Feature Articles / Shankari Chandran on writing and community

Surrounded by other writers at Writing NSW, I was emboldened to own my voice and centre my own stories, because no one else will do it for me.

In 2014, I wrote a novel set in a world destroyed by an Ebola pandemic and religious wars that subjugated people of colour. The protagonist was a secret agent and virologist, called Zakhir Ali, a handsome man of South Asian origin, who could handle a Glock 22 as effectively as he could synthesise RNA from a nucleotide sequence. Zakhir Ali was based on my husband, who isn’t a secret agent or a virologist, but he is very handsome and he is South Asian.

About the time I finished writing this manuscript (my second), my first manuscript was resoundingly rejected by publishers. This book was an exploration of colonisation, genocide and the search for home. Some publishers were kind enough to tell me they loved the manuscript but couldn’t sell it in Australia; it wasn’t Australian enough.      

On hearing this news, I cried all over my husband, and then returned to my protagonist who was engaged in hand-to-hand combat whilst engineering protein-binding aptamers. I used the FIND ALL and REPLACE ALL function in Word to change Zakhir Ali (brown and hot) to Noah Williams (white and hot). The novel was published in Australia.

This experience made me lose confidence in myself. Completely. Confidence (or lack thereof) and anxiety have been my lifelong companions. If I am not writing, I dwell on my worst qualities and amplify my worst fears. If I am writing, I can drown out all the noise.  

After whitewashing my own work, I stopped to reflect on why I was writing at all. Reflection, without support, is not a good thing for me. Reflection took my problematic self-doubt to its next level: paralysing self-doubt. A writer who isn’t writing, who isn’t listening to the characters inside their mind, who has come out of their mind to sit in the physical world, sits alone.

Let me reframe this from the false protection of the third person to the frightening vulnerability of the first person.

I was alone.

I was so utterly alone that I joined Writing NSW. Quietly at first, because I’m introverted and not a natural joiner of groups. I devoured their website, resources, newsletter and then their courses.

At Writing NSW, I found a community. After years of  writing by myself, I found people who write to be published, who write despite not getting published, who teach each other and learn from each other, who struggle with self-doubt, who have been told that writing is a lovely hobby but not real work, who are constantly struggling to assert their right to write against all of the other pressures of life, who write in secret, who write in their heads in the check-out line at Coles, who write in the slivers of time between ‘real’ work and parenting responsibilities, who understand the relentless rejections and the different measures of success we hold onto, including the exhilaration we feel at putting words on the page. People who understand that I am happiest when I am writing. From the friendship and safety of this community, I remembered why I started writing in the first place.

Writing helps me understand the Australian community I’ve grown up in and love. When I returned to Australia, after a decade working in London, I didn’t understand my childhood home. I didn’t understand the public fear-mongering about ‘boat people’ and the terrifying xenophobia behind the rhetoric of border security. The public space was dominated by a strong narrative about what it meant to be Australian and diversity was only allowed to exist if it didn’t threaten the white Australian norm. I was devastated by this, especially as I had promised a home here for my four children and husband, the aforementioned muse for my secret agent/super virologist. Living in Australia, for the first time in years, I started writing to find my way home to Australia.

Fiction gives me a way to explore what it means to live in a country where those at the centre have stolen that place for themselves and relegated all others to the liminal spaces. Where the streets are always colourful but the public dialogue and representations of culture are often monochrome.

I write because I want to represent my experience of Australian life, in Australian life. Not because I’m narcissistic. Not because mainstream Australia has generously allowed me in, as long as my ‘ethnic’ voice remains predictably exotic and quietly grateful. But because my kind of normal should be recognised within the multiplicities and complexities of a rapidly evolving, dynamic and spacious Australian identity. I want my children’s kind of normal to be recognised not because they’re hardworking children of a model minority, but because like everyone else I know here, from Homebush, across the boundless plains of this country, to Biloela and beyond, they’re freaking excellent Australians.

Surrounded by other writers at Writing NSW, I was emboldened to own my voice and centre my own stories, because no one else will do it for me. I learned to write, placing the community I grew up in at the centre of my universe – because it is. And I am still learning to write, making space in my stories for the multiplicities of stories that come from one place.

When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronaut or a writer. I get terrible motion sickness and have very poor spatial awareness so space travel was never really on the cards. But space travel makes me think about how in some countries – including my chosen home and my ancestral home – one culture is confidently asserted as The Culture, claiming itself to be the Sun in this universe, around which others revolve. Writing reminds me that there are infinite solar systems, many suns that co-exist without clashing, in a universe that is ever-expanding, always making space for more. This helps me write, not with the defiance of the marginalised but with the curiosity of a space traveller. 

Writing also helps me understand the ancestral community I’ve come from and love. My family has been dispossessed by colonisation, war and genocide. Forced to flee and create a new home, my generation was the first to be raised in the refuge of Australia. My parents were the migrant paradox. Keen to fit in, they shortened their surnames, tried cooking kangaroo curry and engaged in an active program of volunteering through their local temple. Also, afraid that we would completely assimilate, they often kept us isolated and clung to cultural practices that, in Sri Lanka, have changed or even been discarded. We existed in a cultural time capsule. As children, we rejected the suffocation of this strict upbringing; we were always finding ways to run away.

Now, as an adult, I use writing to run towards my ancestral community. It has become an archival endeavour, to write stories that record elements of our communal history, communal memory and our culture, traditions and aspirations as Sri Lankan Tamils. Writing is an endless love letter to my community and my children. My way of saying, as you go into the masala of the modern world, remember the richness of the ancient world you came from.

Writing is also an endless love letter to my ancestors, an act of gratitude and an act of contrition – I am grateful that because of their courage and sacrifices we were not subjected to our country’s civil war – and I am guilty that we escaped it while so many others didn’t. The final months of the war form an important theme in my work. This is because I am a Tamil mother whose own beautiful, living children look terrifyingly similar to those whose broken bodies were dragged from the war zone by women who look just like me.

In 2009, when the war came to an end and tens of thousands of Tamil people were slaughtered, and the international community largely looked away and the Tamil diaspora could not look away, I attended protests, signed petitions and railed against a world in which genocide can happen so easily and so silently. I did very little that was useful.

Writing fiction has given me a way to interrogate the injustices of my ancestral community that enrage me. Fiction enables me to explore what happens when power is absolute and impunity, rather than the rule of law, prevails. What happened to my ancestral community – and still happens – will not be adjudicated properly by political authority, so these issues can and should be explored through fiction.

Writing has given me so much. I write as an Australian trying to understand how we build our home here in Australia. And I write as a Tamil trying to understand how we lost our home there in Sri Lanka. It is the way I connect with my chosen community and my ancestral one. It is the way I express my love and yearning for both. It is the way I’ve made friends who understand the heartache and the joy of it all; who understand exactly what Neil Gaiman means, when he says, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

Shankari Chandran worked as a lawyer in the social justice field for over a decade. In 2017, she published her first two novels. Song of the Sun God (Perera-Hussein Publishing House) was short-listed for the Fairway National Literary Award (Sri Lanka, 2018). The Barrier (Pan Macmillan Australia) has been short-listed for the Norma K Hemming Award (2018) for speculative fiction. Both books have been optioned for television. Her new book, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens will be out in January 2022 with Ultimo Press.

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