Sydney Posts

Aravind Adiga “Amnesty”

A man without rights in this world is still entitled to love.

Award-winning author Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty is set in Sydney, Australia. It tells the story of an illegal immigrant, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam aka “Danny”, who came on a student visa four years earlier but stayed on. Now he earns a living as a cleaner. The action of the novel takes place in less than a day after he realises that one of his former clients, Radha Thomas, has been murdered in her apartment. He is in a pother wondering what to do. He had been on pretty good terms with Radha and knew her secrets quite well such as her long time affair with fellow-gambler, Dr. Prakash. In fact Danny has often accompanied the two on their gambling sprees but only as a companion. Danny was not a gambler. He was also a teetotaller. Two facts about their Cleaner that mystified Radha and Prakash and yet they invited him along.

Amnesty is about Danny in a fix. He is an illegal immigrant in Australia. A fact that many, even his girlfriend, are clueless about. But Danny has learned to survive in Sydney. His predicament on the day Radha Thomas is murdered stems from his quandary about telling the police about Radha and Prakash and coming to terms with the inevitable repurcussions of revealing his presence in the country. It is a horrendous situation to be in as he left Sri Lanka for better pastures given the civil strife. He is also ridden with guilt as his father had managed to collect the handsome sum of over $11,000 Australian dollars to pay for Danny’s education except that Danny chose to stay on as an illegal immigrant. There is so much rushing through Danny’s mind while living in the present. Having occupied this grey area of Australian society where he is visible and yet invisible enables him to observe much more than he lets on or will ever tell. As an immigrant of South Asian origin he is able to witness the incredibly well-defined social structures of society where the whites dominate and is evident in the layout of Sydney’s neighbourhoods. Given his profession as a cleaner, Danny is able to flit in and out of homes, even in the poshest neighbourhoods, and gets a sense of how much variation there is in the quality of living amongst different sections of society. It also fuels his aspirations of being a legal permanent Australian resident rather than return to Sri Lanka. The very thought of returning home is a depressing thought.

In Amnesty the first person narrative is delivered most often as short monologues. At first it is a fascinating literary technique to employ as it helps plunge the reader immediately into a very personal space — Danny’s mind. But with every passing minute it begins to rattle the reader as this flood of memories intermingled with the rapidly unfurling events of the day, is a heady emotional cocktail for it is relentless, unnerving, disconcerting and suffocating. It is as if Danny has neatly co-opted the reader into his quandary. It is disturbing for this is a situation unique to Danny and Danny alone. Unlike with literary fiction where much of the reading experience is completed by the reader’s engagement with the story, here it is a terrifying space to inhabit where the reader is privy to Danny’s every thought and action. Helpless in being unable to guide Danny is an unpleasant prospect for the reader but it is nothing compared to what Danny is undergoing where his internal moral compass strongly suggests he needs to reveal all that he knows to the police but it will inevitably mean deportation to him. It is this fickleness of life and to a certain degree what he construes as unfair that keeps him unsure about how to proceed. Amnesty stems from the Greek word, Amnesia, which is also a play on Danny’s convenient forgetfulness about the visa he used to enter Australia. Yet this one day is critical in his life for it unravels his grit and determination to stay on in the country as he battles his inner self for figuring out what is the right thing to do — share the information he has about the crime committed or not. Ironically it is an amnesty he strikes with himself before taking the decision he makes.

In a sense Amnesty can be construed as a literary recreation of the Stockholm Syndrome which is a psychological response of the captive to align with their captor during captivity. Danny is the illegal immigrant who fears deportation to Batticaloa, the distress in the homeland in his mind is far worse than skulking as a persona non grata in Sydney. The “captivity” of being an illegal alien in a foreign land is infinitely preferable to home. In fact Danny is constantly assessing people by their legal right to live in this city. But he is gripped with worry when confronted with the murder of Radha Thomas. And the drama plays out slowly like a Greek tragedy in the classical one day cycle to figure out what Danny will do. It is very much a modern novel with its global theme of the status of migrants. Literature is able to say much more bluntly that journalists are unable to do or are choosing not to do. Fiction is able to take deep dives into the personal and give a face to the tragedy. Migration stories in journalism present a story that can then be used to influence or change government policies. Literature like Adiga’s Amnesty, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West keep such uncomfortable conversations alive. They are relevant. They are also an assertion by the South Asian diaspora to use their position in the global literary landscape to be heard.

