Shankari Chandran, who was raised in Canberra, has won Australia’s major literary award for her novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, published by Ultimo Press.
The Miles Franklin award, worth $60,000, was announced on 25 July.
The book is set in a Western Sydney nursing home, and discusses a rising tide of racism in contemporary Australia, woven through the upheavals in recent Sri Lankan history and the legacy of colonialism.
Chandran, who spent two years writing the book, wanted to explore what it meant to be Australian and who was included and excluded from that definition. While the novel deals with trauma and bigotry, there’s also plenty of warmth and humour.
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens also reflects Chandran’s confusion about her own identity as a woman of Sri Lankan heritage who has chosen Australia as her home.
It’s the third novel for the writer, who had been unsure this book would appear at all. Publishers told her that her second book stood more chance in the market if she changed the protagonist from being South Asian to white, and her first novel, Song of the Sun God, was also criticised for not being Australian enough.
Song of the Sun God now has development funding from Screen Australia for a television adaptation.
Born in London and raised in Canberra, the 48-year-old human rights lawyer is part of a wave of writers exploring the conflicts between Western society and their ethnic and cultural origins, including Maxine Beneba Clarke and Zoya Patel.
Patel, whose first novel Once a Stranger has also been published recently, won acclaim for her memoir No Country Woman about the experience of juggling two cultures and what it means to never truly belong. She loved Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens and told Region she gave it to all her family members.
“It’s really important these stories are told,” she said. “It’s quite shocking how many people would have absolutely no idea about the conflicts that Shankari writes about.
“The Miles Franklin gives authors an opportunity like no other because it’s Australia’s most prestigious literary award. That means their work is open to new readers in an art that’s particularly important for marginalised communities, diverse stories that don’t get that coverage.”
The judges said: “Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is alive with character, dialogue and action. With enormous skill Chandran recounts a solemn history, largely through a cast of squabbling, endearing elders, and invites us to open our hearts and minds: If you read the literature of a country … you will understand it; you will fall in love with it.”
The 2023 judging panel comprised author and literary critic, Dr Bernadette Brennan; literary scholar and translator, Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty; book critic, Dr James Ley; NSW Mitchell Librarian and chair, Richard Neville; and author and editor, Dr Elfie Shiosaki.
The shortlisted titles for 2023 were:
Hopeless Kingdom by Kgshak Akec (UWA Publishing)
Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing)
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (Giramondo Publishing)
The Lovers by Yumna Kassab (Ultimo Press)
Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor (Pan Macmillan Australia)
The Miles Franklin was first awarded in 1957 from a legacy left by the author of My Brilliant Career. It recognises a novel of the highest literary merit, depicting Australian life and has been won by literary greats including Patrick White, Ruth Park and Tim Winton.