For over a decade Esther Anatolitis has been a passionate advocate for creativity, the arts and public space. She taught into the studio program at RMIT Architecture, University of NSW and the University of Sydney. She has also held several arts and media leadership roles including the Melbourne Fringe, SBS, and most recently with Regional Arts Victoria. Currently she is the Executive Director for the National Association of Visual Arts (NAVA).
Her memoir for literary magazine Griffith Review is part of the third edition in the 2018 series: Who We Are. Along with the various other contributors, Esther’s piece is part of a running theme, which explores what it means to be Australian.
For Greek Australians, the answer to that question is complex and is at the core of Anatolitis’ Griffith Review piece.
“In the whole framing of the memoir, I was trying to distinguish between the Greek, the Greek Australian and the Australian values and aspects of my identity,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
In terms of the Greek part Anatolitis describes that identity as having a constructive resilience that contains a strong sense of honour.
“I’m sure it’s partly because there’s been a couple of thousand years of colonisation of different cultures on Greece and having to be really clear about Greekness,” she says.
“There’s also a really healthy work-life balance and there are abundant natural resources, the sun, the sea and the mountains. Then there’s this sense of hospitality, at the cross roads of cross roads. There is also this strong sense of political pragmatism, because, as you know, it’s always taken a plurality of voices to get things done in Greece.”
Regarding the Greek Australian aspect, Anatolitis feels that perspective contains more defiant values of identity formation.
“There’s that really strong confidence that comes out of Greek Australians,” she says.
“In some of us it is a real conservatism that is clinging on to old values. And sometimes it’s the opposite. It’s the ‘let’s build something here’, a real ‘neos kosmos‘ where we actually construct something.”
For the Australian identity, Anatolitis sees an important commonality with her birth place and that of her parents.
“I always see a real veneer of not dealing with fundamental, foundational traumas,” she says.
“This country was taken from First Nation Australians through violent means. As a country, we want to repress that or forget that. Thinking about that similar veneer of trauma, also got me thinking about the way the different foundational traumas of us coming from migrant families, can also affect us, in terms of our strength and also our vulnerabilities.”
Throughout her life, the negative aspect of her parents and grandparents’ life in Greece was never spoken about – those stories were left untold, she writes in the Griffith Review.
“The most appalling things I’ve ever experienced have come from my parents – and ultimately, from their trauma. For me, the legacy of unresolved traumas was an isolated and often violent upbringing. My sister and I fought bitterly for the dignity of our own independence, ultimately leaving the family home at the earliest opportunity to seize it for ourselves.”
In her mid 20’s, Anatolitis made her first trip across Europe. During that time, she learnt more about her parents and grandparents’ life in Greece and the extent to which they had suffered during the war.
“I heard a lot of stories, some of which still make me teary when I think about them,” she says.
“One of my mother’s earliest memories is of a knife to her mother’s throat, with people storming the house asking for my mother’s uncle because he was wanted due to actively serving with the Resistance.”
Anatolitis also revealed that, during World War Two, her father and his family were forced out of their home by Nazis who then occupied the house.
“They had to go sleep with the animals,” she says.
“My father made tree houses for his brothers and sisters to try and give the kids a sense that everything was OK. They also saw people attacked, assaulted and killed for not answering questions the way Nazi officers expected.
“It was a childhood that was defined by war and was completely disrupted, displaced and violent. These are really heavy foundational things that stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Anatolitis grew up in Sydney’s east and the experiences her parents brought from Greece manifested itself into a strict household. In the memoir she writes how her life changed course, thanks to the intervention of an extraordinary teacher at Eastlakes Primary School.
“Easily the most wonderful thing that had happened to me in my childhood was Annemarie Wagener,” she says.
“She could see how over protective my mum was. She was constantly at the school, being there and not allowing us that freedom and independence as children.
“But Ms Wagener spent a couple of years going out of her way to befriend my parents and really win their trust and she encouraged them to allow me to do the exam to get into the Woollahra OC class which was a public selective primary school for two years.”
Anatolitis couldn’t have imagined just how many possibilities this new world would offer.
“For the first time in my life my mind was doing cartwheels,” she says.
“At school we had this amazing curriculum, with artist techniques and evolution. There was high school science and mathematics, these amazing projects and school excursions. That meant that I would have choices in life. That I would be able to imagine something for myself that I could build and develop – a job, creative interests. That I could contribute to our broader society. It was just transformational.”
Looking back over her journey, Anatolitis also remembered the daughter of a man who worked with her father. But unlike her experience, this girl’s parents didn’t allow her to go to that selective school, even though she also passed the entrance test.
“It was her I was thinking of when I wrote this memoir,” she says.
“I cannot tell you how heartbroken I was for her. I was only a couple of years older than her. Even back then I remember having this conviction, a surge of ‘how dare you deny this girl that opportunity’. I don’t know what happened to her, but every question in my mind started with ‘were her parents scared?’ How could they be too scared to allow their daughter to become everything that she could become?”
While Anatolitis has a deeper understanding into her parents’ trauma, she reveals in her memoir that one of the unfortunate casualties of their relationship is that they don’t communicate any more.
“My parents and I have been estranged for a few years now,” she says.
“While that is a healthy thing for me, it’s certainly not a happy thing. Because I’m at this place in my life now where I can understand, with far more clarity than ever before, how those traumas were responsible for certain choices and behaviours that my parents made. But knowing that as a truth that you can understand, doesn’t make it necessarily any easier to balance into your own health and mental health.”