Adiga seems to subvert the Australian literary fiction canon which is very focussed upon its preoccupations by preferring to show the subaltern’s view of Sydney society — a perspective that is Adiga’s literary trademark. In this case, it is the perspective of the South Asian immigrant trying to find a foothold in Australian society while navigating all the tricky socio-economic spaces. Adiga gives a voice to the minority that is not easily visible in mainstream Australian literature; not to say that literature by the diaspora is not making waves in Australia. It is. There are moments in the novel that may alienate the reader for its minute description of Sydney’s streets. Detailing the local landscape does make the head spin but it also helps in aligning oneself with the confusion that must be prevailing in Danny’s mind. Definitely not easy to read but by having a writer of Adiga’s calibre and literary clout speak of these daily preoccupations in his latest novel will most certainly impact contemporary Australian literature. Wait and see.

7 March 2020

Interview with Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books US

Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books

Susan Van Metre is the Executive Editorial Director of Walker Books US, a new division of Candlewick Press and the Walker Group. Previously she was at Abrams, where she founded the Amulet imprint and edited El Deafo by Cece Bell, the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger, the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki, and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Fornatale, and their daughter and Lab mix.

Susan and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers delegation organised by the Australia Council and Sydney Writers Festival. It was an incredibly enriching time we spent with other publishing professionals from around the world. Meeting Susan was fabulous as Walker Books is synonymous with very high standards of production in children’s literature. Over the decades the firm has established a formidable reputation. Susan very kindly agreed to do an interview via email. Here are lightly edited excerpts.


1.        How did you get into publishing children’s literature? Why join children’s publishing at a time when it was not very much in the public eye?

I never stopped reading children’s books, even as a teen and young adult.  I have always been in love with story.  I was a quiet, lonely young person and storytelling pulled me out of my small world and set me down in wonderful places in the company of people I admired.  I couldn’t easily find the same richness of plot and character in the adult books of the era so stuck with Joan Aiken and CS Lewis and E Nesbit and Ellen Raskin. And I loved the books themselves, as objects, and, in college, had the idea of helping to make them.  I applied to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, now at Columbia, met some editors from Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin there, and was invited to interview.  Though I couldn’t type at all (a requirement at the time), I think I won the job with my passionate conviction that the best children’s books are great literature, and arguably more crucial to our culture in that they create readers. 

2.        How do you commission books? Is it always through literary agents?

Most of the books I publish come from agents but occasionally I’ll reach out to a writer who has written an article that impressed me and ask if they have thought of writing a book. Recently, I bought a book based on hearing the makings of the plot in a podcast episode.

3.        How have the books you read as a child formed you as an editor/publisher? If you worry about the world being shaped by men, does this imply you have a soft corner for fiction by women? ( Your essay, “Rewriting the Stories that Shape Us”)

What a good question. I definitely look for books with protagonists that don’t typically take centre stage, whether it’s a girl or a character of colour or a character with a disability. I have always been attracted to heroes who are underdogs or outsiders, ones that prevail not because they have special powers or abilities but because they have determination and heart. I am in love with a book on our Fall ’19 list, a fantasy whose hero is a teen girl with Down syndrome. It’s The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott.  I have never met a character like Agatha before—she’s all momentum and loyalty.  Readers will love her.

4. Who are the writers/artists that have influenced your publishing career/choices?

I am very influenced by brainy, hardworking creators like Ellen Raskin and Cece Bell and Mac Barnett and Sophie Blackall and Jillian Tamaki.  I admire a great work ethic, outside-the-box thinking, an instinct for how words and images can work together to create a richly-realized story, and respect for kids as fully intelligent and emotional beings with more at stake than many adults.

5.  As an employee- and author-owned company, Candlewick is used to working collaboratively in-house and with the other firms in the Walker groups. How does this inform your publishing programme? Does it nudge the boundaries of creativity?

There is so much pride at Walker and Candlewick.  Owning the company makes us feel that much more invested in what we are making because it is truly a reflection of us and our values and tastes. Plus, we only make children’s books and thus put our complete resources behind them. There are no pesky, costly adult books and authors to distract us. And I think the strong lines of communication amongst the offices in Boston, New York, London, and Sydney mean that we have a good global perspective on children’s literature and endeavour to make books with universal appeal. I think all these factors contribute to innovation and quality.

6.  You have spent many years in publishing, garnering experience in three prominent firms —Penguin USA, Abrams and Candlewick Press. In your opinion have the rules of the game for children’s publishing changed from when you joined to present day?

Oh, definitely.  When I started, children’s publishing was a quiet corner of the business, mostly dependent on library sales.  There was no Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Wimpy Kid; no great juggernauts driving millions of copies and dollars.  And not really much YA.  YA might be one spinner rack at the library, not the vast sections you see now, full of adult readers. Now children’s and YA is big business and mostly bright spots in the market. The deals are bigger and the risk is bigger and the speed of business is so much faster!

