How do we build community and a sense of self after loss, especially the kind of loss that echoes for generations?
In episode 48, James and I talk to Australian author Shankari Chandran about her latest novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, and how her efforts to find connection in the writing community echo her Tamil family’s work to build community after being dispossessed from their homeland in the Sri Lankan civil war.
As she writes, ‘Possession of land is nine-tenths of the law. Possession of history is nine-tenths of the future.’
Shankari Chandran was raised in Canberra, Australia. She spent a decade in London, working as a lawyer in the social justice field, before returning to Australia, where she now lives with her husband and children. She is the author of two previous novels, Song of the Sun God, and The Barrier, and has been shortlisted for the Fairway National Literary Award and the Norma K Hemming Award for speculative fiction.
In this episode, we discuss the reshaping of historical narratives, how families live with the legacy of genocide and dispossession, and Shankari’s struggle to find a publisher for her novels in Australia, and how her writing has helped her find a sense of community and connection.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – A Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (from ep 18) – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall – David Heska Wanbli Weiden (from ep 40) – Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian translated by Mabel Lee – Amnesia Road by Luke Stegemann (from ep 26)
At 2.16 am on 23 November 1986, a car bomb exploded at 44 Caroline Street in Melbourne, outside the Turkish consulate in South Yarra.
Because it was the middle of the night, the only person injured was the bomber himself – he died, blown to pieces by his own bomb, which wasn’t part of the plan.
In theory, the bomb was supposed to go off hours later, when employees of the consulate would be at work. Reports at the time estimated that anywhere from 50 people to ‘hundreds’ could have been killed.
That morning, the police faced what’s been described as the first-ever investigation of terrorism in Victoria. They formed the Operation Caroline bomb task force, and within days had discovered the identity of both the bomber, Hagob Levonian, and his accomplice.
This was part of the series of international attacks perpetrated by Armenian terrorist groups against Turkish diplomats, in the hopes of pressuring the Turkish government to acknowledge and redress their ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.
Two main groups, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, committed nearly fifty acts of terrorism across Europe, the Middle East and North America, as well as in Australia, from 1973 to the early 1990s.
Strangely, Levon Demerian, the accomplice, was charged with the murder of the deceased bomber, along with conspiracy. He was initially convicted of both, and sentences to 25 years. However, the Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction (if two people set a bomb together and one of them dies, is that really murder) and Demerian served 10 years for the conspiracy conviction.
When he went to prison, he was Australia’s number-one high-risk security prisoner. Prison guards told reporters he was a gentleman, the kind of person you’d want as a neighbour.
When My Name Is Revenge came out, I visited Melbourne to give a talk about the book. Melbourne seemed like the kind of place where people would be interested in Australia’s historical connections to the Armenian genocide, and author Toni Jordan kindly agreed to be part of the event.
On the night, it poured rain and the train lines were down in the suburb where the bookshop was, and only a handful of people turned up, most of them friends.
One man who I didn’t know waited until the end of the book signing to speak to me. He was Armenian Australian, and had brought a photo album full of newspaper clippings about both the 1986 bombing, and the 1980 assassination of two men in Sydney that I’d written about.
He wanted me to have the archive. I could see how much time had gone into it, articles cut from a variety of newspapers over almost a decade, and carefully arranged. And I could see that wanted someone to have it who was interested, who might do something with it.
It turned out Australia didn’t ‘need worry’ about the ‘Turk terror’, as one headline called it. That was the last attack here, and the attacks had ceased everywhere by the early 1990s.
Earlier this year, I was in Melbourne again, and visited 44 Caroline Street. It’s just an ordinary building on an ordinary street corner, with no hint of the violence that happened there 35 years ago.
There was some measure of justice done in the case of the bombing, with the success of Operation Caroline, unlike in Sydney, where there’s now a $1 million reward for information about the still unsolved 1980 assassination.
And unlike, too, for the victims of the genocide and their descendants, who still live with the legacy of the genocide.
The Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, presented by Writing NSW and Text Publishing, is awarded to an unpublished Indigenous writer who has made substantial progress on a fiction or non-fiction writing project. The writer is paired with a senior Indigenous writer for a structured year-long mentorship.
The 2021 Boundless runner-up is Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie, for her memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. She’ll be working under the mentorship of Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko.
