Reviewed by Michelle D’costa
Title: Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney
Author: Roanna Gonsalves
Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018)
Sunita DeSouza Goes to Sydney is the Indian version of The Permanent Resident published in Australia in 2016, published by Speaking Tiger Books in India in 2018. A collection of 16 stories, it is refreshing like a splash of cold water in Bahrain’s heat.
Roanna’s characters have something at stake; their stories keep you on the edge of your seat, you root for them as she explores the depths of her characters with themes like child loss, divorce, writing, maternal love, ambition and more. I think some of the writer’s strengths show in the stories in her exploration of the dark hidden corners of a relationship, the domestic setting, work-life balance and more; however, these are not the only things she addresses in the collection.
Roanna’s craft is brilliant. Her prose is poetic and the sentences make you pause and savour them, reminding me of poets I have read. There are no superfluous lines but the restraint doesn’t affect the stories – they feel full and complete.
Most metaphors and similes are Catholic. Here’s an example of a character struggling with Catholic guilt – ‘Fuck off, I said to them, pretending to be filled with the fearlessness of someone who has nothing to lose – I, who once told my best friend she should wash her mouth with Holy Water when she called a bus conductor stupid behind his back.’ Another one – ‘I will, I said, like Judas.’
Roanna has paid meticulous attention to Indian English dialogues. Because of this, her characters don’t appear to be playing their part as created by the writer but feel real, like you have heard people you know speak.
The titular story’s heroine is one of my favourites and will stay with me for long. She doesn’t give in to temptation and chooses to save a marriage. Her courage is contagious and Roanna plays out the obviously Catholic teaching – to stay away from temptation – very well. When I saw Sunita taking the high road, I wondered, is it because she doesn’t want to ruin a marriage or because she thinks it’s wrong only because of her Catholic upbringing, or is it something else entirely? ‘How exactly’ she takes the higher road shows that her character has broken free from Catholic guilt, even if not completely. There is a tug of Catholic teaching and breaking away from them in other stories as well. Can the judgment of right and wrong be separated from religion with Roanna’s characters? Hardly, yet the characters are mysterious and Roanna doesn’t tell it all.
On re-reading, I focused on her portrayal of female characters in the book. While they are strong and makes me envious of them, when I moved my lens to the male characters, I was surprised by the care with which she has carved them. They too are unforgettable for their thoughts and actions, like Vincent from Curry Muncher 2.0 who doesn’t report his harassers.
The best part of Roanna’s writing is that she hasn’t censored or exaggerated the plight of immigrant characters in her stories. Like “The Skit”, which is meta – a story within a story – Lynette, one of the characters, writes a play about an immigrant who is sexually harassed by the student welfare officer. Roanna does not play safe here but shows Lynette as an immigrant who doesn’t eventually do anything about the story she’s written for fear of ruining her chances to make it in Australia. I think the story is brilliantly done.
These stories will stay with you and gnaw at you slowly, in a good way. If readers are looking for enriching stories, they should pick this collection. If writers are looking for tips to write short stories better, this is the collection. I’m so glad Speaking Tiger published this in India. It’s been long since a short story collection kept me this hooked.
I could empathise with her characters not just because they are Indian Catholics and NRIs but also because they are as real as real can get. You don’t have to be an NRI or Indian Catholic for her stories to grip you. So, what are you waiting for?
Michelle D’costa has work forthcoming in Guftugu. Her work has recently been published by Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Bangalore Review, and The Bombay Literary Magazine. She can be found at https://michellewendydcosta.wordpress.com/