“The Body and Data as Translation and Post-Colonial Futurism”: A Conversation with Akil Kumarasamy

“To translate means to carry over, to move from one place to another.” Your protagonist in Meet Us by the Roaring Sea is a translator in the near future. Could you speak more about the place of translation in our futures, especially brown futures, and how that relates to post-colonial displacement and violence in the world of your novel.

In the movement between two languages, there are always things left behind; things that remain untranslatable. Similarly, in immigrating to a new land, a new language, there is a sense of invention and loss. In thinking of the post-colonial context, there is a clear hierarchy of languages. What does it mean to translate a text from a South Asian language that has clear anti-colonial roots into English? The AI coder/translator in this novel is translating a manuscript that is not necessarily intended for a wider audience. 

Translation could be a violent act when you think of the context, for example, a refugee being forced into another language because of war. At the same time, this act of translation can be seen as an act of love, salvaging a lesser-known manuscript for the greater world.

When I think of brown futures, I’m reminded that we are living out of a colonial imagination, all these country borders that created so much bloodshed. Languages extend across the arbitrary lines of nations.   

The LA Times calls your novel “dystopian.” In my reading, however, it comes across as a realistic novel, because it has all the problems and conflicts of our current world, albeit in a futuristic setting. What do you think about this characterization?

I think your characterization of the novel is how I see it. It’s speaking to the issues we have today/where we are headed, and it’s just in a futuristic setting. I think there’s a longing to fit stories into these categories, and I can see how people read it as a dystopian text, but to me, I was using the metaphor of the future to talk about the present moment.   

“Writing is another way of fasting.” There are numerous instances of starvation, both self-inflicted and a result of oppression, in your story. As someone who used to be a practicing Jain and once lived on just water for eight days, I could relate to the characters’ growth and sufferings as they fasted. I also really enjoyed the deep exploration of “Radical Compassion” in it.

I think I was interested in writing about individuals who are being pushed against their limits, physically and psychologically. This is a space where societal norms, reality begins to break open. 

Wow, I haven’t fasted for eight days with only water, but I do feel like it allows you to access another state and sharpens your perception in different ways. Also, it lets the body go into repair mode for healing. The young women in the manuscript are living through a drought, so they are partly forced into this mode of fasting. But in this process, they are attempting to transcend the physical realm of things but also be helpful to the people around them.

How did you come to write about the Sri Lankan civil war and radical compassion—what led to your desire to write about these women? 

I was thinking a lot of young female fighters, who were resisting state violence, putting their lives/ futures on the line for some larger vision. How does one transcend the self and think of the collective? It sometimes astounds me, thinking about it. I wanted also to show the revolutionary power of a group of young women, who were challenging ways of being in unusual modes like “radical compassion,” which actually requires much discipline and is possibly more difficult than one might imagine. When I think of suffering, my mind goes to Khalil Gibran: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”

I also wanted a female/ child perspective of war. So often women and children are the causalities, the rallying cry. It’s very rare for them to be given agency in narratives even though they experience the brunt of war.   

You have mentioned previously that you love Studio Ghibli films. I see a certain similarity in your regard for future technology and ecosystems in your writing as well. Did your work history in data analytics inspire you to write about AI and capitalism, how almost, data seems to be the currency of the future?

Yes, I do love Studio Ghibli films and glad that some kind of similarity is coming through! I can definitely see the correlation between my work in data analytics and my writing about AI systems. Data is the training material for AI, and we are constantly having data collected from us and most often without our permission. Data does feel like this currency of the future because it has so much information about us that can be used to influence our behavior/actions. For example, make us buy something. It feels deeply tied to capitalism.

That reminds me: Ted Chiang recently said that fears of technology are fears of capitalism. Do you agree?

I would also echo Ted Chiang because the fear of technology is about how people in power will use it, most likely for capitalistic, profit-making ends. 

MUBTRS also speaks to us about mothers and motherhood, and the impact they have on body and memory. Love, grief, sexuality—to what extent do you think we tend to absorb our mothers?

Our mothers are these portals we come through, and maybe because of that, we look towards them like they are the keepers of knowledge, or that they possess a deeper sense of who we are. We might look at them like they are fun-home mirrors, reflecting versions of ourselves that we might not bear to see. I guess that’s why the first line of the book is—“A mother is a slippery thing.”

What are some of your favorite mothers written in literature?

Hmm favorite mothers…I really appreciate the young, struggling mother in Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light or the mythic mother in Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under or the beautiful, monstrous mother in Sharlene Teo’s Ponti.

“This is not a book written for the rational mind,” says one Goodreads review. The reviewer then goes on to praise the loosely braided threads of your characters. To me, they are yet intensely connected, deeply enmeshed together in a collective consciousness that overtakes your book. What made you write the novel-within-the-novel in collective voice?

I think this novel was trying to move away from a singular, first-person story. The young women are trying to transcend the self, the ego. They are becoming more limitless than their individual bodies. The collective voice of the “we” allowed me to capture that mythic voice. 

What is your favorite desi book and why? 

I think Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things will stay with me forever. Even after all these years, it still feels wondrous with lines that just break you open. 


Akil Kumarasamy is the author of the novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea (FSG, 2022), and the linked story collection, Half Gods, (FSG, 2018), which was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, was awarded the Bard Fiction Prize and the Story Prize Spotlight Award, and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Her work has appeared in Harper’s MagazineThe AtlanticAmerican Short FictionBOMB, among others. She has received fellowships from the University of East Anglia, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She is an assistant professor in the Rutgers University-Newark MFA program. She is on the shortlist of the $25,000 Ursala K LeGuin Prize, 2023.

Shalvi Shah

Shalvi Shah is a writer, translator, and critic based in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, and New York City. She is a recipient of Columbia University’s MFA in fiction and literary translation. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Wasafiri, Scroll.in, the New York Times, and elsewhere.