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Working with Words: Roanna Gonsalves

Read Monday, 27 Jul 2020

We caught up with Roanna Gonsalves to talk Midnight’s Children, drudge jobs and eating Twisties with a spoon.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Black and white photograph of writer Roanna Gonsalves

I grew up in Mumbai, India. My mum worked in a company that had a staff library. She would bring home all kinds of texts, from Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew to old issues of Reader’s Digest, magazines like Femina, Savvy, Women’s Era, Archie comics. My parents bought us a subscription to Target, the children’s magazine coming out of Delhi. I was a voracious reader as a child. But the first piece of writing that really moved me was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I was moved to laughter and to tears by that book because of the magnificent story and the exquisite prose, of course. But more importantly, that novel made me feel seen. It was thrilling to have my world and the mixed-up linguistic soundtracks of my environment validated in literature. I’m reminded of Michelle de Kretser’s words about Shirley Hazzard. She says:  ‘One reason I value The Transit of Venus is because it reminds me not to mistake the limits of my understanding for the limits of art.’ This is akin to how I feel about Midnight’s Children.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I have been writing ever since I can remember. I used to write mostly bad poetry and plays as a young child. I’d like to think that my poetry was about nature and my plays were social satires. But really, those early dippings of my toes in the ocean of story were just the very clunky but pleasureable beginnings of a powerful realisation: that literature, the reading and writing of it, was my calling and my home.

It was thrilling to have my world and the mixed-up linguistic soundtracks of my environment validated in literature.

Cover image of the anthology 'After Australia', featuring a story by Roanna Gonsalves

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I’ve been a shop floor saleswoman at trade fairs, a letter-box dropper, a door-to-door market-research interviewer, a waitress, a petrol station attendant, a receptionist at a debt-collection agency, an admin assistant, among other things. I didn’t know it then, during those years of drudgery, but looking back, those experiences are liquid gold in terms of material for my writing. Those experiences have ensured that I don’t take myself too seriously and that I remember that there is always another perspective.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I would only be writing. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination in this respect, but I honestly can’t think of myself doing anything else. Yes, I can imagine myself doing other things to earn a living. But I have always thought of myself as a writer. It’s part of who I am. It’s like having another beating heart.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Best advice: Show up on the page every day. I don’t think I’ve had any bad advice.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

Yes. I’ve kept diaries, notebooks, dream diaries, morning pages, a running tab on the Notes App on my phone, at various times in my life. I sometimes dip back into these repositories of memory and the imagination to begin a story. But mainly they exist as artefacts of writing practice.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I don’t want to brand any writing as overrated, particularly not in our current times where the arts are under threat. I do love the work of Gwen Harwood, who is underrated and really should be hailed as a genius. I also love The Absent Traveller, an anthology of startlingly modern verses from the second century CE, written in Prakrit mainly by women, translated into English by one of India’s most significant poets, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

I didn’t know it then, during those years of drudgery… but those experiences are liquid gold in terms of material for my writing

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I eat chips with a spoon when I’m writing so that I don’t soil my keyboard with Twisties flavouring. But that’s not strange, it’s what everyone does, isn’t it?

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Everything! I cringe at everything I’ve ever written and can see so much that needs to be changed but cannot because it has been published already.

Can you tell us about some of your recent work? 

I’m particularly proud of my latest work, a story called ‘The East Australia Company Mango Bridge’ which appears in an anthology, After Australia. In this story I tried to answer, through fiction, a few ‘what if’ questions. What if an Indian servant and an Indigenous woman (with a father from Goa) started a business in the early colony? What if they were so savvy that they changed a Governor’s order which then prevented the Appin massacre and all the massacres to follow, thus reversing the process of colonisation? What if they then went on to build an empire that rivalled the Macarthurs in Sydney and the East India Company in London? In this way, I speculated about the history of the early colony, while also trying to write a love letter to the printing press. 

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

As one of my favourite poets and teachers the late Eunice De Souza wrote, ‘Best to meet in poems’. Yes there are exceptions, but in general, I much prefer to meet writers and their characters on the page. This way, there is intimacy but also distance that allows for the maintenance of necessary illusions.

After Australia, published by Affirm Press, is out now

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.