Skip to main content
AsianFictionLiterary FictionNovel

by Saraid de Silva

A debut novel that feels like 'an instant classic'.

By April 3, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

Saraid de Silva’s superb debut novel Amma (Mother) speaks to New Zealand’s contemporary ethnic landscape and with the minority diasporic experience. It flows back and forth between countries and decades, written from the perspective of three women in the Fernando family: Josephina, who grows up in Singapore in the 1950s; her daughter Maria Louisa Sithara, who moves as a child from Sri Lanka to the ‘frozen morning’ of Invercargill; and granddaughter Annie, whose story takes her from Christchurch and Hamilton to Melbourne and London.

De Silva is better known as an actor and for the RNZ series Conversations with Immigrant Parents. She won the 2021 Crystal Arts Trust Prize for this novel’s manuscript, written during her master’s year at the University of Auckland. Amma is the story of generational gaps and unspeakable truths. It’s also the story of three women who share the experience of being young, brown, and female in a foreign land, contending with racism, internalised hate, and – often – violent men.

Annie ‘doesn’t care much for men’, we’re told in the novel’s first sentence. Her ‘grandfather died before she was born’ and she ‘says her father is dead, though this is a lie’. We wend back to Singapore in 1951, when Josephina is ten years old, devoted to her Tamil grandmother. Her mother calls her ‘Azab’, which means ‘doom’ in Malay. Her ‘father’s only wish, and main occupation, is finding Josephina a husband.’

Potential suitors and their families have been visiting since she was seven: she ‘is practised now at receiving them, at serving ginger ales and sponge cake with jam and cream.’ Her father is ‘clever, too clever to waste love on his family’, staggering home late to argue with Josephina’s mother about money. His greed exposes Josephina to attack by a paedophile. Then he abandons the family and the women move to a flat – and a happier life – above a brothel.

No wonder that Josephina finds escape in immigration. She leaves Singapore because it ‘wasn’t big enough to escape the ghosts who haunted her’. This reinvention isn’t always welcome. When her husband, Ravi, a doctor, decides their family must leave Colombo for a safer life in New Zealand, Josephine ‘resists optimism, resting instead in her own misery’. Later, ghosts will be the reason she chooses to stay in New Zealand, adrift from the homes of her past.

Josephina and Ravi try to give their children, Suri and Sithara, a better home, but this new generation faces the consequences of leaving a place they belonged. ‘Things have changed since [Sithara] got here. Her family, herself. Both have shrunk.’ It’s the 1980s: Sithara and Suri, her brother, look old-fashioned but she knows that ‘getting new clothes and hair wouldn’t make them white … Every day she discovers a new way that she is ugly’. Suri is bullied at school:

His voice has a strange note to it, as though something is trying to climb out. A year of Amma looking through them. A year of Suri coming home with bruises and cuts. A year of not crying. They reach the crossroads and Suri cycles away without saying goodbye.

Suri will grow up to seek reinvention and sanctuary of his own, and Annie’s quest to find him, and uncover the truth of his estrangement from their family, is a thread through the narrative, important for all three women.

Annie is a first-generation New Zealander, a biracial queer South Asian, who grows up in Hamilton in the nineties. Sithara works in a law office and ‘is the most glamorous person Annie has ever seen’, but there are ‘deep buises all over her mum’s back in the shape of flowers. A garden of purple and black worming across her torso’. The violent outbursts of Paul, Annie’s father, are the secret shadow of an anxious childhood. ‘Counsellors, her primary school teacher, friends of Gran’s from church, all of them must have known a little of what happened because they tried to talk to her about it. They struggled to make it to the end of their sentences’. Later Annie will recall:

Paul coming home from work and lifting her up onto his shoulders. She also talks about being so scared to leave her bedroom that she would pee in cups and throw the pee out the window. The silences that choked them all. How his mood dictated everyone else’s. Falling asleep and waking up somewhere different. Her mother would carry her out of the house and bundle her into Gran’s spare bedroom. Gran would greet her in the morning as though nothing at all had happened in the night.

Amma explores the consequences of trauma – national, regional, societal, and familial. Like Josephina’s secret past, this trauma remains a wound, either physical or psychic – or both. Twenty years on, Annie knows that ‘her scars weren’t trophies – they were ugly and useless and remained in Annie’s body even when the skin over the top of them healed’.

De Silva is particularly good at writing about places, transporting readers to the swampy heat of Changi, to shabby student flats in Dunedin, to drag shows and terraced houses in London. Invercargill is a ‘small town that thinks it is a city at the bottom of a country full of white people who think they live in England. Everyone on television and radio here speaks like the Queen’. Hamilton’s ‘town centre has the air of a party that just finished, one where everyone cleaned up badly’. In Colombo, when an adult Annie visits with her mother, ‘the pollution hanging in the air makes everything soft-focus’. It’s also the place where she has a ‘feeling of recognition’:

In the thick eyelashes of the immigration officer who checked Annie’s visa. In the fine wrists of the tuktuk driver who took them to their apartment. In the way that Sri Lankans hear ‘Fernando’ and nod like it is as common as ‘Smith’. It is such a tender joy to realise that something inside her has always known what it is like to be of a place.

There are still too few novels written by and about South Asians in contemporary New Zealand literature, despite South Asians living here since the nineteenth century and the fact that our cities abound in immigrants. The literary landscape is changing, as recent novels by Brannavan Gnanalingam and Romesh Dissanayake attest. De Silva’s first novel – emotionally honest, rich with story – feels like an instant classic.


by Saraid de Silva

Moa Books/Hachette

ISBN: 9781869715403

Published: March 2024

Format: Paperback, 368 pages

Sanjana Khusal

Sanjana Khusal (સંજના ખુશાલ) is a Gujarati-Kiwi writer based in Pukekohe, Tamaki Makaurau. She is a post-graduate student of Screen Production at the University of Auckland. Her writing can be found in Rat World, Bad Apple and Milly Magazine. In 2024 her debut short play The Perfect Fit premiered at Auckland Pride's Legacy 7 anthology at the Basement Theatre.