Australian-Tamil Lawyer And Author Shankari Chandran Discusses Her Impactful Career Including Her Latest Book “Chai Time At Cinnamon Gardens”

Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how that played a part in you becoming an author.

My family has been dispossessed by colonisation and ethnic persecution. My parents were forced to leave and create a new home.  My brother and I were the first generation to be raised in the safety and security 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 and 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.

Congrats on the recent launch of your newest book “Chai Time At Cinnamon Gardens”.  What made you decide to write this book?  

Thank you so much! I wrote this story because I wanted to interrogate what it means to be Australian and who gets to decide this. Australian stories are stories written by Australians. I’m Australian and this particular story explores the lives and voices of people on the margins of that definition, but whose lives and voices are no less important than others. It explores the way we shape our new home and the challenges we face in asserting our right to be here. It was difficult for me to write it because I had to allow myself to critique racism in Australia and I feel pressured to be constantly and unequivocally grateful for the refuge we’ve been given here. But I think that’s the only way you can have conversations about things you want to improve – you name them respectfully, you ask questions, you tell stories and you listen to the stories of others.

What do you hope a reader takes away after finishing your book?

I’d like readers to fall in love with the residents and staff of Cinnamon Gardens, listen to their stories, and value the gift of storytelling. I’d like readers to take away a different perspective about life in Australia and an awareness that their lived experience is not the same as others. 

I hope readers will build connections and empathy for these characters who have been dispossessed by war, come to a new country and despite the challenges of navigating that diasporic experience, create a new home that they love and cherish. I also hope you laugh a lot – the residents at Cinnamon Gardens do.

What did you learn from the experience of writing and publishing previous books like “Song of the Sun God” that you applied to your newest book “Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens”?

I learned that fiction is a really important way of exploring the truth and can be used to interrogate justice, especially at times and in places where the institutions of power do not allow the truth to be told or justice to prevail. In Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, I wanted to look at race and identity in both my chosen home, Australia, and my ancestral home, Sri Lanka. In both places, historical and cultural narratives have been appropriated, exploited and crafted to tell a story, about the origins and formation of those nations. In turn, this tells a story to the people of those countries and the world, about who owns those nations, who has the right to be there and who does not. I wanted to use fiction to challenge those stories with a story of my own. Writing Song of the Sun God and its long journey to publication, taught me to be brave and resilient and to just keep writing. It taught me to honour the bravery of writers I admire and to try to use fiction in the same way.

How long did it take you to write this book?  What was the most challenging part about the journey?

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens took me two years to write. I was writing on a part-time basis, around my other job as a pro bono lawyer for a law firm, running its national law reform program, as well as the needs of my four children. The most challenging part, aside from creating and taking advantage of small pockets of time, is keeping faith with your story. Writers write into a void. We don’t know if what we produce will be any good, we don’t know if we will ever be able to get it published and our writing is often regarded as an out-of-control hobby that does not pay the bills. The hardest part is keeping on going.

How do you balance your time & attention between writing and your Pro Bono Lawyer?  How do the two roles complement one another?

There is none – I’m always struggling for time and headspace to do either role well. My parents are really hard working and disciplined, and while I try hard to be like them, I really wish I had more of their resilience and stamina.

My work as a lawyer directly feeds into my fiction. Story-telling often starts from a place of anger for me – I write about the injustices that make me angry.  My fiction draws on all the things I’ve learned from being a lawyer and all the human rights lawyers and activists I’ve been privileged to meet and work with.

Chai Time builds on my previous work which was a more direct interrogation of the genocide of the Tamil people. This new book is more firmly located in our new home Australia, but flashes back to our ancestral home, Sri Lanka.

It takes a look at the way race is framed in Australia and who frames it (to the inclusion of some and the exclusion others). It looks at the way ‘freedom of speech’ is used as a shield to protect those that want to express their bigotry. Then, when their bigotry is called out or when our failings as a nation are critiqued, those same people, drop freedom of speech and pick up the toxic narrative of ‘being unAustralian’ to vilify, punish and silence the people who dared to criticise them. 

In this novel I particularly enjoyed taking real-life rightwing public discourse (also known as hate speech) and putting it into the mouths of ‘fictional’ rightwing-but-mystifyingly-well-respected-and highly-paid shock jocks (also known as racists and misogynists). This novel gave me a chance to fight back by writing back. 

What advice would you give to someone out there considering writing a book?

Stop considering and start writing. And then, don’t stop writing.

How do you leverage social media (if at all) as an author?  How else do you promote your book?

I am pretty rubbish at social media. My teenage daughter helps me with my posts, and my teenage son censors them because he’s trying to keep our family off the grid. Thankfully my publisher, Ultimo Press knows exactly what they’re doing with social media so I just try to follow their lead. My parents drive around Tamil functions with a box of my books in the boot of their car. They are my most passionate promoters. Apparently, they also spam their old school network (eg. St John’s College, Jaffna), all of their batch mates and all of our extended family on the family Whatsapp group. 

What kind of other opportunities has being an author opened for you unexpectedly?

Being an author has introduced me to so many Tamil people all over the world who want to share their feelings about to my work and who want to tell me their stories. It’s an honour to receive the stories of others. 

Can you tell us about a failure you’ve experienced in the last 5 years and what you learned from it?

My writing career has been one of regular rejection and failure – it’s also been one long exercise in self-belief and the power of a supportive team. My family, friends and often strangers who believe in my writing, reach out to remind me why I do it and why writing is important.

What role has your family played in the choices that you’ve made in your life so far?

My family has had a huge influence in the choices I’ve made. My parents are both doctors.  They’re both very community-minded and helpful people. I’m not that self-sacrificing but they raised us to feel a sense of duty to others and a responsibility to give back. My parents approach the world with curiosity and humility. They also taught us to be grateful. I hope that the way I raise my children, the careers I’ve chosen, and the values I live by reflect them. 

My books are my gift to my children, and while they might ignore everything I’ve ever told them through these books, as is the way of all children, I hope they see my love for them and the sense of wonder I feel at their existence, that lives in every page and drives so many of the choices I make in life. 

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