Chronicler of lives in a foreign shore

Author Roanna Gonsalves speaks about writing, life in Australia and more

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Roanna Gonsalves, an India-born writer based in Sydney, is best-known for her work, The Permanent Resident, a collection of short stories about the Indian immigrant experience in Australia. The book, published in India and South Asia as Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney, won the NSW Multicultural Award in 2018.

Her work has often been compared with that of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. “My experience as an immigrant has been complex and full of the ridiculous and the sublime—sorrowful, joyful and glorious in equal measure,” she told THE WEEK.

How does it feel to be back in India?

It is such a privilege to be back home in India as a writer. My work here is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australian High Commission, with the aim of building cross-cultural connections. (I have been) sharing it at the literature festivals in Kerala, Jaipur and Hyderabad. I have also been invited to teach a creative writing workshop at Sophia College in Mumbai.

What are three things you love about Australia?

I love that freedom of speech is respected, for the most part. I love the way (a Twitter handle like) @IndigenousX collaboratively brings to the forefront issues of equity and justice for indigenous communities. I love the great network of public libraries that are community hubs as well as repositories of knowledge.

How did you get into writing?

I have always loved writing and have been doing so ever since I was a child. I started out writing bad poetry. I worked as a journalist in India and did a lot of writing over the years. I have written for radio and the stage.

How much of The Permanent Resident is autobiographical?

My book is a completely fictionalised account of the lives of Indian immigrants in contemporary Australia. Some (of the short stories) are satires and some are tragicomedies. I tried to explore issues and ideas that do not get talked about much. The stories feature the Indians working at the coal face of Australian life.

The book is based on 18 years of observations about real life, media reports, overheard conversations and some personal experiences, but all of them filtered through my imagination and rendered as fiction on the page. My experiences as a migrant have been complex, full of the ridiculous and the sublime—sorrowful, joyful and glorious in equal measure.

Do you think women can’t have it all? How do you maintain work-life balance?

Yes, of course women can have it all, but maybe not at the same time. I have the support of my wonderful parents who have helped me raise my boys. As a writer, my work and my life are intertwined and the boundaries are not clear-cut. Instead of ‘work-life balance’, I prefer to use the term ‘self-care’. I try and engage in creative rejuvenation practices such as visiting visual art shows, listening to different kinds of music and podcasts, and, of course, reading.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a book of historical fiction. It is set in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is about a boy who was bought as a slave and made to work in places like Kochi, Calicut, Mumbai, Scotland and Australia. The book does not have a title yet. I am still writing it.