7.   Do you discern a change in reading patterns? Do these vary across formats like picture books, novels, graphic novels? Are there noticeable differences in the consumption patterns between fiction and nonfiction? Do gender preferences play a significant role in deciding the market?

I think we are in a great time for illustrated books, whether they are picture books, nonfiction, chapter books, or graphic novels.  And now children can move from reading picture books to chapter books to graphic novels without giving up full colour illustrations as they age.  And why should they? Visual literacy is so important to our internet age—an important way to communicate online.

8.  One of the iconic books of modern times that you have worked upon are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Tell me more about the back story, how it came to be etc. Also what is your opinion on the increasing popularity of graphic novels and how has it impacted children’s publishing?

I am not the editor of the Wimpy Kid books—that’s Charles Kochman—but I was lucky enough to help sign them up and bring them to publication as the then head of the imprint they are published under, Amulet Books.  Charlie comes out of comics so when he saw the proposal for Wimpy Kid, which had been turned down elsewhere, he understood the skill and appeal of it. I have NEVER published anything that took off so immediately.  I think we printed 25,000 copies, initially, and we sold out of them in two weeks.  It showed how hungry readers were for that strong play of words and images, and how they longed for a protagonist who was flawed but who didn’t have to learn a lesson.  Adult readers have many such protagonists to enjoy but they are rarer in kids’ books.

9.  Walker Books are inevitably heavily illustrated, where each page has had to be carefully designed. Have any of your books been translated? If so what are the pros and cons of such an exercise?

Our lead Fall title, Malamander, is illustrated and has been sold in a dozen languages.  I think illustration can be a big plus in conveying story in a universally accessible way.

10. The Walker Group is known for its outstanding production quality of printed books. Has the advancement of digital technology affected the world of children’s publishing? If so, how?

I think they incredible efficiency of modern four-colour printing has allowed us to spend money on other aspects of the book, like cloth covers or deckled edges.  That sort of thing.  Children’s books are incredible physical objects these days.

11. Walker Books’ reputation is built on its ability to be creatively innovative and constantly adapt to a changing environment. How has the group managed to retain its influence in this multimedia culture?

First, thank you for saying so!  I think the rest of media still looks to book publishing for great stories and as a house that has always invested in talent, we are lucky enough to have stories that work across many forms of media.

12.  Have any of books you have worked upon in your career been banned? If so, why? What has been the reaction?

Yes.  In fact, I am working with Lauren Myracle on a young adult novel, publishing in Spring ’21, called This Boy. Lauren is the author of the ttyl series, which was on the ALA’s Banned Book list for many years. It was challenged for its depictions of teenage sexuality.  I was raised to be modest and rule following so my personal reaction was horror—especially when parents started phoning me directly to complain—but I feel so strongly that kids and teens deserve to read about life as it really is—not just as we wish it would be.  So I came to be proud of the designation.  Nothing is scarier than the truth.

Bibliography:

Hannah Lambert (2010) Sebastian Walker and Walker Books: A Commercial Case Study, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 15:2, 114-127, DOI: 10.1080/13614540903498885. Published online: 03 Feb 2010.

25 Sept 2019

Visiting International Publishers Delegation, Sydney, 29 April – 5 May 2019

Every year the Australia Council for the Arts in partnership with Sydney Writers Festival and Writing NSW organises the prestigious Visiting International Publishers delegation. The list of VIPs alumni is a formidable list of publishing professionals from around the world. According to the website:

Delivered alongside the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the VIPs program supports international publishers, scouts and literary agents to participate in a week-long schedule of business meetings, networking events, industry forums, writers’ festival events, and panel discussions with Australian publishers and agents. The program showcases Australia’s literary talent, and promotes the sale of rights to Australian titles in international markets.

The visiting delegation will immerse themselves in Australia’s unique literary culture, share insights into global publishing trends, strengthen relationships with their Australian counterparts, and expand opportunities for Australian authors overseas.

VIPs is one of the Australia Council’s signature strategic initiatives, and this year marks the 21st anniversary of the program. Since its inception in 1998, the VIPs program has welcomed 270 international guests to Australia, from 28 countries, with more than 300 Australian titles sold into overseas markets through the program.

In 2016 and 2017, the Australia Council conducted a five year longitudinal evaluation of the VIPs program from 2011-2016, which included a survey of Australian publishers and agents. The report is now available here.

The evaluation revealed that for every $1 the Australia Council invests in the VIPs program, $5.45 is generated for the Australian literature sector – a 445% return on investment.

The evaluation also revealed:

  • More than $4.1 million in rights sales has been reported over the five years ($3.8 million in direct sales to VIPs who attended, and a further $300,000 in indirect sales through referrals from VIPs to other international publishers);
  • Participation in the VIPs program in 2016 accounted for 15% of all rights sales for Australian publishers;

I am honoured to have been invited to join this delegation later this month. This the 21st delegation being organised and hosted by the Australia Council for the Arts. The biographies of the 2019 visiting delegates is now available online.

Ia Atterholm, Literary Agent – Ia Atterholm Literary Agency, SWEDEN
Faye Bender, Literary Agent – The Book Group, USA
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose – International Publishing Consultant, INDIA
Peter Blackstock, Senior Editor – Grove Atlantic, USA
Simon Boughton, Publishing Director – Norton Young Readers, W.W. Norton & Company, USA
Joanna Cárdenas, Editor – Kokila, Penguin Random House US, USA
Li Kangqin, Senior Acquisition Editor & Rights Manager – Shanghai 99 Readers’ Culture, CHINA
Job Lisman, Editorial Director – Prometheus Publishers, NETHERLANDS
Pamela Malpas, Literary Agent – Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency, USA
Stephen Morrow, Vice President – Dutton, Penguin Random House US, USA
Julia Reuter, Editor – Carlsen Verlag, GERMANY
Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout – London Literary Scouting, UK
Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director – Walker Books US, Walker Books International, USA

16 April 2019

Interview with Markus Zusak, author of “Bridge of Clay” and “The Book Thief”

Bridge of Clayby Markus Zusak is an extraordinary book. It is a story about a family of five brothers and their parents. Penelope Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar, the mother is an immigrant who is dearly loved by her second husband, Michael Dunbar, and father of the boys. One fine day it all falls apart with the discovery that the mother has cancer. It is a slow death. A grief so searing that it tears the family apart. The father drifts away, abandoning the boys, expecting them to fend for themselves. It is a story told slowly, flipping back and forth in time, by one of the sons – Michael Dubar. Bridge of Clay is about the Dunbar family, Michael returning to the boys seeking their help to build his dream bridge and the younger son, Clay, offering to help.

Bridge of Clay is quite unlike Markus Zusak’s previous novel, The Book Thief. Yet, Bridge of Clay is a fabulous novel for its craftsmanship, its unique form of storytelling, its pacing, its brilliant unexpectedness. It builds upon expectations of the readers of The Book Thief but as Markus Zusak says in the interview, “the challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for.”

I met Markus Zusak at the Jaipur Literature Festival where he was a part of the delegation of writers and publishers brought across by the Australian High Commission. It was then he kindly agreed to do an interview for my blog.

Here is an edited version of the interview conducted via email.

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Markus Zusak, Jaipur Literature Festival 2019
Picture by: Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

JBR: Bridge of Clay can only be read if one places oneself in that fog which comes with grief and numbness of sorrow. What prompted this story?   How do you work out the voices of the characters?

MZ: I had this story in my mind since I was twenty years old…I was walking around my neighbourhood back then, in Sydney, and I had this vision of a boy who was building a bridge and he wanted it to be perfect – one beautiful, perfect, great thing.

The voices of the characters came the way all ideas do – from spending time with the book, getting to know it. After I’d written The Book Thief, I realised it was finally time to take on the boy and his bridge. And as soon as I did that, I thought, ‘Well, you can try to write a smaller, quieter book…or you can bet everything.’ I decided to bet everything, and the first part of that was seeing Clay, the protagonist, as one of five brothers. Next came the multi-generational story, and I took it from there.

JBR: This kind of fluid writing, languid, placid, calming tone of the narrator, all the while creating a disruptive narrative is very emotionally draining to craft. Yet it feels special in Bridge of Clay.  Did it take many revisions to achieve?  What was your routine to write this book? Did it differ from your other books?

MZ: Routine is everything. I actually have a friend whose first question to me when we meet is, ‘How’s your routine going?’ The idea of the writing in Bridge of Clay was very exact. Matthew is trying to make order of the chaos in the epic, sprawling and sometimes shambolic history of the Dunbar family, and I was trying to write in the spirit of Clay’s bridge-building. I feel like that was one of the reasons it took thirteen years to write this book. I was writing for the world championship of myself.

JBR: Did this book involve research? 

MZ: It took a lot of time researching this book – not only bridge building and the artworks of Michelangelo, and horseracing, and details of Eastern Europe during communism, but also the biggest research of all – which is getting to know the characters themselves. Being with the characters and working for them is what gets a book over the line, I think. In the end you’re not writing for the audience anymore – you’re writing for them – the characters inside the book. In this case I was writing for Clay and all the Dunbar boys, and the animals in their household, and for Michael…but especially for Penny Dunbar, who is the true heart of the book.

JBR: Why jumble the sequence of events? 

