A Review of SJ Sindu’s Dominant Genes

April 29, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Hannah White

When I was a girl, my grandmother taught me how to sew. She was quite young for a grandmother—always mistaken by strangers for my mother—but she was obsessed with old things. Her basement was littered with antiques: a giant loom for weaving blankets, a sewing machine with a foot pedal, colorful textiles, and furs. She wanted me to learn things the old way, the right way.

I spent afternoons by her burning wood stove, practicing stitching together scraps of fabric or watching the steady tap of her foot as she powered her sewing machine, making intricate matching sets from designs in sewing books and magazines. I wanted this power—my grandmother’s power of creation—but I didn’t have the patience or, as I grew older, the time.

Often instead of practicing, I’d just peruse through her sewing or knitting catalogs, admiring the beautiful, delicate stitching and imagining myself ornamented in these garments. But it was this imagining that I enjoyed even more than the act of sewing, and I soon unstuck myself from this activity and turned to reading, and then writing, stitching together words where fabric once was.

In the opening of her new chapbook Dominant Genes, SJ Sindu writes, “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.” In this hybrid collection of lyric essays and poems, Sindu explores issues related to familial expectations and the construction of nonbinary and queer identities with a voice that powerfully simmers both with anger and hope.

Raised in a Sri Lankan family in which matrilineal expectations are strict and heavy, the speaker is filled with a rage that her mother finds problematic. Since she turned twenty, her parents have been trying to marry her off, but Sindu has inherited an anger that has been, “folded up in the pleats of cotton sarees, transmuted from the heads of our mothers at the same time they scolded us for not knowing how to cook roti, and how will we keep a man happy?” Wanting a life and identity of her own, cut off from these expectations, Sindu questions if her own happiness could ever be compatible with her mother’s.

Though anger ties Sindu to her mother and her ancestors, it is also what her mother believes to be what prevents Sindu from finding a suitable match, from choosing that path she wants for her daughter. Sindu writes, “We learn our anger through osmosis, or maybe it’s in the breast milk, spreading through our veins long before we learn how to look only at the floor and walk without showing our ankles.” In her mother Sindu sees both a mirror—anger reflecting back at herself—and a wall, an ending of a long string of inherited traumas, only Sindu holding the scissors.

Sindu posits anger as something somehow both inherited yet not compatible with tradition. She shows this outright: “You’re going to end up alone, my mother tells me. It’s because of your anger. Your anger pushes men away.” Blurring the lines between past and present, fact and fiction, Sindu’s poems and lyric essays are strung together tightly by this tension between mother and daughter, between a life worth living and a life willed onto one by the past, by tradition. Sindu turns truth on its head in this genre-bending hybrid collection, making readers see for themselves the complexities of inherence and tradition.

Sindu comes out to her mother three times: “I tell my mother I’m bisexual. Bi, from the Latin dui, the Greek di, the Sanskrit dvi. Meaning double. Having two. Living in two. I have bifurcated: my life, brown and white; my family, my parents and me; my body, masculine and feminine.” Each time Sindu comes out, her mother tells her she “can still marry a man and have children, that [she doesn’t] have to be different. Bi, meaning two paths. One path lets [her] stay in their lives. The other sees [her] cast out.” Her mother gives her this choice—it is her decision to make whether she will remain tethered or cut free. She feels she must choose to be true to her own identity or to play pretend for the sake of others.

She tries to “stitch [her] two selves back together.” She goes on dates with men who tell her she will have to hide who she is. She entertains men who are tolerant of her identity if it is kept hidden, not strung up plainly for the world to see. But Sindu has always “had a serpent tongue,” one that can cut with a bite, destroy, sever.

Sindu explores ancient stories like Draupadi the beautiful heroine of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata who is punished and called a whore for denying men’s advances. Sindu wants to rewrite Draupadi’s tragic story.  She wants her to “get world-shakingly mad,” her “rage to cut through everything and spin the world into new string.” In this chapbook, Sindu rewrites stories like these, speaking what others would silence.

In these stories, some genes might be dominant, but so is Sindu’s will. And Sindu makes it clear that the same strings that bind us to our past can be pulled too tight, cut off circulation, make us bleed.

Hannah White is a writer and graduate student in English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She copyedits for the Journal of International Women’s Studies and writes for Literarytraveler.com. In her free time, she enjoys baking and walking through the woods of her hometown’s state park with her two Boston terriers. She sometimes lurks on twitter @Hannah4White.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Sri Lankan memoir at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: