Pushing Against the Self in Fiction: A Conversation with Akil Kumarasamy

Mona Kareem talks with Akil Kumarasamy about her new novel, “Meet Us by the Roaring Sea.”

Pushing Against the Self in Fiction: A Conversation with Akil Kumarasamy

Meet Us by the Roaring Sea by Akil Kumarasamy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages.

WITH HER LATEST publication, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, Akil Kumarasamy has shifted from literary fiction to a hybrid genre-fiction. In this near-futuristic New York City, a young female AI coder translates a manuscript from the 1990s after her mother’s death, and the novel alternates between the AI coder’s life and the translation, as both become more deeply entangled. Akil is an unpredictable visionary who is not afraid to try out new forms, genres, and practices. She is joined in conversation here with poet and translator Mona Kareem.


MONA KAREEM: Let’s start with your protagonist, the unnamed woman coder whose second-voice narrative roams over the novel. She is translating a text from a language that she is also learning. Translation as language-acquisition is a process I, as an immigrant, am familiar with, so my question is: How does the translator as a figure serve your vision for this novel? In terms of time and place, but also in conceiving grief in a dystopic setting?

AKIL KUMARASAMY: That’s very true: usually translation is used to survive some kind of violence. Also, my protagonist is not an immigrant. She is in this liminal space of grief, and translation becomes this way to move outside herself and get enmeshed into the lives of individuals living in a different geographic and temporal space. The translator here is reaching out to these young women in the manuscript out of grief but also with this sense of deep love. In bringing the text to English, she is both pulling them out of anonymity and, in that sense, resurrecting them, even if they might not want to be molded into English.

Because she lives in this near-futuristic NYC and she’s translating this manuscript from the 1990s, I felt like translation was also a way to play with time, to make the future fold into the past. The book deals with high-tech things like AI, but also, she’s translating a manuscript by hand and she lives with her mother’s archive of outdated technology like videocassettes. She’s an AI coder, but then she must decode this text to find some kind of salvation.

I think the novel sees translation as some sort of wormhole into another world. The multiverse is very popular now, and while this is not a multiverse, it’s connecting characters who are so different from each other, on many planes of identity. The subject matter of the translation, which is about radical compassion, speaks to the relationship between the translator and the manuscript. Why does she even care about these girls in the manuscript? In translating, both she and the manuscript are affected. There’s this charged relationship.     

Where does Du Bois’s Dark Princess, which is an artifact important to your novel, fit into your vision here?

It’s such a strange book and, above everything, a romance! I think I was just so surprised that Du Bois wrote a romance along with all his scholarly work. It was refreshing to see how he saw the visionary possibilities of genres including science fiction. His books had essays, poems, and short stories all together. At the heart of Dark Princess is this international romance between a Black man from Virginia and this purple-haired princess from India. I think this internationalist outlook and how he used romance for revolutionary means stayed with me and made me think of how I might juxtapose geographies and time periods in surprising ways. There’s something Star Trekkian about Dark Princess, like galactic forces coming together to end white supremacy and imperialism.

It also made me think of how we reduce people, contain them in certain narratives. Dark Princess showed Du Bois breaking free from many expectations. It also shows surprising encounters between different colonized groups. I think this has been a project since my first book, Half Gods, to have displaced people in conversations, bringing different geographies closer together.

The second-person narrative in your novel reads like a different take on the stream of consciousness. It encapsulates the nightmares of individualism and resilience all at once. It can be heavy, perhaps just as grief is. Why did you make this aesthetic choice? And how does it contrast with the “we” in the manuscript the protagonist translates? 

I feel like second-person can have a lot of energy to it. It’s between first-person and third-person; it feels intimate but slightly distant. There’s a quality of being disembodied that I think gets at that feeling of grief, almost like you’re suspended, which fits the vignette form of the narrative. The “you” can also be the reader. It’s a POV that asks the reader to become more involved. I think this POV choice gets at the heart of the translated manuscript about becoming more porous to others and the breaking down of the ego.

Similarly, the “we” in the translated manuscript evokes this collective consciousness, where characters are moving away from this self-focused existence. They are living through a drought and are at the edge of a war, so they are wrestling with that question of how one might go beyond their pain to speak to the suffering of others.

