UQP Writer's Room: Christopher Raja
Why did you start writing?
Writing was my way of searching for home. I am interested in the ideas of class, belonging, identity, mental health and coming-of-age and writing offers me a space to reflect on these topics.
My mother and father were academically inclined and would read a lot of poems, fairy tales and fables to me as I was growing up in Kolkata. I inherited my love of reading and libraries from them. I devoured books, Chandamama comics, often went to the cinema to see Hindi and English films, and would write poems, short stories and plays from a young age. In high school I entertained friends with anecdotes and enjoyed making them laugh.
How did you decide which form or genre was right for you?
I write in a variety of genres because I knew it would take something extraordinary for me as an Indian born Australian man to make a mark as a writer in Australia. So I co-authored the play, The First Garden with Natasha Raja, which was performed in botanical gardens in Australia and published by Currency Press in 2012. My debut novel, The Burning Elephant was published by Giramondo Publishing in 2015. It was written under a New Work grant awarded in 2013 by the Literature Board of the Australia Council - Emerging Writers Young adult literature (for 12 to 18 years). My latest work, Into The Suburbs: A Migrant’s Story started in my journal years ago, parts of the text were published in The Age, Meanjin and Of Indian Origin: Writings From Australia, then the manuscript began to form as a novel but ended up as a memoir.
Where was your inspiration for your latest work?
At the age of eleven, my family migrated from Kolkata to Melbourne. My father, David, a school principal, insisted the family move to Australia for a better life while my mother Edith, a teacher, was sceptical. My family 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 I no longer recognised our relatives there as they had changed and some I had never met before. To me they seemed more Australian than Australians yet they looked like us. As we acclimatised to our new country, it became apparent that Australia was not the egalitarian place we had dreamt it would be.
My parents taught me values such as sacrifice, service, ethics, humility and love. These were things I wanted to record and celebrate. I also wanted to explore what it was like to grow up in the suburbs of Australia as a migrant teenage boy. There was little to no literature that dealt with my experience so I decided to write a book about it.
How do you get started with a new project?
Every project is different. For Into The Suburbs, I had received an Australia Council grant and was working on another book that remains unfinished. Instead I started thinking about my arrival in Australia and my teenage years.
Do you have a routine? What tools do you use?
I try and have a good morning routine that involves listing all the things I am grateful for, drinking a big glass full of water with a shot of organic apple cider vinegar, reading a poetic verse and doing my morning pages. I write every day. I use pen and paper in the morning and later in the day I may use a word document. Often it feels as though I write without knowing what I am doing but I persist with courage and hope. I don’t have writer’s block. Writing is what I have persisted with and I can’t explain why apart from the fact that maybe it is because I am still looking for home. I read books and respond. I like to imagine re-writing books. I jot down memories and feelings. I often start with an image or an emotion. I also keep a journal, I mostly don’t re-read my journal entries and from time to time I burn them.
How important is research in the writing you do?
Research is important but it depends on what I’m working on. I researched some parts of Into The Suburbs such as the history of names and places. Research is helpful but hopefully the awkwardness of it on the page gets edited out in the process of writing and re-writing. I like books that feel immediate and urgent no matter when or where they are set. Into The Suburbs is part of a series of books that I am working on.
How much planning is required when it comes to structuring one of your books?
The Burning Elephant took a long time to write. It took me ages to get the point of view correct. My play, The First Garden came quicker and my memoir, Into The Suburbs was a second part of The Burning Elephant, abandoned, reworked, shortlisted for the Penguin prize in 2019 and then I decided to make it a memoir. I can’t explain it but writing a book is a bit crafty, a bit mysterious and a big slog.
What’s the editing process like?
I appreciate the editing process and relish working with different editors who help me see things fresh. My editor for Into The Suburbs was Julian Welch and he helped me turn my novel into the memoir I was trying to write all along. We seemed to intuitively understand each other. I feel very privileged and fortunate to have my work considered, edited and published by three esteemed Australian publishing houses.
How did you come to be published?
I started by sending short pieces to Meanjin, Southerly and The Age and got published in all three in my twenties. Jason Steger, Sally Heath and Ian Britain were the first people to publish my work. I also had the opportunity to guest edit an issue of Meanjin in 2004. Art is slow. Things just seemed to fall into place when the work and the timing was right.
Social media – like it or loathe it?
Keeping in mind Australia’s tendency to humiliate and knock those poppies who stand too tall, or not stand together, and are therefore chopped down to size, I use social media reluctantly. I have a Twitter account and a Facebook account because I want to connect with other readers. I don’t post much because I’m afraid of being trolled but it is a way of staying in touch with people. I prefer being an outsider looking in, don’t like to waste time, talk or tweet too much, just enough to let people know my play, novel, memoir exists or if I am doing an event somewhere I will post it there.
How do you handle the reviews?
Naturally I want positive reviews to build up my readership but requiring a reviewer’s affirmation to keep writing is not something I seek. I plan to keep writing many more books so I try not to be influenced by reviews or what anyone says apart from my agent, editor and publisher. Literature should do many things including provoke and confront. I am not interested in pleasing the audience or an influencer on Twitter or Instagram. I aim to trigger different responses within the same reader and write books that gain in value over time.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
If I wasn’t a writer I’d like to be a sportsman, painter or musician. Mahler’s symphonies inspire me to keep working. Apart from being a father and a reader, we have all been affected by COVID-19 and I would like to help people who are less fortunate and doing it tough.
What is your number one tip for aspiring writers?
Read a lot and write. I always make sure I have a project on the go to show a potential publisher and now my agent, Martin Shaw.
Plotter or pantser? Pantser
Tea or coffee? Coffee
When I’m not writing I’m… Exercising
My favourite place to read is… on a train, outside under a tree, beside a pool and at the beach.
Ebook or physical book? Both