MZ: The structure of this book works in two ways: one is that it continually builds, which is why each part is still titled with the previous part. For example, Part Two is called Cities + Waters, rather than just Waters. Part three is Cities + Waters + Criminals. I did this because it replicated the building of the bridge, but also because we don’t just live things and leave them behind. We carry our stories with us.

The second part of the structure is tidal – where the past and present come back and forth like the tide coming in and going out. I like the idea that we start becoming who we are long before we’re even born. Our parents’ stories are embedded in us, and so are their journeys and sacrifices, their failures and moments of heroism. I wanted to recognize those stories. I wanted to write a book about a boy in search of his greatest story whilst recognizing the stories that got him to that point.

As Clay is makes his way outwards in the world, the history of the Dunbar family is coming in…and I think that’s how our memories work. We are always caught in the current between looking forward and behind us.

JBR: Pall of death looms large. It is not discussed easily in families. Yet a nickname soon takes on a proper noun — “Murderer”, a terrible reminder of Death. Why choose this horrific literary technique? 

MZ: Matthew Dunbar names Michael, his father, the Murderer because he left the family after their mother, Penelope, died. He claims that he killed their family by doing this, so it’s really a play on words. I also used it because I think we all know when we see a nickname like that, that there must be more to it. Is he really a murderer? Or is he taking the blame for someone else – and in what capacity has a crime been committed?

We spend this entire novel getting to know its characters (and especially Clay), and when we finally understand the irony of the nickname, we have one of the last pieces to understanding its protagonist.

JBR: Why have such a slow paced novel at a time when every else is writing fast paced detailed novels? Is this novel about the creation of art, creating something unique? How did you decide upon the chapter titles? A piece of artwork that is only completed with the complete engagement of the reader otherwise the story glides past.

MZ: Why follow a trend of continually making this easier, faster, and too easily known? We live in a world now where we feel like we deserve to know everything right now – and I see the role of novels as a saving grace where we can still say, ‘Come on – do some work. Think a little bit. I promise you’ll be rewarded.’ Maybe novels are one of the last frontiers where the pay-offs aren’t instant. You can be offered a whole world, but it also demands your attention. They’re the sort of books that have always become my favourites.

JBR: What came first — the story or the narrator? 

MZ: The story was always there. I had several different attempts at narrators, and settled on Matthew about seven years into writing the book…In the end he deserved it – he does so much to keep the Dunbar family together, and he’s telling the story to understand and realise just how much he loves his brother, and how much he wants him to come home.

JBR: How did it feel to create the character of Clay?

MZ: Clay was always there. He was always there, attempting to be great. He kept me honest writing the book. I wrote this book to measure up to him.

JBR: Who is Penelope modelled upon? Why does it seem that she is not necessarily based on her namesake from the epic?

MZ: All characters become completely themselves from the first time you fictionalise something about them. In the case of Penelope, she was based on my parents-in-law, who came to Australia from Poland. When they got here they were shocked by the heat. They’d never seen a cockroach before. They were horrified…but they had made this epic journey to start a new life – and that was the first seed for Penelope’s story – but from the moment I saw her practising the piano and being read to from The Iliad, she was only ever Penelope Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar.

As for not being a based on the exact template of Penelope in The Odyssey, she’s certainly patient, and determined – but I also wanted her to be more. All of the characters in this novel are heroic in their own way. Penelope, as I said, is the heart of the book, and I wanted her to be stoic, and deceptively strong. She’s perennial – a survivor and mother, and certainly a formidable opponent in the Piano Wars with her sons

JBR: Which edition of the Odyssey and Illiad did you read? When did your love for the epic start? What prompted you to reimagine it? 

MZ: My editions are the Penguin classics, translated by E.V. Rieu. I never studied them at school or university, but I decided one day that I needed to read The Iliad. I always loved the bigness of them – the larger-than life characters and language…the overwroughtness of it!

As for it’s thread in Bridge of Clay, it came to me when all of the characters started having nicknames, and when Clay is training – the start of the novel is like the Games in Ancient Greece. Then, when I thought of Penelope being called The Mistake Maker, I immediately saw her practising the piano in Eastern Europe, which I called a ‘watery wilderness’, which was a direct quote from Homer’s description of the sea. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what Bridge of Clay is. It’s a suburban epic that pays tribute to the bigness of our everyday lives.’ We all think we have dull, drab existences, but we all fall in love, We all have people die on us. We all fight for what we want sometimes. It all just seemed to fit, and then I thought of Penelope being sent to Australia with a copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I never doubted that part of the story.

JBR: What was it like to interact with readers in India when you visited the country in January? 

MZ: To be in India with a book is like being with your fiercest friends. Indian readers are special in that they love showing you how much they love you, and as a reading culture it is like no other place in the world. I loved every minute.

JBR: Why release the book for two types of readers across the world particularly in an important book market like USA where it has been labelled as #yalit?

MZ: I’ll often answer this question by saying it really doesn’t matter because a book will find its true audience. I had a choice to release this book with a different publisher to place it firmly in adult territory, but I love the people I work with, and I wanted to stay with them. That’s the only reason it was released as a young adult novel there. I think that was possibly an easier proposition with The Book Thief, because it’s an easy book to love – but I think Bridge of Clay does makegreater demands of its reader. It’s a tougher book to read. Liesel is given to you on a plate; she’s easy to love – orphaned, in a book about loving books – but Clay is a character to fight for. You almost have to prove that you can withstand all he goes through to fully understand him.

In short, a reader almost has to earn the right to love him – and so maybe it’s more a novel for true believers in my writing, which makes it a harder book to market for teenagers.

Either way, the challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for. Every decision was made to make the book exactly what it needed to be, and follow its vision completely.

28 March 2019

An interview with Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves is from India. She earned her PhD from the University of New South Wales. She teaches creative writing workshops within communities, schools, and universities. Her research focuses on the arts, social media, creativity studies and postcolonial literatures. She created a series of radio documentaries entitled, On the Tip of a Billion Tongues. She received the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endevour Award. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Southern Crossings. She is the author of The Permanent Resident, which won 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Multicultural NSW Award.

 

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Sunita De Souza goes to Sydney is a powerful set of stories that are atmospheric. Packed with detailed descriptions of Bombay/ Mumbai, Goa and Australia. “Home stays with you, in your stories” is a beautifully apt description of immigrant literature coined by by Norwegian resident, originally from Nagaland, and the Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar 2018 winner, Easterine Kiralu. The comment encapsulates Roanna Gonsalves short stories very well too.

It is not clear if the principle of arrangement of the stories is chronological but there is definitely a shift in the confident writing style and evolution of the women characters from the first “Full Face” to the last “The Permanent Resident”. There is a quiet determination evident in the stories to make literature out of the most ordinary experiences such as in the search for Sichuan peppercorns to prepare Kung pa khao chicken for lunch in “Easter 2016”. This is a devastatingly sharp story beginning with the title which is so apt with its double-edged reference to the resurrection of Christ and that of the woman narrator occurring on Easter Sunday. Roanna Gonsalves captures the relationship between her husband, Ronnie, and the narrator so well especially his insistence for Sichuan peppercorns No substitution with Indian peppercorn would suffice. His steely stubbornness that he wanted a change in the menu despite the fact the Easter Sunday lunch had already been cooked. The exhausted wife (not just physically but mentally and emotionally for being stuck in domestic drudgery and childcare, reminiscing about her life back in Bombay when she could also be a professional) agrees to look for the spice even though it is the long Easter weekend and in all likelihood all provision stores would be shut. The descriptions of the people walking on the streets as she goes by in her search is as if a bird has been let out of its cage and watches in numb wonderment. The narrator observes everyone so closely; as if the boundary lines between the narrator and author are blurred at this point. When she finally finds a store open, discovers a packet of the spice, nothing prepares the reader for her defiant act of tearing open the packet of pink peppercorns that are “pink as the sky at dusk over the backwaters of the Mandovi”, munching them and leaving the open packet on the shelf and walking out for a stroll reminiscing on how the fragrance reminds her of her grandmother while the flavour is that of a combination of lavender and Tiger Balm. The story works marvellously well at so many levels!

The dark twist of “Christmas 2012” is gut wrenching. “What you understand you can control” seems so innocuous a statement at first and then comes the story’s conclusion. I found myself holding my breath and was sickened to the core when I finished reading. It is a dark secret of many households even now if one keeps track of child sexual abuse stories. The horror of it is magnified by watching the news of the shocking rape of Dec 2012 but it seems to have no impact on the father.  I cannot get over the image of the bossy Martha, fussing over the linen and cutlery and carving of the turkey, being so precise about the Turkey sauce blemish on the white tablecloth; she knows exactly what home remedy to fix the stain but is clueless on how to “fix” the moral stain on her family. The poor woman stuck in a new land as an immigrant has no one really to speak to and cannot in any way jeopardise her situation or that of her husband by reporting Martin to the police otherwise they will in all likelihood lose their PR (Permanent Resident) status. Hell truly exists on earth and it is usually of man’s own making.

