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October 23, 1999


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Homework Pays Off For Da Costa

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Aparna Narayanan in New York

Suneeta Peres da Costa Like some aspiring writers, Suneeta Peres da Costa hid the manuscript of the book she was writing between the mattress and slats of her bed. Unlike many aspiring writers, she hit the big time with this debut novel, selling it to the publishing house, Bloomsbury, for what she describes as "a very healthy sum of money".

After finishing her third year at the University of Technology in Sydney, the 22-year-old Australian worked on the novel, Homework, for up to 10 hours a day, breaking off friendships and confining herself to her room. It was a feverish and intensive process, she says, comparing the writing of the book to a cancerous tumor that has to be covered and nursed everyday.

"I felt like I didn't have a body. I was just this head in front of a computer," says da Costa.

Sitting at a Mexican café on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, da Costa, in retrospect, sees the writing of the novel as a "glorious, life-affirming process".

Sultry and petite, da Costa is wearing a blue T-shirt and plaid trousers on this unusually warms October afternoon.

She recounts contacting New York agent Tifanny Richards, who fell in love with the story of Mina Pereira, an Indian girl in Australia born with antennae on top of her head which reflect all she feels, standing straight up with excitement, or drooping with humiliation.

Mina's mother, whose recent illness leaves her barren and literally roosting in trees, makes matters worse. Mina worries for her mom's well-being and while she seeks ways to give her solace, only ends up disappointing her. Mina's father, a revolutionary at heart, manages to pass along heroic advice.

Through all of Mina's experiences, she comes to an understanding about love and family.

"It's unusual to act so quickly on a cold phone call from an unknown author," Richards says. "But the person who referred her is someone I respect a great deal."

Soon da Costa had a book deal in hand.

The hoopla surrounding the book, the lead title in Bloomsbury's fall fiction offerings, startled da Costa. But she says wryly, "One is invariably seduced by the approval of others."

She received a Fulbright scholarship to study creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College a week before signing the book deal and has just moved into her Manhattan studio apartment.

"I came to the United States because I needed to grow in so many ways, and to write about Australia in new ways," she says.

Growing up in the suburbs of Sydney, da Costa says she had an odd sense of being not quite Australian. Her fatherm an economist, and her mother, a physician are both Goan Catholics who migrated to Australia in 1971. They gave their three daughters a privileged childhood and inculcated in them the virtues of assimilation.

During the period of Bob Hawke's Labor government, Sydney was a tolerant and liberating place, da Costa says. But later, while attending high school as an adolescent she recalls feeling like an outsider.

"One feels racial identity through sexuality," says da Costa. "I felt unattractive and correlated it with being different looking." Da Costa enrolled at the Australian Theater for Young People, an independent acting school and was exposed to a bigger world and people of multiracial backgrounds. She ascribes a therapeutic quality to theater, which allowed her to "act out my confusions about identity." One of her teachers was the actress Cate Blanchett who, da Costa recalls, "wore mismatched socks".

During these years, da Costa wrote her first play, an interracial love story set in South Africa. Subsequently she wrote two more plays, I am an Island (about an East Timorese refugee), and Free Men (about fascistic elements in America).

The plays were read on the radio and brought da Costa her first taste of fame. More importantly, the prestigious Sydney Theater Company offered her a role as a Sri Lankan prostitute in a David Edgar play. Da Costa recalls walking awestruck past the theater building as a young child.

Acting became oppressive after a while, says da Costa, because of the "intellectual unseriousness in theater." At university in Sydney she realized that she needed "a life of the mind," which for her gradually came to mean writing and literature. "I wanted to say 'yes' to life," she says about writing Homework during the summer break after her third year of college.

The purchase of book rights by Bloomsbury USA drew inevitable comparisons with Arundhati Roy.

Though the book has not brought her the kind of attention Roy received for her The God of Small Things, which received strong reviews soon after its publication and went on to stay on the New York Times' bestseller list for nearly one year, da Costa's book is slowly getting recognized.

The Booklist called it "a deeply affecting debut novel". Publisher's Weekly wrote: The novel "introduces a young writer with a gift for humor, irony and tragicomedy and an unusual, sometimes stiflingly inventive way with words."

The newfound fame sits uneasily on da Costa's shoulders.

"It's ephemeral," she says. "I deal with people who are very down-to-earth. I'm a homebody. I like routine -- to sit around and read, to see friends but not to travel. All my traveling is done in my head." Her family, she admits, is ecstatic "in a giddy, not-really-able-to-understand way" about the success of the book.

Reading, she says, "is everything. That's what we need to become more understanding of people."

Her favorite writers include Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Joyce, Camus and Rhys. Among Indian writers, she particularly enjoys Salman Rushdie and Vikram Chandra.

Her book contains magic realist elements, like Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which she says made her think: "Maybe I can do it. Is it possible to write about me?"

Da Costa, who visited India regularly while growing up remembers not liking the dirt or smells of Bombay and Goa. But New York, with its extremes of deprivation and privileges reminds her of Bombay, and she has started "to miss the colors and sounds of Bombay, and to crave masala dosa and bhelpuri."

(A P Kamath contributed to this article)

Her Homework's A Hit

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