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Edition 61

Contents
Memoir

The stories we don't tell

Negotiating aspects of identity

EVERY MORNING I would press my nose against the glass and try to imagine what this place could be. A bare room with white walls and beautifully polished floorboards in a shopfront next to a laundry and a bus stop. As I waited there for the last of the three buses to my new school, I saw pictures on the walls which were routinely replaced by others. Nothing else changed. What was this place for? What did the simple, hand-lettered name on the window-glass mean? There was no furniture, nothing obviously for sale, nothing to indicate a function. I was nine years old, and I had no idea that public places existed for experiencing and discussing art.

My new school was in Woollahra, in Sydney’s wealthy eastern suburbs, where for two years I studied evolution, ancient history, advanced science and mathematics, and art theory and practice. It was worlds apart from Eastlakes Public School, then part of the state’s Disadvantaged Schools Program. Being short of teachers, I’d been enlisted from kindergarten to help teach the newly arrived refugee children English. There, I’d seen memories of trauma emerge from reluctant little faces, which is what happens when children are able at last to speak to other children. In later years, as I continued to work too quickly through my lessons, I was asked to work with the other children to write and stage plays, put together shows of our drawings, and make zines with an old gestetner machine.

My kind-hearted teacher spent two solid years befriending my parents, winning their trust enough to allow me to sit the entrance exam for a selective public school. I was accepted and – incredibly – allowed to go. The journey from Eastlakes to Woollahra spanned language, class, culture. I devoured new thinking and embraced new modes of expression – but each new experience took me further from my parents, who feared what they did not understand. Like many migrants, they never imagined that a better life would come to mean a radically different life for their children – one that would ultimately separate us in ways we could never have anticipated.

 

THAT WAS OVER thirty years ago. Australia’s key arts organisations were still in development, the Australia Act had just made Australia formally independent, and Paul Keating was still dreaming up a grand cultural vision for the nation. Art was rarely a part of public life, with few opportunities to reflect on who we are.

At the same time, in Greece the new Panhellenic Socialist Party (Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα or PASOK) was implementing a reform agenda to reinvigorate the nation after the 1967 coup, the military dictatorship, and the 1974 student-led uprising that triggered the restoration of democracy. The horror of Nazi occupation and the five-year civil war that followed had devastated Greece, torn families apart and destroyed cultural, communications and supply networks. Two hundred thousand Greeks died in World War II, more than one hundred and fifty thousand in the civil war, and between three and six hundred thousand others in the Μεγάλος Λιμός, the Great Famine that followed. That’s more than one in ten Greeks – nobody’s life was unaffected. My parents experienced those traumas, but not their resolution, leaving for Australia in 1964.

With that ordeal in mind, PASOK and its arts minister, the legendary actress and political activist Melina Mercouri, made the 1980s a time of social revolution. While PASOK legislated a confidently feminist agenda for first-time national health, wage standards and women’s rights – including the long-overdue end of the dowry system – Mercouri built ambitiously on her civil war resistance years to embed the arts in education, connect Greek artists globally, and establish the European Capital of Culture program, with Athens its inaugural city. Her vision for Greece was powered by the resilience that had sustained her at home and in exile: a vision for a life lived publicly. Greece would recover if its long-held cultural values could once again become civic values. If public institutions could advance the public good. If decisions made by one group of people for another had an αγορά in which to be contested by a diversity of voices: a town square, a theatre, a gallery, an assembly, an open marketplace, a free media – the Greek institutions of classical times reinterpreted as public values for modern times.

 

NONE OF THESE stories were ever told in my home. None of these histories were ever taught at my schools. And yet, we can’t tell the story of contemporary Australia without understanding the politics, the traumas and the resilience that characterise our various migrant cultures. Including the traumas inflicted on First Nations people, and the refugees we are traumatising today for daring to seek asylum. Their stories are ours.

For me, the legacy of unresolved traumas was an isolated and often violent upbringing. My sister and I fought bitterly for the dignity of our own independence, ultimately leaving the family home at the earliest opportunity to seize it for ourselves. As difficult as the controlling behaviour of my parents was, more difficult for us as children was the burden of negotiating our mother’s mental illness – again, never identified, never discussed. A constant anxiety, hostility, fear. Compulsive behaviours; frequently misunderstanding people’s facial expressions; frequently responding with the wrong emotion to the wrong degree; endless ranting and arbitrary attack. My sister and I looked after one another’s skinned knees in the schoolyard to avoid getting in trouble when we got home. My parents feared and mistrusted doctors – understandable, given experiences such as the emergency appendectomy my father had had as a child without anaesthetic because there was none available.