 

The stories are full of very distinct characters, particularly the women. Usually in a short story collection the danger always exists of the personality of the characters blending into each other and acquiring a monotonous tone. This is not the case for Sunita de Souza. With the women characters, the author explores situations and how far can women push their limits. It’s as if they have always had an urge to explore but were boxed in by social rules of conduct back home in India. Whereas being on one’s own in a new land provides an anonymity that pushes one to the brink to discover new spaces — physically and metaphorically too. Driven to extreme situations the women unexpectedly find their voices and take a stand. It is not as if they were weaklings in the first place, they just conform and conform. Then something clicks and they take flight in a good way. They take decisions that change their lives for the better. For instance, the protagonists of “(CIA) Australia”, “Full Face” and “Teller in the Tale” or even the “bold” mother in “Soccer Mum”. All the women try, some do take action and others contemplate it and in the process provide a role model to the readers.

The strongest stories in this collection to my mind are “The Dignity of Labour”, “Easter 2016” and “The Permanent Resident”. The themes of domestic violence, fragile male egos/ patriarchal sense of entitlement that the men exhibit and assertion of the individual’s identity are not new and never will be but come together ever so stunningly in these stories. These are horrendous stories for the violence highlighted. While reading these three stories I could not help but recall the commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. The focus is inevitably on the first half of the commandment but increasingly I feel that women in particular should also learn to focus on the second half — self-preservation is equally critical. Don’t always give and give, but learn to maintain your dignity, self-respect, identity. The sleazy story “Up Sky Down Sky Middle Water” captures this commandment well. The girl was very sure she did not want to be a one-night stand but in that short ride she had done her calculation that having sex with the guy by the roadside would in all likelihood give her an advantage in negotiating her salary. It is a very unsettling story but in it lies quite a remarkable tale of self-preservation. She is near starvation with a very low bank balance and she has to do the quick calculation of whether using her body will give her an added advantage. It is tough to decide whether one passes moral judgement on the girl or appreciates her boldness, her quick thinking to be in some ways emotionally detached from the scene and think ahead of her future. The reader is put in quite a spot with this story.

The phrase “family friendly feminism” is fast becoming fashionable which is annoying for a variety of reasons but as your stories show there is so much work left to be done. Though the stories focus upon experiences of immigrants, specifically within the Goan/Bombay Catholic community, there is a universal truth embedded in every single story.

Fantastic collection!

 

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Here are excerpts of an interview with the author:

  • How long were these stories in the making?

I took about five years to write these stories, but they are standing on over two decades of writing experience.  My first job after graduating from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai was as a reporter with Screen, in India, back in the days when it was a broadsheet. Since then I have written journalism, literary nonfiction, blogs, scholarly pieces in international peer-reviewed journals, radio documentaries, including Doosra: The Life and Times of an Indian Student in Australia  and On the tip of a Billion Tongues, a four part radio documentary series on contemporary multilingual Indian writing. I’ve written for the stage and had short fiction published in different journals, and anthologised in collections. I also wrote a novel (unpublished) which was longlisted for the Vogel Awards, back when I was under 35, which is the cut-off age for that award. As they say, you have to write millions of terrible words before you get to the good words. So all of this writing needed to be done, over two decades, before I could write my book. It took this long not because I’m a lazy or slow writer but because I’ve been a single parent and have had to work in many day jobs to support my family, while writing in my “spare time”.

  • Why begin writing short stories when most publishers shun this genre, especially from a first time author? How did you achieve this stroke of genius to be known as the debut author of a fantastic and now prize-winning collection?

Thank you so much for your warm and generous words, and your fantastic, considered questions. You’re right. It’s very hard to get published, particularly with a short story collection. I felt very honoured to be published by UWAP and Speaking Tiger. I wanted to write short stories because they call forth a respect for the limitations of time and space, and enable a focus on the particular, the intimate, and the fleeting. The short story form offers a set of sharp literary tools with which to sculpt complex experiences and render them economically on the page. This form of the short story felt most suited to writing about the complexities of the immigrant experience. It allowed me to explore different facets of that experience, from the point of view of different protagonists, something which would be harder to achieve with a novel.

  • Who are the short story writers you admire and why? Did their writing influence you in any way?

I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of all kinds of writers such as Eunice De Souza, Michelle De Kretser, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ambai, Kiran Nagarkar, Jerry Pinto, Arundhati Subramaniam, A.K. Ramanujan, Chekhov, Arundhati Roy, Sampurna Chattarji, Arshia Sattar, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Tony Birch, Jeanine Leane, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Damodar Mauzo, bell hooks, and Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve had my fair share of Rushdie-itis, where I tried to magic-realise all my characters. That phase didn’t last thankfully. But yes, I owe a huge debt to Rushdie. So many writers have fed my work. As the Australian poet Andy Kissane says, “poems are cobbled together from other poems”. So too are stories cobbled together from other stories. I’m very aware of the debt I owe to the writers who have paved the way for people like me.

  • How did you start writing about the immigrant experience in Australia?

I started writing about this a long time ago, across various media.  My first piece of fiction, published in Eureka Street, ‘Curry Muncher’, was written as a response to the violence against Indian students in Australia. Having been an Indian student in Australia myself, I felt I needed to render the experience with nuance, and I felt fiction was the best vessel to hold this nuance and complexity. Exploring this topic further, I was also commissioned to write a radio documentary called Doosra, and was a co-writer on a national award-winning play ‘Yet to ascertain the nature of the crime’. All the links to my work can be found on my website.

  • Sometimes the turn in a story like that of the husband grinding the toes of his wife in “The Dignity of Labour” is too cruel a detail to be imaginative. It is as if you heard about it. Do these stories incorporate kernels of real incidents?

That is a lovely comment. However, I have to say that this particular incident is entirely made up. I’m sure this incident has happened to someone somewhere, but in this story it is an imagined detail. Some stories are based on things I’ve read in the media, but all the stories have been filtered through my imagination, and they are all fictional. I think fiction has the power to be truthful in a way that bare facts cannot.

I filtered some details of real stories. None of my stories are entirely based on true stories reported in the media. For example, in the first story, ‘Full Face’, the story of the hairdresser who is murdered by her husband is loosely based on the horrific murder of Parwinder Kaur here in Sydney, by her husband. But the main story itself is based on a different relationship. Yes of course, there is an important place for nonfiction. But the idea that fiction must be based on fact for it to be any good is not something I’m interested in. I believe in the power of fiction, the power of the imagination to help us glimpse our better selves. I’m not saying my fiction does this. But I believe that fiction as a whole has the power to do this.

  • Do you work or are associated with a shelter/organisation for Indian women immigrants?

No, I’m not, but I do know of many amazing Indian women here who work with survivors of family violence in the Indian communities.

JBR: Makes sense then. You have probably heard stories. it is not that I am insisting on looking for links but it is so clear that you are a kind and sensitive listener who has taken some stories to heart.

RG: Thank you.

  • I like the way you keep bringing in the Catholic Associations to support the immigrants, mostly provide them a communal and cultural base. The church communities do provide refuge for newcomers and immigrants. Was this a conscious detail to incorporate in your stories or is it a part and parcel of your own life as well?

Yes, it was completely deliberate to set my stories amongst the Indian catholic communities. One reason I did this was to counter in some small way the almost universal and inaccurate conflation of Indianness with Hinduism. As we all know, there is more to India than Hinduism, however rich and wonderful it may be. I wanted to gesture towards this multiplicity by deliberately focussing on a community I knew best. Yet, as you know, in my work, I do not shy away from critiquing Catholicism or the Catholic church. Yes, the church for Christians, the temples for Hindus, the mosques for Muslims, are all ports of anchor for new immigrants who find familiarity in old religions from the homeland when they arrive in a new country with an otherwise alien culture. I write about Konkani-speaking communities, Goan and Mangalorean and Bombay Catholics, just like Jhumpa Lahiri focusses on Bengalis, and Rohinton Mistry focusses on Parsis.

  • When you observe do you keep a notebook handy to scribble points or do these details come alive when you begin to write a story?

Yes, I keep a notebook, I also type up comments on my Notes app on my phone. I’ve gone back to these notes several times and they have provided rich material for my work. For me, the catalyst for each of my stories has been clusters of words that sound and look good to me. I begin with words that fit together in a way that is pleasing to me. I don’t begin with character or theme or plot. That comes after the words for me. So the notes and scribbles I make are primarily combinations of words that I’ve overheard or imagined suddenly when I’m waiting at the bus stop etc.

  • Your women characters come across as women who make difficult choices but would they be called feminists for making those decisions or just strong women?  How would you describe yourself as – a feminist or a writer of women-centric stories?

I am unapologetically a feminist. I owe everything to the struggles of the early feminists in India and across the world. Were it not for these brave women, I would still be stuck in the kitchen cooking rice and dal for my husband while nursing baby number nineteen. Our independence as women has been won through the struggles of many brave women, and I will never forget this debt. So yes, I call myself a feminist. All my female characters are feminists, in that they are strong women who make choices and are self-aware enough to deal with the consequences, however challenging or empowering those consequences may be.

  • Have you been trained in theatre?

I wish I could act like Shabhana Azmi and the late Smita Patil. However I have no talent and no training as a performer. But I have written for the stage and hope to continue to do so.

  • What are you writing next? 

I am writing a book of historical fiction, based on the imperial networks of the British and Portuguese empires. It’s about Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his Indian servant, set in the early nineteenth century in the south of India, the west of Scotland, and the east of Australia.

Roanna Gonsalves Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney: And Other Stories Speaking Tiger Books, Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 296

3 July 2018