A candid chat between friends

Christos Tsiolkas is one of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary writers, recently winning the Commonwealth Prize for Literature in the Asia Pacific region. Friend and fellow author JEANA VITHOULKAS talks to Tsiolkas about his sexuality, politics and sense of Greekness.

Christos Tsiolkas was tall, thin and handsome when I first met him at a People for Nuclear Disarmament meeting at Melbourne University where we were both studying in 1983. Nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war was very real during that time.

The hawkish President Ronald Reagan was at the helm in the United States, stockpiling weapons, and the equally paranoid, Soviet Union was eager to show that it could match America’s nuclear strength.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Chernobyl was only three years away.

Christos Tsiolkas was standing in front of me about to sign up, when I saw his student ID on the table and read the Greek name.

“Are you Greek?” I asked him and he said he was, smiling expansively. He wore 1950s clothes and had an eager, curious face.

We both smiled with pleasure and surprise that there was another progressive minded Greek in our midst.

We went for a coffee, spent an afternoon talking and have been friends ever since. The honesty that is evident in all his writing was there right from the beginning.

Within half an hour, he had told me he was ‘gay’ and like many women before and after me, there was a twinge of disappointment.

But I got over it.

Christos was too interesting a person to reject because he wasn’t a potential boyfriend.

He then expressed the difficulties he had in reconciling his sexuality with his ‘Greekness’.

“You know I’m gay, and it’s just something that doesn’t fit within Greek culture,” he said.

I was bemused by this comment. I grew up with an openly gay uncle who lived with his lover in St Kilda whom we used to visit for dinner.

Later they moved to Queensland where we went for a holiday. As hospitable hosts, they gave us their waterbed while they slept on the couch. I secretly read excerpts from my uncle’s copy of the The Joy of Sex, a book that did not have pride of place in my parents’ bookcase.

In short, my uncle was not shunned.

It’s not until I sit down with him this week to talk to him about this article that I understand why Tsiolkas wanted no truck with ‘Greekness’.

I tell him that most people who read his books come away with the impression that he is an angry, dark, depressed person.

But for those of us who know him, we know that he is a charming, engaging man who loves to party and celebrate life. Who when winning the election of the editorship of the Melbourne University magazine, Farrago, threw one hell of a shindig, standing on a table singing The Internationale at the top of his voice.

I just abhor nationalism. I still consider myself an internationalist. In the big issues that faced my generation: greed, rapacious consumerism, the treatment of refugees and the indigenous people, questions about whether I was Greek or Australian were not that important, were they?
– Christos Tsiolkas –

Like all of us, Christos has a dark side, a darkness that he was able to express in his books and that he doesn’t shy away from admitting. What is the source of it, I wonder and he tells me.

At the age of twelve his parents moved from Richmond to Box Hill, which had a profound effect on his life.  “I went from an area which was almost entirely Greek, where I felt totally comfortable about who I was, to a place where I was a complete outsider. There were instances where I was beaten up for being a wog.”

At the same time his awareness of his sexuality was developing – another ‘difference’ he had to grapple with.

Desperate to fit in somehow in this environment, he became involved with a fundamentalist Christian group at a time when he was trying to make sense of who he was.

“Through my involvement in this church I developed a fear of myself. Because homosexuality was the devil’s domain, I came to believe that I was the devil. I was terrified of going to sleep at night because I didn’t want to dream of men. I came to hate myself.”

He was saved from this torturous self-loathing by his own questioning sensibility, a sensibility that he attributes to his parents.

“Although they were uneducated, my parents (particularly my mother who was politically on the left) were interested in the world around them. There were many discussions about why things were the way they were, probing, analysing, debating.”

And it was this probing and analysing that enabled him to shake off the shackles of a punitive Christian fundamentalist church.

“There were also teachers who gave me books to read and eventually I was able to say I don’t believe in that code.”

Instead he became a socialist.

It was at this point that I met him. He had done all the hard work of ridding himself of guilt associated with his sexuality, of ridding himself of self-loathing and had found a sense of comfort and confidence about who he was.

That’s why he wanted no truck with ‘Greekness’.

After escaping one set of values that condemned him, he wasn’t about to embrace another that was going to make him feel bad about what he was, all over again.

There were people at university who were critical of Christos. While in first year, he wrote an article in the student newspaper about being Greek and gay. I heard other Greek Australians say if they knew who he was, they’d beat him up.

This was what he was talking about.  I was shocked and dismayed. They want to beat him up? Just because he’s gay?

The organised Greek left wasn’t much better. They were dismissive of his argument that homosexuality was a political issue which they should concern themselves. Their denial – another instance of homophobia – led to my first quibbles with left politics.

If there was no home for Christos in the Left, there was no home for me there either.

“All of us have good and evil within us. Nothing is black and white. There are many values from both religion and Marxism that I carry with me to this day, but there are many things from both of those codes that I have rejected.”

And what of his relationship to Greek culture? As every other aspect of his make up, it’s not that cut and dried.  “I’m proud to be a Greek, but what sort of a Greek? I feel fortunate that I speak another language, have access to another culture that enriches me, but in the ensuing years, I have become more and more aware of the complication of my identity. I have come to understand that my ethnicity is more migrant than Greek as in middle class Greeks in Greece.

“When I was in Greece on my most recent trip, I felt more of an affinity with the Polish migrant who lived next door to my cousin than I did with anyone else.”

We talk about the arguments we have both had with Greeks in Greece about Albanians and the discrimination they endure. We talk about the anti refugee fervour that gripped Australia during the Howard years. The shameful behaviour of both Greeks and Australians in these examples. What was there to be proud of?

He slams the coffee cup down on the table.

“Look I just abhor nationalism. I still consider myself an internationalist. In the big issues that faced my generation: greed, rapacious consumerism, the treatment of refugees and the indigenous people, questions about whether I was Greek or Australian were not that important, were they?”

I had to agree they were not.

When the photographer comes, he wants Christos to smile, a request with which he is struggling to comply. It doesn’t come naturally.

I tell him a funny story about my son and he laughs hysterically.

“Jeana’s son is my godson,” he explains to the photographer.

The fact that two socialist atheists participated in the ritual of a baptism is a subject of another article, but at that moment I couldn’t think of a better mentor in the whole world for my son that Christos Tsiolkas.

And yes, whether he’s Greek or not, is really not that important.