It seems like only yesterday that fresh out of university and having written the NUGAS column for three years, I was afforded the unique privilege by then editor Nick Psaltopoulos of writing the “Diatribe” column in Neos Kosmos’ English Edition. At that time, barakia were still operating in Russell and Chapel Streets, the youth of the Greek community in Melbourne were revelling in a Greek party culture imported from the motherland. Our community organisations reigned supreme and jostled for supremacy in overarching institutions such as the Council for Hellenes Abroad and it appeared that our Indian Summer was only just beginning.
Yet the auguries were discernible enough for those perceptive enough to identify them and fault lines within and around the paradigms we accepted without question abounded. My original aim both in the NUGAS column and the early Diatribes was to provide readers with information about obscure moments in Greek history that were relevant to the present, in order to challenge stereotypes and prevailing ideologies that dared to prescribe who we should actually be. Armed with historical parallels gleaned from a diverse range of historical eras and perspectives, I felt that the reader would be empowered not to accept Western or even Community imposed definitions of identity, but to fashion their own, a condition precedent to entering into a debate as to who we are and what role our cultural identity can play in “multicultural” Australia. Along the way, readers have been introduced to Lucian, the ancient inventor of Star Wars, Philogelos, the inventor of the Dead Parrot Sketch, the Toupha, or peacock headdress of the Byzantine Emperors, as well as arcane lore concerning ancient Greek buttocks.
In order to assess the memories that one refers to as comprising their identity, these need to be examined critically. Over the years, the Diatribe has not shied away from reappraising the massacre of Muslims and Jews during the Greek Revolution, the way in which the word “Macedonian” was employed in Greek literature by certain authors in order to purposely deny Slav speakers their Bulgarian heritage, among other historical controversies. In so doing, I have encountered interest and ire, vexation and vitriol, admiration and admonition and I have been grateful for all these reactions, for it is in constant re-examination and questioning of the elements that provide us with a sense of collectivity and the ability to relate these to our present reality, that vitality and future relevance lies.
There is a palpable sense of nostalgia and loss to many of the Diatribes. Early on, Neos Kosmos English Edition Editor Argyris Argyropoulos pointed out to me that as month followed month, ways of life that we took for granted, were vanishing as the generations passed. This encouraged me to share my own memories of growing up in suburban Melbourne among a village community that framed my sense of self, and which has since broken apart and vanished. I have written about customs such as tending the garden, visiting aunts and being offered spoon sweets and vanilla at the end of a spoon, the interweaving of flowers in wire mesh screen doors as a sign of a visit missed, the unique architectural aesthetic that characterised the first generation which is now in the process of being lost. In doing this I mourned the passing of my own grandparents publicly, hoping that in my attempt to contextualise their way of life, I was preserving memories that are common to us all because after all this is the cultural capital we all have in common. It binds us together and the question of how we will go on when those who have framed our identity for us, is ever present.
The preserving of memory has been a key concern of the Diatribe. It became apparent while writing that to all intents and purposes, we suffer from collective amnesia about the history of our presence in this country. While many of us know much about Greek history and thanks to Greek satellite television which has transformed our relationship with the motherland, engage with its current zeitgeist, there appears to be no widespread recognition of the uniqueness of our own historical experience in this country. Little knowledge or appreciation of the struggles of the pre-War Greek community inform our collective consciousness. Nor do we keep at the forefront of our minds the intense battles for social equality and multiculturalism fought by the progressive elements of our community and from time to time, I have sought to highlight these, by means of cautionary tales about the dangers of taking our hard won privileges/rights for granted. These perspectives follow a shift in my own personal thinking over the past two decades: from the desire to seamlessly fit in with the Greek mainstream, to a growing realisation that ours is a unique alternate branch of Hellenism with traditions, cultural memories and discourses all of their own. At the risk, as one Greek Consul General once told me in exasperation, of being considered of propagating a doctrine of “Greece for the Greeks, Greek Australia for the Greek Australians,” I have become an unabashed proponent of seeking to articulate our own distinctive understanding of who we are, negotiated between two cultures, without this being considered in any way a diminution of our core identity beliefs.
