Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

Shankari Chandran has won the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award (2023) for her novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, published by Ultimo Press.

Shankari Chandran speaks to Sharon Rundle in an exclusive interview for Confluence.

The Miles Franklin Literary Award recognises a novel of “the highest literary merit” that presents “Australian life in any of its phases”.

On winning the award, Chandran said: “It’s such an honour to win the Miles Franklin Literary Award, to be recognised among my Australian writing peers in this way is extraordinary. It means so much to me that Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, a novel that explores what it means to ‘be Australian’, has been recognised in this way.” Perpetual serves as Trustee for the Award.

Shankari Chandran, thank you for agreeing to do an interview for Confluence South Asian Perspectives. On 25 July, 2023, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens won the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin Award 2023, the ultimate accolade for a novel in Australia. Congratulations, how do you think that will affect your future as a writer?

It’s such an exciting time. I am still shocked about this – I hope it will take my work to a wider audience. Also, I’m stoked to get that sticker on my book.

I learnt a great deal about the Sri Lankan civil war from reading your books, you don’t shy away from the horrors and its inherent torture, trauma, misery, loss and suffering. I was impressed by the balance that you achieved, too. Are you a Sri Lankan Tamil?

I am ancestrally Sri Lankan Tamil. My parents migrated to the UK in the seventies when it became obvious that the country was heading towards massive unrest and most likely war. I was born in London and when they completed their studies, we migrated to Canberra where my brother was born. I think of myself as Australian Tamil. I was raised in Australia, and this is my home. For reasons I still don’t completely understand, I identify very closely with Jaffna, where my family is from, even though I have never lived there.

How did you research the subject? I think I’ve been studying Sri Lankan politics and Tamil history my whole life. Firstly, informally because many people in my family were involved in Tamil politics (from the diaspora), in activism and in supporting refugee resettlement outside of Sri Lanka. My extended family is large, and they are all storytellers so I’ve been literally taking notes since I was a child. 

At university I was particularly focused on post-colonialism, human rights, international humanitarian law, nationhood and self-determination, using South Asia and Sri Lanka as my case studies for major research projects. In my legal career, these thematics were a regular feature of my work and I was privileged to support the work of many extraordinary human rights organisations. Being a lawyer teaches you how to research with rigour. While academic texts are important, the social justice sector has taught me that the lived experiences of survivors are far more important. My First Nations friends have taught me that listening respectfully is the first and constant thing I must do. In my literary career, I’ve had the privilege to interview many survivors who want their stories told, and many Sri Lankan lawyers, journalists and activists who risk their lives to advocate for justice. 

How were you able to distil all this complex and intense information and use it in your narratives?

Thank you for saying that. I don’t know how successful I was at making the complex accessible, but I work very hard at it every day. I write the first draft of all my work for my children because I write with rage and love. Subsequent drafts (and there are many) are written the way I see and speak when I am pushing myself into dangerous territory but feel safe to explore it. It’s a conversation with the page, with people, with the past I am ambivalent about and the future I hope will exist for my children. 

Through your characters, you reveal the horrors of this war, how did you achieve this? Did you need to protect yourself while writing about such traumatic events?

The horror I write about is the horror experienced and survived by other people. I receive it respectfully, and I try to write their grief, loss, rage and resilience. It’s important to receive it, to try to hold it and try to honour it.

I write what I see. There’s a strong and understandable tendency for fiction to stay in the dark places and I try to face into those places truthfully. But I also want to embrace the love, humour and strength of our species. For me, writing is paying attention to all the detail, not just some, and then writing it down. If I’m not noticing and reflecting on what I’m noticing, then I can’t write well or at all. I hope I’m getting better at that. 

It is extremely painful. But it is someone else’s pain, and I only listen, read, reflect, imagine, and then write, what it is to experience that pain. I respect the people I write about and the people I write for, and I think that respect is my compass. It helps me work out how to write, what to include and what not to include.

After certain writing days, I need to count my children to make sure they’re safe. I sleep with one or more of them on those nights and feel their heartbeat, their breath and their warmth. I pray that they will be given all the years of their lives. I also watch Ted Lasso or TV like it because it makes me laugh, and that helps me re-anchor into the present and the joy of my current reality.