I actually started writing this book with the “we” voice, not realizing it would become a translated manuscript. At the time I also found it difficult to write in first-person, maybe because I was thinking about how separate the “I” felt or how I could try to speak to interconnectivity through narrative form. Like the second-person, “we” has a lot of energy and is a very dynamic and somewhat unstable form. Can the “we” always stay cohesive?

I know it’s an unusual choice to have the second-person right next to the first-person plural, but there was a synergy to them for me. Like the second-person, the “we” also includes the reader, and one of the hopes of the narrative is to get everyone very much entangled.

The second-person voice also reminded me of Octavia Butler’s narrative voice, especially because diaries and journals are a key literary device for Butler. In your novel, the protagonist is not registering these thoughts; we are instead floating in her thoughts. Why are we floating instead of reading?

That’s a good point. I’m immediately thinking of Butler’s books like Parable of the Sower, which is composed of journals. I think we are floating in her thoughts because she is in this suspended state of grief, but also tonally I think these thoughts allow us to be less grounded and move more quickly through the narrative. Also, because we already have the translated manuscript, I thought there could be a contrast in form. It’s still a book within a book!

I do appreciate the form of diaries/journals and how a book can feel like an archive. The narrator’s mother has created her own archive, and I think the book is very concerned with the physicality of objects being imbued with memories. Well, it even gets into the physicality of memory itself. There are some people, and writers [specifically], who are able to write through their grief. But the narrator can’t completely, at least she can’t write her own thoughts. She’s translating the manuscript, but they are not completely her own words. In that way, it’s easier to hide behind the words of someone else. Her sense of reality is changing, and she needs a new vocabulary to speak to it.

Although the world of your novel exists in the future, much of the novel’s geography is almost autobiographical, considering that you are a Tamil person from New Jersey. This is a novel that dares to draw a transnational and translingual landscape, while time traveling. How has this novel helped you on the personal level, in contending with your own life and story?

I think, with this book, I was grappling with how you care about people and places so far away and how you manage all these different structures that are ruling our lives in often invisible ways like AI and data surveillance. I’m a Tamil person, but the main character is not Tamil; she just happened to take a Tamil class as an elective while studying “natural language processing.” We take classes and do things without a clear logical, practical purpose, but it resonates with us in some deep way. Part of the project of the book is to figure out why all these different narratives, from a TV show about soldiers to AI to this Tamil manuscript, live in one space. How do I make sense of it all? In some ways, it’s making sense of an existence that is larger than just your individual life and seeing how all these characters are interconnected with each other but not in obvious ways.

Like you said, it is a time-traveling book, and I was trying to get a bit quantum with it like with the spooky distance effect. These two particles, across time and space, are entangled and affecting each other. I think normally we have a sense of how ancestry, the past, continues to have reverberations, but here with the translated manuscript from the 1990s, it’s not necessarily a past connected with the narrator. Maybe how someone else’s story can give you more clarity about your own life? I suppose this novel helped me to see beyond myself in many ways and to become more trusting with the unknown.

Your novel is a sci-fi and dystopian novel with contrasting spatial and temporal features. It’s written in beautiful prose familiar to those of us who’ve read Half Gods, your short-story collection. What type of reader did you imagine while writing this work? Who are some of the readers that have enjoyed it thus far? And perhaps you can also tell us how this project leaves you feeling about so-called literary fiction? 

I think I was trying to make sense of the book to myself. This novel probably could have come out two years earlier, but there was something I needed to figure out. It wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. It’s a novel that is sometimes hard to summarize, because it’s navigating many themes and ideas. I wanted it to feel expansive and tightly structured. It took me some time to move from the plot of what was happening into this more subconscious space.

For me, as a writer, it was a wild adventure that I really enjoyed and that led me to places that I never expected. Readers have responded very strongly to it: how the book has stayed with them and continues to affect them. It could be a disorienting book, but it’s definitely an experience that I hope one feels in a profound way. Some people have called it labyrinthine or difficult, which I remember you saying is a big compliment.

Personally, it’s important to try to push the boundaries of fiction, of what we think it’s capable of doing. Some people might think my choice of POV is very unusual, but these are things I, as a fiction writer, can use and play around with. Sometimes literary fiction can fall into this mode of insularity about the self, and perhaps this book is very much trying to push away from that.


Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections.

LARB Contributor

Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections. She is a recipient of a 2021 NEA literary grant. Her translations include Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within (nominated for a BTBA), Ra’ad Abdulqadir’s Except for this Unseen Thread (nominated for the Ghobash Banipal Prize), and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.


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