Become a member


November 29, 2023

Shankari Chandran on Celebrating Australian Authors

On 14 November 2023 at the ASA’s Colin Simpson Memorial Keynote event in Melbourne, Toni Jordan and Shankari Chandran delivered the keynote addresses on Celebrating Australian Authors. The following is a transcript of Shankari Chandran’s speech.

Toni and I have been asked to speak on the theme of “Celebrating Australian Authors”. 

The lawyer in me wants to:

  1. interrogate and explicate the definition of an Australian author and then 
  2. state it precisely in carefully drafted clauses and sub-clauses so that I understand the scope of my task today and am fully across my rights and responsibilities as an Australian author.

The author in me is:

  1. profoundly insecure about whether I am worthy of being considered an author, surrounded by such literary greatness; and
  2. challenged by the very notion of celebration. In the aftermath of the Voice Referendum, I find myself asking, what does it mean to be an Australian, let alone an Australian author? Is this something to celebrate?

So let me turn first to the definition of an Australian author, and with it the definition of an Australian story. Australian stories are stories written by Australians but for most of my life, some stories were more Australian than others; some stories were valued more than others.

I have been trying to write novels for 11 years. I have been reading novels for more than four decades, and in my youth, if I wanted to see myself, my lived experience, people who looked like me, thought like me, had a family like mine and carried the burdens of colonialism, dispossession, war, genocide, cultural preservation, and cultural assimilation in their school lunch box the way I did, I looked to South Asian writers from India to London. I read Spanish Magic Realism, Toni Morrison, Nigerian fiction, Irish resistance poetry, and Rabindranath Tagore. The only Australian author I felt connected to was Melina Marchetta. 

I looked to these writers because of the ways in which our cultures and histories coincided. In their books, I found the euphoria of being seen and the mesmerising adventure of not fully understanding the world the author was from. It was the comfort of sameness and the excitement of difference.  

The mantle of Australian author or writer, is something that until relatively recently, has eluded many Australian writers of colour. We haven’t seen ourselves in that way because we haven’t been seen in that way.

As some of you may know, I was told my first manuscript – about colonialisation, forced migration and the search for home – wouldn’t be something Australians would buy or want to read about. Although written by an Australian, about incontrovertibly Australian themes, it was not Australian enough for the Australian market.

In the early years of my career, I celebrated when writers of colour were published. But, I’m ashamed to say, I was also insanely jealous of them, and – this is the worst part – I was extremely anxious because we [writers of colour] all knew there was only so much space at the table for writers like us, and this year’s quota of writes of colour was already filled with the chosen one or two. Eventually, I learned to trust that one more book by an Australian South Asian won’t close the door to more, it pushes the door further open for the rest of us to follow through, and one day, the door for us will be like the door for outback noir, which is never closed.

Over the years, my fellow Australian writers of colour and I have been asked questions about how we make our work understandable to other readers, which is code for do I translate my work for white people. The answer is no, I assume readers are at least as smart as me, probably smarter. If I can decode white Australians in a Tim Winton masterpiece, then readers can decode Tamil Australians in a Shankari Chandran novel.

I’ve also been cautioned about becoming pigeon-holed as a writer of Tamil life, which is confusing to me because Australia has been my home since I was three. I represent my experience and observations of Australian life and occasionally I write apocalypses – although as Claire G Coleman says, First Nations people have been living in a dystopia since 1788; the end of the world is also an Australian story.

These days, my cousins and I go to the plays of Australian playwright, S. Shakthidharan. We swap books written by Australians, not British Born Desis. According to my Family Book Club, they felt Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race in their bodies, they love Melina Marchetta but think I’m obsessed with Looking for Alibrandi, Mohammed Ahmed’s trilogy is boldly self-critical, Yumna Kassab’s Australiana was ingenius and innovative, Alice Pung’s mother must have been a nightmare (I am so sorry Alice, I tried to explain it was fiction), Vidya Madhabushi’s The Days Toppled Over unforgettably revealed the plight of Indian students here and we all want to be best friends with Michelle de Kretser. Tara June Winch’s The Yield understood how we grieve the loss of our language. There are massive gaps in our knowledge, which are being addressed by Julie Janson’s Benevolence, Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile, and Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. ABC, SBS and NITV can’t compete with the Disney Channel, but my cousins and I never have to force our children to read.

Writers of colour are more present now in the Australian literary landscape than they’ve ever been; and it’s about time. Curators of culture, and more importantly, their marketing departments have run the numbers and realised that if I can read a book by the brilliant Emily Maguire then her readers can read a book by me. Emily didn’t need a spreadsheet to tell her she’d love the Australian Tamil poet Christine Shamista’s Soft Side of Red

I know I’m publishable because my work reads ok after I’ve re-written it fifty times and my agent Tara Wynne would sooner die than send sub-standard work into the market. I know I’m published because of the hard work and determination of Australian writers of colour to keep writing and keep trying until their stories became our books.

This is cause for great celebration – the space

that is continually being carved out for many definitions of ‘the Australian author’, and the growing recognition that there are many Australian stories from many kinds of Australian authors that deserve to be told; and finally, are being told. 

We should celebrate because this space has been hard-won. We should celebrate because Australian authors give the reader access to the diversity of Australian experiences that history, the media, and political discourse clearly deny. Australian authors give the reader access to the challenges and richness of this diversity, that our indifference, privilege and sheer laziness often prevent us from seeing. 

Which brings me to the other question I ask as a curious lawyer and anxiety-driven writer: what are my rights and responsibilities as an Australian author?

To better understand my rights – limited and poorly remunerated though they are – I refer you to the ASA’s excellent website. I would have fewer rights and even less remuneration if not for them.

So then to my responsibilities before my 15 minutes is up.

I am reminded that since the inception of the modern nation state of Australia, we have been telling ourselves particular stories about who we are as a nation, including our origins story. We’ve been telling stories about what we fear and what we hope for. We articulate a vision of ourselves and who we want to be. We articulate a version of our national selves that includes some and excludes others, that elevates some and diminishes others.

I am reminded in recent times that the stories in the national dialogue can be more fiction than truth; therefore, sometimes fiction – the thing we do – is more reliable, a place for greater honesty and truth-telling. Fiction becomes the place for fact. A safer place to challenge mistruth, to take someone into deep discomfort, into the pain of others, and help them sit in it, feel it, think about it and ask themselves what it truly feels like to be that other person, AND, if they can do better for that other person.

When I think of the responsibilities of Australian authors, I am reminded of the Tamil doctor who stayed with thousands of refugees in the final months and days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, when the slaughter was at its worst. He gave me the truth about the war, and said: “In this place, we are not allowed to speak the truth about what happened. And without the truth, there can be no healing.” He said: “Fiction is an important way of telling the truth.”

This is a terrible responsibility. A burden even. For my next novel, I’m going to throw the truth, caution and common sense to the wind, and I’m going to write a zombie apocalypse set in Homebush, because it sounds like a fun sub-genre to pioneer. 

BUT, in an Australia that doesn’t always tell the truth to each other or itself, the Australian author, is a cultural amanuensis and an advocate of the truth. We are the builders of fictional worlds based on what we imagine and most importantly, what we see. Every word we write creates space for more Australian authors and more truth. This act of truth-telling is an act of resistance against the falsehoods that undermine our country and our community. It is an act of celebration of the goodness we hold, the struggles we overcome, the failings we acknowledge and remedy, and the greatness we are capable of. 

We should celebrate this, and then we should get back to work, because there is more work to be done and more stories to tell.