Remarkably, you also inject humour, love, affection, even playfulness all of which permeate the narratives and transform them. How did you manage to leaven the narratives in this way? 

I get asked this a lot and I’m so happy that people walk away from my stories having laughed. Life and people are all the things – we’re funny and loving and cruel and courageous. I don’t try to bring multi-dimensional and contradictory aspects of human nature into my stories, I’m just writing what I see, and human nature is multi-dimensional and contradictory. One of the best pieces of writing advice I was given is: don’t make stuff up, just write stuff down. This radically changed how I write. It helped me just close my eyes and write down what was happening around me and inside my mind.

Your characters read as fully formed individuals, with back stories, experiences, opinions, and expectations of themselves and each other. What was involved in creating such well imagined and well-drawn characters?

For Song of the Sun God, I drew heavily on the personalities of my extended family. For example, Nala and Rajan are based on my beautiful grandparents. The family are all delighted, proud and shy about it. Creating those characters was easy. The only exception to this is Dhara who is completely fictional, and based on Karna from the Mahabharatha, who I’ve thought about since childhood, like many Hindus. Dhara wrote herself – she just stormed onto the page and said Sun God was her story. 

For Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, I wrote my characters differently. Maya and Ruben came to me a long time ago and have been waiting inside my mind for me to bring them into the world. The other characters were deliberately and consciously created to serve the story Maya and Ruben wanted to tell. I kept writing “character profiles” on them to build them out because it was important to me that I didn’t let them slide into caricatures. I tried to allow them the same level of contradiction and complexity as the central characters. 

The Jaffna Library features prominently in your narratives (also in your Author’s Note at the end of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens), I learned a lot about the significance of the Jaffna Library as well. Co-incidentally, while I was compiling these questions, a post on the Facebook page of this very magazine, Confluence South Asian Perspectives, showed an image of the Jaffna Library.

The Jaffna Library is unique but was burned down with books of great significance lost forever, why was it important to you to write about that?

The burning of the Jaffna Public Library features heavily in Tamil history, our collective consciousness, and my creative writing. As an archive, the Jaffna Public Library told a story about the place of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. The political authority of the time wanted to suppress that narrative – and burning the archive was a quick and conclusive way to do it; an overt act of cultural erasure. I was fascinated by the way this erasure of the past was a way of erasing the place of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, in the present and for the future. I wanted to tell the story of how historic and cultural narratives are appropriated, manipulated and mythologised to tell a story about the origins and formation of a nation, and in turn a story about who owns that nation, who has the right to be there and who does not. The burning of the Jaffna Library helped me better understand the connection between the story of Sri Lanka and the modern nation state of Australia. 

What is the significance of including stories from the Mahabharata in your three books?

Hindu children are raised on stories from the Mahabharata. They are gripping stories that explore the big themes of life – love, family, duty, patriotism, betrayal and so on. They are also morality tales. We learn spirituality, religion, culture and values through these stories. They are a part of our everyday lives and therefore a part of my everyday writing.

How familiar are you with the places depicted in The Song of the Sun God — Jaffna, Colombo, and Cinnamon Gardens, and where the family of the main characters move to in Australia?

I was born in London, raised in Australia and lived for a decade in my 20s and 30s in London. I spent summers in Colombo as a child in my grandparents’ home in Cinnamon Gardens which was the basis for Nala and Rajan’s home in Song of the Sun God. I’ve been to Jaffna a few times for research. In some ways, I am most familiar with Jaffna and Colombo through the memories of my extended family that I have been receiving my entire life.

What is your experience of Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese immigrants fitting in to Australian society?

I can really only speak to my Tamil experience and perhaps those of my extended family, from my generation. Our parents wanted us to fit in so we could do well in our studies and jobs. At the same time they wanted to keep us close and hold onto the culture they were afraid of losing. We were in the middle, a generation trying to find its place in and across two very different worlds.

When my father finished reading Song of the Sun God, he said “You were listening” – for a while now, I’ve been listening to my community, reflecting on what we should learn from them, what we should give our own children and what we should leave behind. As a rule, I’m asking myself what serves the people I care about? What aspects of our culture give us insight, strength and courage – what bigotries and limitations is it time to transcend? I don’t think I’ve got the answers right, but I like those questions. 

