The idea(s) of Greece

The Bendigo Writers Festival hosted three Greek Australian writers, to discuss different ideas of Greece that emerge in Australian writing. John Charalambous, Victoria Kyriakopoulos and Helen Nickas share with Neos Kosmos their personal idea of Greece.

From Greece as a destination, to how Greek Australian writers meld their cultures – the ideas of Greece are different in different heads.

From those wounded by the experience of migration, to those born and grown up in Greek families in the diaspora and those from mixed marriages where the Greek influence wasn’t felt as much.

For Greek Australians, there are many ideas of Greece – the Greece of remembered youth, of migrant nostalgia, of family relations and holiday reunions, in each case a uniquely personal Greece, according to Bendigo-based novelist John Charalambous.
Charalambous, alongside writer and publisher of Greek Australian literature Helen Nickas and journalist and travel writer Victoria Kyriakopoulos, unravelled the ties between two nations and many notions of Greece during ‘The Idea of Greece in Australian Writing’ session at last weekend’s Bendigo Writers Festival.

Now in its third year, the thriving festival wanted a Greek theme to link with ‘The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece’ exhibition, currently on show at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

With his idea of Greece influencing his perception as we talk, John says Bendigo is like a little polis, a Greek city state.

“I don’t know how a regional city like Bendigo manages to feed a successful festival like this, amongst so many others. But people keep coming. Greek city states were small centres where the culture was concentrated – Bendigo has that sort of style.”

Born in a mixed marriage, of a Greek Cypriot father and Irish Australian mother, all the ideas of Greece in his early life came from his father.

Brought up in the “assimilationist, conformist era of Australian history” as a new Australian, John was eager to conform to be an ‘Aussie boy’.

Having an Anglo Australian mother, and not speaking Greek at home, John didn’t think of himself as Greek. His understanding of Greece came from his father, he was his Greek history and his Greek geography rolled into one.

“Everything I knew about Greece came from dad – the other side of it were these myths about Greece that flirt around the Anglo culture and in Europe as well, and they were contradictory. It was these contradictory ideas of the brand Greece that I wanted to tackle at the session,” John tells Neos Kosmos.

In an era when multiculturalism was not yet an embraced notion, John managed to conform, but with all the stresses that went hand in hand with it.

His last book, Two Greeks (2011), is a story of a 10-year-old boy who wants to love his dad, an overbearing conflicted guy, and his relationship with a new neighbour, a sophisticated Greek from Alexandria – not a peasant like his dad. With an identity in crisis, the boy wants to find out who he is.

The novel is a dramatisation of what John dealt with as a kid. The Greeks as he saw them in popular culture seemed hopelessly split, he says.

“Heirs of Pericles, lovers of democracy and freedom, yet also brutal peasants mired in medieval superstition and contempt for women. Who knows how much of this conflicted discourse had a basis in Greek reality? But it was the inner reality that I grew up with, and it’s always the inner reality, especially ambivalence, that drives fiction,” John says.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, with John in his early 20s and an aspiring writer, that his focal point changed. Those unresolved conflicts he had growing up about who he was became what he started thinking and – later on – writing about.

“It was the birth of multiculturalism in Australia, policies changed, and all of a sudden it was not a liability to be half Greek. I realised there was a little niche there for migrant writing.”

It was in 2011, with Two Greeks, that John managed to say, in a novel, everything he wanted to say for such a long time.
Multiculturalism in Australian writing and arts may be taken for granted now, but for John’s generation there is still a conflict of assimilation they have been carrying along since children, he says.

“What we talked about is many Greeces – in every head there is a different Greece. Many non-Greek Australians, being great travellers, have direct experience of the country as well, while those who don’t rely on crafted images of brand Greece, or Greece refracted through Anglo or international lenses.

“I don’t just mean tourist Greece – postcard seascapes, ancient ruins and Byzantine churches. I mean all the contradictory images of Greece thrown up by history and, as you look deeper into it, political design.”

And for Australians from a Greek background these contradictions form a prism through which they try to understand themselves.

With new generations of Greek Australians being born, how long will this Greece that informs Australian writing last for?

As long as there is migrant connection, John says.

