Shankari Chandran talks Eelam Tamil lineages & archiving untold histories

Shankari Chandran

Shankari Chandran talks Eelam Tamil lineages, archiving untold histories and her new novel ‘Safe Haven’

Samantha Haran

In 1981, the Jaffna Public Library was engulfed in flames. It was an act of state-sanctioned violence, that sought to eviscerate the Tamil historical collections that lined the library’s walls—one horrific act in the many that make up the long, enduring history of Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka. For the Tamil people in the country, the library “contained not only their history but also their communal memory… it represented how far they had come and gave them hope for how far they would go.” These words come from the ever-eloquent author, Shankari Chandran, an Australian-Tamil writer whose rich and enamouring novels are a form of communal memory-making too. Like the Jaffna Public Library, Chandran’s fiction seeks to archive the histories, folklores and triumphs of the Tamil people—preserving them for a new generation. 

Chandran is the author of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, Song of the Sun God and The Barrier. She won the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2023 for Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens. Song of the Sun God is currently being adapted for television. Shankari Chandran’s short stories have been published in the critically acclaimed anthologies Another Australia and Sweatshop Women: Volume Two. Her latest novel, Safe Haven, is out now with Affirm Press (as of May 2024). 

Recently, I had the honour of sitting down with Chandran to discuss lineages of Tamil storytelling from past to present. 

Samantha Haran (SH): When asked about why you write what you write, you so often talk about both your ancestors and your children. Your books themselves are also very much about lineages, what we inherit and what it means to pass down. If you could pick just one thing, what do you hope that your four children will take away from your books?

Shankari Chandran (SC): I hope that my children will take away from my books that they come from a wonderful, resilient, powerful ancestry. That includes religion, spirituality, culture, values, foods, ways of living, and ways of being together, of which they should be proud. And that they should look at and draw from, as they go into the modern world and navigate a changing and difficult world that they are presented with. So, to draw from that richness, and to utilise and integrate it into their lives.

SH: Pivoting to a different kind of lineage—you often speak with reverence for the many writers that shaped you and your work. I am in awe of how your literary knowledge shines through your work. Whose work do you see your books in conversation with?

SC: That’s an interesting question, because I never feel well-read enough. I always feel that I’m so behind on my reading, both in terms of contemporary reading and reading of classics from around the world. But I would love to see my work in conversation with Arundhati Roy. I have a huge admiration for her political and moral courage. I love the storytelling of Jhumpa Lahiri. And I think that she’s able to really capture the beauty of the east and make it accessible to everyone, both the East and the West. 

From an Australian perspective, I love the candid and self-interrogation of Michael Mohammed Ahmed. I think the way that he turns his critical eye on all of Australian society, including his own ancestral community within Australia. He does not spare anyone, including Lebanese-Australians. And he does that with real vigour, and courage. And I admire that enormously. I love the intellectualism of Yumna Kassab, and that she’s intellectual without losing the emotional content. I think that’s so hard to do, and she does it so well. I love the moral questions posed by Richard Flanagan. He is one of my favourites, in part, because his writing challenges us to be better. 

And I’m going to stop there because I could just keep going.

SH: Writing about any sort of history is a heavy task that comes with responsibility, but this is especially so in the Tamil context, where our people have been greatly fractured geographically and temporally by genocide, state violence and repression. Our communities are now scattered across the globe as diaspora—buried, erased and distorted. How do you see the role of literature in stitching a people, a culture, back together? 

SC: So I wrote an essay for the Griffith Review, called An Archive for the Dispossessed. And it is exactly about this: that justice has to be delivered by the institutions of justice. Our community ancestrally in Sri Lanka, and around the world, demands justice and is highly unlikely to ever receive it. And that is on Sri Lanka, and it is on the international community. That said, I asked myself, what is it that I can and should do? What is it that I owe to my people having left Sri Lanka and had the privilege of a safe and secure life in the West? And what is it that literature can do? 

I think that storytelling is a really powerful way, particularly in the context of communities and cultures and peoples whose own capacity to tell the truth has been limited, if not erased, by oppressive regimes, by war, displacement, and genocide. Literature has an important role to play in telling those untold stories, in elevating them to a platform both within their countries of origin and globally, and reaching out to future generations of Tamil people. 

As we drift further and further away from our own actual ancestral homeland, how do we keep our identity together as a people? Literature is one way, not the only way, and perhaps not the most important way, but it is an important way of doing that. I really want to contribute to that aspiration through my writing.

SH: Reading your work has been so meaningful for me as a diasporic Eelam Tamil person. I am moved by the way your books capture not only the erased political history of Tamil Eelam, but also the culture of its people—from casual references to foods like idiyappam, affectionate terms like kanna, and rituals like Hindu altars. I see so much of my experience in your stories. Are there any Tamil writers that have done the same for you?