I’m especially excited for Samia because my husband and I had the honour of funding the 2021 runner-up mentorship. In this Q&A, she talks about her early experiences with writing, how she began to work on her memoir, writers that have inspired her, and her best writing tip.
When did you start writing, and what kind of writing did you first aspire to? As a child and all through my teens writing was my to go safe place and I wrote prolifically. Stories, poetry, prose, mostly long streams of consciousness and long 10-page letters to my grandmother and pen pal friends.
The touch of a fresh sharpened pencil and feel of the pen on paper completely absorbed me. I was deeply traumatised as a young person, so reading, writing and painting were my world, my safe place, and helped me survive.
I had two significant English teachers. One was Mr Jardine, he wore a cravat. It was the 70s, he took us to A Clockwork Orange, exposed us to Russian writers, Blake, and the classics as well as contemporary Australian and American writers. In my mid-teens and I was introduced to feminists and Marx, which was unusual, through another English teacher, Elizabeth Cousins.
Elizabeth knew my life was hard and in many ways I couldn’t function in the mainstream-learning environment, so she just let me write whatever I liked and didn’t require I come to class. I’d meet with her regularly instead and she’d read my writing, point me to things to read and make comments and constantly encourage me.
I also did a radio show at my school, so I was very influenced by radio, drama, youth theatre and music. A real mix, symphony, opera, jazz. Mozart and Pink Floyd and Country. We didn’t have a TV till I was 11. So these things shaped my world.
I was an adopted baby, taken from my birth mum, and my parents were significantly older than all my friends’ parents. I had a very lonely and abusive childhood. I just didn’t fit in for all kinds of reasons, Race being just one, so, I had to have a rich inner life to survive.
I spent hours learning and reciting poetry, long form and verse. I loved acting, and I would write my own scripts and then spend hours playing all the characters.
As a young teenager I also spent a lot of time at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and this is where I first started to understand that there were alternative stories and histories to the ones I was being exposed to. I’d grown up with Albert Namatjira on the living room wall, strict Methodists who had both been in the Army during WWII, and a father who grew up in an orphanage. I also spent long periods of time with relatives and then in institutions, so there were lots of disconnections and contradictions. Writing continues to fulfill the same role. It’s my safe place and my way to challenge the complexity of my inner and outer world. To give voice to these complexities and challenge the status quo of society. I love the craft, the voice, the landscape and terrain of stories. I love reading other people’s stories, ones that take you on a journey that transports you. That’s what I’d love to achieve. Telling a story that takes the reader on a journey.
I’ve written a lot of poetry over more recent years, up till then I put all my creativity into community projects, films, digital stories, events, concerts and lecturing and travelling.
Tell us about your memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. Last year after I had an accident and was having a lot of severe pain, I started writing again just for myself, to distract myself. It started to become what felt like a story, one that had been sitting inside me for decades. I decided okay, just write.
Once I made that decision words just flowed out faster than I could type. I have called this work The Woman Who Came from the Sea because the ocean, salt water, and fresh water have always been important in my life. I have experienced deep bliss surfing down the face of a clear blue wave and near death in the center of a cyclone in the middle of the ocean on a small yacht.
I’d say its memoir, but also could fall into being creative non-fiction. I don’t want to give away too much yet; I can say it’s a wild story, a story of adventure and survival against the odds. I know I have lived a life that’s very full and left of center. I actually hate boxes and strive to challenge being labeled or locked into other people’s definitions of who I am. I’d like that to be the same with my writing, I am not trying to write in a specific formula or write for a living. I am just writing.
Various people throughout my life have heard pieces of my life and always commented that they would love to read the full story. So, maybe they will get that chance. I hope so, that would be wonderful.
What books or authors have inspired your writing? I have read broadly, the books that really stand out are always ones with rich landscapes and diverse voices. First Nations writing from this country has always had a special place ever since meeting and then reading the work of some of our early trailblazers, people like respected Elders Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert who founded the writing group I’m currently part of called Us Mob writers in Canberra.
Since being involved with Us Mob writers and First Nations Australia Writers Network, I have made a point to read nearly exclusively Aboriginal and Indigenous writers. We have so many talented storytellers; I have a never-ending pile.
I also love Hispanic and Latino and First Nations writers from the Americas where I lived for 12 years, mostly in the southwest. So, of course I am very impacted by the landscape of those places and the voices from those lands. I like to read and listen to stories that are recommended me by other writers. Films, theatre and podcasts inform me as well.
