It’s all about a little class

Christos Tsiolkas talks with Fotis Kapetopoulos about his latest novel, Barracuda, class, self-loathing, success and the middle- age middle class

Barracuda affirms Christos Tsiolkas’ position as Australia’s most important writer of the last twenty years. If you are a child of migrants and you grew up in the eighties and nineties then Tsiolkas speaks of you, if not for you.
Barracuda is about class, failure, violence and redemption. The main character Danny Kelly is a teenage swimming freak of Greek Scottish background living in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Danny’s prowess in the water secures him a scholarship to an elite private school he calls ‘C-nts College’.
Danny enters the WASP world of ‘Golden Boys’ and aspirational ‘Templestowe Wogs’ as the outsider. A truly cruel early scene is how Danny’s peers humiliate him after his Greek Australian mother fronts up to school looking more like Sophia Loren than Julie Bishop.
I meet Tsiolkas at Melissa Greek cake shop in Thornbury. Greek Australian men and women sip frappé and gossip about relationships, talk about money, argue about politics, compare house prices, plan holidays to Greece and Bali, and discuss which schools to send their kids to. They inhabit Tsiolkas’ books, they are ‘us’, the aspirational wog middle class.
You can’t throw a stone between Thornbury and Reservoir without scoring an artist, a young mum sipping coffee with her baby secure in an all-terrain pram, a lesbian couple looking to buy property and forty-something Greek Australians subdividing their parents’ land to develop town houses. The north is shedding its skin, but it wasn’t always like that.
“Mate, it’s about time the Hawaiian shirt was seen more around here!” Tsiolkas laughs when he sees me.
Hawaiian shirts are a hangover from when I pretended to be a Surfie to counter the Greek youth look of disco, or Rocker – I never surfed.
We hug and peck each other on each cheek as Greeks do.
“It’s too loud, let’s go to my studio.” We walk past renovations, restorations and home auction signs.
“Mate what’s the story with Greece? What’s happening?” Tsiolkas asks.
“Full on, but it’s turning slowly… you know Greeks … will be ok, they’re still out having café, partying,” I repeat an unfair and all too common statement that makes light of the Greek economic catastrophe.
“It’s the middle class,” I add, “they can’t adjust, too easy for too long, no taxes.”
We sit on the floor of his sparse, neat, studio.
“I bought the studio after the success of The Slap,” Tsiolkas says.
Greeks, regardless of class, education or geography, know the importance of owning property. Home ownership transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrants from Southern Europe after the war. It was here, in Melbourne’s north, that migrants’ leapfrogged class.
“I’ve come back to class,” Tsiolkas says.
“You know, it’s the first time in my life I don’t have to worry about money, and that reconfirmed class as the most important politics,” he adds.
He’s shifted class, like many of us children of immigrants.
“Barracuda draws on my ‘disorientation’. When I entered Melbourne University many years ago … bang! A world I never knew existed … I met phenomenal people, but it wrenched me from a world that I belonged to,” he says.
“Even my wogness feels abstracted now because of that experience.”
‘Abstracted wogness’ – that’s the new nexus between culture, class, racism and being ‘in’.
There’s not much abstracted wogness for Danny in Barracuda. He carries Ari’s internal chaos from Loaded and Harry’s rage from The Slap. Self-loathing, distorted class and ethnic pride, youthful lust all coiled tightly over an inner rage that can explode at any time.
“Danny swims to burn his rage, I get rid of mine through my writing,” Tsiolkas says.
“Danny could have come out of The Slap, in some way, it’s a return to Loaded … hopefully I’m a better writer and I’m a middle aged man writing as an adult,” Tsiolkas says.
“I’m a middle aged teenager,” I say.
Greek Australian men, our generation, is becoming middle aged by surprise.
We were spoilt and obsessively loved by our mothers as Danny is in Barracuda. Supported to achieve in the vanilla world, the one we desire but fear.
Loaded heralded Tsiolkas’ arrival as the l’enfant terrible of Australian literature, Dead Europe positioned him as a master of the dark, The Slap a chorus for ethnic middle class angst, and Barracuda reconciles them.
Tsiolkas has no more wiggle room, like an athlete he must perform again and again.
“After The Slap my position in the literary world changed, up until then I felt as the outsider; suddenly I had success,” Tsiolkas reveals.
