An Interview with Roanna Gonsalves
Roanna Gonsalves is an award-winning short story writer. She was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and came to Australia as an international student in 1998. The Permanent Resident is her first collection of short stories.
Roanna Gonsalves is one of the festival’s featured interstate writers. We spoke with Roanna about being a “good migrant”, and the roles memory, community and the short form play in her debut collection The Permanent Resident.
What is your relationship to the short story form? Was it the first form of writing you experienced with?
I started out writing really clichéd poetry as a child. I wrote many drafts of a novel, some years ago, and subsequently put in on the backburner. I then began to write short stories because I felt liberated by the form. The form enabled me to explore singular moments in the lives of various characters, and stretch them as far as I could, in a short timespan, defined both in terms of the narrative on the page as well as in terms of the labour required to finish each story.
What drew you to writing The Permanent Resident in the form of short stories instead of a long-form novel?
I wanted to chronicle as many varied experiences of being an outsider as I possibly could. I feel the short story form is perfect for exploring this multiplicity. As I’ve said elsewhere (pardon the repetition), for me, the short story form demands a respect for the limitations of time and space, and enables a focus on the particular, the intimate, and the fleeting. It offers a set of sharp literary tools with which to sculpt complex immigrant experiences and render them economically on the page.
“I wanted to chronicle as many varied experiences of being an outsider as I possibly could. I feel the short story form is perfect for exploring this multiplicity.”
The Permanent Resident is published under Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney in South Asia. What made you decide on giving the book two different titles?
Just as we sometimes have different names for ourselves in different languages or for different levels of formality, my book has two names, one to suit the Australian context and one to suit the Indian context. The heart, however, is in the same place in both books.
The stories in The Permanent Resident are made up of immigrant characters; how big of a part did memory play in your writing process?
Memory and then the blurring of the boundaries between memory and the imagination are the fountains that feed my fiction, in many ways. However, my book is not about the nostalgic memory of a homeland, but about being an outsider in contemporary Australia.
There is a strong theme of community in The Permanent Resident, and the characters in your stories all express an unease in being foreign; what does community feel like to you, and how do you know you’ve found it when you’re in a new and unfamiliar place?
What a lovely question! Thank you for picking that up. I think experiencing a sense of belonging is a continuous process rather than an end goal. Sometimes my characters feel like they belong in a particular place or to a particular community, only to find that that belonging is contingent upon a number of factors, such as toeing a particular line, or accepting and rejecting certain values. Sometimes my characters find solidarity and belonging with White people of the same class. Sometimes they find belonging and acceptance with other Indians because of a shared history and a shared immigrant experience. Sometimes it is gender that is the glue that binds people together in my book. Some of my characters know they’ve found that moment of solidarity when there is that flash of recognition about a memory, or shared laughter over a joke, or just through silence.
“Sometimes my characters feel like they belong in a particular place or to a particular community, only to find that that belonging is contingent upon a number of factors…”
You have expressed before that you’re not a very “good migrant”, can you expand on the concept of a “good migrant” for us?
What I meant was that I am not a “good migrant” in the sense of doing what is expected of migrants – putting one’s head down, not questioning our position as beneficiaries of Indigenous dispossession, not questioning power structures that perpetuate inequality for fear of being seen as ungrateful, staying in our boxes where we can perform our roles as the exotic other, or the pitiful other, being the object of sympathy, being the person that needs saving. This is what is expected of good migrants. I try and actively do the opposite of what I’ve listed above. Therefore I’m not a “good migrant”. However I’m a critical migrant, and I value so much the freedom I enjoy in Australia that I feel I must question any system of power that may pose a threat to the hard-won freedoms and rights that we as citizens of Australia enjoy, and to advocate in any way I can for those who still do not enjoy these freedoms and rights.
I’ve read that your next book will be a historical fiction; will you come back to short stories for any future works?
I’ve told the Short Story Angel to go away and give me a break. But she keeps annunciating in my head, and insisting on being heard. So I feel like this has been pre-determined, I have no choice but to continue to write short stories. That Angel is just not going to go away. I have a new story ‘Curry muncher 3.0’ in a book that has only just been published, Of Indian Origin: Writings From Australia, and another ‘The thing about Myron’ in the Joao Roque Literary Journal . These new stories are follow-ons from Curry muncher 2.0’ and ‘Cutting corners’, respectively, which are two stories in The Permanent Resident / Sunita De Souza Goes To Sydney. There are more short stories coming.
Roanna Gonsalves is the current UNSW Copyright Agency Writer-in-Residence 2018. The Permanent Resident won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award Multicultural Prize 2018 and was long-listed for the Dobbie Literary Award for First Time Published Authors 2018. You can find more of Roanna’s stories on her website. You can read more about Roanna and find her upcoming sessions here.