Image: Shankari Chandran.

In conversation with award-winning author Shankari Chandran

Shankari Chandran's 'Safe Haven' is a book that everyone should read the second it hits shelves. Trust me, we’ll all be the better for it.

Shankari Chandran has had a writing career worthy of well, a novel all its own.

Her first book Song of The Sun God was originally rejected for publication here in Australia because those in the industry felt it was 'not Australian enough’ to connect with audiences. God forbid our country reads about someone who’s not white and has a different cultural history/religious belief system to the majority of us. How terrifying it would be for us to expand our horizons in this way (Note: sarcasm).

Understandably burnt by the experience, Shankari made the decision to change the protagonist of her next novel, The Barrier, into a white man before submitting it to publishers. Unsurprisingly, Shankari’s theory held true; that story was good enough to publish.

But then; the masterstroke. Her third novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens wins the Miles Franklin Award, only the most prestigious and financially large literary award in the country valued at $60,000. According to their criteria, the award is given to “A novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. As I point out at the beginning of our chat (Shankari is the first return guest Booksmart has had), that’s a pretty spectacularly ironic trajectory. She agrees, saying “each book represents where I’ve been in my reckoning of cultural identity and being Australian.”

It’s an interesting choice then, to have the highly anticipated follow-up to that tacit acceptance by the industry be a book that squarely takes aim at the horror, flaws and hidden secrets embedded in the way our country chooses to deal with asylum seekers and refugees. 

Here, Shankari laughs, nodding her head in agreement. “I think it’s a sign of my growing maturity as a writer, always guided by the questions, what do I feel ready to tackle and what issues do I feel ready and comfortable to write about?” Finding the answers to those questions is often an exercise in curiosity, a conscious decision to “curiously, if not angrily explore an issue that I care deeply about.”

The deep care Chandran feels for the plight of asylum seekers and their often sub-human treatment whilst in detention is clear on every page of the delicately spun Safe Haven. It’s a gripping tapestry that follows the stories of two Australian Sri Lankan Tamil women, Sister Serafina Daniels who was rescued from a sinking boat on her way to Australia and is now in community detention in far west NSW and Lucky Darman, a government officer who investigates federal misconduct. 

The two women cross paths after ‘Fina’, a much loved member of her community decides to speak out about the treatment of asylum seekers at the offshore detention centre where she was once held and now works, offering pastoral care to the detainees. Punished for her outspokenness, Fina is forcibly removed from her home and returned to detention.

Lucky ends up at the detention centre investigating the death of a security guard, her findings inextricably linked with Fina’s fate. That might sound vague but honestly, it’s as much detail as I can give you without spoiling the delicious twists and turns hidden within this story that will have you questioning everything you know about power, influence, heroes, villains, second chances and the core humanity that sits within us all.

It made me cry, my hands shake and my heart swell with anger. The kind of anger that believes the story should sit on the desks of every person with the power and responsibility to impact what happens to people when they come to Australian shores seeking asylum.

Shankari says the story was heavily inspired by the coming together of the Biloela community as they rallied around the Murugappan family as well as her work over a decade in the  and although she obviously wants her book to be loved and enjoyed by as many people as possible, they are the readers she cares about most. “If it means anything to them, I know I’ll have done my job right.”

This is a book everyone should read the second it hits shelves. Trust me, we’ll all be the better for it.

Listen to Shankari's episode on Booksmart here.