The MWF Interview: Christopher Raja

Introduction by Zoya Patel

Christopher Raja’s memoir about growing up in Melbourne in the late 90s to early 00s has all of the nostalgia for suburban Australia at the time combined with the unique experience of being an immigrant in this country and the complexities that entails. But Into the Suburbs is more than just a coming of age memoir – it’s also a treatise on grief, death, family and identity told with honesty, depth and transparency.

Why did you choose to write memoir at this point in your career, having been a successful novelist and playwright to date?

I was told to keep a diary so I began to write. Into the Suburbs: A Migrant’s Story is the progression of a narrative that started in The Burning Elephant and is part of a series that I’m attempting. I’m 45, the same age my father was when he died, so I needed grief to take its course and it seems I needed more than 23 years to pass before confronting the events that I have written about in this book. I was also busy bringing up children.

Then after reading the 13-book autobiographical Confessions by Augustine of Hippo, Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem Divine Comedy, Peter Handke’s semi-autobiographical novella A Sorrow Beyond Dreams and Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical style, I became inspired to tell my story with the hope that it may heal, entertain and connect with readers.

Into the Suburbs is set in Melbourne and I chose the first-person narrator for this text as I felt it would free me up to remember the past and confront difficult material about class and race. Parts of this memoir have been published in Australia and India. In 2019, this manuscript – which was called Keysborough: Class Race and Death in an Australian Suburb – reached the shortlist of five for the Penguin Literary Prize for an unpublished work and I was then asked by the judges if my manuscript was a novel or a memoir. I didn’t want to choose one way or the other but when push came to shove, I decided my book would be a memoir, submitted it to agent Martin Shaw, and reworked it into the book that UQP published this month after several publishers auctioned for it.

Into the Suburbs traverses many themes, but arguably the strongest themes in the book are that of coming of age and finding a sense of belonging as a migrant. How do these themes intersect for you, and did you always intend for the memoir to focus on these pivotal factors?

The impulse for writing can come from anywhere and the idea of themes, as with the label novel or memoir, was not at the forefront of my thinking while writing the book. The themes became apparent once I’d finished when readers pointed out things to me, for instance. I think Into the Suburbs is a portrait of a family in exile searching for home, united and ravaged by misfortune. I hope it can be read as a story of love, courage and endurance that amounts to a moving and inspirational story about a migrant Indian family trying to make a fresh start in Australia with tragic consequences. I think the notion of coming of age intersects with the idea of belonging. Both seem to be about forging an identity.

The loss of your father under mysterious circumstances was undoubtedly incredibly painful for you a great deal of the memoir looks at your relationship with him, and the way the father-son relationship can be especially fraught for migrant families. Do you think there are unique pressures placed on migrant children?

At the age of 11, my family migrated from Kolkata to Melbourne. My father, a school principal, insisted we move to Australia for a better life while my mother, a primary school teacher, was sceptical. We arrived in Melbourne in 1986 and found the contrast with Kolkata stark. Melbourne was quiet and green with no people compared to the bustle of Kolkata. We had family in Melbourne, but we no longer recognised our relatives as they had changed. They seemed more Australian than Australians, spoke with broad Australian accents, behaved and dressed differently yet they looked like us. I could not get over that. As we acclimatised to our new country, it became apparent that Australia was not the egalitarian place we had dreamt it would be.

To answer your question, I agree that children from migrant backgrounds definitely have a lot of expectations and pressures placed on them. All children want is to make their parents proud, but migrant children are also trying to fit in with their new surroundings, school and classmates. This is a difficult period for young people who are dealing with peer pressure and a surge in hormones. At school, I learnt to become more ‘Australian’ as I tried to fit in. Food, football and girls changed me. My father and mother worked in a factory. I got into trouble with teachers and bullies and became rebellious. The father-son relationship is important, but in Into the Suburbs, I also delve into class, education, gender, race, religion, economics, art, memory and death, and how all these forces affect a family.

Another core theme in the book is sexuality, and in that sense, it follows a tradition of coming of age narratives that feature male protagonists how did you approach this when writing your memoir, and why did you think it was important to incorporate?

I don’t know if there are any memoirs told from an Indian-Australian male perspective about growing up in suburban Australia. This was a glaring omission to me. Sex wasn’t spoken about much when I was growing up nor was it a major focus when I was writing the book but yes, it features and it was my intention to state things as they happened during my teenage years, a puzzling and revealing time.

On reflection, a reason why I write so frankly about sexuality is because I wanted to avoid the caricature of what an Indian or Asian boy was supposed to be like – geeky, doing homework and having an arranged marriage. These are such clichés. Instead, I chose to investigate small-mindedness, racism and sexism and to highlight a type of hyper Australian masculinity that I was exposed to at a young age while playing football and cricket, getting into fights, listening to rap music, but also being underage and visiting seedy bars and nightclubs, in a way that was very foreign to my experience at home. The older I get, the clearer the dichotomy. Now I recognise that being a teenager and a man in Kolkata means something very different to being a teenager and a man in Melbourne, Alice Springs and Vienna, places I am familiar with.

We also change our views as we get older so despite the embarrassment, I wanted to record some of this and explore notions of memory, desire, lust, longing and truth.

Coming to craft, did you approach writing this book differently to how you approached writing fiction?

I start with an image and emotions. The idea of the form or genre is never fixed at the start. My first book was a play, The First Garden (Currency, 2012); my second book, The Burning Elephant (Giramondo, 2015), was a novella; and Into the Suburbs is, of course, a memoir.

Each of my books is different, but they all deal with exile, displacement, home and dispossession. As an Australian writer who was born in India, and spent large chunks of time in Kolkata, Melbourne and Alice Springs, I have used various approaches to tell different stories about this concept of home and what it means to be Australian. I never felt like I fit in with any category, group or approach to writing. I am a voracious reader of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I feel I learnt a lot from writing a play and a novella and those experiences helped me write this memoir. I did not intend to write a play, then a novella and now a memoir. It sort of happened. Someone said my memoir reads like a novel and I’m pleased about that. I don’t mind what it’s called. It is just a story.

A key concern for a lot of memoirists, and especially those from diverse backgrounds, is how their families will react to their work was this a concern for you, and how did you navigate it?

Naturally, it was a concern for me too. I sat with this material for a long time and was not in a rush to publish. Writing a memoir is such a responsibility and some things are embarrassing and shameful to write about. The act of writing and putting work out into the world is a bold decision and it can be difficult to navigate. I write to keep sane. My hope is that Into the Suburbs will resonate with readers and, while I was careful not to shame or expose anyone, as a writer, I feel it is our duty to record, witness and reflect on the past with courage and hope.

Why did you choose to focus your memoir on the period of time between arrival in Australia and your early twenties? Is it because that time particularly illustrates the challenges for migrants coming of age in a new culture?

The period between my arrival in Australia and my early twenties was formative and instructive for me. I wrote Into the Suburbs in my forties, and the intervening years meant I could write the younger, middle-aged and older people in my life with empathy and clarity using a novelist’s approach.

What do you hope the impact of this book will be?

I hope Into the Suburbs is well received and adds to a wider conversation about what it means to be an Australian.

Into the Suburbs: A Migrant’s Story is out now through UQP.

Christopher Raja is an Indian-born Australian author of short stories, essays, a play and a novel. He co-authored the play The First Garden with Natasha Raja, which was performed in botanical gardens throughout Australia and published by Currency Press in 2012. His debut novel, The Burning Elephant, was published in 2015 (Giramondo). It was written with the assistance of an Australia Council New Work grant. Christopher has been twice shortlisted for the Northern Territory Writers Centre’s Chief Minister’s Book of the Year award. He migrated from Calcutta to Melbourne in 1986, and spends his time between Melbourne and Alice Springs.

Zoya Patel is the award-winning author of No Country Woman, a memoir of race, religion and feminism. She is also the founder of feminist literary organisation, Feminartsy. Zoya has won numerous awards for her writing and editing, and has been published widely, including in the The Guardian, the Australian Financial Review, ABC, SBS, Junkee, Overland, Meanjin, Sydney Morning Herald and more. She was a 2020 judge for the Stella Prize, and is the inaugural ACT Stella Schools Ambassador.