SC: Yes, definitely. I find the work of Anuk Arudpragasam and his exploration of trauma and the war incredibly powerful. Then there are older writers such as Ambalavaner Sivanandan. His book When Memory Dies was a very early novel in this space and was really motivating for me and really insightful for me about what literature could do. 

A lot of Tamil writers write in Tamil and I therefore do not have access to them because I have not learned my language… and I feel a grief around that. In my own day-to-day, my language of thinking, dreaming and speaking is almost 99% English. But there are certain things that I either feel fully in Tamil or feel in a mix of Tamil and English — like I call my husband kunju (I just sort of shortened it to kunj). And so, there are ways in which the Tamil language still infuses my thinking and my speaking and my dreaming. It’s also normal for my extended family to use Tamil as a primary language, or English as a primary language interspersed with lots of Tamil. And I want to write that as normal, because that is my normal. And my normal might be different from, for example, Richard Flanagan’s normal, but Richard creates space in his writing for my normal and I do for him. And that’s what literature can do for a reader, introduce them to the new normal. Or rather, introduce them to the many normals that exist in the world.

SH: In writing these incredible stories about fictional Tamil families, you draw from very real histories. You have also spoken about how extended family members of yours have deeply shaped your work. How do you approach telling other people’s stories? What ethical, moral and political considerations go into it?

SC: So, I am actually guided by a few things. One is that I’m a lawyer and I’ve studied ethics. Two is that there are ethical frameworks provided by journalistic associations around how research, sources and witnesses testimony is treated. Three is I’ve done training in trauma informed care. 

I also do a huge amount of research, from the internet, from databases and from literature and academic texts that already exists in the public space. There is a lot of testimony that already exists in human rights reports. Writing a novel today is very different from writing a novel 20 years ago. 

I try to bring all of that and my own moral compass, which I hope is still effective, to the conversations that I have with people. I will only utilise stories where I’ve received fully informed and prior consent, as well as ongoing consent (expressions I learnt from Terri Janke, who utilises them in her Indigenous cultural, intellectual property protocols). I talk to people about the information that they’re giving me and I ask how do they want me to use it, if at all?

With the stories of war and untold stories, I never ask someone to tell me their story, because these people have lived and survived terrible trauma. It is not my place to ask for that, and I do not ever want to trigger somebody. However, when people hear I am writing a book about Sri Lanka, they often approach me on their own, wanting to share their story with me. And so, we have a conversation. I triple check that they understand the experience we’re about to have (i.e. that they are talking to me about an experience that is traumatic for them), and I confirm how it is that they are comfortable for that information to be used. I think it’s very important to hold the stories of other people—in your body, in your hands, and in your work—it is a responsibility. I try very hard to honour that.

SH: Something that is very powerful about all your books is the way your stories unfold. It is never linear. I leave the last page of each chapter deeply impressed with how the parts impactfully came together. How do you approach the process of planning and writing a multi-layered epic story, like Song of the Sun God or Chai Time, which has so many timelines spanning so many generations and so many characters?

SC: I do tend to write in a linear fashion, because it’s easier for my brain to do the first draft in that manner. With Chai Time, I started the story with the attack on Ruben in the playground, actually, which is not the first scene in the end of the structural edit. My editor suggested that we move that a little bit deeper into the novel, and that I write a prologue as a gentle exploration of the nursing home from a kind of omniscient narrator perspective. I loved those two suggestions and I think they made a huge difference to the novel. 

At the end of the first, robust draft, I spread out a printed copy of every chapter on my kitchen table. Using handwritten library cards, I summarised each chapter and flashback. I spread these cards out as well to form a ‘timeline,’ so I could see the story holistically, and decide whether the timeline was working, both in terms of the present scenes and the flashbacks to the past. Using this set up of the library cards, I was able to physically move the timeline around. Every book has a kind of internal logic and every world has internal consistency that you want to maintain. I literally picked up chapters and scenes and flashbacks, and moved them around to see if I could make them work better to improve the flow and the logic. That’s a sort of overview of my process. 

SH: Your stories are about both Sri Lanka and Australia and you highlight how both these places fabricated a false national identity made possible only through genocide, repression and violence (against Tamil and First Nations people respectively). How has the work of First Nations writers, scholars and activists in Australia shaped your own work?

SC: So much. I feel so privileged to learn from the writing of First Nations writers including Melissa Lucashenko, Terri Janki, Larissa Behrendt, Tara June Winch and Bruce Pascoe. So much powerful advocacy through storytelling. Reclaiming of history and cultural stories, and stories of identity and place and belonging through fiction. I have learned so much from it. Certainly, when I was growing up, I learned the wrong history, I learned the incorrect history. Then from university onwards, I was slowly learning a truer history, as Bruce Pascoe would say. At the same time, I think my education really only accelerated when I was then working with First Nations activists and organisations and also reading First Nations literature. It’s an experience that I’ve only really engaged with since my 40s. I feel I am shamefully late in my education as an Australian citizen. But First Nations writers, scholars and activists have deeply shaped my understanding of Australia, Australian identity, and history. And the primary place that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have in this country, and the ongoing impact of colonisation on their communities.

