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Shenali Perera

Backstories was a one day multi-sited storytelling festival located in the suburbs of Western Australia. Funded by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

Funded by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, HealthwayAct-Belong-Commit, the City of Mandurah and the City of BayswaterBackstories was a one day multi-sited storytelling festival located in the suburbs of Western Australia held on March 14 2020.

Shenali Perera is a creative writer, storyteller, artist, boxer and backyard comedian (her family would tell you). Born in Sri Lanka, Shenali grew up in the suburbs of Gosnells and Southern River, and remembers a time when her life in Australia stretched only as far as the Carousel Shopping Centre and Gosnells Library. Currently studying her Masters in Human Rights, Shenali is passionate about intercultural dialogue and connecting all the vibrant communities around her to each other.

Shenali is smiling at the camera and is photographed on a lovely board walk

[Transcript]

My name is Shenali and quite often when I introduce myself, one of the first questions that I will get is, “Where are you from?” And I have come to terms with this question now and I quite enjoy responding to it. And I know that most people are always asking the question in their head anyway, even if they are not saying it out loud. So, I am going to tell you a little bit about where I am from.

I was born in Sri Lanka, which is a tiny little island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, just under India. I grew up on the outskirts of Colombo – which is sort of like the capital, or the unofficial capital, it’s where all the big buildings are in Sri Lanka – in a leafy green suburb called Koswatta. Now, Koswatta literally translates to kos which means jackfruit or jackfruit tree, and watta which means garden. So, “jackfruit tree garden” is the name of the suburb. And true to its name, it is populated by these big, giant old jackfruit trees which we had a few of in our garden.

And there is another variety of species that Koswatta is famous for, and that is the Pereras. So, my last name is Perera and I grew up in a house with three other, well two other, houses next to us and a big garden, the jackfruit tree garden, with three houses in it. And in my house, we had Brimley Perera, who is my dad who is here tonight. The house next door was his sister, Beverely Perera, and the house on the other side was my uncle Bradley Perera. And overseeing all of these Pereras, sitting in my auntie’s house, was my grandfather Brenden Perera. And down the lane from where he lived was his little brother Odern Perera, who is my great uncle. Across the road from where he lives were all his kids. So, he had like five or six kids and they had their houses down that lane. And then just up the road from them was my grandfather’s nephew, Alan Perera. So, I literally grew up with Pereras all around us when everyone in the neighbourhood or in the suburb knew my family, knew my uncles.

I remember once getting into a tuk tuk and it wasn’t even in Koswatta, it was sort of like a little further down into Colombo, and just out of the blue the driver asked me, “Are you Brenden Perera’s granddaughter?” And I was like, “Yes.” Then he started telling me all these stories about my uncles and how they would steal mangoes together and how he actually grew up in Koswatta. So, I grew up kind of knowing or with everyone around me knowing exactly who I was; who my parents were, who my grandparents were, who my extended family were, my cousins were. And we had a sort of routine in Koswatta.

So, in the morning we would wake up around 5am and it would be sort of this amount of light, a little dark, very cloudy, and you would hear the sound of the Buddhist temple prayers. So, there was a temple around the corner from our house and that was one of the first things you would hear in the morning. So, my memories of waking are always sort of infused with the sound of chanting coming from the monks in the temple. And then in the afternoons when we got home from school, you got out of the car and you would hear the evening prayers, the calls of prayer coming from the mosque, ‘cos there was a mosque around the corner from the temple. And so, my kind of memories of the afternoons were infused with the sounds of the call of prayer and the stillness of it and yet also this sort of knowledge of how full of life the suburb was. And how there were people around us constantly and the sense of life in it. And in the evenings, we had a big garden and we would always be playing. All my cousins, and my brother and I we would be playing in the garden. Around about 6 o clock, the mosquitoes start coming out so it’s like, you start like patting – not patting but killing – mosquitoes with your hands. When it gets really, really bad you know it’s time to go inside. So, we had a routine to our day, and it was very much dictated by the sounds of the neighbourhood and like nature itself. And I always felt very safe and very, you know, at home, growing up. It wasn’t like I was very reflective of it at all. I just felt at home.

