July 30, 2018: “A Story of Happiness” by Akil Kumarasamy

Hello there, Story366! Happy to be writing again today on this overcast Missouri Monday. After the trauma of last week, of almost losing this blog site—detailed in my Tod Goldberg post from Friday—I’m glad to just be back, doing these reviews again. For a few days, my apocalypto brain started imagining what would have happened had I never gotten back in. As a storyteller, my mind immediately went to conflict, conflict that had me fighting the good fight with the WordPress people, saying “fuck” a lot, but also me tossing my bookshelves like a crazed lunatic. Somewhere down the line, I’d swear off stories, books, writing, and reading, live in a box in an alley, and eat ants and old shoelaces. So, all in all, I’m glad that’s over, glad to be reading and writing, my bookshelves intact, American letters still appealing.

This past weekend, I took the oldest boy on a three-hour journey to Linn, Missouri, for a merit badge university. An MBU is when some college sets up an all-day event where Scouts can sign up for classes to earn merit badges. Most of the badges are all-day classes, like my son’s (he earned Citizenship in the Community), as they have a lot of requirements and would otherwise take the boys quite a long time to do on their own. Others are a bit easier, like chess, which they do in the morning, freeing up the afternoon for another easy one: two badges in one day. The one my son earned is one of the twelve required for Eagle Scout, so it was a good one to get out of the way, though I think he learned a lot about local government (which is timely, because the Karen is now a smalltown reporter who goes to aldermen meetings and has chats with the mayor; plus we’re watching all of Parks and Rec again).

As I sat there, I started to think of how great of a system that merit badges are, that when you learn enough about a subject, they give you a little circular picture to pin on a sash, showing everyone what you’ve earned, what you’ve learned, and in a sense, who you are. Since I’ve been involved with my son in Scouts, I keep thinking about how cool it would be if we, as adults in the world, could continue to earn merit badges for what we do in real life. Sure, I have a couple of diplomas in my office, but what if I had little patches on my shirt—a shirt I wore to work every day—instead? We could get badges for every kid we had. We could get badges for paying off a car. For getting a mortgage (and a better, harder one for paying it off). For fixing things around our houses—I’d love a lawn mowing badge and a doing the dishes badge and replacing the screen door badge. For fitting into our summer clothes again each spring. For paying our taxes. Losing our virginity. Staying sober. Getting through six seasons of Parks and Rec in one calendar month.

For kids, it’s easy to let them show their accomplishments, for them to literally wear them like clothing for everyone to see. For us, well, we have to try harder. With all of that MBU downtime—always lots of downtime for parents at Scouting events—I meet a lot of other parents and talk to them and we exchange information, salutory stuff. We tell each other where we’re from. What we do for a living. How old our boys are and what rank they’ve earned. What sports teams we root for. What we think about all this weather we’ve been having. Couldn’t we eliminate it if we just got badges and wore them around? My son can look at any other boy in Scouts, know what troop he’s in and where he’s from (those patches are worn on their sleeves [which is not, by the way, a metaphor for anything]). He knows what rank they are because that’s on their breast pocket. And he know what they’re interested in because all their merit badges tell him that story. Wouldn’t it be nifty if I could just scan some guy’s chest, know where he was from, know if he liked the Cubs and know if I could talk to him about books and perennials? I think so. I think we, as adults, should wear our lives on our bodies like these kids do. Then, that—along with social media—would mean we’d never have to chitchat with anyone ever again. A quick scan and then we could get to it.

For today’s entry, I read from Akil Kumarasamy‘s new collection, Half Gods, out last month from FSG. I’d not read anything by Kumarasamy before—though a lot of these stories appeared in lit mags—so I was eager to see what was up. I always like books from FSG and generally think of them as one of the presses that puts out the best work by the best new talent. So in I dove.

What I found out was that the stories in Half Gods are interrelated, all of them about a particular family—generations of it—settled in America after leaving Sri Lanka amidst an ethnic conflict. I didn’t know a lot about Sri Lanka or its history, but now I know that there was ethnic derision between the Sinhala, who seem to have come out on top in all this, and the Tamil, the group that our protagonists come from. In the midst of all the fighting, Muthu—the family patriarch—left for America, taking his daughter, Nalini, with him. Muthu’s wife and twin sons were killed in a skirmish, and it’s made clear Muthu and Nalinia would have probably died, too, had they not escaped. Eventually, the father and daughter settle in New Jersey, where Muthu finds work as a janitor and Nalini marries an Indian man (note: as much as the Sinhala and Tamil hate each other, they both hate India even more) and has two sons of her own, Arjun and Karna. These are the characters that these stories are about—at least the first three stories, anyway; Kumarasamy is quite liberal in moving back and forth in time, covering a lot of ground in each story, eeking out family details as we move along.

The first story, “Last Prayer,” is told from Arjun’s point of view and is about his senior year of high school, about his wild friend, Rasheed, preported as the year his grandfather, Muthu, dies. The next story, “New World,” goes way back in time to Sri Lanka, when Muthu was a boy living on a tea plantation, where his father worked for a rich Englishman (who departs in the first sentence, Sri Lanka earning its independence). This one’s told as a communal narrator from the POV of the women of the plantation who work the field. The third story, the focus of today’s post, is “A Story of Happiness,” shooting back to New Jersey, focusing on the last days of Muthu’s life, this one told from Muthu’s own perspective.

“A Story of Happiness” is told in two intertwined narratives, the first a bolded, fairytale-like tale of a mother having three abnormal children, getting rid of (yes, it’s cruel) the first two (a hairy baby with a tail and a lizard-child), but feeling remorse the third time and keeping the boy with the bird wings. This story is interspersed with the Muthu narrative, and eventually, we find out the origin of this bird-chiledstory, why it’s hanging out with the main narrative—I’m not going to reveal that here. The Muthu narrative, though, is more or less Muthu’s retrospective of himself, his interior monologue—mixed with some scene—revealing what he did in Sri Lanka, how he met his wife, the birth of his children, and most pointedly, how those three family members died and he and Nalini ended up in America. The story’s told in little vignettes, easy to stick between the bold bird-baby parts, and jumps through time, one vignette set years ago in Sri Lanka, the next in New Jersey, and so forth. It’s kind of like a puzzle, “A Story of Happiness,” and when it comes together in the end, it’s nice to see the whole picture (unlike puzzles, though, there’s no final product on the box, making this story much more surprising).

(And now I can’t help but think of how much more challenging puzzles would be if you didn’t know what the picture was supposed to look like when you finished. Hmm ….)

And really, that’s all I’m going to say about “A Story of Happiness” here, or any of the stories in Half Gods. I really liked reading this book, the connected stories, the faraway land that I didn’t know anything about, the pieces coming together to paint the bigger picture; I definitely want to finish and see where Kumarasamy takes these people. Or if she goes back further. In that way, these stories don’t act like most stories I’ve read because there isn’t one particular plot that we’re following, no clear conflict in any of these stories. Sure, there are little narratives, ups and downs, things that happen, but no sense of real rising action or finality to any of the selections. And once I read a couple, I got used to that idea, and more or less felt like I was reading chapters in a book, POV chapters, as George R. R. Martin likes to call them. Certainly, people come and go, they are born and they die, but none of those events are that central to these pieces that I’d call them “plots.” Kumarasamy masterfully reveals what she wants, when she wants, and I was captivated the whole time. So, Half Gods is a really different story collection, but after reading the first three entries, I like it as much as any stories I’ve read. She’s talented, and this is a good book.