When Akil Kumarasamy ’10 came to Barnard, she chose economics as her major. She felt it was sensible and would lead her to a financially stable career. Today Kumarasamy — novelist and associate professor of fiction at Rutgers University-Newark’s MFA writing program — has two books of fiction to her credit.
The reviews of Kumarasamy’s second book and first novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, point to the layering of her story within a story. Accolades like “spellbinding,” “breathtakingly imaginative,” and — from Scientific American — “a dizzying alchemy of past and present, love and truth, death and memory” reflect the book’s uncommon narrative structure and its power. The story follows an artificial intelligence tech in the near future who is grieving her mother’s unexpected death as she translates a manuscript from the 1990s. The manuscript is about the slow decline of a group of women medical students — during a historic drought and civil war — who embrace a philosophy of “radical compassion.” As the novel progresses, the translator’s life and the manuscript become enmeshed.
While the novel’s form creates a unique experience for the reader, its prevailing themes are universal to humanity — love, death, and grief. Kumarasamy spoke to us about the novel and how she found her way to writing fiction at Barnard.
Two books in four years — both have been named an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times, both have garnered glowing reviews. Is this a “pinch me” moment?
Very. It’s very strange because when I was at Barnard, I studied economics, and I really didn’t even know that writing was a possibility, that it was like a path. In my junior year, I took one creative writing class with Cathleen Schine ’75, who taught that one semester and never taught again. Professor Schine was just so supportive of me; she said, “You should do this.” I had such a delirious belief that I immediately applied to MFA programs. I just kind of fell in love with writing.
Was it difficult for you to explain the switch from economics to creative writing in your junior year?
I was feeling a little lost when I was at Barnard. Economics wasn’t really moving me. I was just doing a lot of classes and feeling kind of aimless. When I got into [the creative writing] class, something just clicked, and I felt, yeah, I really want to do this. I remember telling my adviser that I was going to apply to MFA programs, and he was just very confused [laughs].
In your novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, you set one section of the book in a futuristic world that is very carbon-aware. What is it about the future that you wanted readers to think about? Did you want to emphasize the future realities of climate change?
This book is set in the future, but at the same time, it follows this AI coder while she’s translating a manuscript that takes place in the ’90s. So I think it does take place in the future, partly because I wanted to use the future as a kind of metaphor to speak to the present moment. By setting the story in the future, I could just come at everything from a slightly different angle. I’m really interested in the larger forces controlling us or affecting us. In this book, there is carbon-score monitoring; everyone has a carbon score. So it feels like it’s good that people are becoming more conscious of what they’re doing. At the same time, it’s also this whole data-collecting apparatus. How much of an effect do individual actions have on the climate? The book is trying to ask that question.
With Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, you broke traditional-form rules. Were you aware of that as you were creating this book? Did the success of your first book, the short-story collection Half Gods, give you the confidence to take narrative risks?
In some ways. When you’re writing your first book, you don’t know if it is going to be published. You are kind of writing into space. You’re craving that external validation to be like, “This is great.” This book took a lot of trust and was more intuitive than my first book. In the first book, I just felt like I was banging on a wall every day with brute force. It was like just hitting the page every day, and something will happen! They say to write every day, so I was doing that. That book had a different kind of energy behind it. I was just really trying to get into the publishing space. This book was much more organic.
Grief is a big theme in this story. What drew your focus to that?
My dad passed away in 2014, which was soon after I finished my MFA. There was a long period when I didn’t write. I think from that experience, I wanted to try to write about grief in some way. I feel like we’ve all experienced that kind of grief, and it’s such a disembodied experience. You feel like you’re in this liminal space, and I think writing in the second person feels intimate and at the same time removed, and it almost feels like you are kind of floating, you’re suspended. Also, I was writing this during the pandemic, and there was so much grief; it was potent.
What was the hardest part about breaking into professional fiction writing?
Being okay with uncertainty — I think that was the big thing that was hard. It was really hard. Especially for your first book. You’re putting so much time into something, and you don’t know, you just don’t know if things are going to add up. Being okay with that and just enjoying the process.
Photo by Vidhya Manivannan