Telling stories without deference | Shankari Chandran

To celebrate the release of her third novel, Safe Haven, Miles Franklin–award winning author, Shankari Chandran has written the following blog post. Prompted by the talking point 'telling stories without deference to the silencing gratitude that is expected of me as a brown Australian', Shankari discusses her experiences trying to get published and Australia's normalisation of troubling racial discourse.

Safe Haven is available now.


When I returned to Australia in 2009, after a decade working as a lawyer in the social justice space in London, I didn’t understand my home. I didn’t understand the public fearmongering about ‘boat people’ and the terrifying xenophobia behind the rhetoric of border security. 

I was troubled by this discourse, and I considered using fiction to understand the political pandering that drives our treatment of some of Australia’s most vulnerable people – our asylum seekers.

However, the public space was and still is dominated by a strong narrative about what it means to be Australian, and diversity is only allowed to exist if it doesn’t threaten the white Australian norm. This narrative also dictates who is allowed to critique Australia and in what way.

So, instead, I wrote Song of the Sun God, a novel about three generations of Australian–Tamil women and the choices they made to survive Sri Lanka’s civil war. My intent was to write myself and my children into the Australian cultural landscape, to create a record of my people’s struggle with war and migration, and to adjudicate the injustices of that war through fiction.

Then I wrote The Barrier, a post-apocalyptic thriller about a world divided into opposing Eastern and Western Alliances, in which the religions of the East have been blamed for global wars and therefore eradicated.

Still in the early stages of my career and affected by the feedback on Song of the Sun God, I felt pressured to be culture and colour ‘neutral’ (ie. white). I felt I had to conform to an industry and market that preferred whiteness; that was more comfortable with it and unwilling to challenge itself to understand ‘difference’. I bent to the white gaze, and used the FIND ALL and REPLACE ALL function in Word to change my protagonist from a South Asian hero to a white one. I did this to help the book’s publication in a market I had lost faith with.

Maybe I’d lost faith with myself too. I decided that, because the publishing industry was never going to be interested in my perspective, I would write a novel just for me. The novel would interrogate what it means to be Australian and who gets to decide this. I would explore the appropriation of history, and the way ‘ownership’ of the past helps people claim ownership of the present and future. I wrote Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens with honest rage, grief, and love.

Surprisingly, this book found a publisher, and as soon as I handed my manuscript over to Ultimo Press, I began writing another story, because writers have to write. I didn’t know what would happen to Chai Time – if its sales would once again rely on a supportive extended family and Tamil diaspora, or if others would read and welcome it.

"I felt I had to conform to an industry and market that preferred whiteness; that was more comfortable with it and unwilling to challenge itself to understand ‘difference’."

So once again, I wrote as though no one would read my work but also as though everyone might. If this seems contradictory, it is. My stories and story-telling style are distinctly Australian–Tamil even when my characters aren’t. I feel more comfortable to own this now – but perhaps I’m just too tired to try to hide it.

I want to freely write what I imagine, which is usually grounded in what I see and know. Writing is first and foremost a conversation that I have with myself, the blank page, and then the reader. To converse well, I want to connect first. If I connect with the reader, then the reader will listen. And this is what I mean when I say I write as though everyone might read my work (as well as no one). I write as I wish, about what I wish, but I am mindful that I am reaching out for a relationship with my reader, and I am asking them to listen.

I wrote my next novel, Safe Haven, without deference to the silencing gratitude that is expected of me as a brown Australian. I am grateful to live here, away from persecution, war and its aftermath in Sri Lanka. But I won’t allow my gratitude to be weaponised against me. I won’t be forced to self-censor, to not say what I see. All Australians who came here from the time of European colonisation onwards have found refuge and home at the expense of First Nations peoples, and this levies on all of us the same responsibilities and privileges of citizenship.

Safe Haven is a love story and a murder mystery set on an offshore detention centre. Some of the novel’s themes are unlikely to win me friends with political authority. I am nervous about raising my head above this parapet. The book was inspired by Priya and Nades Murugappan, the 'Biloela family', their courage and resilience and their community's campaign to bring them home, although my fictional plot diverts significantly from the terrible real-life injustices they faced. I was also captivated by the story of Para Paheer, an asylum seeker in a detention centre, and his Australian ‘mum’ Ali Corke, a lady from country Victoria. She wrote him letters, helped him successfully navigate the system and build a new life here.

I began this novel from a place of anger and confusion – I wanted to understand what drives our treatment of asylum seekers. But the stories of the Murugappan family, Para Paheer and others demonstrated much more than cruelty. They revealed a powerful contradiction in communities across Australia – brave, compassionate people resist our country’s detention policies by standing up for something more. I realised I wanted to use fiction to elevate this commitment to community. I wanted to speak about the best and bravest; about who we are and who we could be.

Telling stories without deference | Shankari Chandran