A brown woman in a ‘white first world’


Indian Australian writer Roanna Gonsalves, released her first book at the opening of ongoing Goa Arts and Literary Festival (GALF) 2016. Titled ‘The Permanent Resident’, the collection of short stories illustrates the life of those who have moved to the more advanced countries, in search of greener pastures. NT BUZZ speaks to her about her writing and more
Janice Rodrigues| N T BUZZ
Roanna Gonsalves, born and raised in Mumbai, moved to Australia as a student, in the late 1990s. She earned her diploma in Television Production in an Australian university and later pursued her career in writing. Co-founding and editing a writers’ collective based in Australia ‘Southern Crossings’ aims to provide a space for the voices of South Asians who live in Australia. Roanna has written extensively about the life there from an immigrant’s perspective. She often questions the notions of identity and the cultural ethos of the so-called ‘white first world’ countries through her works.
Her first book, ‘The Permanent Resident’ is a collection of short stories which was released at the Goa Arts and Literary festival (GALF). The short stories revolve around the lives, aspirations, clashes and trials of the 21st century immigrants through “some heart-wrenching and some playful stories of what it means to be a modern outsider.”

Q. What was the inspiration behind the collection of short stories?
I didn’t see people like me reflected in contemporary Australian literature, even though we are very much a part of contemporary Australian life. So, I played with the English language while inserting Indian characters, especially the brown female body, into the Australian literary landscape.
While some stories have their roots in real life incidents, such as the attacks against Indian students in Australia, family violence within Indian Australian communities, etc, the finished stories are entirely a work of the imagination.

Q. While most other writers have written about an immigrant’s trials of adjustment in a fairly serious tone; your stories seem to have humour attached. Was that deliberate?
As Paul Beatty, the 2016 Booker Prize winner says, ‘humour is vengeance’. I try to avoid the cloying earnestness of so called ‘serious literature’ and try and inhabit a different space. In doing so I try to follow a long tradition, which includes virtuosic writers such as Eunice De Souza, Jerry Pinto, Howard Jacobson etc. When you laugh at something you have no fear of it. Laughter is liberating. I try to explore the libratory potential of irony, and satire, from my position as a brown woman with not much money in a ‘white first world’ culture.

Q. Are all the stories focused around immigration? Are there other underlying themes as well and what are they?
The immigrant experience is one of the themes of the collection. The stories are really about love, about the moment after love has ended, and especially the moment before love begins. The stories are also about being an outsider, completely alienated yet also feeling like one does belong in some ways. In some stories, I try to explore the solidarities between people with little privilege in Australia, when race, class, gender intersect in sometimes surprising, sometimes oppressive and sometimes empowering ways.
In this collection I take my scalpel to patriarchy, to the female body, to the Catholic Church, to aspirational Indian immigrants, to white Australia, and most perilously to the fictional narrators of my stories. This book attempts to break new ground by charging the Australian literary landscape with Indian Australian lives. I have tried to make each story formally different from every other story in this book, even as the themes of each story resonate with each other.

Q. Can you elaborate about the title ‘The Permanent Resident’?
All the stories in this collection are about people who are trying to find stability, a form of permanence, either in love, or in a new country, or in a job, or within themselves. ‘Permanent Resident’ is also a term used in Australia when you get your visa to live there permanently. So there are many layers to that title.

Q. Can you highlight some of your experiences as an immigrant in Australia with regards to the clashes of cultures?
At first I thought the country had multiculturalism, but I didn’t know that idea never works. I was young and free and for me, a foreign education meant the pursuit of knowledge in a heritage-listed edifice overlooking an expansive grassy campus. I imagined immersing myself in the culture, having many Australian friends, inviting them, and being invited over for meals, filling my little black book with a new support system in the absence of my family and friends.
The first time I laid eyes on the private college, it occupied the top floors in a tall glass building, which overlooked more tall glass buildings. I bonded with students like me. It was as if all of us third-world-looking people sought each other out to form a shield. I didn’t get invited nor did I invite any local students over for a meal. My little black book remained blank. On Graduation Day, I smiled with satisfaction as I ruminated on how my family’s money was well spent. I’d learned a lot, after all, like how to turn a camera on and off, how to use some video editing software and how to place my knives and forks correctly at a formal sit down graduation dinner.

Q. Are Indians in particular and Asians in general welcome in the country considering that the context of racism is often prominent when speaking about immigrants? Were you ever a victim?
Within a few days of arriving in Sydney, I began to look for work. I went to a video production house and knocked the door. I said: ‘Hi, I was wondering if …’ but before I finished my sentence a man rushed out with disgust saying: ‘Go on now, off you go, off you go, out, out’, and shooed me away with his hands as if I were a pesky fly.
Likewise, I took up a job at the petrol station to pay for bills; once, when I spotted a man talking on his mobile phone while filling up his 4-wheel drive, I alerted him to the safety rules due to risk of fire he responded, “Go back to where you came from”.
This wasn’t exactly high racism, I wasn’t kicked unconscious, nor stabbed in the chest. Yet this sort of thing is such a common experience for many of us who are not quite first world looking, and it’s insidious. It’s the larger half of the iceberg that’s submerged and doesn’t get splashed across the news. The micro-aggressions are more commonly experienced, and also easily ignored. This is what I’m interested in exploring. This is the landscape of my collection.
At another incident, when as a market research field worker, I went cold-calling at people’s homes. Sometimes I thought I was invisible as doors got slammed in my face. However, most were curious about me and kind to me. Once I knocked at a door at dusk, a woman answered and agreed to do the survey, later upon leaving she asked if I’d parked close by. When I said I would be travelling by bus taking the long walk to the bus stop, she offered to drop me there and she did. Just like that. Then she waved goodbye, reversed her car and drove out of my life, without any expectation of reward. No matter how abrasive some of my interactions in Australia have been, it’s the fuss-free kindness of that stranger that will always be a marker for me of what it might mean to be Australian.

Q. Do you find it ironical that people in places like Australia, America, South Africa play the racism game, when they aren’t historically the original inhabitants of these places?
This is a question I grapple with continuously. We often live with the assumption that Australia is a country of white people. When Indians migrate to Australia, we think of ourselves as second to white people and their culture. However there were certain fundamental truths that I did not grasp before I got there: indigenous people i.e. aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders are the first peoples of this land; they formed the first nations of this continent; this always was and always will be aboriginal land.
Before Australia was Australia, there were over 500 different ‘nations’ that preceded the arrival of the British colonisers. Today, the face of Australia is not one but many faces, bearing witness to over 250 ethnicities. The voice of Australia is not one but many voices, speaking in over 400 languages. Yet in celebrating this multiplicity, it is sobering to remember that Indigenous Australians, the First Peoples, are more likely to die 10 years before non-indigenous Australians today. Our South Asian homelands and Australia are part of an ancient, intricate geological and cultural web. In thinking about the indigenous communities of Australia I can’t help but think of the continuing oppression of tribal and Dalit communities of my homeland.
I realise that acknowledgement of indigenous priority is but one tiny way to think through our place as immigrants who have come from South Asia. However I believe that this acknowledgement is an important first step, and must be our interface with our adopted country. If we are to truly belong here, we must understand how we relate to those who were here 40,000 years before us.