Through the Boundless Mentorship, you’ll be working with author Melissa Lucashenko, winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. What are you hoping to take from this? Being runner up in the Boundless Mentorship and being matched with Melissa Lucashenko, whose book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award, is an extraordinary opportunity. The process of shaping my writing into structure and working out how to keep the story moving, is why it’s important for me to have a mentor. Just to get feedback and encouragement and not be so isolated means a lot.
I’m just grateful to learn whatever I can from her and hope it helps me bring my story to life.
What writing tip have you found most useful so far? Right now, it’s just about getting the writing on the page. That’s the best tip I have had. Just write, don’t stop, don’t edit, just get it down first. The rest will follow. The others are to read and read a lot. I’d add listen. Listen, be interested and brave.
It’s scary sometimes, to be visible, but I have such a great community of writers who inspire me. Aunty Kerry kept telling me before she died that she’d watching me and will be on my back if I don’t write. So, I have to honor her, as she really believed in me.
I want to thank Boundless, Writing NSW, Text Publishers, Booktopia, the judges, and of course my generous sponsors. I hope I can give you something that rewards your choice in supporting me with this opportunity.
Time is precious, so, now, it’s back to my story. I hope you might get to read it one day.
Congrats also to this year’s Boundless winner, Torres Strait Islander Lenora Thaker.For more about the Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, visit Writing NSW.
Mark your calendars! This year Australian Reading Hour is Tuesday 14 September. This is a chance to not only make some extra time in your schedule for reading, but also to celebrate reading and all its benefits and joys.
Australia Reads exists to ‘champion reading, promote the many mental health and lifestyle benefits of reading books, and encourage the next generation of avid book readers to significantly increase book reading by all Australians – no matter the format they read.’
As they say,
‘We believe reading is the key to a smarter, healthier, happier nation.’
And I completely agree! I wouldn’t be the person I am without all the books I’ve benefited from reading in my life time: I have a much deeper and broader understanding of the world around me and the complex and unique lives of the people in my community and my country, and around the globe.
Reading also gives me a chance to get off my devices and allow my attention to focus on one thing (it’s basically a type of meditation, in my experience). I generally sleep better on days when I get more reading in.
I also love listening to audiobooks when I’m walking, driving, doing chores and lying down. This keeps me engaged in the world of the book, which stops my mind from ruminating about my own anxieties. (And unlike podcasts, audiobooks don’t have ad breaks!)
And reading has connected to me to all kinds of wonderful people, and brought me joy through memorable stories, beloved characters, and fascinating insights into human life and history.
So there you go – that’s at least one person who’s smarter, healthier and happier. Imagine that to the power of 25 million!
If you’re looking to try new books and authors, check out my Great Reads, where you’ll find write-ups about many of my favourite books.
Launched in 2017, the Penguin Literary Prize was established to find, nurture and develop new Australian authors of literary fiction.
I’ve read a draft of Denzien and loved it, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world next year. In the meantime, I thought I’d ask James to introduce the book. And then while I was at it, I asked a bunch of other questions.
Ashley: What is Denizen about? James: Denizen is an Australian gothic/literary thriller that explores rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. In it, a volatile eight-year-old in Western NSW struggles to subdue the chaos in his head, unaware of how profoundly his actions will one day affect his own fatherhood.
A:When did you start writing it? Do you remember the day you started? J: Like many of my early manuscripts, Denizen had its origins in a home movie. As an adolescent, one of my creative outlets was short (and far too long) film – a lot of which were feature-length epics whose production and post-production scales go a long way to explaining why my year ten attendance rate was 40 per cent. My earliest ideas for Denizen were that it would be based loosely on a 90-minute film I made when I was 15, called The Creek.
In 2015, when I was 23, I woke up one day to find that I couldn’t feel my feet. Soon after, I was in Royal North Shore Hospital being treated for Guillain Barre Syndrome, a progressive neuropathy that causes rapid paralysis. Part of the work up to diagnose GBS is a lumbar puncture, after which I had to lay flat on my back for two hours. I distinctly remember being rolled onto my back, staring at the ceiling and thinking, “well, now seems as good a time as any to start planning this novel.” I spent the next two hours working it through in my head until I had a clear idea of what the book I would look like. I started the first draft almost as soon as I was discharged from hospital.
In the five years and six drafts since then, Denizen has evolved from being a recognisable adaptation of The Creek into something very different. That said, evidence of its origins remains, particularly in the middle act.