Constantly monitoring our facial expressions for our own safety, my sister and I grew up without an experience of the carefree ease of childhood. We were scolded abrasively for enjoying ourselves at play. We were raised to second-guess our own joy. «Τα πολλά γέλια φέρνουν πολλά δάκρυα», we were told. Much laughter brings many tears. We became introverted and very studious – the microbiologist and the writer – spending evenings in our rooms alone, connected by the intercoms we’d given each another as Christmas gifts. We hid the wiring under carpet seams and over doorframes. We invented games, made radio plays, and exchanged journal volumes with a cousin. Metres away, in the living room of our little fibro house, the television was always on, or the radio. Sensationalist current affairs shows and shock jocks reinforced social anxieties that degenerated into open racism, sexism and homophobia.

The outside world was a danger. «Με όλους, και με κανέναν», I was advised when it came to the public expression of my political views. With everyone, and with no one. Not a surprising attitude given my parents had grown up understanding political expression as punishable by death.

One of my grandfathers had been a royalist – an indefensible politics he had assimilated while acquitting his military service obligation as a bodyguard to the king. Meanwhile, his brothers and my grandmother had protected the family – at any cost, at all costs – after the Nazis burnt down the village to deter resistance. My other grandparents, whose home was occupied as a local Nazi base, had complied by day while feeding and arming resistance forces by night. They too saw death by starvation, arbitrary attack, political execution. My grandmother was left a widow with nine children to raise alone when illness cut grandfather’s life short. Their son, my father, would go on to become an unwavering enabler of his wife’s mental illness, never questioning any action she took in the raising of their two daughters. None of these stories were ever told in my home.

 

EDUCATION OPENED MY world. Art opened my mind. Both electrified me, countering oppressive isolation with a glittering array of possibility. I craved the outside world. I longed to experience it, to know it, to understand it – and, maybe one day, even contribute something to it. As a child making new discoveries for myself, public space held explosive potential as the complex intersection of ideas and action. The long commute to school inspired me: my body, still and content, alert and thoughtful, safe from constant harassment; outside the window, different people doing everyday things in unfamiliar streets pointing in new directions.

It was in the outside world where I was respected and appreciated for my ideas, and so a duality emerged, a double life: one bleak, one expansive. Was the distinction as simple as Greek culture versus Australian culture? The outside world dissolved that distinction; there, Greek culture was revered. Democracy, architecture, philosophy, science, art. People would speak in awed tones of Sappho, Heraclitus, Sophocles, Pythagoras, Pericles, Plato, Aristotle. Teachers would give explanations of complicated concepts with thoughtful deference to the Greek word of their origin. And when they gave those explanations, they made sense – whereas when family members evoked the heroes of the classical times, the gesture was all too often an appeal to legend. ‘We invented democracy, architecture, philosophy, science, art.’ The Greeks have a word even for that: προγονοπληξία, an excessive, or indeed pathological, glorification of the ancients evoked as our direct ancestors.

In my twenties, I was as constantly disappointed by that uncritical cockiness as I was by the uncritical Australian apathy. Why were so many Greek-Australians bragging about achievements that weren’t theirs, rather than emulating the civic duty of the ancients they admired? Why were so many Australians allowing a loud minority of foul politics to poison their sense of identity with attacks on the culture that meant so much to the overwhelming majority?

Something I’ve never experienced living in Greece is a sense that only some people have the right to contribute a public voice. Political allegiances are discussed openly and critiqued in fervent detail. A constant evolution of multi-party parliaments generates media coverage that’s often a five-person debate, not a single talking head being interviewed politely. An active resourcefulness characterises the Greek response to the latest political or financial crisis: people mobilise fast and create change.

In Australia, on the other hand, crisis situations pass unrecognised as crises, and are allowed to continue. In a democracy, we each have a responsibility – one that is not abandoned, but heightened, the moment we elect people to make decisions on our behalf. What if Australia took who we are seriously – as more than just accidental cultural diversity? What if the traumas of our First Nations people, our migrants and our people in detention camps were understood not as incidental, but central to the Australian story? What if our government could trust in the unknown consequences of understanding what they don’t want to hear? Such political risk takes great confidence. It means trusting in people as critically aware, trusting artists as ethically engaged, and fostering public institutions that confidently exceed their remit to champion the public good, that take the risk of creating frameworks and not knowing what will emerge.

And so, throughout my twenties and thirties, I sought people who’d drawn on similar backgrounds to make unique political contributions. Lina Kastoumis created a complex set of characters which she performed with smarts and sass, and today her #lakembabiennale and #commutorama work continues to advance a confident multiculture as the Australian mainstream. In the late 1990s Chris Zissiadis made WogLife, the massively popular online home of Australia’s multicultural youth, showing time and again that the children of migrants had more in common with one another than the countries of their parents’ origin. George Megalogenis identified three stages of wogdom – cocky, cowed, connected – to compress decades of migrant experience from cultural isolation to greater social, educational and financial successes earned by the children of migrants. With great personal generosity, Maria Katsonis published her story of trauma, breakdown and resilience within a professional life of significant public and community leadership. Vivian Dourali’s latest designs for the strong, mature female body always came with long conversations analysing current issues over Greek coffee in her shop with that name of quintessential Greek passion: Είμαι meaning I am or I exist. The boldest public assertion of unique identity.

