindu’s debut novel sounds like the opening of a quirky indie movie: a lesbian woman and her gay college friend get married to appease their families, but they secretly allow each other to sleep with partners of their own choosing.
Lakshmi (who goes by Lucky) seems like she has it all in a strange, millenial-esque sense. She and her husband Kris are happily married—in that their arrangement allows them to maintain their bonds with their conservative Sri Lankan-American Hindu families, all while experiencing sexual freedom. Of course, they’re ultimately living a lie, and the dramatics begin to unfold when Lucky travels home to take care of her sick grandmother…and reconnects with her former lover, Nisha.
There’s some predictability to Sindu’s writing, and the reader occasionally grows weary of the will they/won’t they narrative that makes up much of the text. But as a critique of two of society’s most powerful institutions, marriage and religion (in which female empowerment is frowned upon and sexual expression—particularly queer expression—is considered a deviation from the norm at best), Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a fascinating work. Lucky poses a variety of questions for groups marginalized because of their sexuality and/or gender identity: Can you coexist with people who believe your sexual orientation is wrong or unnatural? Can you make compromises on who you are or how you present yourself? Can a chosen family remedy the ails of a biological family that will, likely, never fully accept you for who you are?
Marriage of a Thousand Lies chronicles Lucky’s journey as she works her way towards answers to these painfully difficult questions. But for Lucky, being queer isn’t necessarily about disappointing her family from a religious standpoint (although religion surely plays a role in their perception). In getting to know her mother, her stepmother and her grandmother, Lucky realizes that these are women who have, because of Sri Lankan cultural tradition, likely never considered their sexuality and their own desire.
When Lucky’s grandmother, defending Lucky’s mother, speaks of life in refugee camps, she says, “It was a dangerous time for a young woman. She wants you to have a good life. She wants you to make the right decisions.” The grandmother is posing an unspoken question about Lucky’s queerness: Why make things harder on yourself? Lucky’s parents worked hard to give her certain choices, opportunities and freedoms in America, so her sexuality is interpreted as an ungrateful slap in the face. Though she never speaks directly to her daughter’s sexuality, Lucky’s mother literally pulls her hair out at times, wondering what she’s done to deserve such a daughter. And Lucky spends much of the novel trying desperately to present as the daughter she’s supposed to be, while also feeding those desires she cannot ignore.
The tension between these two worlds carries the novel, and, unsurprisingly, begins to tear Lucky apart. She cannot play the dutiful daughter, anymore than she can play the heterosexual woman trying for a baby with her husband—but she certainly tries.
Lucky’s final decision at the novel’s end echoes a quote from Robert Jones: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” It’s a visit with her long-lost sister Vidya (who ran away, unable to put up with her parents’ values and restrictions) that reminds Lucky that she cannot compromise who she is to make those around her more comfortable or more accepting:
“Where do you live then?”
She tells me that she’s been traveling around the country for a year in a minivan, driving coast-to-coast, teaching classes on papermaking, homeschooling her daughter.
“It’s not so bad, Lucky. I’m free.”
“Free from what?”
For Lucky to become her most authentic self, she won’t have to live off the grid like Vidya, but she will have to turn her back on her family—most specifically, her mother. Her mother’s love, she realizes, is dependent on Lucky’s willingness to hide herself; it’s an oppressive love. In a terrifying, heartbreaking move, Lucky decides to do something few can do: she foregoes that love and that sense of belonging that comes with being a good daughter from a good Sri Lankan family.
But it’s wildly exciting for the reader. And although we never get to fully experience the new Lucky’s life, we can imagine that—having started the process of shedding the burden of familial and cultural expectations—she’ll go on to experience something that finally looks and feels a lot like freedom.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.