Anika Donnison: What do you do outside of writing?
Shenali Perera: I work as an artist and visual scribe, which involves listening deeply to conversations and documenting what is said and felt in a visual format. I am part of the team supporting Danjoo Koorliny Walking Together, which is an Aboriginal-led long-term systems change project that focuses on caring for country and moving forwards together as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. It is such a privilege to be learning and led by Aboriginal Elders and leaders in caring for country and connecting to the place I live in – Noongar Boodjar – and by extension the whole planet. I have always been drawn to creative work and doing work that is meaningful. I love being a scribe as it is teaching me to listen creatively and weave together my love of language and words with art. I am passionate about linking the arts and culture back into every aspect of our lives, especially work and learning environments, and I feel very fortunate to be doing work that lets me to do this every day.
AD: Did that interest start because of you experience writing or vice versa?
SP: I guess art and writing have always flowed together in my body. My parents started reading to me from a very young age but making pen doodles with my dad is also one of my earliest memories. I can’t say which came first… my love of learning and desire to do meaningful work is definitely linked to reading. I was an avid reader as a child, I loved getting lost in books and have always been fascinated by language. Growing up bilingual in Sri Lanka adds another layer of translation and dancing between two languages to the mix. Scribing, like reading, is about listening well. Maybe writing is also mostly about listening and in this way, they are connected.
AD: What is your most surprising passion?
SP: Most people are surprised by my great love of Korean dramas and how much they have shaped the course of my life. I have missed school, handed assignments late, switched majors, moved countries, made lifelong friends, recorded podcasts and written thousands of words for the love of k-dramas. I was introduced to k-dramas by some friends in high school and immediately fell in love with the vibrance and earthiness of the Korean language, followed by a deepening appreciation for the food, culture and history of Korea. I eventually picked up Korean language as an elective at university and was so adamant on traveling to South Korea on exchange that I switched majors to Korean Studies (best decision ever). I went on to complete my honours in Korean Studies, writing my dissertation on corporate cultures in South Korea and the 2014 cult-hit Misaeng, which remains one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen. I think what’s most surprising about the role of k-dramas in my life, and what I’m most grateful for, is how they have shifted my gaze back to appreciating my own non-Western culture and arts. K-dramas have decolonised me in a powerful way!
AD: Why do you write?
SP: I began creating stories long before I could communicate them. My parents tell me that, as a toddler, I would sit on my potty for hours flicking through books which I couldn’t yet read, spouting stories in my own made-up language. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer and that conviction has never really wavered despite the many times I’ve questioned or challenged its practicality. I sometimes wonder if I could ever actually make a living as a writer, or worse yet, if pursuing writing as work is a waste of the planet’s resources and I should be doing something more “useful” with my life. Like if it were the end of the world and you had to sacrifice an occupation, I feel like the writer would be one of the first to get chucked off the boat, you know? I’m still grappling with these questions, but what I do know is that writing brings me peace and sharing my writing with others gives me joy. I hope it gives people who read it something too. Writing is my way of processing the world, but it also feels essential to my way of being in the world, like there is no other way for me to be here and fully alive. So, I guess I’ll keep writing till I get chucked off the boat someday.
AD: When did you decide to pursue writing and what triggered that decision?
SP: I think it’s been a gradual decision. A few years ago, I adopted a principle of following good people when choosing work. Last year, in the midst of lockdown, I took up an online group writing class with Nayomi Munaweera, a Sri Lankan-American writer whose work I admire greatly. I remember feeling tired and drained and decidedly stuck at the time, writing was definitely way back on the back burner. This class provided a gradual and gentle immersion back into the world of words and writing. There was also something magical about writing as a group and sharing whatever we had with each other right after we had written it. Together, we learned to accept gladly whatever arose in our little space of writing. The same principle of following good people led me to becoming more involved with Centre for Stories and to submitting one of the pieces I wrote to Journal. These are little steps in the journey. To be honest, I probably decided when I was four years old or so and have been trying to stay true to that decision since.
AD: What are you currently reading and why?
SP: I’m currently reading Frankly in Love by David Yoon and loving it! It’s a young adult novel I picked up randomly at the library about a Korean American boy figuring out identity, romance, heritage, racism and all the rest of it. The writing is delightfully funny and nuanced. Also recently read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, which delves into the world of medical institutions and our modern practices around dying and illness. I found it insightful, thoughtfully narrated, and as gripping as it was confronting to read. Both books let me inhabit the world differently and dive deep into my being at the same time, which is a rare and wonderful gift.
AD: Is that also an inspiration for your current work?
SP: It’s what I hope to create for readers, but not something I think about explicitly as I am writing. I think what I read inevitably influences my writing and it always feels like good books come at the right time. I like to think of the essays I am writing as part of an ongoing conversation – with books I am reading, friends who have recommended them to me, family, colleagues, the world, past versions of me and future selves. We are all talking – secretly, silently. The inspiration comes from listening and connecting the conversations.