But outside of little bubble of safety in Koswatta, there was a thirty-year civil war raging in Sri Lanka. And towards 2007, which is two years before the war ended, but of course we didn’t know this at the time, things started to get really bad to the point. Or maybe I was just getting older, so I was starting to notice more things. So, I was born in 1994, right in the middle of the war and the political kind of commentary about the war, you know going past the checkpoints, all of that stuff was very much a part of my life. It was very normal. So, it wasn’t anything out of the usual. But then it started getting to a point where, you know, we would be talking about bombs at school and there would be sirens that we would hear every day.

And I used to have this recurring dream of watching the city burn from far away, from our home, the leafy green suburb of Koswatta, and you would see this massive tall wall of black smoke, and it was coming towards us. II would have this dream quite often around that time – 2007, 2008. And you know, a lot of my friends were having similar dreams. So, I remember talking to them about this and someone being like, “Oh yeah, I have similar dreams too.” So, because of the way things were in Colombo and the lack of, sort of future, I guess, that we could see for us, we moved. My family migrated. The four of us migrated to Australia. And we moved into another leafy green suburb – Gosnells.

So, life in Gosnells was similar but also so different to life in Sri Lanka. Like I said it was a very… there were so many big old trees all over the place. But it was so quiet. Like there was no one outside. And I remember our first ever house was just off Albany Highway right next to the train tracks. So, we would hear trains go past all the time and the whole house would sort of shudder. And that was the only time it felt like the world was alive, ‘cos you would walk out to the streets and there would be no one on the streets. You kind of look around. And I remember looking up and the sky seemed so far away and so vast compared to Colombo, which was very cloudy, and everything felt really close. But I also remember kind of taking in our new surroundings together with my family and suddenly, it felt like we shrunk from this big crazy family of, I don’t know, 150 people, maybe not that many, but you know it felt like a lot of people to this family of four. And we had much more time to spend with each other. I had more time to talk to my parents and to hang out with my brother. And it suddenly felt like the world had become at once huge and vast but also very intimate.

And also we were going from a place where I was very known and I felt very at home and I always knew where I was, we went into a place where we were constantly getting lost. We were always lost. We spoke English but we didn’t really understand what people were saying because they spoke in a very different way to the way we spoke English. And I will share one little mini story with you. There was this one time that we decided to get the bus to Church. It was a Sunday. And you know, buses in Sri Lanka don’t have… there is no timetable for the buses. Buses just show up and you get on the bus and you go where you need to go and there is not really a stop for the bus to stop at either. People just generally kind of know where the bus stop is, and then you get off the bus. And there is a lot of people on the bus.

But my dad is very, you know he is a very prepared man. He got a bus timetable pamphlet ‘cos smartphones didn’t exist at the time. So, he didn’t have google maps or journey planner to check what time the bus was. We looked at what time, you know, the bus would be coming. We stood outside the bus stop waiting for the bus. And the other thing we learned in our short two or three weeks that we had been there, was that things happen on time here. So, we made sure how to get to the bus stop on time. And so, four o’clock is when the bus is meant to come. Five to four we are at the bus stop, ready, waiting, there is no one around us. It’s dead quiet. It’s a Sunday, in Gosnells. It is very hot. Four o’clock and the bus is still not here. We are like, “Okay, you know, maybe buses are late sometimes in Australia. Maybe buses are late on Sundays.” So, we are like, “Okay we will wait a little longer.” Ten minutes go by and the bus is still not here. So, then dad looks at the timetable once again and we realise that the timetable we had been looking at was a Monday to Friday timetable. And actually, our route didn’t go at all on Sundays. So, there was no bus coming. But then we were like the church is only, it was like a five-minute drive away the last time Auntie took us there, so we’ll just walk to church. It’s not that far.

