Short Talks – Shenali Perera

So many good people interact with us online and walk through our doors at the Centre for Stories, and so we’re pretty proud of the little community we’ve grown. Collaborations often turn into comradeships and patrons become friends. Short Talks is a series of interviews highlighting the remarkable people who have connected with us at the Centre for Stories. Some are writers, poets, and storytellers, and others are arts workers, community leaders, and small business owners.

We invite you to get to know our friends a little more.

Today we feature Shenali Perera. Shenali is interested in intercultural dialogue and telling stories that engage marginalised communities in Australia’s political and cultural spheres. She is especially passionate about empowering young women to claim their space, and voice, without apology. While at university, she started boxing as a hobby and now works as a program facilitator and Impact Strategist for The Young Boxing Woman Project. 


You’ve just been part of our Sister Sagahood storytelling project. How did you get involved with that?

I’d been a fan of the Centre for Stories ever since I heard about it from Sisonke, a few years ago, through my work at the Young Boxing Woman Project. I think I first saw the Sister Sagahood storytelling project pop us on CFS social media and immediately decided to apply because I was curious about oral storytelling and excited by the opportunity to finally get involved with the Centre! I’d also recently reconnected with Sukhjit, whom I’d first met at university, at a multicultural youth forum where she spoke so brilliantly about her experiences of being a brown woman in Australia’s arts industry, and I again felt drawn to learn from her and work with her. It was as if multiple dreams were coming together, so I knew I had to apply and I was thrilled to be accepted.

How did you choose the stories you developed, and what was the process of working with Sisonke like?

Being new to oral storytelling, I remember feeling unprepared and not really knowing what to expect walking into the first workshop. I wasn’t sure what story to tell or what kind of story it would be. The wonderful thing about working with Sisonke was that she encouraged us to trust our instincts, speak naturally and tell the story that felt most authentic to who we were and the moment in which we were telling the story. She encouraged us to hold the beginning, middle and end of the story in our minds (rather than writing it down) and let the words flow freely in between, like a conversation with the audience. As a writer, this felt at once terrifying and deliciously daring a thing to do!

In the end, the story I chose to tell is one I’ve been telling (in various forms) for a long time – it is the story of ‘where I am from’ and how I belong. Working with Sisonke and the other women of the project really helped me find the key moments of my story and draw out the emotions lying beneath.

One of the things that makes Saga Sisterhood so special is that it trained women from non-performer backgrounds. Why was that important to you, and what will you take away from the experience?

I feel one of the most valuable gifts of this project has been the opening of a space in which South Asian women from various professional and cultural backgrounds could come together, bond and share stories. Within the first workshop, as we went around the circle introducing ourselves and telling raw and unrefined stories about ourselves, it was very special to realise how much we resonated with each other’s emotional journeys and experiences. For many of us, this was the first time and space in which we’d told (or even thought to tell) these stories – previously brushed aside as dull or insignificant. And yet, as we listened and shared, it became quite obvious how delightful and precious all of our stories were; whether comedic, anecdotal, thoughtful or more poetic in style. The acknowledgement and sisterhood we felt by simply sharing our stories and selves was very special. As one of the younger women participating in the project, I loved the flashes of women’s life experiences from different times and generations. These are voices the world it seems has skipped over. I will be taking away a wealth of colourful stories and the beautiful intimacy and freedom of our storytelling circle.

A young woman smiling at the camera. She has boxing gloves on and has them raised to her face in defensive position.

We love stories. Could you tell us a quick one from your life?

Halfway through my undergraduate degree, I decided to go away on a year of exchange to South Korea. I was a hardcore Korean drama fan who’d never actually visited the country, studying Korean language at university with beginner-level language skills, and I was moving out of home for the first time to live in Korea for a year. A place where I knew no one, and a fact that only really hit me whilst mid air, hurtling through the skies en route to Seoul.

