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An interview with Suneeta Peres da COSTA

PERHAPS THIS STORY SHOULD HAVE A CAVEAT, a "reading this may disturb your equanimity" warning for those toiling with limited reward in the fields of Ozlit. In an international coup of six-figure significance, an unpublished Sydney writer has been signed up in the US for the worldwide release of her first novel. At 22 and fresh out of university, the impressively by-lined Suneeta Peres da Costa is poised to hit the literary Big Time with a bells-and-whistles bang – BloomsburyUSA has made her debut novel (temporarily titled Home Work) its lead fiction title for the American autumn. Soon after, it will be released in Canada and Britain. Translation rights are being sold into Europe. And, of course, it will be distributed in Australia through Allen & Unwin. It's shades of debut novelist Tom Gilling's recent Sooterkin triumph, and confirms a sea-change in the ambitions of a new generation of local authors – the world is the audience.

Bloomsbury are pulling out all stops, with a mass-media campaign spruiking this "coming of age story about the middle daughter in a Portuguese Goan family relocated to Australia. With a touch of magical realism, the author paints a lush portrait of childhood and family madness … the story is mature, poignant, enchanting and exquisitely told."

Peres da Costa herself has a "so far, so amazing" attitude. The advance was, she admits with a huge smile, "healthy, absolutely" – and welcome to someone surviving largely on a NSW ministry new writers fellowship of $5000 and diminishing personal savings. She's chary of revealing just how healthy - "it depends whether we're talking US or Australian dollars" – but in the local lingo it's a six-figure smile-inducer. "I just feel very, very lucky – I wrote the book for myself, and that all this has happened is incredible. I thought I was going to be an academic, a critical theorist … but I had a complete change of mind at the end of my undergraduate year. The novel was a response to that – I suppose I was exploring issues about reason and the failure of reason and fiction seemed the only appropriate form. And writing the novel was incredibly liberating, a much more personal endeavour than writing plays …"

As liberating was her move early this year from the family home into her "own space". Her upstairs duplex flat in inner-city Annandale is student digs par excellence – large, high-ceilinged rooms freshly painted in dowager-dignified pastels, cornices highlighted in contrasting trim, bay-windows overlooking main-road busyness. In the hallway kitchen, she's a dart of strobelit energy: a nervous morse glints from her jeweled nose stud, earrings, rings and flashing eyes as she makes tea ("I have caffeinated and decaffeinated"). A laptop blinks upon a tucked-away desk at one end, amid a lethal-looking snarl of electric leads and double adaptors. Furniture is minimalist – the lounge is spartan, just a donated settee, two art deco-ish armchairs, a bookcase brimming and a CD player on the floor. She rattles around the flat's cool spaciousness like a young girl in charge while her parents are away. Wrong perception – she may be tiny (she claims she's 152cm – five foot– although I suspect the tape was elastic) but she's formidable and disconcertingly focused. This flat is merely a waiting room respite between the part-time playwright cum actor and full-time student she was and the New York-based writer-student she is to become.

And if she looks vulnerably like Lily Tomlin in an oversized chair warily fending off questions, she is nevertheless impressively articulate and assured. The middle of three sisters, suburban Strathfield-born and bred daughters of "middle class Catholic Indian parents", she has compiled a CV of some stature already. Her father, a Portuguese Goa-born economist and youngest of six siblings who all became international exiles, emigrated to Australia 28 years ago with her Bombay-born medical mother, now a gerentologist. The family ethos was one of assimilation and accomplishment: at Santa Sabina and Monte Sant' Angelo Mercy College, she was "driven by the immigrant impetus to achieve – but I was more earnest than ambitious … I can't take orders from anyone and I find all institutions and forms of discipline specious. I was not a bad student but only because I understood early that to subvert any system of thinking, I would have to assimilate for some time."

"Not a bad student" translates as a 1st class honours graduate (with triple majors) in communication at UTS, winner of the '98 University Alumni Undergraduate Achievement Award. Her Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarship is just a further academic accolade to go with a serious swag of young writer fellowships and drama awards already in the kick. The ABC has produced four of her plays, the STC has stage-read two … In 1997 she was a delegate at the Inter-play International Young Playwrights' Festival in Townsville, last year a guest of the US National Playwrights' Conference in Connecticut. She's published short stories, criticism and reviews, read at various festivals, was nominated as Young Australian of the Year.

