Monday, February 13, 2017

Searching for Saloni: My StoryCity fiction is launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival Melbourne

On February 12, I went public with my fiction. For most people, that means the launch of a book or the publication of a story in a magazine, journal or book. My experience was different. My fiction was published on StoryCity, an app that takes you on innovative, adventurous city tours using stories and narratives.   

My fiction was commissioned by the Melbourne City of Literature to coincide with the JaipurLiterature Festival that was brought to Melbourne for a day (Feb 12).

My story "Searching For Saloni" is fast-paced adventure filled with riddles, codes, art and lost histories connecting Melbourne and India. The story revolves around Indian artefacts being stolen from the NGV International, which you – as the protagonist in the story – have to collect from different locations across Melbourne CBD. The answers to all the riddles are hidden in the architecture and sculptures of the city.

At the festival, I chatted with Meelee Soorkia, the editor of the stories, about the experience of writing the stories and about being an Indian immigrant writer in Melbourne.

Meelee: Your story involved bringing historical connections between India and Melbourne together. How did you go about finding them?

Chetna: When I was first invited to write a story for StoryCity, I was a bit stumped. First these are adventure stories, and I had never written adventure before. And then, I had to bring in some Indian element into a story set in Melbourne. I found that challenging.

So I started thinking what is it that I enjoy, I am interested in. And I enjoy art and history. Following that train of thought, I recalled a conversation I had had with a historian Cherie Mckeish a while ago about the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. A number of Indian artefacts had been brought to Melbourne for display at the exhibition, and they were still on display in Melbourne at the NGV International and Melbourne Museum. So I knew I had to somehow make them the focal point of the story – to bring them to light.

But once I started researching a number of connections came to light. Just between Federation Square where my story starts and State Library of Victoria where it ends, I found five locations which had an Indian connection, and that was amazing. We tend to forget that India and Australia were colonial cousins, and there were interactions between the countries through the 19th and early 20th century. Many Australian settlers from Britain would often live in India before coming to Australia, and there is a gold mine of stories to be mined in those connections.

Meelee: What were your first impressions of Melbourne when you arrived here?
Chetna: I didn’t come to Melbourne straight from India. I actually first lived in Europe – I did my masters there and lived in Europe and then in London for a few years before coming to Melbourne because my husband is Australian and I was pregnant, and we wanted to raise our children in Melbourne.

So my understanding and experiences of Melbourne start there, as a middle class family. One of the first things I noticed is that Melbourne, and by extension Australia, has a bit of an identity crisis. We can’t make up our mind whether we want to be fully public or fully private, and it drives a lot of anxiety in the city. For example, when I arrived here pregnant and I was often asked where I was planning to have my baby, and it is only after sometime the penny dropped that they were fishing for whether I was going public or private with my delivery. As soon my daughter was born, the next question was which schools I was putting her name down in – was I going to go public or private?

These are big questions for middle class Melburnians, and they drive all kinds of anxieties and mannerisms in people. Some hide the fact that they studied in private schools, others flaunt it, those who studied public wear that as a badge – but everyone is aware of it. And I found that very interesting.

The only other country where I felt this tension, and not quite to this degree, was England – from where of course we have adopted this system. The Middle Class in India had largely adopted the private model, whereas Continental Europe is loudly and proudly public. But Australia cannot decide which path it really wants to take.

Meelee: Was leaving India difficult?
Chetna: I am a part of the second wave of Indian immigrants to Australia, who have come here post 1990s. As was discussed in one of the earlier sessions at the festivals, we left India by choice. We didn’t leave India because we felt we had no opportunities there. So I had agency in my decision to leave India, and I was aware that there would be loss involved in the process.

In India, I was a journalist. I knew where I was going. I had social capital. When I left, I lost my social capital. I also found myself lost as a writer because how can I write about places for others when I am myself still discovering. But then, my writing and stories became my way to explore the places and to understand them better.

Meelee: So how has Melbourne influenced your writing?
Chetna: I am writing a set of short stories, which loop around Melbourne’s South East. They start in the CBD and then move to Richmond, then Kew, then Balwyn and then sort of loop back. That’s the plan. They are loosely connected, in the sense one story begins where the other is left, but are completely different set of characters. And again, I am interested in the specific characteristics of these neighbourhoods.

For example, the story in Richmond is set in a pop-up linen store. Now pop-up shops is a real trend in Richmond, we have pop up design stores, pop-up jeans stores, everything is a pop-up. And often the people working in these stores are poorly paid artists and designers – very fashionable – but struggling to make ends meet, and Richmond is full of them. So I bring that into my story. The story set in Kew is about a working mother who has just gone back to work after her maternity break and is struggling with the idea of building her career afresh – because I have met such Mums.

So I am trying to explore life and people in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne through my stories.

Meelee: Thank you so much Chetna. We look forward to reading your stories.
Chetna: Well you can. Because some of them have been published as greeting cards with short stories in them, which are available at the festival bookshop.

The app StoryCity is available on iOs and Android smart phones for FREE. Chetna Prakash’s story Searching for Saloni is among Melbourne city stories.

The Melbourne Noir greeting cards with Chetna Prakash’s short stories in them are available at Avenue Bookstore (Swan Street, Richmond), Paperback Bookshop (Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD) and ElthamBookshop (970 Main Rd, Eltham).

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