ROANNA GONSALVES The Permanent Resident. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks
Roanna Gonsalves’s 16 short stories reveal the aspirations, guilt, and perils of what it is to be an Indian immigrant in Australia in the 21st century.
Gonsalves herself came to Australia in 1998 as an international student and pursued her studies while working in low-skilled jobs to survive, without traditional community support. She is now a specialist in contemporary Indian literature and a permanent Australian resident.
Like the knights of old, Gonsalves’s characters take on almost heroic proportions in battling the hardships they encounter in their efforts to attain their holy grail of permanent residency — efforts which, sadly, do not always end in success. Along the way they may face violent racist attacks, culture clashes, unhelpful — if not hostile — officialdom, relationship breakdowns, domestic violence and a struggle for financial survival. At times disturbing and heartbreaking, at others funny and ironic, Gonsalves uncovers what it is to be an outsider in modern Australia with warmth, compassion and brutal honesty.
The protagonist of ‘Full Face’, a young woman, arrives in Sydney with her husband Anil. She dreams of being able to stand ‘on a wooden box in a park and make change happen’. Change comes, but not in the way she had hoped or could have predicted. Anil, rejecting fatherhood, leaves her following the birth of their child. They have not yet achieved citizenship and she must now cope as a single parent, dealing with the values and sense of obligation deriving from her background within the two contexts of Australian and Indian culture, as well as securing her own and her child’s present and future wellbeing.
Two of the stories, ‘The Skit’ and ‘CIA Australia’, tell of the sacrifices individuals feel compelled to make to ensure their progression towards the longed-for permanent residency. ‘The Skit’ centres on a party held by a group of Bombay students here on student visas, ‘who are waiting and waiting for their applications for permanent residency to be processed’. To pass the time, Lynette, an MBA student and the key character, is called on to read a skit she has written in which she intends ‘to reflect India through the broken mirrors of diasporic memory’. Her story is an amalgamation of newspaper reports of Indian girls who were sexually assaulted by white Australians. Her character’s humiliating and frustrating ordeal at the hands of her Australian Student Welfare Officer uncovers a confronting reality of corruption and abuse of power, echoed in her further humiliation at the hands of the Australian criminal justice system.
Impressed by her literary talents, Lynette’s friends urge her to abandon her MBA and aim instead to pursue a literary career. Perhaps she will become the next Salman Rushdie. But this could endanger her chances of gaining permanent residency.
In ‘CIA Australia’, Vincent, a young Indian student, suffers a brutal racist attack on a railway station. All his valuables are stolen, including the week’s wages he intended to send to India to help his family repay the loan they raised for his Australian education. He refuses to allow his rescuer to call an ambulance or the police:
‘No, no,’ he said, becoming animated. ‘This is my last semester. They will do a police check for PR applications, no? Why simply get a bad name? So much I have struggled, now at the end I don’t want trouble.’
Domestic violence, in some particularly awful ways as practised in India, is also present in the testimonies of these modern Australian stories.
Gonsalves’s acute sense of paradox, her willingness to be playful and her outstanding ability to capture the moment with devastating bluntness is tempered with irony and understanding. With skill she motivates our affection and compassion for her characters, their dilemmas, their weaknesses and their efforts to demonstrate their success and superiority over their compatriots through flaunting their material possessions:
… the woman erect in her sari, [at the local swimming pool] proving she has family in Bangalore who can send her fine silks and readymade blouses with brocade on the border … these shiny, successful people with investment properties and crockery to match every cuisine, and free juicers thanks to their Myer cards – all the more precious because of the months and money spent on other things to acquire these baubles for nothing.
Perhaps we glimpse Gonsalves’s own triumph over the pretentiousness of her compatriots in her narrator’s revelation that she is now ‘unshackled from the bower of respectability, cut loose from that anchor that stabilises but also holds us back’.
This collection of stories invites the careful reader to contemplate and understand what it really means to be a migrant and, more widely, what it means to live within the intensely multicultural society that is modern Australia. Readers will be able to relate to what it is to be human, regardless of ethnic, racial or national origin, in our striving to win acceptance, security and a better life.
Roanna Gonsalves The Permanent Resident UWA Publishing 2016 PB 280pp $24.99
Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights and conflict resolution.
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