Peter Polites: ‘Mortgage, success, houses, investment. These aren’t Greek values’

In creating Panos, the main protagonist for his latest novel The Pillars, author Peter Polites took inspiration from notorious gay right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos.

At the beginning of the book, Panos starts out as a struggling poet who soon gets entangled into a world of consumerism and aspiration, and lobbies against a mosque being built across the road from his home.

Earlier this year the Morrison government banned Yiannopoulos from entering Australia due to hateful comments he made on social media after the Christchurch terror attacks.

So why did Polites base his main character on such a hated figure? The 40-year-old explained to Neos Kosmos that Panos’ character appealed to him, as he contained the perfect attributes for the origin story of a modern-day villain.

“I was asking myself, ‘how did he (Yiannopoulos) become that way?’
“What happened to him? After this book, Panos will become like Milo. When you get to the ending you see the character make a decisive change that sees him becoming a conservative agent.”

An early passage in the book sees the young Panos recount a conversation he has with his mother about home ownership. He recalls her saying “Don’t worry about the housing bubble. Don’t worry about the fact that you will never be able to afford a home, worry about the day after. That’s when they will all come with their black shirts and bayonets and then you will see the drowned bodies and slit necks.” As Panos stands there he says, “but mum I’m ten years old”.

While Polites is clear that the mother in the book is nothing like his own, he does admit he exaggerated the character to show how it is Panos, not his mother, who is ill.

“A lot of people will say the mother is mentally ill,” he said. “But I just think she has a different way of seeing the world. That’s what mental illness is a lot of the time, it’s just a different way of seeing the world. Sometimes you can function like that. But it’s Panos who is the one who can’t function.”

READ MORE | Polites: ‘When you’re a writer from a minority background sometimes you need permission to write’

Polites who is openly gay says the character of Panos is also a comment on how certain sections of both the gay and non-gay Greek Australian community are becoming more conservative.

“It’s both,” he revealed. “It’s the combination of ethnic aspirationalism and gay aspirationalism overlapping, and it’s not just one or the other. Our values are now dependent on mortgage, success, houses, investment. These aren’t Greek values. These aren’t any human values. These are values of status and insecurity.”

According to Polites this ethnic aspirationalism has even entered the world of reality TV shows.

“Whether it’s Greek, Indian, Italian, Asian, you’ll always find the migrant communities will best a lot of the white communities,” he said. “They are disproportionately more successful and when they do succeed, my god! You look at MasterChef, the ethnic always win. It’s not an accident. If you cast the right people in each reality show you’ll see that the ethnics will always triumph because of the values and the trauma and the hard work that has been instilled into people.”

It’s not hard to see that ethnic aspiration is a running theme throughout The Pillars. Ironically Polites feels that past conservative governments like the Liberal Party of the Howard era didn’t actually mean for Greeks to show so much ambition.

“I don’t think John Howard wanted the ethnics to buy Gucci bags and show their wealth like that,” he said. “Certain types of white Australia, they want ethnics to be quiet, silent and non-threatening. So this is my simultaneous thing; as much as I hate the character of Panos and the world that he wants to create and what he wants to be – as much as I hate aspirational Greeks, there is also a part of me that is like, ‘nah be like that. Be as bad as you can. The worse you are, the more obnoxious you are, the more it challenges the program of migration’.”

While Polites admits that the fuel for his second novel contained an element of rage, the Sydney-born author explained that this allowed room for humour to also enter into the writing.

“This book starts from a place of anger,” he revealed. “But I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed writing this novel more than by first book Down the Hume because I put so much comedy into it. Part of the comedy is outright slapstick and the other part is satire in the traditions of Henry James or Brett Easton Ellis and how they satirise class. I wanted to satirise the lower middle classes and their aspirations.”

But what about the rule of satire of not punching down? Polites doesn’t care, in fact he believes his target demographic – of which he also belongs to – deserves it.

“C’mon,” replies the 40-year-old who grew up in Western Sydney and attended a private catholic school. “Here we are in the inner west of Sydney drinking coffee out of our eco-café cups surrounded by hipsters.”

READ MORE: 10 interesting Greeks in Australia’s global creative industry