In Sri Lanka when you drive for five minutes, you probably get like one kilometre in Colombo ‘cos you drive at 40km/hr. On Albany Highway, the speed limit is 70 km/hr or something around that, so it was not a kilometre away. We ended up walking for like two hours, taking in the sights of beautiful Gosnells, which you know was actually quite fun. I remember it very funny. We got to church mass when it was ending so we turned around and we walked back. We didn’t actually make it on time. But yeah, it was the sense of getting lost and constantly looking for who I am or where I fit in, very similar to, you know, what you were talking about at school [the other storyteller].

And over time, as I started to get a little bit used to being here, it started to get less… it started to get more stressful trying to figure out because I was constantly being asked, “Where are you from? Where do you fit in? Where do I box you in?” And this question, “Where are you from?” really annoyed me. And I remember getting through high school, graduating high school, and feeling like I really did not belong here. And so, at age 21, I decided I wanted to go back. I wanted to move back to Sri Lanka. And it had been like six months since I graduated university, packed my bags, and I moved back home. And this time I was by myself.

But I went back to my childhood home, which was still there, and I still had the army of family around me. But I was very much there as an adult. I was working, so I was going outside of the little bubble that I had grown up in. I was walking the streets of Colombo. I was getting buses in Colombo. It was like I was rediscovering my childhood city for the first time ‘cos I had never really experienced it as a kid. And throughout my time there, I started to realise that, you know, I did feel a sense of belonging and a sense of connection to the place but also I wasn’t completely from here, from there either. I wasn’t from Colombo.

What surprised me was that I had to speak Sinhalese. I could speak Sinhalese ‘cos we had always spoken it at home, but I had to speak Sinhalese as a journalist working at a newspaper, and I realised how childish my Sinhalese was, how I wasn’t really able to communicate as an adult in Sinhalese. So, people would kind of look at me a little strangely like, “Why you are speaking like a child? You are not a child.” So, you know, all of these little realisations started to make me feel like I didn’t quite belong there either. But I loved my gap year there and it was an amazing year of working. And the war had ended in 2009, so a year after we had moved here. And you know, there were still obviously lots of issues. There still is and are issues in Sri Lanka. The aftermath of wars tend to go for centuries. You could argue about Australia is still experiencing the aftermath of, you know, a very severe genocide and war that happened here.

So there was stuff happening back in Colombo but it felt like I was learning and I was experiencing and I was finding out a little bit about my past, a little bit about who I might be in the future. And towards the end of that year I decided to do a solo trip to Jaffna. So, Jaffna was in the north of the island. This was where most of the civil war had happened between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers which was the guerilla organisation that they were fighting, the two sides of the civil war. And Jaffna had recently been opened up to the public, so you could travel there. And for me, going to Jaffna having grown up in Colombo during the war, it was a concept that was even more unattainable than going overseas ‘cos it was never something that I thought I would be able to do. It  just wasn’t somewhere we could go. And a big part of me knew that there was something about this story and that place that I needed to understand to find out who I was. So, I decided to take a night bus, an express night bus to Jaffna. And I remember telling my mum on the phone that I was going, and she thought I was crazy. She was like, “What are you doing? You’re going to travel by yourself to this unknown town. It’s dangerous, you know you can’t do this.” But I was very, very stubborn. I was like, “No, I am doing this. I am going.” And my auntie was like – she knew a few people that had travelled to Jaffna – “It’s fine. She will be okay. There is a bus that goes there at night. It’s really reliable.” I was like, “Yeah okay, I am doing this.”