Personal relevance

Melbourne-based writer and freelance journalist Victoria Kyriakopoulos, the author of several Lonely Planet Greece guides, says the response of the audience reinforced that idea of Greece meaning different things to different people.

“I had two people come up to me after the session; one was an older Anglo Australian woman who just needed to share her fond memories of a Greek romance in southern Crete,” Victoria says.

“Another young woman, who was quite emotional, wanted to talk about her growing need to connect with her Greek side. Her father was Greek, but her parents had separated when she was only two and her mother didn’t want her to have anything to do with her father.

“She said ‘people tell me I’m very Greek in my ways, but I just don’t understand that part of my life. The only thing I have that’s Greek is my surname.’.
“For some people their background is something they don’t feel the need to connect with – while others strongly feel that need to explore it.

“My Greece started as an abstract concept in my childhood and evolved into a very real Greece, a personal connection that culminated in a wonderful decade or more exploring Greece as a journalist and travel writer,” says Victoria, the only Greek Australian writer who has covered Greece for Lonely Planet.

“As a Greek Australian I think you do add a good, sort of insider-and-outsider perspective, because you understand the culture and language but you still have to maintain some sort of objectivity. Not everybody is going to be predisposed to liking Greece.”

“In my writing, it was about telling stories that I thought deserved to be told, and showcasing a different side of Greek culture that goes beyond the predictable, the clichés and stereotypes.

“I like to think my writing gives an insightful, informative and affectionate glimpse of the Greece I came to know and love, with all its maddening foibles and complexities, its special energy and enduring allure.”

With a continuing story of Greek migration today, it’s still hard to know how long the idea of Greece in Australian writing is going to last for, Victoria says.
“Greeks seem to be particularly obsessed with their identity – it’s often a conflicted, but strong relationship with Greece. I don’t know about the next generation, but I think it’s here for a while – that need to tell Greek Australian stories and explore those connections.”

The Greece that hurts

Speaking from a position of a Greek from Greece, editor and publisher of Greek Australian literature Helen Nickas, sees Greece with different eyes.

For Helen, the idea of Greece involves both pain and pleasure. Having left her country for another is always going to define who she is and what she does in life.

Including herself, many were Greek migrants to Australia who enriched Australian literature, and have contributed to the national dialogue.

For Helen, there is a pain of being away from homeplace and culture, but also a historical pain of Greece after civil war when everything was in ruins – it is the whole idea of the Greece she had grown up in and left behind when she came to Australia that informed her writing.

“‘Wherever I go, Greece wounds me’ wrote George Seferis, the Nobel prize winning Greek poet who lived most of his life outside Greece. He understood the pain of having left his home, and therefore memory played a huge role in his life and in his writing. ‘Memory hurts, wherever you touch it.’.

“Like Seferis, many Greeks writers in Australia have written about the migrant experience. They are the diasporic Greeks, the dispersed Greeks, who have two – or more – countries, but cannot fully, or unproblematically, call either one ‘home’,” Helen says.

The best of that writing, in her opinion, is not nostalgic in a melodramatic sense, but expresses the duality of life in all its complexity. This was reflected in the writing of many Greek Australian writers, like Dimitris Tsaloumas, Antigone Kefala, Dina Amanatides.

They have captured, both artistically and intellectually as Helen says, the two most significant phenomena of the 20th, and sadly of the 21st century – war and migration, or exile.

“The former brings on the latter. What are all these writers and many like them? Greek? Australian? Or Greek Australian?

“Cavafy’s dilemma and his resolution of it, by suggesting that we can be both, can aptly describe the second generation (and the third and fourth perhaps) of Greek Australian writers. In at least the last two decades, we are witnessing a proliferation of writers of the second and third generation, whose language is English, and therefore they can rightly be called ‘Australian’ writers. But they are Greek as well. And now in more recent times, having managed to free themselves of the shame and embarrassment of their childhood years – when it was a shameful thing to be different – Greek Australian writers are beginning to embrace their dual self and see the positives in their backgrounds.

“By making cultural and intellectual connections between Australia and Greece, they are contributing to the enrichment of Australian cultural life and literature – but also world literature.”