“A blocky, cuboidal head, faced in pinks and whites and ruled in a fretwork of longitudes and latitudes which showed a few orthographic traces of worry…” Three Wogs, Alexander Theroux.
In his word drunk 1972 masterpiece Three Wogs, the work’s verbal sorcerer and deep-seeing satirist Alexander Theroux demonstrates that he is unafraid of prolixity or obscurity in the pursuit of a complex effect: the grotesque real, the dusk-light under which social aversions reveal erotic fears and fantasies – the depths where horror and pleasure coincide. A politically incorrect triptych-novel set in late 1960s, “Three Wogs” casts each protagonist representing a particular type of disagreeable racist, and the author’s task is to flay their backward attitudes alive with his divinely caustic prose. In this work, Alexander Theroux subverts the term ‘Wog’ so that it does not refer to an ethnic stereotype but rather, to those who harbour racist prejudices. Take his breathlessly forensic description of Mrs Proby, who reminds us of certain prominent Australian racists:
“Mrs. Proby look[ed] like a huge jar or, when shambling along as she often did, something like a prehistoric Nodosaurus. In a neck somewhat like insipid dough showed occasional fatty splotches, her hair sort of a heap of grey slag scraped back into a lumpish mound at her back. Her eyes had a russet, copperish hue that recalled garden thistles or cold glints of steel, depending, as so much did, upon her moods. She was paradigmatic of those fat, gigantic women in London, all bum and elbow, who wear itchy tentlike coats, carry absurd bags of oranges, and usually wheeze down beside you on the bus, smelling of shilling perfume and cold air. She wore ‘sensible’ shoes, had one bad foot, smoked too much, and cultivated a look as if she were always about to say no.”
In many ways, Theroux prefigures the work of our own pioneering comedian Nick Giannopoulos, who through his comedy, also subverted the term ‘wog’ as employed in Australia, taking ownership of it and transforming it from a term of abuse to a term of pride and endearment. Unlike Theroux however, Giannopoulos’ wit is more gentle, more generous, creating sympathy for all his characters and recognising the ethnic stereotyping is not restricted to dominant cultures but forms part of the human condition. During the eighties and nineties, ‘wog’ as used by him, became an apt term to describe a certain identity currently in formation: that of Southern European migrants and their children living and negotiating their cultural identity in an urban Australian environment. Proud of his achievement and ostensibly in order to protect the term from abuse and misuse during the apogee of the ‘wog’ era, Nick Giannopoulos trademarked the term. Not only is he therefore the ‘wog boy’, but also, the Wog ™ Supreme Arbiter.
Although the trademarking took place years ago, it has recently caused consternation among ‘ethnic’ comedians, with media reports alleging that some comedians have been advised not to use the term ‘wog’ ™ to promote their shows, for fear of legal action. Comedian George Kapiniaris, famous for his iconic character Memo, playing alongside Giannopoulos in Acropolis Now, took to social media to remark in jest: “I hope he hasn’t got a Trademark on the word MALAKA. I’ll be out of business.” So, no doubt, will we be all.
Such consternation as exists, is testament to the enduring nature of the myths we weave around ourselves. There is an emotional attachment to the wog ™ identity the way it was articulated by Giannopoulos in the eighties, within many first and second generation migrant communities, especially our own, as many of us view Giannopoulos’ achievement in breaking into the mainstream and presenting us to them on his terms, as a seminal moment in our own acculturation and social emancipation.
Yet, so many decades on, can we really be called wogs ™? The wogs ™ of old lived in inner city workers’ suburbs. They were caught between non-English speaking parents with no connection to Australia than their presence here and an Anglosphere that looked down upon them on the basis for their ethnic background. They viewed their arcane cultural heritage with incomprehension, fetishised the expletives of their mother tongue while discarding the rest of it, worshipped machismo and had more in common with other urbanised migrants of the Mediterranean than anyone else. The term ‘wog’ ™ elided their inherited cultural baggage and focused instead, on shared experience, in the now.
No ‘ethnic’ comedian has been able to articulate a comic perspective that portrays our communities with all their fragmented, but infinitely fascinating combinations and permutations, as they currently are.
Even as Acropolis Now drew to a close however, our community changed, something that the Chief Wog ™ does not address in his comedy. Increased communication with Greece via internet and satellite television and cheaper travel allowed second and third generation Greeks to rediscover their motherland and its heritage. All of a sudden, it became cool not to be a wog ™ but rather, a born-again Greek and it was on the beaches of Mykonos and the pupils of Jennifer Aniston’s eyes rather than in the backstreets of Brunswick that we began to locate the centrepoint of our identity. Rather than frequenting the multicultural discotheques of old, we turned inward. Barakia and Greek nights proliferated, refashioning the cultural geography of parts of the CBD of Melbourne, as we celebrated our distinct hypostasis as Greeks. No longer did we find common cause with the Italians, the Lebanese, the Turks and the Yugoslavs. Though we spoke our mother tongue haltingly, we knew or learned enough Greek to mouth the latest lyrics by Notis Sfakianakis. In this post-Wog ™ era, the wog ™ meta-narrative was relegated to the margins of the community, to a few stalwarts and true believers, cherishing the memories of their sexual conquests, real and imagined, in premises that no longer existed, and now, not having been able to evolve or adapt into the coveted new species, unable to breed.
READ MORE: Why aren’t Greeks cool anymore?
The barakia may have shut their doors but the strong identification with Greece and the Greek identity endures. It is for this reason that the cringe-worthily emulative works of Giannopoulos’ successors do not work: they are based on a premise that no longer exists. As Greeks, we cannot identify with the violent, incoherent ravings of the characters in ‘Superwog,’ or the repellant antics of those who populate “Fat Pizza” for example because we are no longer wogs ™ and thus have no affinity to them. If anything, they reinforce our own smug sense of distinctiveness. The implausibly accented Sooshi Mango Italian grandmothers and grandfathers are now relevant only to the community they represent, and are to the younger generations of the Greek community incoherent, to the older ones, but a relic or a memory. Simply put, the wog ™ is a superseded discourse. However, no ‘ethnic’ comedian has been able to articulate a comic perspective that portrays our communities with all their fragmented, but infinitely fascinating combinations and permutations, as they currently are.
…the cringe-worthily emulative works of Giannopoulos’ successors do not work: they are based on a premise that no longer exists.
Rather than acting as a brake on comedic expression, Giannopoulos’ trademarking of the term ‘wog’ ™ is a blessing. By restricting its use, mummifying it and in the process, accepting its redundancy, Giannopoulos is compelling would-be comedians to view the communities they wish to lampoon and celebrate with fresh eyes, and to produce novel satire, relevant to the post-wog ™ zeitgeist.
READ MORE: The ‘wog’ boy goes island hopping
As such, Giannopoulos parts company with them and becomes instead of a comedian, a cultural historian, guardian of the ark of a certain form of historically significant lapsed cultural identity. It is for the latter generations to deconstruct, interrogate and ultimately caricature the evolution of their ethnic identities from that point and there is so much material to draw from, without recourse to ossified concepts of the wog ™. In the words of that exhauster of superlatives Alexander Theroux in the mouth of bigot Mrs Proby, in Three Wogs: “Your how is not necessarily my how, nor is ours theirs.”