Hearteningly, there were so many others to find. Rosie Dennis. Bobby Hodge. Stelarc. Christos Tsiolkas. Nik Pantazopoulos. Michael Zavros. Mary Kostakidis. Nella Themelios. Lex Marinos. Patricia Karvelas. Nikos Papastergiadis. Irine Vela. Elizabeth Gertsakis. So many more. People who I’ve known at different stages of their careers, seeing their thinking and their values develop. People who have transformed for me what Greek-Australian means – and could mean. Many of whom I am proud to call friends.

Boonwurrung Elder N’arweet Carolyn Briggs is important to honour here. Her wisdom has come to mean a great deal to me – in particular, her model of leadership that scaffolds to create new platforms for others. With plenty of Greeks in her own extended family, we’ve often talked about the special relationship between Aboriginal and Greek-Australians and the values common to both. In the mid-1960s my parents would spend weekends at La Perouse with the local Bidjigal and Gadigal people, and I have longed to thank Esme Timbery and her family for their hospitality in crafting work together with my parents and so many others. My mother has treasured Aunty Esme’s little shell-clad booties for over fifty years, having no idea that they were made by an artist who has since achieved great international acclaim.

Was seeking out Greek-Australians my attempt to reinvent a genealogy – my own προγονοπληξία? I wanted to understand what had spurred my resilience and inspired my ethic, and that meant I could not avoid understanding the influence of family, no matter how problematic. The things we value most in life are never immaculately conceived. My mother’s father, for example, was a tyrant, a violent man, and yet he took displaced people and asylum seekers into his mountain home without hesitation. Coming from a long line of goat-herders, he taught me a great deal about leadership in the ways we worked the herd together. Goats are smart enough to recognise a leader to follow in times of unexpected movement – but that animal is rarely the most aggressive, head-butting kid, so the entire herd needs to be nurtured closely to understand how leadership is recognised and distributed. Like diversity, leadership is a property of groups, not individuals, and comes from a flawed place of constant negotiation.

 

TODAY, AUSTRALIA BOASTS an independent arts scene of global renown, where artists and organisations take confident leaps across all art forms. Meanwhile, no arts policy has ever survived political change, the primary votes of the major parties are falling, and the decline of the mass media fuels political instability – all of which detract from the quality of our national conversation. Now into my forties, today it’s my job to advocate for the centrality of artists to the nation’s life.

I was not raised to respect the arts as a career. Nor was I raised to take an active role in civic life. And yet the values of my cultural heritage champion both. My father – a craftsman who worked in factories as a wood machinist – expressed those values through the things he made. His workshop, a ramshackle former stables in the back of our little house, was a wonderland of possibility for me as a child, and throughout my teenage years we worked weekend jobs together to bring in extra money against those 1980s interest rates. We’d migrated back to Greece and back to Australia by then, so I needed to pull my weight. Inadvertently for a girl in our culture, I was raised with the powerful sense that with the right tools, the right materials and the right techniques, there was nothing you could not do. In understanding his own practice, my father was explicitly μάστορας – a master craftsman – and not καλλιτέχνης – the Greek word for artist, whose literal meaning describes a mastery of technique. What he valued most was to make something that would last.

I grew up constantly negotiating different aspects of an identity I longed to understand. I grew up nurturing the resilient optimism I knew I would need so as to emerge with any sense of self. My explorations of the outside world as a plucky schoolkid exposed me to places and ideas that weren’t hostile after all: they were invigorating, thrilling. I would go on to contemplate the public space with rigour through studies in philosophy, law, art, architecture, education, media and leadership – the fundamentals of public discourse and, on reflection, an apprenticeship in Greek values.

The realities of the Australian migrant experience complicate the Greek-Australian elements of my identity. The most appalling things I’ve ever experienced have come from my parents – and ultimately, from their traumas. The responsibility to work this through has always been entirely mine; inevitably, there comes a time when responsibility over another’s mental health becomes a damaging burden. Our current estrangement, now years old, gives me a healthy peace – but not contentment. Repeated migration has characterised us all: my parents returned to Greece permanently in 2010, and despite my great distance from my sister’s home of twenty years in Canada, she and I become closer and closer with each passing year – which means the world to me.

Decades later, that shopfront next to a laundry and a bus stop is now East Sydney Doctors. A single artwork hangs in its front window, perhaps a nod to the National Art School opposite, perhaps a gesture of civic connection to the people passing by – to the stories we tell, and the ones we don’t.


From Griffith Review Edition 61: Who We Are © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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