Author Shankari Chandran expresses shock, tears and disbelief at Miles Franklin win

Shankari Chandran's winning novel is set in a fictitious nursing home in the suburbs of Sydney.

Shankari Chandran's winning novel is set in a fictitious nursing home in the suburbs of Sydney. Photo: AAP

When Shankari Chandran got the call to say she had won the Miles Franklin, judge Richard Neville had to repeat the message four times.

“My brain just couldn’t quite understand what he was saying to me,” the author told AAP.

Then she put the call on hold so she could scream a little.

Chandran’s third novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, has won the prestigious $60,000 literary prize at a ceremony in Sydney.

Since hearing the news, the 48-year-old lawyer and mother of four has been veering between shock, disbelief and “tearful excitement”.

“It is extraordinary to be recognised amongst this list of Australian voices that I have admired and loved for such a long time,” she said.

Chandran didn’t believe Cinnamon Gardens would be published locally – publishers said her first novel Song of the Sun God was “not Australian enough” and it was released in 2017 with a Sri Lankan publisher.

Her second book only generated average sales and a third manuscript, for a political thriller, was initially rejected.

“I thought, ‘Well, it’s highly unlikely that I will be able to publish again in Australia but I would like to write this novel and make it as good as it can be’,” she said.

If literary awards are any measure, Chandran’s multigenerational tale is very good indeed.

The novel is set in a fictitious nursing home in the suburbs of Sydney, a multicultural oasis called Cinnamon Gardens that is threatened from the outside by prejudice.

That’s interspersed with flashbacks to Sri Lanka during the civil war and a broader exploration of national mythologies that include only some people, leaving others on the outside.

Fiction has been vital for Tamil and Sinhalese people to examine the long-running conflict according to Chandran, who is Tamil and grew up in Australia after her parents were forced to leave Sri Lanka.

“It’s a really important avenue for us because telling the truth in Sri Lanka is not allowed, it is not safe to tell the truth about what happened, regardless of which side you’re on,” she said.

Which leads to some truths about multiculturalism in Australia, the fault lines of which are traversed in Cinnamon Gardens.

Chandran believes multiculturalism is wonderful but she has long been troubled that attempts at honest dialogue about race, identity and racism are shut down.

She would like to openly discuss these issues but fears the capacity to debate and disagree is being lost.

When she has recovered from her win, Chandran’s next step is to work out how to devote more time to writing and she also hopes to adapt Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens for the screen.

“I saw it very much as a television series in my mind and I would go to bed at night and say, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen tomorrow’.”

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