A: What was the most difficult part of writing Denizen? J: I struggled a lot with characterisation, which I suppose is an expected challenge when writing from the point of view of a deeply flawed protagonist. It took a lot of work to make Parker, the main character and narrator, someone readers could empathise with. In the end, realised it was more important to make him relatable than likable, and so I focused on that.
A: One year into James and Ashley Stay at Home, what’s the best episode for listeners to start with? J: I’m very biased, but whenever anyone asks me this question, I tell them episode 23. In it, Ashley and I interviewed David Vann, one of my all-time favourite authors and literary heroes. The conversation was everything I’d hoped it would be – a raw and fascinating exploration of his motivations and process, peppered with his insights into literature, philosophy and politics.
A: What’s your favourite Australian animal? J: The Australian magpie. They’re only bastards if they’re nesting and you’re in their space, and even then, they’re just protecting their babies. They’re gorgeous. They have such a beautiful song. Have you ever seen a magpie sun itself? They lie on their bellies with their wings outstretched – it’s hysterical. And they play like dogs do! They lie on their backs and wrestle with each other. Young magpies look so ridiculous and adorable with their fluffy grey baby feathers, and their weird, spherical bodies. They’re incredibly clever and resourceful. They’re a lot more than just that vicious, swooping bird that takes people’s eyes out. I’d probably swoop at you if you rode a bike through my house too.
‘Sometimes just not knowing can actually be a good thing … but there are other times when you really do have to pursue truth. And when does one apply and when does the other?’
In Amnesia Road, Luke Stegemann explores complex questions about violence, history and society. He doesn’t profess to have answers, which is one of the book’s great strengths.
Luke is a writer, Hispanist and cultural historian based in rural south-east Queensland. He writes on art, politics and history for a wide range of Australian and Spanish publications, and is the author of The Beautiful Obscure. In 2018 he received the Malaspina Award in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution to the development of cultural relations between Australia and Spain’. On weekends, he travels extensively around Queensland in his role as a referee on the state amateur boxing circuit.
His latest book, Amnesia Road, is a literary consideration of historic violence in two different parts of the world, the seldom-visited mulga plains of south-west Queensland and the backroads of rural Andalusia. It is also a celebration of the landscapes where the violence of frontier conflict and civil war has been carried out.
James and I ask Luke whether it’s possible for Australians to have a common understanding of our history, and how the under-acknowledged histories of colonial violence in Australia, the nationalist violence in Spain (and the many similar contexts in other nations, such as Turkey) impact the societal health of their respective nations.
We discuss the importance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the impact of social media on our current discourse and effort to understand what the past means for each of us.
At the end, Luke lightens the mood with an anecdote about an Andalusian dog who becomes a harbinger of death. Trust me, we laughed!
Books discussed in this episode – The Possessed by Dostoevsky – Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias – A Heart So White by Javier Marias – The Stranger and short stories by Albert Camus – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon – When We Dead Awaken by James Robins
In Friends & Dark Shapes, author Kavita Bedford uses the term sea-creature days, ‘Days when things that lurk beneath the surface start to come up and feel a little stronger in day-to-day life than they normally do.’ We’ve all had days like that.
A Sydney local, Kavita crafted the story as a love letter to her hometown. Its series of textured, lyrical vignettes centre around an unnamed protagonist, her share-house friends, and the lives of others they encounter across a complex, multicultural city where it’s easy to meet people but hard to make lasting connections. Grieving the loss of her father, the protagonist tries to shape her future in her city, while also tracing how it has shaped her.
Kavita drew on her own experiences of her father’s death in writing the novel, as well as her own experiences of Sydney. She was surprised by the complexity of grief. ‘Grief is such a slippery, tricky thing, and you do have moment of lightness within it.’
She was also surprised by the process of writing about Sydney. ‘When I started writing about my own city, there was such an initial outpouring of emotion that I wasn’t expecting.’
The resulting book is a powerful exploration both of grief, and of a metropolitan, multicultural city in transition.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli – Teju Cole – Olivia Lang – Sheila Heti – Rachel Cusk – Jenny Offill – Elizabeth Strout – Disoriental by Négar Djavadi – The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen – Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon – Deepfakes by Nina Schick
Nash is not only the owner of a bad-ass mononym, he’s also an artist and now first-time author, and the latest guest on James and Ashley Stay at Home.
