Short Talks – Anju Sivarajah

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 Anju Sivarajah, a participant in the performance project, Saga Sisterhood, which was developed with storytelling training and creative development from the Centre for Stories. Read on to hear Anju talk about embracing complexity and exploring her Tamil-Sinhalese-Burgher-Australian identity.


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

When I started the workshops, I didn’t come in with, ‘this is my story, this is what I want to say, this is what my struggle has been.’ I was in a crux in my life and I didn’t know what it was, and I thought, I’m going to push myself into something I don’t know how to do, which is performance. I’m very comfortable with public speaking, but I’d never done performance before, and it’s very different.

I didn’t come in thinking, ‘my issues are belonging, and my identity, and the struggle for me while growing up’; it was, ‘I’m at a place where I feel really crap about what it is, I’m 41, and I should be in charge of my life.’ I felt like I was in this very unknown space.

I didn’t know then what I do know. When I look back, the theme has been my sense of belonging, and never feeling like I’ve fit in, or that I’m good enough. In my early 20s I wasn’t self-reflecting, and I guess what brought me to the program was, I saw this thing on Sukhjit’s Instagram, which spoke to me. I’d just unexpectedly finished a job and I had all this time on my hands, and I was like, I need to do something that’s productive. This was calling to me.

 

You’ve had a long career running projects and workshops for young people, and Saga Sisterhood was your first time on the other side of things. What was it like for you to be the workshop participant, not the organiser?

I chose to push myself into that space, because it was a bit uncomfortable. I had to walk in going, ‘I don’t know anything and I’m here to learn, and see what I can get from this.’ I felt vulnerable, but how I handle it is becoming quite… defensive. I came in with this very tough exterior, but I think inside, I was really nervous about what I didn’t know, and I knew I was in a very vulnerable place, as well.

 

How do you think the Saga Sisterhood workshops helped you out with that?

Listening to other women’s stories. It awoke something in me that made me realise yeah, my identity is having a huge impact on me in my adult life. It’s also a strong point, and so many people can learn from it, as well. Listening to other women’s stories really helped me to see my identity isn’t as straightforward as I thought it was. I’m a lot clearer about what I need to understand.

 

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

Oh, Sisonke, she’s amazing. But she’s such a strong woman, I probably found that a bit daunting. I didn’t know who she was when I first arrived, but I felt like she could see through me, almost – I couldn’t bluff.

When I tell my story, I always break down [crying]. There are like, four points where I break down. And every time I think ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ and I don’t know what the trigger is, but… Sisonke would say to us, ‘if you’re telling your story and you’re breaking down, you’re not ready to tell your story yet.’ And that’s fine. When I wrote my story out, I remember, I was like, this blubbering mess at the computer, and then when I told it, I was still a blubbering mess; and I was thinking, ‘Sisonke said you can’t be emotional.’ But then the other ladies in the group, they said, ‘it’s fine.’ The emotion fits the story. Maybe I’m not ready to tell this story yet but this is the story I want to tell.

 

Through the workshops, you developed a really personal story about your family’s history. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

We came here in 1984, the year after we had the riots in Sri Lanka. My dad’s of Tamil background, and my mum’s Sinhalese-Burgher, so we moved here because of the ethnic war that started almost 30 years ago. I went through life knowing that my dad was Tamil and my mum was Sinhalese-Burgher but not really knowing what that was or understanding what it meant. In my 20s I went to Canada to visit my dad’s family for the first time, and I realised that, I’m half Tamil, but I have no connection with that side of myself. When my father passed away a few years after that, I realised, it didn’t matter what his ethnicity was – it mattered what kind of person he was. It was his character, his integrity, his courage.

That’s one of the times in the story where I become emotional.

The last part of my story, which was added on when I was writing my story, the Easter Sunday bombings happened, and I bring that into my story. I’ll read it.

“The whole world was shocked, saddened and disgusted by despicable acts of barbarism on a day meant for celebration and reflection globally. The difference is, thirty years on from Black July, people are coming together to help their fellow Sri Lankans in whatever way they can.”

I end my story by saying: “You can take our hotels, but you cannot take our hospitality. You can take our churches, but you cannot take our faith or values. You can take our people, but you cannot take our humanity.”

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?

It was the first time that a forum like this was open to South Asian women. There are so many forums for Middle Eastern, African, Aboriginal women, but I’d never seen something for South Asian women. I don’t know what Sukhjit had in mind but for me, I knew it was going to be women who were similar to me. There were women in jobs the same as me. No one identified as performers or writers.

 

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

I never grew up with being told stories. I’m trying to change that for my daughter; tell her more about what it was like growing up for me. I take her to events and programs where she’s exposed to other people’s stories as well. She was here [at the Centre for Stories’ for the [Saga Sisterhood] performance; she asked lots of questions.

I hope I can take this story and one day tell it without crying! Not talking robotically, but feeling stronger and more comfortable in it; in my own story. I think I’m not there yet. I hope I can use my story to empower and inspire other women. To celebrate and embrace differences. To honour your heritage.

I am today and always will be proudly Sri Lankan-born and Australian-raised. I guess my story is celebrating difference. My complex identity. It’s still a work-in-progress, but through all these experiences, I feel I’ve learned from the experiences, and it’s who I am, and I’m still in the process of going from the moth to the butterfly. I’ve come to start showcasing my identity.

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