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Probing Modes of Stability and Identity in The Permanent Resident

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How do you reconcile who you are with who you want to be?

How do you adopt a new nation, without losing your own cultural identity? How, in a world where our self-concepts are constructed within the context of social media, do we develop and express an ‘authentic’ self?

These are some of the complex and pertinent issues explored in Roanna Gonsalves’ collection of short stories, The Permanent Resident.

As the title implies, the stories all centre on characters who have migrated to Australia and have succeeded in acquiring the coveted status of Permanent Resident. The characters are all Indian by birth, though they come from several different regions within that country, and their social and economic status are delineated as much by this as by their religion – many of them are devout Catholics, and this too has a great impact on their identity, which is one of the key themes interweaving throughout this collection of stories.

Several of the stories reflect on the tensions between assimilating into Australian culture – often defined in terms of furniture and the use of slang, as much as by the widely different social customs and norms – and the preservation of Indian heritage. The protagonists are all women, and the stories reflect in different ways on ways expectations of gendered behaviour vary between India and Australia. The result is a critical portrayal of the ways in which different cultures adhere to, or diverge from, traditional gender binaries, and the impact these values have on individuals’ sense of identity.

More than being simply social and political analyses disguised as fiction (though social critique is definitely a significant aspect of Gonsalves’ work), these stories are all intensely human, addressing issues of selfhood, and morality at an individual level.

Many of the characters are at a crossroads in their lives, and seeking to determine what sort of person they want to be, and what kind of life they wish to live. The characters navigate the divisions between Indian and Australian culture, trying to find a balance that will allow them to feel at ease in a foreign country, which they now call home.

Contemplating the difficulties of this situation, one characters reflects of her Indian friend, who remains entrenched in Indian customs and values, that ‘She knows where I come from. . . but the problem is she has no idea where I’m going’. Each of the stories, in its own way, addresses the multitude of social and personal factors at play in trying to establish a sense of belonging as a migrant.

Stylistically the book is quite varied, utilising several different kinds of narrative mode, some of which are somewhat experimental, and, occasionally, a little difficult to follow. However, the prose is highly evocative and visceral, conjuring vivid images through intensely descriptive language. Gonsalves is a highly engaging writer, and her characters have the feel of authenticity, so that whilst readers may not be able to relate directly to their specific circumstances, they are able to identify with them on an innately human level.

In its narratives of isolation, cultural incongruity, and personal bereavement, the book challenges readers to look at the circumstances of migrants from a new, and sometimes, disconcerting, perspective. In acknowledging the often-problematic nature of multiculturalism in Australia, the stories all have something important to say about national identity, and the differences between professed attitudes towards it, and actual behaviours, both in born-Australian citizens, and newly-minted ones. Good literature should compel its readers to reassess their position in life, by considering their relationships to others. Gonsalves’ work does just this.

Roanna will be in conversation with Feminartsy’s Zoya Patel at Muse Canberra this Sunday 7 May from 3pm-4pm.

Tickets are $10 (includes a complimentary glass of wine or soft drink) or $30 (includes a complimentary glass of wine or soft drink and a copy of the book). Find out more here.

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