LAYERS LIKE AN ONION
REVIEW: ANJANA BASU
Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney and Other Stories
These 16 short stories are written by an Australian immigrant about the lives of women like herself. One would immediately guess that they were autobiographical but Roanna Gonsalves is very clear that her stories are imaginary. She took her themes from incidents that she read about in the media and chose to write about the struggles of first generation Catholic migrants in Sydney.
Gonsalves is very conscious that her stories are making a statement about her race and gender and the cross currents that flow from those. On occasions they constrict the lives of the women at another they enable and the whole is the struggle of a second class citizen striving to fit in. The stories are told by old hands and by newbies. There is Gloria in ‘Full Face’ who tries to project herself as a connoisseur of wine thinking that is the best way to fit in – only to have her husband point out that the wine she is praising is cheap plonk.
Rekha in Permanent Resident signs up for adult swimming classes desperately trying to hide the fact that she lost her daughter in a swimming accident.
It is quite obvious that the Indian-Australian woman has many dimensions to her – the struggle for example of coming from the old country and emerging into the liberation of the new. This is why many of the stories are in the first person – the immediacy of the struggle comes through more strongly. Gonsalves covers subjects like sexual abuse and racism – there is that interesting phrase ‘curry faggot’ which most raders will probably not have encountered before.
Jhumpa Lahiri fans will link the book to Lahiri’s explorations of the Bengali diaspora in America because the issues are similar though Gonsalves characters are earthier than Lahiri’s possibly because of their Goan Catholicism. However, characters belonging to other Indian communities are in short supply restricting the scope of the experiences. Whites too exist only as a backdrop and encounters between the racial groups in the stories tend to turn into power struggles where the Australian always has the upper hand. Some may question this tendency as they might also wonder why the marriages in the book seem to fail. But then there is a kind of incompleteness in everyone’s lives which flits through like a leitmotif. The past is baggage, the present unexplored and doubtful.
Gonsalves’ short stories use an economy of language to make the experiences that she writes about more manageable for the reader. Though the subjects may be depressing the stories have flashes of with and the authors prose style is as rich and earthy as the community she writes about and her descriptions nuanced.
The book had a different title in Australia where it was entitled Permanent Resident and India and there because of the new dimension it added to the lives of immigrants, it was awarded the Multicultural NSW Award. Indians will have questions about statements like taxes eaten by politicians and bureaucrats like deep-fried snacks which are much of a muchness but on the whole the collection is rewarding and sets another standard for diaspora literature.
Anjana Basu, Kolkata