Shankari Chandran on ‘Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens’
Shankari Chandran’s third novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens (Ultimo, January) centres on the Cinnamon Gardens Nursing Home and the community fostered by the Tamil family who run it. Set in the fictional Sydney suburb of Westgrove and exploring ideas of community, racism and white male fragility, Chai Time is ‘quiet but firm in its messaging and condemnations’ and filled reviewer Marina Sano’s heart ‘with both hope and rage’. She spoke to Chandran about her new novel.
Chai Time focuses on the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Sydney. Have you been able to feel represented in the same way as that in the past, or have you filled a gap for yourself?
Books are my most comfortable entry point into the world. I’m that person who ghosts social events to read. Growing up, I didn’t see myself in books, aside from Hindu mythology, and it’s questionable how much I have in common with the average Hindu goddess. Stories of ‘other Australians’ were not thought of as an Australian experience, as though, like some kind of cultural Highlander, There Could Be Only One. Lack of representation diminished everything from my image of myself to my sense of belonging here.
In my teens, my family went to Chennai (South India), and my father took me to the book store, Higginbotham’s. I discovered a universe of brown writers who interrogated and celebrated the lives of brown people—many explored the diasporic experience. Finding myself in literature, I felt seen, understood and valued. Reading this work gave me the confidence to write, a sense that my own stories were valid. My books try to write myself into Australia’s cultural space. They recognise that we (Australian Tamils) are here, they grieve the loss of our ancestral home and they celebrate how we help shape our new home.
The race-based violence that occurs in the novel reminded me a lot of the rise in anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic. Was this something you were thinking about?
100%. In the so-called West, communities of colour occupy a very vulnerable place. During the pandemic, the rise in physical and non-physical violence against Asian communities made me wonder about the nature of racial bigotry and the constant creation of ‘other’ it leads to. The bigotry is there, often quiet and latent, waiting to be catalysed by an existential threat, whether that threat is a real one or a perceived one. It made me wonder whether what we were seeing was a ‘rise in anti-Asian sentiment’ or simply a more confident expression of a pre-existing sentiment that now, because of the pandemic, had a justification for manifesting itself. Did the pandemic exacerbate bigotry or did it simply reveal it? Watching what was happening in the real world inspired me to explore those issues in the fictional world of Westgrove, although the inciting incident in the book is not quite apocalypse-level.
The storyline involving the character of Gareth is infuriating. Do you think he (and others like him) will actually ever learn from the consequences of their actions?
Is Gareth a lost cause? I honestly don’t know. For me, he sits on a spectrum of bigotry where conscious and unconscious bias, casual racism, verbal abuse, employment practices, physical violence and so on are all varied manifestations of the same problem.
When writing Gareth, I asked myself: What ‘kind’ of racist was he, what put him on that spectrum and why did he move along it? How we choose to portray racists in fiction really intrigues me. There are so many representations and tropes: the genocidal racist beyond redemption; the cantankerous elderly racist with a heart of gold; the racist who sheds his generational bigotry thanks to a new friendship, who often overlaps with the racist-turned-white-saviour; the ex-soldier racist whose racism is rooted in the trauma of war; the racist who realises he really does like Indian food and therefore Indians, etc.
Constructing Gareth was at times fast-paced, when he was drawn from my lived experience, and at times painfully slow, when I wanted readers to connect with him so they could connect with the racist inside themselves.
The depiction of Maya’s writing career is so painfully accurate, with regards to how exclusive the publishing industry can be. Still, do you think she would be willing to try again under her own name?
Thank you for this question because it acknowledges the experience of writers of colour in this public space—your question recognises that Maya’s experience is not just her experience, but a shared and deeply problematic one. It impacts Maya’s career, and it impacts the kinds of stories that all of us get to read and be enriched by. Maya will absolutely write under her own name. She will go on to tell the stories she wants to tell, in her own voice. It takes her decades to get to that place of confidence, and while the outcome of a published novel is very gratifying, there are other things she values more—including the exhilaration of the process and the validation of telling the truth on paper.
Do you have any words of advice or healing for anyone who hasn’t felt welcome in their chosen community?
I don’t feel qualified to offer advice to anyone on anything except how to write a novel in your head while people are discussing the scheduling conflicts involved in your child’s new football draw.
James Baldwin talks about loving America so much that he insists ‘on the right to criticize her perpetually’. I come back to this quote when I doubt my right to interrogate the community I’ve come from and the one I choose to call home. My work often starts in a place of anger—I am angry about the alienation of different kinds of Australians. But loving Australia enables me to produce my best work about it. Loving Australia empowers me to look at it critically and respectfully; it allows me claim that right to write, for myself.
Healing and belonging comes through writing, for me. It’s therapeutic and mindful; it keeps me focused on how I can make my part of the world better, instead of spiralling into anxiety and anger about everything that’s wrong with it. I process pain, alienation and injustice by writing about it. I appreciate that makes my novels sound like a real laugh.
Read Marina Sano’s review of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens here.