This South Asian Author Couldn’t Get Published — Until She Made Her Ethnic Characters White

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Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens author Shankari Chandran
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Shankari Chandran's new book Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is a love letter to storytelling — for and about diasporic communities in Australia.
Page by page, we delve deep into the lives of a beautifully tight-knit community in a suburban Sydney nursing home. Daily meat-and-three-veg dinners have been replaced by aromatic dishes infused with turmeric and other Eastern spices. This is Cinnamon Gardens, a home for the elderly.
But it's not just a home — it's a haven that houses the stories and memories of its diverse residents, some sentimental, others rather heartbreaking recollections of hardship and discrimination. Chandran explores the issues of racism and dispossession faced by migrants, and questions what it means to be Australian, a question many of us continue to ask ourselves every day.
But there was a time when her writing was not considered Australian enough by some publishers. In 2014, the Sri Lankan Australian wrote a political thriller set in a world struck by an Ebola pandemic, where religious wars were rife.
"The protagonist was a South Asian secret agent and his name was Zakhir Ali, which is a name that I've gone on to use in Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens," Chandran tells Refinery29 Australia.
"So, his name was Zakhir Ali and he was a British South Asian Muslim, a man of colour."
This was Chandran's second novel and her second attempt at getting published after her first novel had been rejected by local publishers.
"I had been told that it was not Australian enough to be published and they wouldn't be able to sell it yet," she recalls.
With this still lurking at the back of her mind, Chandran decided to change the name of her protagonist in her second book. Could making the central character a Caucasian person make the publication a more appealing read for Aussie audiences?

I think what shifted it and made it more attractive in the market was the fact that it was a white protagonist.

Shankari Chandran
"What I realised when I got that feedback on my first novel, was that the second novel would also struggle in Australia. Therefore, I changed him [Zakhir Ali] from being a brown protagonist to a white protagonist and called him Noah Williams," she explains.
"The book was then shopped around and picked up by a publisher very quickly, and the whole process was quite devastating for me; the fact that I felt I had to change his identity and his race.
"And then while I was delighted the book was published, I also felt really sad that that's what it had taken. I think what shifted it and made it more attractive in the market was the fact that it was a white protagonist."
Chandran eventually started writing her third novel, which was set in Sri Lanka and explored the final stages of the civil war. It's yet to be published, but for her, writing it was a cathartic experience.
"I went on this kind of journey of who am I as a writer...what am I doing? I felt that it was unlikely I would get published in Australia in the way that I wanted to be published, and I actually felt really freed by that," she says.
She began working on Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, with no expectations to necessarily get it published. After receiving two writing grants, she was able to better juggle her time between working as a lawyer and writing the book. She'd already come to terms with the fact that the manuscript might never be published in Australia, and thought it may very well be her last book.
"I thought I would write this manuscript, I'd give it to my agent to see if it was any good and if they got a publisher, that's great. But I was really preparing myself to walk away and to reframe my artistic career.
"So I was really trying to almost talk myself through a process of grief around the kind of career that I really wanted to have, but felt it slipping away from me. While there was a sadness around that, it was also quite liberating."
Thankfully, Chai Time by Cinammon Gardens is now on bookshelves, with Zakhir Ali as its protagonist. The book is testament to multicultural Australia having an appetite for diverse stories, which I'm sure most of us already know, but it's a shame that it took some publishers longer to realise it.
Shankari Chandran's 'Chai Time At Cinnamon Gardens' is now available to purchase here.
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