I sometimes, have a bit of a… I tend to be quite spontaneous and not think things through quite that much. So, I got my tickets. And the bus was meant to take five hours to get there ‘cos like I said, 40km/hr, it takes a long time. The highways hadn’t been built at that time. But Sri Lankan bus drivers being Sri Lankan bus drivers, we got there in two and a half hours. And I hadn’t booked accommodation for that night ‘cos I had assumed we would get there in the morning and I would not need a place to sleep the night that I was travelling. But when we landed in Jaffna it was like, just past midnight I think, or maybe like 2 am in the morning. And I remember stepping out into the town and it was so strange. It was like I was here in Australia ‘cos it was deserted. There were little houses, but it was quiet. And there was this giant moon hanging over the tops of the houses. And if you had seen the moon a couple of days ago that was exactly the same moon, this big swollen golden moon, and I was like, “Wow, where am I? This feels like I am back in Gosnells. I am back in Perth.”

And also, I couldn’t speak Tamil, which is the language that predominantly spoken in that part of the country. So, it felt very much like I was a foreigner and, you know, like I didn’t belong there. I didn’t really understand what people were saying. So, I decided to travel around the town. I didn’t really have a plan. I just biked to places. One day I got a bus to the beach, the very Northern tip of Sri Lanka so that was on my list of things to do. And on the bus, it was empty when I got on. I took the window ‘cos I like sitting next to windows, sort of watching the scenery go by. And then suddenly at one point like fifty people got on the bus and it went on from being a very quiet and peaceful bus ride to a very bustling bus ride which is very characteristic of like a Colombo bus. So, I was fine. It was just like it suddenly changed. And a young man got on the bus and sat next to me. And you know, I was just like – the seats are a lot smaller in Sri Lanka – and because the bus was full everyone, we got kind of squished together, so I squished up a bit more towards the window.

And then a few minutes into the bus ride, I start to feel a little bit uncomfortable because I can feel this guy sort of like pushing into me. And I am not sure if it’s because there are so many people in the bus and you know, it’s just no space. Your sense of personal space gets quite warped in Sri Lanka. Also, part of me is like, alarm bells are ringing slightly and I am like, “Oh.” At this point, I had been, you know, groped or attempted to be groped in buses many times as a young woman. So, I was like, “Ah okay, this is happening. This is one thing you will find across the globe. This happens everywhere.” So, I jam my elbow next to me and I am sort of using my elbow as a way of stopping him come closer. And throughout the trip like I said before, I had been thinking about who I was and where I belonged and as I was going on this bus ride I had been actually thinking about the same things. And I remember thinking, like I said, I thought that Jaffna felt so different to Colombo and I remember when he started to try and touch me I was like, “Oh, wait. This is the same. It’s the same in Colombo. It’s the same in Jaffna.” And then the moment I knew that he was actually trying to, you know, touch me, was when he started up a conversation. And he asked me, “Are you Tamil?” in Tamil. And I shook my head. Then he asked in Sinhala, “Are you Sinhalese?” And I shook my head again. And then he asked me, “Where are you from?” And then I waited a while and I just said, “Not from here.” And then he asked me, “What’s your nationality?” And the first thing that came, ‘cos I had been thinking about this that whole trip and the twenty one years of my life, and the first response that came out of me was, “I don’t have one.” And I hadn’t contemplated it before. I hadn’t said it out loud before. But that moment kind of made me realise that yeah, I didn’t ascribe to being Australian, didn’t feel like an Australian national. And I didn’t ascribe to being Sri Lankan anymore, because there were so many problems with the way that narrative of nationality has been shaped and I don’t feel… that’s not the full truth of who I am and what I represent either. And it really changed the way I thought about belonging and it changed the way I ask questions about where I am from.

And the reason I share this story with you is to say that for me, it matters less now where I am from or where I fit in because now the question has become, “How my identity is formed?”

So quite similar to what you were talking about Zena, it’s not where I am from, but how do I belong. And that’s the question I have been carrying with me for the last five years since that trip, and found so many more ways of relating and belonging to this place, realising that the moon looks the same here as it does in Jaffna and the earth is connected and the oceans are connected. And that’s how I belong.

Thank you.

Copyright © 2020 Shenali Perera.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Shenali Perera. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.


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