“Beyond happy, grateful and encouraged.” This was the joyful reaction for Sydney-based author, Shankari Chandran upon winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia's highest literary accolade, with her third novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens at a ceremony in Sydney on 25 July.
Create NSW sat down with Shankari to talk about her journey writing Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens and what this momentous achievement means for her.
2023 Miles Franklin Literary Award winner Shankari Chandran, Chai Times at Cinnamon Gardens
“It’s such an honour. To be recognised among my Australian writing peers in this way is extraordinary.”
For 65 years, the Miles Franklin Literary Award has shone a spotlight on Australia’s literary talent and the way in which an individual can leave a lasting legacy on a community and an industry.
Raised in Canberra and now based in Sydney, Shankari is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants of Tamil ancestry.
Driven by a passion for social justice in her work as a human rights lawyer, her book reflects her Tamil background and its impact on contemporary Australia. Tackling difficult subject matter, her novel explores what it means to ‘be Australian’, through the interplay of past and present life.
Shankari received the Create NSW 2018/19 NSW Writer’s Fellowship and an Early Career Writer’s Grant in 2017, essential support that she credits for instilling the confidence and validation she needed to bring this powerful book to life.
“The first small grant allowed me to travel to Sri Lanka on a research tour for my book Unfinished Business, a political thriller. I needed to immerse myself in politics and meet with people who could talk openly to me about human rights abuses. I couldn’t conduct these interviews from Australia. We needed the safety of meeting face-to-face with translators.”
In 2019, as the NSW Writers Fellowship recipient, the grant enabled her to take time away from her work to research and develop the book while it was in its early stages.
“The funding I received was life-changing. If Create NSW had not funded me, I might not have been able to write Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens when I did, or to the quality.”
“Like most writers, I have a job and family commitments. The time, energy and creativity needed to write is easily cannibalised. This grant bought time so I could convert dollars into words.”
Shankari humbly recognises that winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award and receiving grant funding is an experience shared by few Australian writers.
“Writing is a very long game. Most writing you see on the page or on screen has taken years to develop. Few people see the huge amount of time invested – to research, write, edit, then get a publisher. It can take years to get a manuscript ready to market, then further time to reach readers or have your book optioned for screen.
“Most people do not have the means to sustain the long game, and most writers have other jobs. Literature receives a very small proportion of government funding. Writing and literature is like the poor, introverted sibling in the art world. We’re surrounded by flashier, more seductive siblings like TV and film who often draw from the foundational skill of the quiet one.”
As the Co-Deputy chair of Writing NSW, Shankari is a passionate advocate for Literature to be more highly valued, as an artform, in its educational value for young minds and as a tool for social change. She emphasises the importance of not only supporting writers, but the organisations that nurture the writers and a diverse storytelling culture.
“With ever-diminishing funding for literature, the most effective way of preserving a vibrant, diverse storytelling culture is to fund the organisations that support the writers.”
“I don’t remember my first spreadsheet, but I remember stories from a very young age.”
“Literature creates safe spaces to explore difficult topics and hold conversations in a respectful and loving way."
“Storytelling honours the human experience, and strengthens community like no other artform can. Stories entertain us, but also prompt important conversations.”
“I hope this book continues the conversation.”
“Books invite the reader into someone else’s life to immerse themselves in the hearts and minds of the characters. You see the world through their eyes. It might be a similar world, and you feel connection. Or it might be a different world, and your empathy grows.”
Shankari is currently well advanced in her next project, for which she has received a Create NSW Arts and Cultural Funding Program - Individual Projects grant. Set in far west NSW, her novel, ANBU explores the strength and resilience of a close-knit community in their fight to protect a community member. Shankari hopes it will be in bookstores late 2024.
About Shankari Chandran
Shankari Chandran is the Co-deputy Chair of Writing NSW. Shankari is a lawyer and author of Song of the Sun God (Ultimo Press, 2022), The Barrier (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2017) and Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens (Ultimo Press, 2022) winner of the 2023 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Song of the Sun God is being adapted for a six-part TV series, supported by Screen Australia. Unfinished Business is in the early stages of TV development, supported by Screen NSW. Her work has been long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award (2019), and short-listed for the Fairway National Literary Award (2018) and the Norma K Hemming Award for Speculative Fiction (2018). She won the Blake-Beckett Trust Scholarship (2019) and the Create NSW Writers’ Fellowship (2018/2019) which supported the publication of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens.