Rewilding the short story

Thursday, September 13, 2018
Roanna Gonsalves interviewed by Amelia Theodorakis

Roanna Gonsalves

The short story enables writers to focus on the particular, the initimate, and the fleeting, says Roanna Gonsalves. Ahead of her workshop in October, Amelia Theodorakis asked Roanna about storytelling cultures, literary selfies, power and self-representation.

Your collection, 'The Permanent Resident' (2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award winner) explores the Indian-Australian experience through 16 wonderful and varied fictionalised short stories. What drew you to the short story (over another storytelling form) for this work?

Thank you so much for your kind words. I felt liberated by the form of the short story because it gave me the opportunity to explore a multiplicity of experiences associated with being an outsider, and a multiplicity of inner journeys, even though there are thematic links between the stories in The Permanent Resident. The short story form enables one to focus on the particular, the intimate, the fleeting. As a writer you have to cultivate a precision of focus when writing a short story, and that was challenging but also a lot of fun.

Your upcoming workshop in October, Rewilding the Short Story aims to help writers enhance or ‘rewild’ their stories in inventive ways. What are some common traps that writers of the short story tend to fall into?

From my own writing experience, it is easy to fall back on clichéd language, predictable structures, and conventional ways of understanding the world. I find it incredibly useful to look at how writers from different storytelling cultures approach structure, how they represent power on the page, all of which can be quite different from the ways in which storytelling is approached by those of us used to the English literary canon.

In your piece, ‘See me showing you me’ published in Overland, you write that self-representing stories serve as a kind of ‘literary selfie’. What do selfies and self-representing stories have in common?

To me, there is nothing more powerful than having the opportunity to represent yourself in a way of your own choosing, without relying on others to represent you. This is what a selfie does. It gives us the opportunity and the tools to represent ourselves. I think this is what we can take away from visual culture to think about how we self-represent in literary culture. I’ve written about this in Overland and in The Conversation.

It’s important that the stories of culturally-diverse folk are represented by culturally-diverse folk. If a writer comes from a culturally-diverse background, do you think they have a particular responsibility to write from that place?

Self-representation is important because of the historical imbalance of power between the dominant culture and minority groups in any context, particularly formerly colonised and Indigenous communities. This imbalance of power makes it hard for such communities to tell their own stories. There is therefore a long history of taking the stories of the “natives” without informed consent and without ever considering moving aside to make way for storytellers from those colonised communities. This means that the powerful, with access to circuits of publication and prestige, and the colonising machinery behind them, have felt free to take any story they chose, even at the cost of silencing others. This has often been euphemised as “giving voice to the voiceless.” However, as Arundhati Roy noted in her Sydney Peace Prize lecture in 2004, “there's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Alexis Wright’s essay in Meanjin, is a powerful argument for self-representation, firstly for Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders, but also for all oppressed groups across the world. She says, “It has been a life’s work of growing increasingly aware of how other people were telling stories on behalf of Aboriginal people in Australia, and how stories are used in campaigns to achieve certain goals. I think it would be fair to say that we are the country’s troubling conscience and managed by its most powerful power brokers through a national narrative. I saw the fallout of this changing negative narrative in our communities, and in the lifetime of hard work our people do to fight against each political story-making trend.”

If Indigenous communities, followed by other minority communities, don’t see ourselves in the national story, and we don’t feel like we can be co-creators of national “story-making” then it’s hard to feel like we have a stake in this nation, or community.

Who are some of your favourite short story writers?

There are too many to mention, including some awesome new Australian work. But when I’m going through a period of literary despondency, I read Alice Munro, and her words immediately refresh me.

About Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves is the author of The Permanent Resident’winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Multicultural Prize 2018, and longlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award 2018. It is on several lists of must-read books, and on the syllabi of university courses. Her work has been compared to the work of Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri. Roanna is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award, is co-founder co-editor of Southern Crossings and has a PhD from UNSW.    

About Amelia Theodorakis

Amelia Theodorakis is a Writers Victoria Program volunteer, and a Melbourne-based writer working on her first poetry collection. You can check out her poetry on her website.