A Sri Lanka-born multi-disciplinary designer and artist, Nash has been based in Melbourne since 2012. His work is both cynical social commentary and an account of his personal experience as an immigrant – the ‘other’ in any society.
His first book is What to Expect When You’re Immigrating, and James and I were delighted to talk to him about the book, his career as an artist, his own experience of immigration, and how Vegemite tastes like rotten chocolate.
Nash is a funny guy, which is why we wanted to talk to him about how laughter can positively impact your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing can improve your immune system, relieve pain, make it easier to cope with difficult situations, and improve your mood. This episode is full of laughs, and how they can also help overcome the challenges of talking to others about sensitive topics.
What to Expect When You’re Immigrating is out now, and you can find out more about Nash and his upcoming events on Instagram.
Steve and I are eating vegan this February, so on the 14th we celebrated what is now known as Vegantine’s Day.
Normally we don’t do much (sometimes the best gift is low expectations). But since the Chau Chak Wing Museum recently opened at the University of Sydney, Steve suggested visiting it together.
It turned out the museum cafe had vegan desserts! It also turned out they were not tasty.
I had no expectations of the museum, and I suppose in that way, it didn’t disappoint me. While it features many historically significant artefacts and culturally significant First Nations artworks, the Chau Chak Wing Museum is also full of monsters.
Check out these little terrors.
This pair of palm cockatoos have been haunting nightmares since 1788. Their latin name is proboscigers, and a fun fact is that their cheek colour “changes according to mood and health”, just like with humans. For example, the colour of these two birds’ cheeks indicates they’re dead.
So Steve and I are wandering around this museum, which is filled with taxidermied animals, Egyptian mummies, Etruscan pottery – you know, museum stuff – and then I spot this front and centre in a display cabinet.
It’s between two pieces of pottery, but unlike the pottery, it’s not immediately obvious what the thing is or how it’s earned shelf space in what is not a particularly large museum.
I examined this fur-covered object from every angle. It seemed vaguely familiar, yet hideously unknown. Finally, I located its identifying sign.
Are you ready?
IT’S THE TAXIDERMIED HEAD OF A CYCLOPS PONY.
Yeah, you read that right. Back in 1758, someone taxidermied the partial head of a deformed pony, and eighty-three years later, in 1841, some other weirdo decided it belonged in a museum.
Its sign reads, “Cyclopism is a relatively common birth defect in mammals: the two eye sockets do not form separately but fuse to create the appearance of a single eye.”
Which is strange justification for including the cyclops pony among the bronze-age spears and butterfly specimens. Also, if cyclopsism is so common in mammals, how come we don’t see more people with optic blast powers?
Other monstrosities include a fruit bat who wants to flash you:
A memorial to eclectus parrots (I doubt there’s any left in the wild at this rate):
And a two-dimensional platypus who looks well over it (granted, you wouldn’t look great if you’d been bathing in formaldehyde since 1799):
You can also find out what the Parthenon would look like if the Greeks had built it inside a disco.
And here it is, possibly the worst monster of all – the graphintegrator!
The graphintegrator is, according to a sign, “a mechanical device for solving differential equations in graphical form”. But I’m pretty sure it’s also a Batman villain.
Lesser Monsters of the Chau Chak Wing Museum include this pangolin. Last year I became obsessed with them, which is how I discovered that if you search the term pangolin too often on Instagram, your account will get flagged.
You might not think this little spotted kiwi is a monster, until you find out it used its own mother’s tax file number to commit identify theft.
Last and strippiest, a Tasmanian tiger with real cute eyes.
When we visited Tassie a few years ago (yes, that trip where I utterly failed to climb Cradle Mountain), Steve said that he planned to find a Tassie tiger. Despite being classified as extinct, there’s still rumours of sightings. I spent the whole trip shouting, “Quick, look, there’s a Tassie tiger!” and then telling Steve it was right behind him.
Would I recommend visiting the Chau Chak Wing Museum? Let me ask you this – where else can you see the distingeatrating remains of a cyclops pony head?
After the museum, you can also say hello to everyone’s favourite roogoyle (who of course features in How to Be Australian).
And don’t forget this other classic University of Sydney highlight, the Vice-Chancellor’s Lawn!
PS. If you haven’t heard, My Name Is Revenge is now available in audiobook. Sign up for my newsletter for your chance to get a free copy!