Interview with Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves author of Permanent Resident (UWA;2016) in conversation with Selma Carvalho talks candidly about the influences that inform and frame her work, the Goan Catholic milieu, female sexuality, and the violence wrecked by systemic patriarchy.

To read short excerpts from the book click here. Permanent Resident is available at leading bookstores in Australia, New Zealand and Goa. Also available for online purchase here.

Where were you born?

I was born in Mumbai, India, across the road from Mahatma Gandhi’s Mani Bhavan, in a hospital run by my middle-class grandfather’s rich and generous classmate. I wish that all babies born across the road from the Mahatma’s Mumbai home automatically absorbed some of his virtues and none of his vices. But life is too complicated for such easy and selective osmosis.

Your debut book The Permanent Resident, a single-author anthology of short stories is in part informed by a Bombay Goan Catholic consciousness. Where did you spend your formative years?

 The decision to marinate my characters in the brine of a Bombay Goan Catholicism was in part inevitable, because that’s the culture I know best. But more than that, it was a very deliberate decision, one that I hoped would counter, in a small way, the conflation of Indianness with upper caste North Indian Hinduism. Goan history has often been relegated to the footnotes of Indian history, in the main. One thing I wanted to do was to haul the footnotes into the main text.

 I have a mother who is very creative herself, and she lost no opportunity in praising us for our creative endeavours as she raised my sister and me while working full-time. From her I learned to be a feminist. My father, who worked all his life in one company, is a witty, self-assured man who, unlike most men, has no egotistical bone in his body. From him I learned to love language and a good joke, and the importance of being true to oneself.

 My formative years were spent in the bosom of the Bombay Catholic church. My grandfather helped out in the sacristy before and after he retired from work, and told us Bible stories every evening. My grandmother was part of the Christian Mothers Sodality. I distinctly remember her blue-ribboned medal. My family are born-and-bred choristers. My dad conducted our local parish choir for many years. My sister used to be the parish organist. My dad’s brother Fr. Ozy Gonsalves is a Jesuit priest, Bombay Province. My mum’s brother, Fr William Athaide, is a Diocesan priest in Bombay. I went to a Catholic school and university (St. Agnes’s on Clare Road, Divine Child in Andheri, and St. Xavier’s College in town). And then of course, we went to the Salvador Do Mundo Association annual socials in Bombay. I grew up amongst this circle, amongst ethical and conscientious nuns and priests and lay Catholics who gave their lives in service of others.

 We now know that many in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church the world over have turned out to be cunning and shameless perpetrators of the most horrific violence. The Indian Catholic church is no exception. Like many, this is one reason (there are others, such as being taught that Biblical mythology was fact) I now find it hard to see the face of the Catholic Church. I feel a deep grief associated with this severing. I am sure many others do too. But I still have many nuns and priests to thank for the kind of childhood I had. I realise this positive experience may be because of an unusual intersection of class, ethnicity, social capital, and a particular time in history. Many people have been traumatised by the priests of the Catholic Church, to the point of killing themselves. I could have very well been one of them if not for the particular protections provided by my family etc.

When did you emigrate to Australia?

I came to Australia as an international student in 1998, the year the right wing in India (BJP) and Australia (Hanson) were in ascendance. I became a Permanent Resident in 2001, and then a citizen in 2007.

The Permanent Resident is primarily about the dynamics of human relationships. Through the prism of these marital and family dynamics we witness the lives of first-generation immigrants. Has Australia been kind to Goan immigrants?

Thank you, that’s such a lovely observation about the main themes of the book.  Australia has held and repelled all immigrants to varying degrees. Rich Goan immigrants, like other immigrants with money, are held closer. Goan immigrants who are fluent in English have a slightly easier time. Our surnames are Portuguese, or Iberian if you want to be hoity-toity, or Brazilian if you want to be sexy. I think in the eyes of many, this makes us less alien than the ‘ brown hordes’ with Hindu / Muslim surnames.  We can also leverage our Christianity, the religion of the mainstream, or at least the cultural affinities of the mainstream with their roots in Christianity, to our advantage. There are some Goans I’ve met who highlight their Portuguese background, saying they are “Portuguese Goan” and downplay their Indianness, often to great if unintended comic effect, in my opinion. As they say, you can take the Goan out of Goa but…

If you have little money, speak English with an accent that’s not easily understood, and don’t fit in with middle-class pretensions like discussing the value of your property in Goa, and the numerous legal tangles your family is facing, if you don't have access to these privileges, then it’s a different story.

I think we need to ask if Goan immigrants have understood whose land we are living on, particularly with the experience of Goan history of land being taken by various powers-that-be over the centuries. This is indigenous land that has never been ceded, but taken by force. This is the land on which we build our houses and have our weekend parties singing “Undra Mujhea Mama”. That’s all good and essential in a place where one doesn't have a support system. But I think we also need to consider the deep wound of Australian history, that of indigenous sovereignty and settler colonialism in which we are all implicated.