In Chai Time in Cinnamon Gardens you don’t resile from showing how Australians perceive Sri Lankans and the misunderstandings, curiosity, awkwardness which result from that. What gave you the confidence to go ahead and write about it?

Thank you for saying that – Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is my love letter to my chosen home, Australia. I respect it and I wanted to explore its complexity, lovingly and to the best of my ability. After I finished the first draft, I tested it with readers I trust to be honest with me about its failings, and there were many. So, I edited it until I had achieved the respectful conversation I wanted to have through this book. I think when we trust each other, we feel safer in our discomfort together.

You also portray the depths of racist behaviour – how it feeds on itself, which leads to worse abuse, revenge, and criminal acts being perpetrated on people of colour and from different cultures and beliefs. Why did you decide this was important? 

If we don’t talk about racism and sit in the pain and dehumanisation of it, we can’t even begin to address it. In Sri Lanka, that approach led to war and genocide. In Australia, we have the rule of law to protect us and an opportunity every day to remake ourselves better than we were the day before. Storytelling and fiction should play a part in that.

No one likes being criticised about anything. But when we’re told we’re perpetrators of racism or complicit in it, we completely stop listening and react even more defensively than usual. There was only one book club (face-to-face) where the book clubbers were deeply offended by Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens and its suggestion that there is racism in Australia. I tried to create a safe space for a respectful conversation. It didn’t work but I learned a lot from that encounter. It felt like a scene from Chai Time and reminded me that this book has a place in conversations and with time, more people who disagree with each other could have those conversations, instead of just people who agree with each other or with me.

I was afraid of that reaction, I’ve been scared to write about race for a long time but I tried to reassure myself that no one would read this book so I shouldn’t worry about other people. By the time I wrote Chai Time, The Barrier (my second novel) hadn’t sold well, and my third manuscript had been rejected. Chai Time was my fourth manuscript and I figured it wouldn’t be published or read by people other than family and friends. This gave me the freedom to write honestly. I just said what I wanted to say. Then during the writing of the manuscript, I was scared I wasn’t smart enough to do it properly. I had to remind myself often that (a) The Bhagavad Gita just instructs us to do our best and move on; and (b) Chai Time was unlikely to find a publisher so there was no need to overthink it.

How do you ‘see’ your readers? Do you think about your readership? What comments do you receive from your readers?

I see readers as people I want to have a conversation with through my books. In this way, I’m not just writing the book to allow the story and characters to live in the world. I’m serving the story but I’m also talking to readers; creating connection and community with them. The comments from readers and book clubs have been really wonderful. People have embraced Chai Time in a way that has reassured me.

The Barrier moves us forward to the near future of 2025 and beyond, with scenarios of World War Righteous, and diseases infiltrating the country giving rise to the ‘Great Purge’. The impact of faith and a belief in God is also examined. What caused you to turn to the genre of speculative fiction and raise these issues? 

After writing Song of the Sun God, I really needed to rest and distance myself from the pain of it all. I love dystopic fiction, it’s a guilty pleasure for me in books and film. Writing The Barrier was a strange but effective way of relaxing. With The Barrier, I let go of history and reality and allowed my imagination to run wild. In the end though, dystopic fiction just speaks to the realities (and horrors) of our past and present and imagines a future where we haven’t learned from either. So, The Barrier, my most fictional work, was firmly grounded in reality. I enjoyed using fiction to explore issues I’m interested in: the hierarchies of political power, the impact of Western imperialism, the way colonial powers draw lines across maps and divide the spoils of war, the erosion of the rule of law and civil liberties, fundamentalism, faith and the vilification of particular religions and people.

You would have had to do complex research into technical and medical aspects, data collection, new  technology and viruses. You mention that your siblings ‘patiently explained the finer points of immunology, cellular biology, epi-demiology and “other -ologies” to you. How did you find that ‘learning curve’? 

My brother Narendran is a paediatrician who has also studied public health and epidemiology. My sister-in-law Rachel has a PhD in immunology. Both are patient teachers and enjoyed the challenge of using real science as a springboard into fiction. The first draft of The Barrier involved so much studying and learning that I gave myself a stress rash. But once I’d understood the ‘ologies’ better and felt I could converse in them with moderate competence, my stress (and rash) subsided. I was more comfortable with the neuroscience because my father is a neurosurgeon with a strong interest in the neuroscience of faith. We grew up listening to him think aloud about that. So, I’m more comfortable than competent with the brain. 

