“Race and racial identity and what it means to be Australian and who gets to decide that … that has been a part of my life here, for my entire life …,” says Western Sydney author Shankari Chandran. “I’ve thought about it a lot but never had the courage to write about it.”
Chandran’s third book, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, is the project with which she’s found her courage – and the move has paid off.
Chandran has been awarded $60,000 as winner of this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award. She joins a select list of Australian authors, including Melissa Lucashenko, Amanda Lohrey, Kim Scott and Tim Winton – all the way back to Patrick White, who was the inaugural winner in 1957.
Australian racism and Sri Lanka’s civil war
The Miles Franklin judges are not the first to recognise Chandran’s literary talent.
Her debut novel, Song of the Sun God, was longlisted for the international Dublin Literary Award, shortlisted for Sri Lanka’s Fairway National Literary Awards and is currently being adapted for a television series. Her second novel, The Barrier, was shortlisted for the Norma K. Hemming Award for Speculative Fiction.
A lawyer, Chandran spent two decades working in social justice reform. As a writer, her interests lie in dispossession, genocide and the ongoing impacts of colonialism.
“Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens follows the lives of residents and staff at a nursing home in Western Sydney,” explains Chandran. “It’s set against the backdrop of rising racism in contemporary Australia, but it also flashes back to the residents’ ancestral homeland of Sri Lanka, decades before, during the country’s civil war.”
The novel was inspired by Chandran’s observations of rising tensions around race and racism in contemporary Australia’s culture and politics. It’s also informed by the author’s memories of her grandmother, whose experiences of migration and a childhood spent in Sri Lanka were relayed during Chandran’s regular visits to a nursing home not unlike the one in the novel.
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is one of a number of recent books set in or inspired by life in Western Sydney to be widely and deservedly celebrated. Among them is Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs, which was a finalist for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award.
Ahmad is the founding director of the indefatigable Sweatshop Literacy Movement, based in Western Sydney, which is committed to empowering culturally and linguistically diverse communities through literature. Chandran has contributed to two of their anthologies: most recently, Another Australia, edited by Sweatshop’s general manager Winnie Dunn.
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is a deserving winner of the Miles Franklin. It does not shy away from violence or controversy.
Nor does the author hold back on representing and ruminating on racism, its origins, the systems and assumptions that sustain it, and its impact on individuals, families and communities. Chandran’s characters are complex and often conflicted, their backstories moving and plausible.
Vessel for uneasy truths
Many of us with migrant backgrounds will be grateful for the author’s frank take on the way experiences of trauma in the country of origin can reverberate through a family in the adopted country, for years to come. This is not easy material and fiction sometimes gives us just the right vessel for carrying uneasy truths.
My chief criticism of the book is that there’s a lot going on – sometimes too much at once. The privileging of fast-moving plot complications over opportunities for deeper contemplation and attention to sensory detail is particularly difficult to navigate in the first quarter. There, we follow five distinct perspectives – plus an omniscient narrator, multiple flashbacks and a dizzying mix of scenes, including extreme race-based violence.
My message to potential readers is: keep going. The novel’s project is consistent, the author’s attention to plot pays off in spades and by the time you reach the end, you are in awe of Chandran’s skills at both plot design and the handling of complex themes. The book is impeccably researched and ultimately hopeful. Heavily action and dialogue based, it would make great television.
Book club members of Australia, it’s time to talk frankly and at length about race and racism in our own neighbourhoods.
Shankari Chandran has plucked up the courage to deliver us this extraordinary book, right on song. And the Miles Franklin judges have applauded her for it.
Our job comes next: read and discuss widely.
This article was first published on The Conversation