Many of the stories are written in the female, first person voice? Why do you have a preference for this voice?

 The first person point of view allows for a more intimate engagement with the story, and also doesn't presume knowledge outside of one character’s experience. Some stories needed the distance of third person narration and I used that. But for most of the stories I felt they needed the first person point of view to be effective.

You are possibly only the second Goan woman writer, the first being Rosalyn D’Mello, to demystify female masturbation and menstruation. Is it important to develop Goan female protagonists who exhibit real sexual urges, and how do you overcome the usual puritanism that surrounds such conversations?

There is a long literary history, over two thousand years old, of Indian women writing about the female body, about female sexuality and desire. This is one tradition in which I locate my work. I’ve written a short piece about this here:

I think it’s absolutely important to write honestly about all aspects of human experience, if the work is to have any integrity. Human beings have sexual urges. Women are human beings. It’s ‘normal’ (much as I think the word ‘normal’ is limiting), like breathing. To pretend otherwise is not something I’m interested in doing.

I think because I don’t really care about cultivating an image of the good catholic girl / good Indian woman / good migrant, with its attendant rule book of do’s and don’ts, I wrote the story that had to be written. I took each story to its most plausible conclusion. Sometimes that involved writing the masturbation scene. Sometimes that involved writing the scene where the woman is rejected in bed. I knew I ran the risk of all this being seen as autobiographical, but for me the issue was about being true to the story-world and to what the characters might plausibly do in that moment.

The men in your stories are secondary characters. They are scoundrels, adulterers, deserters and molesters. Is there a stiff upper-lip in Goan societies that tends to hide this underbelly of male deceit?

Good question. I don't think expertly hiding the underbelly of male deceit, as you put it, is unique to Goan societies. Look at any country, whether developed, under-developed, developing, over-developed, the statistics on family violence are so staggering. It’s the systemic manifestation of hetero-normative patriarchy. Yet we don’t hear much about this in the mainstream discourse. What is shameful is always hidden.

I wanted to write about these things precisely because they are often hidden, at great cost to many. I am the daughter of an ethical, enlightened, wonderful man. I am the mother of two amazing boys, for whom I would give my life.  But this is not always the experience of all women. Stories about good and bad men occupy a huge proportion of our atmosphere. I wanted to contribute to the work of women who write about women. My stories may have male secondary characters who are unsavoury, to put it mildly. But my main characters are women. Contemporary women’s experience as human experience, this is what I’m interested in.

The women characters often have dichotomous relationships in your book. At one level they are sustained by the safety net of female solidarity. At another level, they are conflicted by competition and petty jealousies. Which of these dynamics is more prevalent in Goan society?

That’s a lovely question. I can’t comment on Goan society as a whole. I think this complexity is common to all communities. In fact I think each of us holds this complexity within ourselves. We are none of us, always saints, nor are we always sinners. We are friends and lovers. We are also slayed by our egos. I wanted to explore this complexity and render it into fiction about contemporary Indian women in Australia. I’m glad you picked up on this. Thanks for reading my work so closely.

Some headway has been made in documenting the migration history of East African Goans, UK Goans and Canadian Goans. Do you know of any academics working towards this end in Australia?

There are many of Goan heritage here in Australia who have chronicled various aspects of the Goan experience, the immigrant experience, and just the experience of living here in Australia, irrespective of one’s roots. Cyprian ‘Skip’ Fernandes, author of Yesterday in Paradise, was instrumental in starting up a highly respected mainstream publication Good Weekend here in Sydney. Dr Ruth De Souza has worked in New Zealand and Australia in the area of cultural safety and health research and community activism for many years. Suneeta Peres Da Costa wrote a lovely novel called Homework based on a Goan family in Sydney. Nigel Fernandes wrote the novel Consequences about vigilante justice. There are many Goan Associations all over Australia and New Zealand that hold regular events, and in this way reinvent the experience of what it means to be a Goan today. I don’t know of anyone doing the hard work of documenting the history of Goan migration here in the sense of recording the migration patterns, or the oral history of Goan immigrants etc. I hope I’m wrong.

What is the next book we can look forward to?

Thank you for your interest, Selma. I have so many books in my head. It’s a matter of sustaining the balance between working in numerous precarious day jobs to pay the bills and spending time writing, as it is for many writers and artists. So hopefully I’ll be able to strike a sustainable balance.

Postscript: Since the publication of this interview, I found out, through Frederick Noronha, about this wonderful book, Goenkars in Western Australia : voices and images of a vibrant Goan community, by Jaya Earnest (Black Swan Press, 2009).