Are reviewers and readers sufficiently aware of the Sri Lankan war and its impact on the country and its people? 

Overall, readers and reviewers have embraced the books and their purpose. They’ve been incredibly warm and enthusiastic about all of them. Readers and reviewers often tell me that they didn’t know very much about Sri Lanka and the books have helped them learn. I think we’re all the same on that – I know so little about the world and rely on books to tell me, remind me, connect me, motivate me to learn more, and inspire me to be more active and less passive in the world.

It’s painful and sometimes we’re embarrassed and ashamed we don’t know enough, or we feel guilty we survived. Again, books are a safe way to learn and access this shared history and culture. I particularly love it when young Sri Lankans tell me that the book helped them connect with their culture. And I love it when elderly Sri Lankans tell me they’re proud of me.

Did publishers show an awareness of the subject and content? Were they encouraging about your novels, or reluctant to take on such sensitive material? 

Before I got an agent, I was approaching agents and publishers completely randomly, effectively cold calling them or trying to get introductions through friends. In retrospect, I approached publishers with my manuscript way too early – I was too impatient to be published and should have held back until I had my best draft ready because generally with publishers, you’ll only get one crack at it. Song of the Sun God (which I finished in 2014) was rejected by Australian publishers at that time for not being Australian enough. Publishers felt they couldn’t sell it in this market even though they liked it. So, I ended up publishing Song of the Sun God in Sri Lanka first, with a small publisher there. Years later after it was listed, had a TV option on it and Chai Time had come out (with Ultimo Press), Song of the Sun God was published (also by Ultimo Press) here in Australia. I was so happy for it. It felt like the book had finally come home.

By the time I’d finished writing Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens (end of 2020), publishers were publishing more diverse writers. There was much greater openness and boldness, and Robert Watkins (Publishing Director, Ultimo Press) has led a lot of that, nurturing the careers of many great Australian authors. My agent approached Robert and he understood my work immediately. He’s been encouraging from the start, and I adore him for it. I also really trust and respect his judgement, so when he critiques my work, I try to listen.

Are you happy with the way in which your books have been marketed? 

I love the way Ultimo Press markets my work – they understand it and respect it and their marketing reflects that. They also work super hard at it.

You were a guest speaker at the recent Sydney Writers Festival, how did that go? What kind of reception did the audience give you? Did they appreciate what you had to say?

The Sydney Writers Festival was insane. I got to be on a panel with Shehan Karunatilaka (Seven Moons of Mali, Booker Prize Winner 2022) and S.Shakthidharan (The Jungle and the Sea, Counting and Cracking – his mother, the legendary dancer Anandavalli took his place). Thanks to them it was a full house. The crowd was amazing – people were receptive, curious, reflective and really enthusiastic about our work. 

Finally, what are you writing about following the publication of your three books? What kind of narrative can your readers expect next?

I’m working on another literary fiction novel about a woman held captive by people and place.

Thank you for your time and generosity and for being ‘In conversation’.

Shankari Chandran was raised in Canberra Australia. She spent a decade in London, working as a lawyer in the social justice field. She eventually returned home to Australia where she now lives with her husband, four children and their cavoodle puppy. (from The Barrier front pages)

The Song of the Sun God, published by Ultimo Press an imprint of Hardie Grant Publishing (Australia 2022); Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens published by Ultimo Press an imprint of Hardie Grant Publishing (Australia 2022); The Barrier, published by Pan Macmillan (Australia 2017).

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is in bookstores in the UK, including Waterstones and Blackwells. Song of the Sun God will be there by the end of the year. Everything else (and everywhere else) is via Amazon for now.

Dr Sharon Rundle Institute of Professional Editors. Chair, University of Technology Sydney Alumni Writers’ Network. Co-editor of several published anthologies of short fiction.Her stories, essays and articles appear in books, anthologies, journals, magazines, and have been broadcast on radio. She has taught at universities and presented conference papers in Australia, the UK and India. Sharon was a finalist in the Indian Business and Community Awards 2023. She encourages international people to people links while nurturing innovative writing.