Shankari Chandran was raised in Canberra, Australia. She spent a decade in London, working as a lawyer in the social justice field. She eventually returned home to Australia, where she now lives with her husband, four children and their cavoodle puppy.
The Barrier is her second novel. Her first novel, The Song of the Sun God explores the recent history of Sri Lanka. She is currently working on her third book, also set there. Shankari joins us today to share with us the woman who most inspires her.
What makes a daring woman?
A daring woman thinks of herself as more than a man with a uterus. She aspires to be more than what the equal rights movement has allowed to us be. Legal rights are profound and were hard-won. They have created a platform from which we can technically if not always practically participate in, lead and change society. A daring woman stands on that platform. She reaches for and works hard for what she wants. She is attentive to the inequalities around her, as many of them are quiet. They suppress with stealth. She sees them and she says: Not in my lifetime, not in our children’s lifetime, not any more.
What has been your most daring move?
In 2002, I convinced partners at my law firm that we should represent prisoners in Guantanamo Bay even though the Pentagon considered us terrorist-loving traitors. I had to explain that we do not answer to the Pentagon. We were breaking no laws, we were enforcing every person’s right to representation under the law. The political climate post-9/11 was tense, fearful and vengeful. I had to stand my ground and argue that if we don’t defend other people’s right to representation, to a fair trial and to freedom from torture, then we have no moral platform from which to expect and demand those same rights for ourselves. That work emboldened me and set the agenda for the rest of my legal career.
My parents would say my most daring move has been to take time out of a career. I loved to write. I hope I tell these stories with bravery and authenticity.
Perhaps the most daring move I’ve made is a small one to the outside. I have chosen to bring four children into an uncertain but beautiful world. I hope that every day I live daringly, raising them to be kind, honest people who think of themselves as agents of change, responsible citizens in a global community. I am trying to raise them to be net contributors; to understand the language and responsibility of equality and justice.
The woman who most inspires you is …
My mother. She was my first role model. She left Sri Lanka when the political situation there was deteriorating rapidly into an autocratic state. She created a new life with my father in Australia, which was a predominately white country at that time. She was often afraid but she chose to be brave, working hard her whole life so that my brother and I could have better lives. It is not an untypical migrant story. It is not an untypical Australian story. But it is daring and I’m grateful to her for it.
What drew you to your story?
The Barrier is about my fears for the world if we don’t learn from the mistakes of our past.
I watch a lot of news, I read a lot of dystopic fiction (the two have started to look alarmingly similar) and I love a good End of the World story. I am also fascinated by the idea that the history of our species is the history of war and contagion. A history of almost-annihilations. I wondered what would happen if both war and contagion attacked us at the same time. What kind of order would prevail?
My work as a lawyer helped me understand the role and limitations of international humanitarian law in conflicts. It also showed me what happens to society when governments subvert civil liberties.
I watched the news and wondered about the role of history in contemporary conflicts. I worried about how violence crosses boundaries as quickly as disease.
Also, thriller movies with beautifully choreographed fight scenes and morally questionable heroes, are my guilty pleasure.
I thought about all of that and then I wrote a book about it.
Tell us a bit more about your latest book …
The Barrier is a political thriller set in the year 2040. The world is recovering from an Ebola pandemic and a religious war. The West won that war, the East is isolated behind a wall, and a global vaccination program keeps the world safe. Peace prevails.
Against this near-future landscape, Agent Noah Williams, is sent over the barrier to Sri Lanka, to investigate a rogue scientist who risks releasing another plague. As Noah delves into the scientist’s motivations and past, he questions why would a once-respected academic endanger the human race?
I think this novel raises questions of power – how does the West hold onto structural power and maintain regional hierarchies? It asks questions of faith in a world where science and biotechnology provide all our solutions. And, it asks a fundamental question about who we are and how far we will go – in the fight for survival, can our humanity survive too?
I think this novel is also a lot of fun for the reader. It’s a fast-paced thriller with characters who understand viruses as well as hand-to-hand combat. I hope it makes the reader ignore friends and family until she finds out what happens at the end. And then I hope she looks at the world a little differently.
The Barrier is out now. You can purchase it here.
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