In my idle moments, I often muse that the latter day history of our community can be likened to the plight of Sisyphus. A sly and deceitful person who frequently violated the Xenia, Sisyphus was compelled by the Olympian gods to roll an immense boulder up a hill, then as soon as he would reach the top of the hill, the boulder would roll off, an action repeated for eternity. We too, engage in Sisyphian pursuits. Such as raising money to buy the club building, raising money to pay off the club building, raising money to maintain the club building, raising money to find a use for the club building, raising money to stop the club building from being sold, to raising money to create a Modern Greek program at a university, to raising money to maintain a Modern Greek program at a university, to raising money to stop Modern Greek from being abolished from a university, it appears that we are constantly, to paraphrase the colloquial Australian take on Sisyphus, pushing excrement uphill.
That is why I find the front cover of Christos Fifis’ recently launched book Greek Australian Offerings so intriguing. Designed by Phrixos Ioannidis, it depicts a little silhouette of a figure, standing atop a mountain peak, holding the boulder in a masterful way. Significantly, the boulder is behind him, signifying that Sisyphus is not about to commence his futile task. Instead he has finally completed it. As he stands triumphantly upon the peak, holding the boulder that inclines towards him, threatening to commence another descent and take him with it, Sisyphus, for the first time ever, is able to view the horizon, beyond his bondage. This should be a liberating and inspiring moment. Instead, Sisyphus’ view is hemmed in by more mountains, enclosing a void. One can almost feel the boulder begin to roll as he hyperventilates in exasperation. Phrixos entitled his picture: The Vision of Sisyphus and it is, I suggest, no coincidence that Fifis has chosen it for his front cover. There is a powerful pictorial parable encoded here, one that is key to unlocking Fifis’ psychological attitude towards the Greek community, one he has researched, as a lecturer and an academic and loved, as an activist, at an inordinately deep level. He who has ears, let him hear, as the Chief Parabolist once said.
Fifis translates the title to his book, rendered in Greek Ελληνοαυστραλιανές Αναφορές, as Greek Australian Themes. From the outset, what becomes apparent is that while in the Greek, the two ethnonyms can be merged to form a hybrid but harmonious new compound word, this is not possible in English. Instead the two ethnonyms, even though they attempt to express a compound reality, are separated by a hyphen and remain apart, suggesting the writer’s conviction that while such a semantic merger is linguistically possible in Greek, it is linguistically impossible in the Anglosphere, unless the term Graecaustralian is used, one that achieves compound hybridity, but significantly, only through the mediation of another western language, Latin, and has not, nor will it probably ever be used.
The inadvertent realisation by Fifis that the Greek term Ελληνοαυστραλιανός is untranslatable in English is of profound importance to his book but more pertinently to the community (which is also a mistranslation of the term that we use to describe ourselves, παροικία, which literally means a settlement on the fringes, with all that this entails for our place within the multicultural paradigm) purporting to call itself both Ελληνοαυστραλιανή and Greek Australian. This ontopathology is subtly played out in Fifis’ interviews and musings that comprise the contents of his book.
I respect the author’s use of the word themes to translate the Greek αναφορές. However, I prefer a more literal translation, one that, I feel, goes to the heart of Fifis’ purpose. ‘Anaphora’ literally signifies a ‘carrying back’ or a ‘carrying up’, and so, can denote an ‘offering’ In the sacrificial language of the Greek version of the Old Testament, the term προσφέρειν is used to denote the offeror bringing the victim to the altar, and ἀναφέρειν is used to describe the priest’s offering up the selected portion upon the altar. This is exactly the practice that Fifis is engaging in, through the writing of; offering up, by means of interviews, articles and poems, a unique view of a century of Greek Australian cultural and literary achievement.
Fifis’ perspective is unique. In a community suffering from historical amnesia and generally unable to forge a collective identity based on a coherent narrative comprised of the sum of our lived experiences, we largely do not seek to possess any knowledge of what transpired beyond our parents’ generation, nor do we find this relevant to our own experience. A key exemplar of this is the fact that we tend to term those migrants arriving here in the 50s and 60s as the first generation, ignoring the half-century of experiences, struggles, achievements, and ideological and social activism of the pre-war Greek migrants. Consequently, instead of being able, after an entire century of settlement in this country, to draw upon an unbroken lineage of experience and attitude so as to formulate a truly Australian version of the Greek identity, our sense of identity remains fractured and ersatz, psychologically dependent upon an increasingly remote and indifferent Greek metropolis, and increasingly defined by Australian government policy and social expectation, of course, without the involvement of the original owners of this country. Having no knowledge of what has gone before, we, like our ancestor Sisyphus, the archetype of the modern Greek Australian, are doomed to push our communal rock uphill, if not until eternity, then certainly, until we become dust, as prefigured by Fifis’ inclusion in the book, of Aristeidis Paradissis’ last ever poem, about death, written on his deathbed in hospital, upon a serviette.
Through his offerings, Christos Fifis seeks to arrest this phenomenon. It is important for him that we understand the perspectives of early Greek social and political activists as Alekos Doukas, or the poetry of Kostas Malaxos, who arriving in Australia prior to the First World War, published his first book of poetry in English, in Athens in 1957. While the poetry of Nikos Ninolakis, Dimitris Tsaloumas, and Aristeidis Paradissis has been widely studied and critiqued at length in both English and Greek and the book would have benefited from an analysis of other largely forgotten but nonetheless powerful writers with much to say about the construction of a hybrid Greek Australian identity, such as the great Yiannis Lillis, Fifis’ sensitive treatment of these historic personages, through the interviews he conducted with them over the years, lends their insights on identity and acculturation, an inordinate immediacy to the reader, offering them up as building blocks, through which one can construct a coherent narrative, with a sense of historic continuity, that will ensure our relevance to the future. In this vital process, Fifis becomes our chief ideologue.
Greek Australian Offerings is the third deeply inspiring volume of a trilogy of historically significant musings about identity and historical continuity in Australia. In his first, Where is the Place for a Village, his poems pose profound ontological questions: “Australia of impatient departures and pleasant arrivals. Fifty years later, who are the dinky di Australians, and who are the migrants? Who are the New Australians? And what are the Aborigines who didn’t count, back then?”
In his second tome, From Our Antipodes Fifis makes a broad and sophisticated attempt to place the Greek community squarely within the broader Australian social context. In this, the final volume, he takes up all the strands of enquiry considered throughout the trilogy and weaves them together.
This, the sum of our experiences is who we are. Our identity is us, in relation to the place we live, in accordance with the memories of those who have carved a place for us, in this place.
Our challenge for the future, is, in absorbing this hive memory, to avoid triumphalism and understand that identity is an ever-shifting, ever-morphing paradigm that constantly requires refinement, re-assessment and re-negotiation. Perhaps it is futile to expect to escape the fate of Sisyphus after all.