AD: You have previously done storytelling with Centre for Stories and attended workshops over the years, how has the hot desk fellowship specifically influenced your writing or given you more insight?
SP: It sounds very simple, but the biggest gift has been the space to write. I feel like the very structure of the Centre for Stories, as a building and place, the snippets of conversation, and the strangely potent quiet of Northbridge at daytime have all seeped into my writing. The routine of sitting down to write every Thursday both focused and freed my mind. Before I started my residency, I was struggling to find time to write between multiple jobs and study. I was also struggling to find time to read for leisure, and this hugely impacted my creativity because my daily reading content was limited to academic articles, dry documents, reports and newsfeeds. Instagram captions were probably the most creative writing I was reading (I follow some cool people!). But I missed reading and felt like I never had the time to write, or rather couldn’t afford the time to write.
When I started my residency, I left my laptop at home, switched my phone to ‘do not disturb’, and let myself sit with a blank book and my thoughts. If nothing arrived or I felt stuck, I journaled or read a book (I’ve started visiting my local library regularly again!). I played with ideas from our lunch conversations, or from a line in a book I randomly picked from Centre for Stories’ library. It took quite some time to fully relax and let go of the pressure to ‘produce’ something. But once I’d established a sense of routine and commitment to writing every Thursday, it became a more conscious practice and part of my life.
AD: Walk us through an ‘aha’ moment while you were on the hot desk.
SP: An ‘aha’ moment for me came 10 weeks into my residency, when I woke up on the Thursday morning with sentences forming in my head! It felt wonderful, like the essay had been waiting for my ‘writing day’ to come around so it could start writing itself. It links back to what I was saying about making space and pursuing writing intentionally. I’ve heard many writers describe inspiration as something that arrives of its own volition, and I would agree. But I hadn’t considered that while sometimes inspiration might strike you on the train or in the middle of a conversation, sometimes it comes when you clear some space and wait quietly. When you do that routinely, it keeps coming back.
AD: When you first applied you said you were going to work on a collection of short essays exploring decolonising your body, establishing a dialogue between non-indigenous and indigenous people and how your heritage and responsibilities connect to Perth, did you decide to continue with these ideas?
SP: Yes, the work that has come out of my residency has largely revolved around these themes; however, the essays have also taken surprising turns into poetry, fiction and a series of food-related illustrations. I’m still articulating the connections between all these different pieces but feel sure that they are connected. I like the playfulness that has emerged from my residency and think this may again be the influence of Centre for Stories!
AD: Based on your experiences in the writing industry, including your hot desk at Centre for Stories, what advice would you give to emerging writers like yourself who are starting out or unsure where to start?
SP: Giving your writing dedicated time, space and routine can do wonders for your practice! Fall back in love with reading. If you can, stop doing so much. Find time to be still, walk aimlessly, eat cake, spy on strangers on the street and eavesdrop on their conversations. Read your first drafts out loud to friends just to see how the words land. Start with journaling.
AD: Centre for Stories is about working with others and collaborating and providing a safe place for diverse thoughts through supporting each other: how has this been able to enable you to think and explore themes that are outside the box?
SP: There is something magical about creative writing communities. Some of the brightest inspiration comes from talking freely and throwing ideas around with other people who are open-minded and imaginative. I’ve also appreciated the space to share first drafts of my essays safely without needing to worry about upsetting editors or audience. It’s nice to be around people who get it and are happy to be a sounding board in the early stages of writing a piece.
AD: What will you be working on next?
SP : I’m determined to finish the essays that have come out of the residency and submit them for publication. Creating a picture book has also been a long-time dream of mine and I feel that between the illustrations, poems and short stories, I have all the pieces ready. I just need to give myself the time to sit down and sew it all together.
Shenali Perera is a writer, storyteller, visual scribe and social-design facilitator. Born in Sri Lanka, she moved to Whadjuk Nyungar Country with her family at the age of thirteen. She remains connected to her home-country and briefly returned to Sri Lanka to work as a teacher and journalist. Her writing has been published in Write to Reconcile III: an anthology by young writers of Sri Lankan heritage on post-war Sri Lanka, and Journal by Centre for Stories. Currently, Shenali works for Danjoo Koorliny Walking Together, an Aboriginal-led long-term systems change project focused on caring for Country and moving together to the future. She loves food, art, language and dancing.
Anika Donnison studied Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University. She has appeared in GROK and COZE. She currently works as a Social Media Coordinator for Pegasus Professional Accounting.
Writing Change, Writing Inclusion is Centre for Stories’ signature writing program for 2021 to 2023. Generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation, Australia Council for the Arts and Centre for Stories Founders Circle, this writing program features mentoring, hot desk, and publication opportunities for emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and/or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.