“In the beginning of Barracuda I believed that the difference between a sports person and an artist is that the sports person has clarity and surety of success,” Tsiolkas works through the argument.
“I came to sports because of … envy,” he admits.
“You never know how good you are as an artist, no matter how successful you become,” he confirms his fear.
Do any Greek Australians know what ‘real success’ is? If we were athletes there would be no confusion, you’re either a winner or a loser.
“The obsessive will of the athlete is similar to that of the artist, the difference is the age,” Tsiolkas adds a distinction.
“Come on, don’t talk age, we’re still good looking boys for our age?” I ask but don’t want an answer.
We’re not Danny, we’re not Ari, we’re not the young Greek men we were; taut, tough, angry, cool, smelling of sex, we’re ‘serious men’ now. Middle class and middle aged.
Danny is fearsome in the water – it’s his dominion. He beats the ‘Golden Boys’ at school and he will be champion.
“He’s like a Spartan. isn’t he?” I ask.
“Spartan… that’s it. Sports people are Spartan, I was never as disciplined at fourteen as Danny,” Tsiolkas says.
Danny’s swimming secures him respect and a glance into the world of the historically privileged, the ones that live over the river, in the leafy eastern suburbs. Danny is repulsed by his class, as much as he hates the ‘Golden Boys’ in his school. Danny’s Scottish truck-driving father, his Greek Australian rock ‘n’ roll mother and his overweight sister embarrass him, and Theo, his little brother, is ignored. Danny sucks up all the oxygen in the family, everything is for Danny.
There is intricacy in Tsiolkas’ detail of Danny’s school peers; they are not cartoon versions of the privileged.
“A friend, Andrew, helped me understand elite schools, he said the descriptions of Danny’s school in my first few drafts were like Tom Brown’s School Days, I have never been to an elite school,” admits Tsiolkas. The scorn poured on Danny from his Greek Australian peers in ‘C-nts College’ is very real.
“Class has changed … those wog boys are in there and they react against Danny, Danny is not all wog, he’s not a middle class wog, he’s half Scottish and working class,” Tsiolkas says.
Danny falls victim to his self-loathing after he fails. In a drunken rage he unleashes blood soaked violence that tears the fabric of his and his loved ones’ universe.
In prison Danny finds books, he grows and masters his amygdala, controls his internal anger.
“I wanted to explore the notion of how you make atonement for an act of barbarity,” says Tsiolkas.
“Are you forever to be held accountable for an act of disgrace?” he asks.
“The character ends up in gaol, he paid a high price,” Tsiolkas adds.
“I worked with prisoners on parole once and there were many who made one mistake and will never repeat that mistake, but you never get that story in the media.” Tsiolkas has empathy for human frailty.
In the end, no level of success will diminish what is important for Tsiolkas, for all of us middle aged, middle class, Greek Australian boys.
“I was nervous before the release of Barracuda,” admits Tsiolkas.
“Expectation terrified me. I kept asking, ‘am I writing for myself’ or was I writing for a public, was I another persona?”
When Tsiolkas’ late father became ill last year, it reminded Tsiolkas of “greater things”.
“Writing is not more important than my family and people I love,” Tsiolkas affirms.
We stop talking about Barracuda, writing, success, class or politics – and we talk about our fathers. Tsiolkas lost his father last year, I lost mine twenty years ago.
“As a man, I’ve been thinking of my father, he was an incredible gardener, but I don’t have that skill, because like many Greek guys his age he did not let his kids touch the garden, but writing is my garden,” Tsiolkas says, his eyes distant.
I think of my father, and I think of his father, even though I never met him, and it makes sense. This is why they settled here, for us to sit on the floor and talk about a son’s literary success.
Soon, we start again on the rise and fall of the modern middle class of Greece.

Expectation terrified me. I kept asking, ‘am I writing for myself’ or was I writing for a public, was I another persona?

*Fotis Kapetopoulos was the former director of Multicultural Arts Victoria, editor of Neos Kosmos English Edition, and former premier Ted Baillieu’s multicultural media adviser. He heads a cultural consultancy and is currently working to develop a cooperative marketing strategy for the arts in Melbourne’s West, while undertaking an PHD in Communications. He regularly contributes fiction and non-fiction to various publications.