Over the years, Diatribe has thus attempted to view both Greek and Australian social and political phenomena from an idiosyncratic Greek-Australian position, discussing same sex marriage, suicide, clumsy efforts by successive Greek governments to engage with the Diaspora as well as endemic racism within the Australian “multicultural discourse.” The rationale is that our existence as a bridge between the two cultures means that we are affected by the social phenomena of both. For that reason, they need to be examined, criticised and discussed. I have relished and learnt from many readers incisive responses and opinions in this regard.
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During the twenty years of the Diatribe, many events of import have affected me personally, chief among them, marrying and having children, as well as losing my loved ones. Many of the Diatribes ask questions about the direction we are taking with Greek language learning, the plight of the elderly and vulnerable members of our community, the fate of our ever-declining brotherhoods and their stagnant resources, the manner in which our current institutions have failed to formulate a coherent vision for the inclusion of the latter generations in the collective affairs of the community. Diatribe has also stood admiringly and watched as individuals and groups within the broader community have bucked the trend and have introduced vitality and a trajectory of their own. The building of the Greek Centre, a major historical achievement and the atmosphere of inclusion that this has engendered has been a source of perennial fascination. The manner in which university students and graduates have organised to create such wonderful expressions of Hellenism as murals, lectures, articles published in Neos Kosmos in which key aspects of Greek culture are interrogated point to a version of the future that fill us with optimism. However, the Diatribe has also had to criticise disturbing phenomena such as the rise of neo-fascism within sections of our community. What form do we want our community to be like for our children, is thus a question that is often posited by the Diatribe. The answer it invariably comes to time and time again, is to provide no answer. Instead, we need to give the latter generations, enough support, trust and resources, to solve that question for themselves, according to their own requirements. The Diatribe thus often concerns itself with members of the community, known and unknown who are doing exactly that.
Underlying twenty years of Diatribe is thus an immense love for our community and a sense that there is something truly valuable in espousing a Greek cultural identity in Australia. In celebrating who we are, examining both negative and positive aspects to our multifaceted existence and accepting that we are so diverse, so fascinatingly complex, so omnipresent in all fields of the mainstream as to defy definition, in postulating whether we are in fact engaged in two discourses, an outward one, responding to the way the ruling class sees and defines us and an inner one, conducted both in English and Greek responding to our own needs and internal tensions, we draw ever closer. It is this closeness, this feeling that despite our many differences there is a common thread linking all of us, encouraging us to support and encourage and assist each other that the beauty of our community lies.
This is also the reason why the writing of the Diatribe for the past decade at least has been a consultative, collaborative and democratic process. Once the bare bones of each article are written, they are posted on social media, there to be dissected, criticised, pilloried and critiqued by readers. On many occasions, I am compelled to discard the entire premise of the narrative as erroneous, to re-assess suppositions or facts in the light of others, or to take into account perspectives I had no idea existed. The ever present corny jokes however, remain my own. I remain ever grateful to those readers who care enough to engage in this process with me. I am also humbled by readers who take the time to confide that reading the Diatribe has taken them on a journey of re-interpretation of the world around them, all of their own, or encouraged them to try their own hand at writing. Some of their work is truly awe-inspiring.
Everyone has something to say, and yet not everyone is always afforded the opportunity to say it. In this I am perennially grateful to the proprietor of Neos Kosmos, its Editor in Chief, English Edition Editors, journalists and staff for their support, their insight and their forthright criticism. Many of them have become close friends and to be included in the Neos Kosmos family, to be granted a glimpse as to how it comprises the glue that keeps our community together, is truly a gift. Diatribe now enters its third decade and on a weekly basis I am contacted by people who express the view that they have “grown up,” with it. So have I and for this and the continued existence of Neos Kosmos, I am eternally thankful.