review by Jessica Abramovic and Jen Webb
Jen met Roanna Gonsalves in 2007 when she came to the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP) conference, hosted at the University of Canberra. Her paper used Bourdieu’s constructs in a genuinely fresh way: examining the relationship between the literary field, and how creative writers produce their works, from the original story idea all the way through to editing and publication. So Jen knew back then that Gonsalves, too, was a huge Bourdieu fan; but didn’t know she was also a writer of sharp, smart, moving short stories.
Jess met Gonsalves in 2017 when she came to Canberra to launch The Permanent Resident. She was captivated by her ability to seamlessly mould her recollections of story writing with storytelling and re-telling. As a first generation Australian, though neither Indian nor brown-skinned, Jess found she related to so many of Gonsalves’s stories, her depictions of the Australian reaction to migrants, and her perceptions of Australian life, society, and racism.
It is tempting to read the author as the narrator, even though that axiom is dead in the water, now, in the 21st century. So we won’t do that. But we will note that the collection is contained within a community Gonsalves knows very well: expatriate Indians, primarily living in Australia. While it does tell stories of leaving home, The Permanent Resident does a lot more than this: it provides an unsentimental, though compassionate, representation of the experiences of migrants in Australia.
Each story is a small jewel; each explores an issue that is very likely to resonate with anyone not fully a part of the social contract: immigrants, members of the CALD  community, first generation Australians, women... It is gutsy, feisty, often funny, sometimes desolate, and masterfully illustrates and interrogates overt and subtle racism experienced by the Indian diaspora (and by others who apparently don’t fit the dominant narrative of Australia). But for the most part, her characters are not shuttered by this situation, or resentful of the dominant culture. They find their feet; they navigate the social field; they both transform it and are transformed by it.
The first story in the collection, ‘Full Face’, starts with a dry cool voice, in medias res: ‘I broke up with my boyfriend because he was repeatedly unfaithful to me. So I left Bombay and got myself a job as a copywriter in Dubai’ (1). In two sentences, we are given a brilliant portrait of the narrator: she’s open but not confessional; she’s courageous and energetic; she is extremely straightforward and straight-talking. She is also unafraid to launch herself out of home, into the world.
Most of us leave home because we want something else; but home never fully leaves us: the old structures, old stories, old relationships and old rules, haunt the present. Gonsalves’s stories deal with this problem: sometimes through her characters’ interactions with family members, sometimes with other migrants, and sometimes just the feeling of unspoken expectations imposed on them. There’s the embarrassment occasioned by an awkward aunt; violence offered by a should-be loving partner; a surprisingly confrontational story about incest and paedophilia (in ‘Christmas 2012’); and unexpected moments of tenderness from strangers or half-strangers. It is, then, about connections as much as it is about displacement and disconnection.
One connection likely to resonate with many readers is the fractured and strained relationship between mother and daughter, which is played out in ‘The Teller in the Tale’. The narrator captures the innocence and confusion of the daughter, Rita, and the hurt of misunderstood mother. While the mother believes she is protecting her daughter at all costs, Rita feels betrayed, lied to, shut out, judged, inadequate. It isn’t until Rita finds herself in a similar predicament to her Mum – a failed relationship, a damaged sense of worth – that she finally understands that her Mum has never stopped loving her, and continues to support her – in her own strange way:
At the end, Rita and her mother are able to embrace, and the final lines are redolent with hope for the future: ‘From this, newness will be fashioned. I am sure of it’ (153).
The Permanent Resident aptly speaks to the modern, intersectional feminist, and many of the situations, and the characters’ responses to those situations, evoke Roxanne Gay, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Nawal El Saadawi, and Toni Morrison. As in some of their writing, Gonsalves places her female protagonists in a well-known and generally universally understood setting, and allows those characters the space to be and become themselves, to criticise men and the society that allows ‘boys to be boys’, to interrogate themselves and their practiced femininity, and to be the heroes of their own stories.
The women who inhabit the pages of this collection are by no means oblivious to racism, gendered abuse, social isolation, or the struggle for recognition, but they don’t fold under the weight. We see this in ‘Up Sky Down Sky Middle Water’, where Aisha, an applicant for a job, is sexually molested by a potential employer:
Yes, he abuses her; but she elects to make a virtue of necessity; not to internalise guilt or shame, but to take control: ‘He stretched out to her and kissed her, his tongue alive again. But she was reaching for the sky … swimming and swimming in a direction of her choosing, towards an island whose shape she approved of, exactly’ (209).
Rekha, the narrator of the last, and the eponymous, story could so easily be stifled by her life. Her daughter is learning to swim, and she waits for the little girl, sitting at the side of the pool on what doubles as a metaphor: ‘one of the wooden benches made with parallel lines that would never meet’ (270). A tragedy unravels her marriage, but she moves herself through the patterns of recovery. As the story ends it is she who learns to swim, and another little girl cheers her on: the applause ‘taking the cruellest month and restoring it in some way towards self-forgiveness, and towards another-ness, black like a void with potential … this is where my story begins’ (280). This is, indeed, where the book ends, balanced on the possibility of recovery, of life.
It’s worth mentioning, as we conclude, that this collection is a research output as well as an extraordinary creative work. Gonsalves’s investigations extend understandings of diasporic communities, exemplifying how characters follow the sorts of paths suggested by Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology – accepting doxic systems and practices; engaging in strategic friendliness – as well as making visible the tension between the post-Enlightenment autonomous I, and the lived experience of the communal me. Gonsalves has seamlessly threaded together theory, concept and story, taking the reader through highly engaging short stories, into a permanently shifted world-view regarding the treatment, and lived experience, of migrants in Australia.
Jessica Abramovic is a communications professional and Deakin University student. Her latest work focused on Burmese refugees and psychological recovery through cultural re-enactment, and she is a member of various feminist and literature groups in Canberra.
Jen Webb is Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice, and director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, at the University of Canberra. A poet and cultural theorist, her most recent books are Researching Creative Writing (Frontinus, 2017) and Sentences from the Archive (Recent Work Press, 2016).
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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker