Interview with Christopher Raja

InterviewsIssue Three

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By Senaj Alijevski


What challenges and experiences inspired your novels?

I love when someone tells me a story. I think this love for story, listening to stories, reading stories, watching movies, observing people, visiting new places, listening to songs, seeing plays, made me become a writer. Stories are about sharing. They make us human and help us connect with each other. Stories teach us empathy.

As a boy growing up in Kolkata there was plenty of culture buzzing in my head and there have been many challenges and experiences along the way. Maybe I wanted to share these experiences. I have drawn upon them in my stories. When I was eleven, for example, I moved from Kolkata to Australia. At eighteen, when my father died, my English teacher sent me a novel The Ganges and its Tributaries and a card in which she had written ‘One day you will write the great Australian novel’. For some reason the message in the card gave me purpose and a focus. In spite of these challenges, perhaps because of them, I felt a desire to tell stories.


You mention ‘The Burning Elephant’ is set in India yet is still an Australian novel. What is the importance of this? Does it capture the voice of Australian writing?

I wrote The Burning Elephant in Alice Springs. My friend, the poet Lionel Fogerty said, ‘Not bad for an Indian bloke having elephant dreaming in caterpillar country.’

I feel my work attempts to broaden the range of contemporary Australian writing. For example in The Burning Elephant I wanted to write a novel about Australia that does not feature Australia. Other books deal with the experience of immigration and tell a more common story of becoming an Australian. I did not want to do this. Instead, I wanted to focus on the realities the Seth family faced before arriving here. Not many Australian novels deal with this aspect of a hidden past that most Australians carry with them and how this past might impact on their understanding of being Australian.


The time period your novel is set in has rich political meanings behind it. What influenced it?

The Burning Elephant is a Young Adult novel which deals with social and religious issues as they impinge on the consciousness of a young Indian boy, who later emigrates to Australia with his father. It is set in Kolkata, in the period leading up to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the violence against the Sikh population which followed. The novel is told from the point of view of the young Govinda, whose father is the headmaster of a local school. It begins with the intrusion into the schoolyard of an elephant that has escaped from its owner, and is shot, then burnt by the police. This violent intrusion into the idyllic world of childhood sets the tone for the novel, which gives the innocent yet knowing perspectives of Govinda in his engagement with the crowded and complex life of Serpent Lane outside the school, his awareness of the breakdown of the relationship between his parents, his sense that his own privileged life is under threat.


Your latest novel The Burning Elephant has been described as a protest against a political system. Is this an accurate way to describe it?

I think you are referring to an extract from a speech by Chandani Lokuge celebrating The Burning Elephant at Eltham Bookshop in December 2016. I thought what Chandani said was very thoughtful, accurate and a poetic way to describe the novel. She goes on to say the book is ‘a deeply intimate story about a malfunctioning marital relationship; it is about an intelligent and beautiful woman seeking to escape domestic and cultural oppression, and about her husband who loves her and loses her because he does not understand her. More than all this, it tells the story of a child’s rite of passage as, enmeshed in both domestic and national issues that he does not fully understand, he takes the first humanist steps into adolescence.’


What’s the central theme of The Burning Elephant? How is it different from your other novels?

One of the central themes of this novel revolves around the reasons why people might want to leave their birthplace and migrate to Australia.

My previous book is a co-written play The First Garden. This play tells the story of Olive Pink—a trailblazing Aboriginal land rights activist and environmentalist. Ridiculed by her peers and shunned by the Alice Springs community for espousing ideals that were considered to be outlandish she was viewed as a public nuisance, to be barely tolerated. However, due to her vigor and vision the Olive Pink Botanical Garden was established in Alice Springs. The First Garden also touches on key narratives in modern Australian identity, incorporating Aboriginal rights, environmentalism, the Gallipoli legend and feminism.


What’s the strangest thing you’ve done in the name of research? Would you have changed anything?

Everything becomes useful when it is done for research. I am not sure what the strangest thing is though. Perhaps moving to Alice Springs in 2004 and living in the desert for twelve years. I would not change a thing.


What were the highlights of your career as a writer?

The First Garden – was performed in botanical gardens around Australia and published by Currency Press in 2012. My debut novel – The Burning Elephant (published by Giramondo in 2015) was written under a New Work grant awarded by the Literature Board of the Australia Council. I have been twice shortlisted for the Northern Territory Writers Centre’s Chief Minister’s Book of the Year award. In 2016, I appeared at the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali and The Burning Elephant was launched in China at the 9th Annual International Conference of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators in Guangzhou. Most recently, being part of the inaugural Northern Territory Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship in 2017 to work on my new novel.


Your novels have interested a wide audience, what are some of your strategies for success?

I am not sure how you define success but I would say I try to write books that people will enjoy reading.


Lastly, what advice would you give to emerging writers who have ideas for novels?

Go for it. Enjoy the journey. Be imaginative, work hard, play and redraft your work.