SH: In Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, you write: “possessing land is nine tenths of the law, but possessing history is nine tenths of the future.” I’m also trained in law and when I first read the line, it captured my attention immediately. I wanted to ask you how you thought of this particular line, that involved tinkering with this common legal doctrine?

SC: Years ago, in 2016, I wrote a thriller set in 2009 within Sri Lanka (that novel, Unfinished Business, was a manuscript, and has only been published as an Audible Original, but will come out in print form at the end of this year, which I’m super excited about). There was a scene in that where the two characters were talking about the role of ownership of land, and in sovereignty and asserting sovereignty. The role of history and the role of this idea of who came first, and who was able to then assert military power. That all these different things operate to give a people territorial legitimacy. Or to negate their legitimacy. 

Many years later, I was writing Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens. At that time, I had this idea in my head, (related to that Unfinished Business dialogue) about ‘temple archaeology’; which temple was built first, who controls these historic sites in order to control history, in order to control the story of who belongs there. As a lawyer, I was then also thinking about the legal understanding of belonging, and how ‘possession’ of the land is considered nine tenths of the law of property. And then I thought, gosh, that really connects. You’ve got possession, and then you’ve got history, and the mythology of history. And who tells history and the impact that that has had in Sri Lanka in terms of discourses of belonging—whether it is a Sinhala or Tamil island. 

Deeper into the writing and working with First Nations communities in this country, they were telling me directly about the ways in which, in this place, their history had been erased and the impact that that had had on their positionality within Australia and sovereignty. It reminded me of the writings of Ghassan Hage. He writes about how there is this fantasy of Australia being a ‘White country’ that was ‘empty’ and then settled. Even though we know that that’s not true, there still remains the question: what was the impact of that particular mythology on subsequent generations of Australians and subsequent generations of the Australian identity? And the impact that that then has on the role of ‘multiculturalism’ within the Australian identity? All these thoughts came together through the voice of that historian in the book. 

I love the writing experience, because I love that readers often think that we have control over it, because there are times when things just happen. And I look at it and go, wow, that’s really cool. I love that. Thank you characters. And thank you creative energy for giving me that. Thank you universe for giving me that.

SH: Your new book, Safe Haven is one that feels much more rooted in the Australian context (rather than split evenly between here in Sri Lanka, like many of your previous works). Safe Haven is, amongst many other things, a damning critique of Australia’s refugee detention system. What drew you to write about this topic?

SC: I was inspired by two real life cases. One was the Biloela family—the terrible injustice that they faced, how their community rose up to advocate for them and the way that they advocated for themselves. I thought it was extraordinary. They were so courageous and resilient, both them and their community. It created a national movement around keeping them in Australia and returning them to their home Biloela. The second case was that of Para Paheer and Ali Corke, who wrote a memoir together called The Power of Good People. Paheer was a refugee fleeing Sri Lanka. His boat was rescued by Norwegian tankers and he goes to Christmas Island. Ali Corke is a mother and a grandmother in country Victoria, who is part of an association of rural Australians who write to, care for and communicate with asylum seekers in detention centres. This group helps refugees to navigate the migration system, and, at the very least, maintains connection and relationship with them while they are in such terrible isolation. And I thought, Australians are incredible. 

The detention centre says something profoundly bad about this country, and what we’re willing to accept. At the same time, there are Australians across Australia, who advocate and work hard for something better and something different. I wanted to critique the detention system. But I also wanted, more importantly, to elevate and celebrate the generosity that we as people are capable of. The goodness that we’re capable of. 

I was recently reading about something called ‘solar punk’. It is a subgenre of speculative fiction that is, as I understand it, about writing a future in which we fulfill our potential greatness. And I was really inspired by that. Because I thought, it’s so easy to descend into the darkness. And to stay there. But what if? What if I looked at another part of who we are and what it means to be human?

Shankari Chandran’s latest novel, Safe Haven, is out now. She will be appearing at Sydney Writers’ Festival May 20 to 26th. You can find out more about Shankari’s work via her website.

This interview was made possible by Diversity Arts Australia’s StoryCasters program in partnership with Multicultural NSW and supported by Sweatshop.

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To address the under-representation of young culturally diverse content producers and critics in the arts and creative sectors, Diversity Arts Australia developed StoryCasters. We aimed to address the lack of cultural diversity in the writing, screen, media, podcasting and music industries, and to form communities of practice for diverse content creators.

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