‘How cultures come together is the single biggest issue we face’

Writer Michalia Arathimos describes her journey from Wellington to Melbourne, explaining how fiction helped her make sense of the world

The first thing Michalia Arathimos does is apologise for not speaking in Greek. But then, when she’s assured that this is not a problem, as the interview will be published in the English edition of this paper, she gets a bit disappointed.

“I was hoping I would send it to my yiayia,” she says, in what is arguably the soundest proof of Greek background anyone can offer: in the end, it is all about the yiayia and pappou. For her, though, it is something more. Because it is her yiayia that is the inspiration for the short story that she submitted to New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times newspaper for its annual short story competition, winning the first prize.

“I felt very emotional, because my story is about a Greek housewife from the ’50s, not exactly what is thought of as exciting reading,” she says. “The character is inspired by my yiayia, but the story is more about the love stories that didn’t happen, because of the strong rules within an insular community. That’s why I feel very happy that this story will be read, because these characters are not common in New Zealand literature.”

Michalia Arathimos knows what she’s talking about. Born and raised in Wellington, she studied English literature and obtained a PhD in creative writing, then went on to teach at a series of universities, before coming to Melbourne with her family, where she works as the literature reviewer for one of Australia’s leading literary magazines, Overland. Bringing a New Zealander (of migrant origin, no less) to an Australian literary institution is certainly something not usual.

“It’s part of bringing a broader Pacific perspective,” she explains. “I tried to bring Maori authors and I’m interested in reviewing Indigenous writers; my work is very much about representing voices that aren’t usually heard very much.”

Her own voice is going to be heard in May, when her debut novel Aukati is going to be published by Makaro Press, which makes the timing of the award perfect. Not surprisingly, her novel also deals with cultural clash.

“The story is almost a love story between a Greek person and a Chinese person,” she explains, describing the levels of racism that form the main themes − racism between the dominant white culture and the migrants, but also what happens between minority cultures, such as the Greeks and the Chinese, “what they think of each other, how they are both disempowered by the society they move into, how they relate to each other”.

Although inspired by the past, the theme of her stories could not be more topical.

“I think that how cultures come together, how to live with each other and find some way of coexisting is the single biggest global issue that we will be facing for the next 20 years. It all connects − the refugee crisis, the European crisis, the American elections, global warming, everything.”

As passionate as she is about politics (“I could talk about it all day”), she is not a political writer.

“I don’t want to write literature that is didactic,” she stresses. “All my work comes from an emotional reaction to the world around me. My motivations are not political, but the political comes into it. Because of my experiences, growing up in a minority, I have understood how the individual can’t exist outside of the political setting. You can’t divorce a character from the cultural environment.”

The environment she grew up in has definitely affected her outlook on life. “I was very lucky to grow up within a strong family culture. My yiayia and pappou looked after me, I was surrounded by uncles, aunties, cousins, the whole thing. At the same time, in my lifetime, I’ve seen that world almost come apart. I’ve seen how a migrant culture can change within a generation, shifting to the more standard western model of upbringing. When you have society as it is now, you have both partners of a family working, and there are greater pressures and demands on everyone’s time, so it becomes harder to maintain those links between family members. That family model of having children with more community around them, that to me is the healthier way to bring up a child.

“At the same time, I don’t know that these people have to be strictly your family, I just think you need community, friendships and that environment.”

But even her inclination towards literature has been influenced by her Greek background. “I grew up in a family of storytellers,” she says. “This is very common to Greeks; I was surrounded by my family’s stories, by stories from different generations, all we did was tell each other stories the whole time I was growing up. For me, fiction is a natural extension of that, it’s a way of being in the world and it’s really a way of making meaning out of the world. It’s an overwhelming time in history to be in; art, literature, reading and writing can help anyone to process what they’re experiencing”.