My first week in Seoul went by in a haze. I made friends with other exchange students and joined a Korean student buddy club. I let my stomach adjust to daily doses of kimchi and gradually lost any sense of shame in looking stupid while finding my way around Seoul and learning how to use the underground metro system. About two or three weeks in, I got on a metro train to the Immigration Office to get my Alien Registration Card (a residential ID for foreigners living in South Korea). In order to make the application, I needed to take with me all my official documents – passport, transcripts etc. which I carried in a backpack along with my wallet containing a (fairly large) cash deposit I needed to make to my landlady later.

This was my first time getting the train at evening rush hour in Seoul, and not wanting to get caught up in the scuffle of elbows and commuters piling into the train, I let everyone go ahead of me before getting on. Rookie mistake. I made it on the train just in time, but the doors closed on the straps of my backpack, leaving the actual pack with all my most important belongings, hanging outside. Still I don’t think the severity of my situation quite hit me. Maybe I was in shock, but I reacted quite calmly, thinking I’d simply pull the bag in when the doors next opened. It turned out the doors kept opening on the opposite side of the carriage for the next five or six stops, but I didn’t panic because I assumed the doors would open on my side eventually. Sure enough, the automated voice of the train finally announced that the doors would open on the left at the next stop and I breathed a sigh of relief as we sped along towards it. And then THWACK! My backpack hit the exterior wall of the metro station (we were still underground) and my bag was ripped off its straps in an instance. The entire carriage winced at the sound and heads turned towards me. The train came to a stop, the doors opened, and I stood there in shock, still holding onto what was left of my bag straps.

Everything that happened next felt like a dream. An older Korean gentlemen standing next to me on the train, whom I’m guessing had seen the whole saga unfold, asked me tentatively if the pack was important. In a daze, I nodded and sputtered in broken Korean that my passport and wallet were inside. His face lit up when he realised I could speak the language and he led me to the station staff room, explaining what had happened to the station master. He then left me with his number (it was rush hour after all) in the care of the staff. The incredibly kind station master climbed down into the metro track tunnel with a torch and radio, instructing his junior staff to radio him when the next train was approaching. Again, it was rush hour, which meant the next train would pull in within three minutes! So in three minutes, he found the main part of my bag containing all the important stuff and my wallet. He even brought back my notebooks and other bits and pieces of my bag! I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I remember saying kamsahamnida (thank you) repeatedly while bowing, trying to express what gratitude I literally didn’t have the language for with body language. He laughed good naturedly and commented that my Korean was good.

This is one of many moments from my travels where I learned that people are kind. Very, very kind. People often find great fulfillment (and adventure!) in helping you when you are lost. I didn’t get my ARC that day. Instead I took the train back, now carrying my most important belongings in a pink plastic bag. I paid my landlady, left the bag in my room, and met my exchange buddy group to get right back on the train to Lotte World (an indoor amusement park) located in Seoul. I shed yet another layer of ego about sounding stupid and, in-between roller coasters and parades, had real conversations with renewed enthusiasm, in my broken Korean. I remember it now as one of the best nights and most defining moments of my life.   

What does storytelling mean to you—and why is it important?

Ever since I can remember, stories have been the love of my life. My parents read to me each night as a kid, and my mum tells me I would poke her awake if she ever fell asleep mid-reading, or I’d sit with a book open making up my own stories even if I couldn’t yet read the words myself. I remember also the stories my elders would tell at family gatherings, sitting around in that dim and blissful post-dinner atmosphere, listening to stories from our past, twisting and winding back generations. They were happy, sad, and sometimes scary, but always told with gusto, humour and a deep love of sharing. This project has helped me truly appreciate my heritage of storytelling.

Stories bring joy and healing, to both tellers and listeners. I remember people by their stories. I love people by their stories, and I know people by their stories. To me, storytelling is about finding ways to connect threads, or rather illuminate the threads that already connect us. It is powerful art and I’ve known, it seems always, that it is what I’m here to do in life.

 

 

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