Time, then, for the obvious question: how did an unpublished novelist pull such a big break? Remarkably simply, actually. "I wrote the first draft during the ('97-98) summer holidays then put it aside for six months because of my honours degree work. I picked it up again in September and took the ms with me to the US conference. Afterwards, I went to stay with a friend in NY. My friend had a friend at Random House who gave me the name of Tifanny Richards at literary agency Janklow and Nesbitt: I called her, we had lunch, I gave her my manuscript and she called the next week when I was back in Sydney to say she loved it and wanted to represent me. Which she did, and the Bloomsbury deal is the result." Which is doubly fortunate because it dovetailed with her determination "that it not be published here in Australia. Even though it is set in a Sydney suburb, its coordinates and being are international and 'expatriated' And I desperately wanted to avoid being ghettoised as a local migrant author. I felt having a publishing contract that began overseas might help that."

It was only after everything was signed and sealed that she realised just how "unusual and naοve" her approach had been. High-flyers at what is one of America's two biggest literary agencies never take cold calls. But something in the Peres da Costa approach, name and background "intrigued" Richards: after meeting the writer, she was impressed, after devouring the ms "very excited".

For Peres da Costa, life is suddenly a bustle. Tomorrow she's in Canberra for the two-week National Playwrights Conference, where her play The Art of Straying is featured for intensive work-shopping. Then she's off to the US for a fortnight's pre-publication publicity before returning for guest appearances at the Sydney Writers Festival in mid-May. Come September, she'll be back in the US for the book launch and the start of her Fulbright-financed Masters of Fine Arts course, most "likely at Sarah Lawrence College in New York". The inference is strongly one of "I'm just stepping out, I may be gone for some time". She confirms her ambivalence. "I don't know whether I want to live in Australia … maybe eventually, but I'll certainly be overseas for several years. My relationship to Australia and the notion of being Australian … has a lot to do with the way the current government talks about our history and its blind disavowal of its settler people. It's an actual situation but it's also a very potent metaphor for how we look at each other." And it gives her, she agrees with a giggle, "the shits".

Besides, there's "a certain anti-intellectual current in Australia and in Australian culture (that) I find difficult to reconcile." Both artistically and academically, it's "hard to separate the intellectual and the emotional … I want to have a writing, questing life and it seems to me I'll have to be overseas to do that. But it's quite frightening having freedom. After so long of not having it, it's confronting when its possibilities are revealed."

She regards herself as a fiction-writer and dramatist, and sees no distinction between these two "writerly sides of myself except that through plays I tend to take on the role of an omniscient narrator while in fiction I am more concerned with the limits of knowing oneself and other characters. I go through phases of needing to write out of myself and writing to myself". Theatre has taught her that "the real drama is the one we live". And a novel requires "radical solitude and a kind of rigorous sorrow. I don't think I could have written Home Work without (them) as resources", although loneliness produces "much dysfunction, grief can be immobilising and sentimentality is very false – I suppose great works of literature offer transport out of states of dysfunctional aloneness."

Her book, she says, engages with the failure of reason, intellectually and personally, through a precocious narrator, the character of an older, bookish sister and the onslaught of parental madness. It's "about isolation and … the outsider but also the maverick ethnic, who is so often maligned. And it's about the internal revolution and the home, the place where we learn to hate and hurt one another." While obviously "close to home", it's not autobiographical. Given the book's dysfunctional family, I ask, how will her family react? "I hope they understand that art is art, but it's always very difficult … maybe they won't read it. I think they're very happy for me that things have turned out this way. That's not answering the question, but it's all conjecture at this stage …"

Does her "radical solitude" mean she's a lonely person? "I am living on my own with all my imaginary presences – this flat doesn't seem that big and empty to me you see because there are so many characters here. From the novel, from future novels …too many people sometimes. But we're all a bit estranged from ourselves, don't you think? I'm conscious of (that), although I don't think I am any more or less alone than anyone else." Time for the old standby. How would you describe yourself, I ask? She laughs at the question, pauses lengthily, then "at this moment in time, I am content," she responds with a quick giggle. "I have my acute phases, my painful phases, my anguished phases but I regard myself as generally content." Another pause. "Maybe overly conscious of things, very sensitive, fatally so sometimes. It's dangerous for a writer to become inured to the world and its treachery …"

An observer might also mention a bright, intelligent lively young woman on the threshold of stunning success, I prompt. "Perhaps – but it's important to be oneself … and I don't really have much to be confident about… this period of happiness is delightful but ephemeral. I was really moved I could write my book in isolation and through it reach out to my agent in New York for instance, but that was a distillation of my aloneness. Still, that's also the only way we can reach people because I think that essentially people are disconnected. I sound so bleak, don't I?" she laughs. "I'm just trying to be balanced, but this interview process is worryingly exposing." Surely the novel was more so … "yes, but it was controlled and fictional. This is personal." And as she strokes a jagged scar that tears across her left hand, the legacy of burns from being trapped by an escalator handrail at two, she again looks disconcertingly vulnerable. You worry that New York can crush dreams as easily as fulfil them. And then I see the determination behind the eyes - my money's on fulfil.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999

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