Today I meet writer Rajith Savanadasa at the Malthouse Theatre. It’s afternoon tea time, and the Malthouse café is busy with actors letting off steam and directors reading over their notes. A small school group climbs up and down the staircase, sparrows flit in and out through the open windows; the place is a hive of activity. Suddenly alighting from the staircase is Rajith, content and calm. He buys a cup of coffee and we sit in the middle of the crowd to chat.
Rajith is a Writer in Residence at the Malthouse Theatre. Here, he’s working on his next novel ‘Another Name for Gold’, for which he’s been awarded a grant by the Australia Council for the Arts. He can’t tell me much about the book, but he does give me a few hints into the story. Gold examines the process of migration surrounding an asylum seeker, suddenly dropped into a different place, feeling like an alien in foreign land. “I explore how a person might start to dress to fit in with the world around them,” Rajith tells me, “how they change their speech and values, how a sound, a look and a movement can mean different things in two languages. And how the person, allowed to stay, may look back at this time five years’ later.”
As well as writing ‘Another Name for Gold’, Rajith is working on a piece of documentary theatre. The piece stems from his work with Open City Stories, an oral history project of asylum seekers living in Melbourne created by Rajith and editor Richard Easton with the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council. The piece will centre around a migrant who was inadvertently caught up in a violent event, and now, thirteen years since settling in Australia, still feels its reverberations. Rajith tells me the piece will explore the control and responsibility the storyteller has over information he receives. “There are many layers to a migrant story,” says Rajith, “and through my process, I realised I have to write myself into the piece. The storyteller has immense power, lives depend on the way stories are told.”
Rajith’s time at The Malthouse is instrumental in telling this story. He has access to all areas of the theatre; from sitting in on play readings and rehearsals, to picking the brains of directors and dramaturgs. “I get to listen to how they think about telling a story, the tools that they work with on a play to get to the core,” says Rajith, “a process and a medium which is very different to the process of writing a book.”
Rajith’s office is high above the Malthouse, tucked away in a space where he can immerse himself in his work. He has a writing day to himself every Monday and often writes into the evening at home and on weekends, after his two-year-old daughter is asleep. Rajith’s three-dimensional characters lift off the page, yet their creation takes time. “Writing is often not the largest part of the work, a lot of the work is the thinking before, taking time to develop each person.” He likes to read about the construction of work, especially Zadie Smith’s essay ‘That Crafty Feeling’ from the collection ‘Changing My Mind’ in which Zadie writes about two different types of writers – the Macro Planners and Micro Managers. “I’m the Micro Managing type” Rajith says, “I write the first chapter many times, until I feel I have the right voice.”
Once his story is fully formed, Rajith turns to his partner and family for their feedback. His cousin, a sociologist, sometimes relates Rajith’s work back to academic texts and themes. His partner, a fellow writer, offers up constructive criticism. Friends from the workshop group he ran at Writers Victoria he met through his Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship chip in with their chapter notes.
I’ve brought along a copy of his debut novel ‘Ruins’ that I’ve picked up from my local library after being on the reservation list for two weeks. Starting as a short story around the theme of family, ‘Ruins’ became a novel about how a family living in Colombo in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war start talking to each other again. “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family,” says Rajith, “if you have a conflicting relationship due to political divides, how can we rebuild these relationships and start really talking to each other beyond talking about the weather?” ‘Ruins’ was released by Hachette in 2016, and Rajith enjoyed the editorial process. His editor Elizabeth Cowell recognised Rajith’s use of the Sri Lankan language Sinhalese, leaving the words untranslated because to the characters, the words are their own. Additionally, with the mark of a true editor, Elizabeth helped Rajith update one of the routes the character made in the book with the simple tool of Google Maps.
This year, ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ recognised Rajith as one of the best young Australian novelists writing today. “It’s nice” Rajith tells me, “a good feeling, it feels very surreal but validating. Writing is a solitary experience, yet it gives you incentive and motivation when someone tells you you’re on the right track. You can push things further, challenge yourself creatively.”
Rajith pauses to finish his cup of coffee, the café has cleared and it’s just us and the sparrows that dance around, picking up crumbs. “Life is loud,” says Rajith, “but sometimes the still moments, listening to the way someone speaks, seeing a moment between two strangers, really informs the way we think of the world.” He must get back to his work, so we say goodbye and I settle down to read more of ‘Ruins’.
‘Ruins’ is available at all good bookstores for $27.99
You can read more about Rajith’s work with Open City Stories at opencity.org.au
You can read more about Ruins at Hachette Publishing