On July 25, Shankari Chandran won the 2023 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens. The novel is set in the Cinnamon Gardens Nursing Home in the suburb of Westgrove, Sydney – populated with residents with colourful histories. But this ordinary neighbourhood is not without its prejudices. The serenity of Cinnamon Gardens is threatened by malignant forces which challenge the residents’ peaceful existence and make their stand against the nursing home with devastating consequences.
In a joint statement about the book, the judges said that Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens reminds readers that “horrors forgotten are horrors bound to be repeated, and that the reclamation and retelling of history cannot be undertaken without listening to the storytellers...”
However, the book was off to a rocky start. Chandran’s novel explores race and racial identity in both Sri Lanka and Australia, grappling with who gets to decide who belongs in each country. She told ABC Arts that she never thought the book would get published, let alone find success. Therefore, “[she] wrote it with [her] gloves off, and with [her] heart completely open. [She] wrote it more honestly than anything that [she had] ever written in [her] life.”
Chandran’s parents, both doctors, fled Sri Lanka as the country stood on the precipice of civil war, first to the UK where the author was born, then to Australia three years later. She grew up in suburban Canberra, where she constantly wondered about her identity.
The author told the The Guardian, “There certainly is a lot of rage in the book...But I feel like a lot of my work begins from that place of rage. But through the writing, through the thinking and in the reflecting, it goes to a place of love. I hope.”
Ten years ago, her first novel was rejected by several Australian publishers for not being sufficiently “Australian”. It was published in 2017 in Sri Lanka with the title Song of the Sun God.
The judges for this year’s prize were the State Library of NSW Mitchell librarian and chair Richard Neville, author and literary critic Bernadette Brennan, academic and translator Mridula Nath Chakraborty, critic James Ley, and academic and poet Elfie Shiosaki.