I recently had my very own The Slap moment. Inspired by the novel of another Greek-Australian writer, the episode left me questioning my own ‘hyphenated identity’ and pondering its portrayal in Australian literature.
Like The Slap, my moment came at a suburban BBQ. My 86-year-old mum is recently widowed so to help her socialise again, I accepted a friend’s invitation and took her along with my wife and two sons. It was a family affair, with kids and sausages, but also brisket and beer.
After a long day, one of the guests approached my mum, who at the time was speaking in her native tongue—Greek—to her eldest grandson, aged two. The individual was what would be loosely described as being ‘of Australian heritage’, with several distant generations once hailing from the British Isles. My parents, on the other hand, are Greek. I was raised as a Greek-Australian. My first language and food and customs were Greek, but I also grew up playing backyard cricket and supporting the Geelong Cats. A genuine hyphenated Australian.
The comment I heard made to my mum was: ‘Can you not speak Greek with the baby? I don’t understand what you’re saying, and find it very rude.’
To say I was annoyed would be an understatement. My mum was teaching her grandson to be bilingual, and at the same time bonding in a very intimate way. The scene reminded me of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel, which has the incendiary event of a misbehaving child being slapped at a BBQ by another parent. Except mine was a metaphoric slap, and levelled at my culture.
I grew up in 1980s Australia where ethnic minorities were considered fair game, and where prejudice against them was regarded good sport. This was felt even more acutely by my father, a new migrant working on building sites in the 1950s. But we’re now in the 2010s, and are supposed to have evolved beyond the rhetoric of intolerance. It was wrong then, and it’s even more wrong now.
The whole episode left a bad taste in my mouth. But it did make me think about identity. I’ve always considered myself as Greek-Australian, a product of nature and nurture. But would my kids—who are technically Greek-Australian-Australian—feel the same? Would they feel any sense of ‘Greekness’ in their watered-down lineage? Their connection to a country other than Australia lies even more distant from its roots. And yet, their Hellenic DNA is still there, in their olive skin, in their deep brown eyes and unpronounceably long surname. What literature could I one day show them to share the experiences of their predecessors? How had Greek writers in Australia explored their hyphenated identity, and what could future generations—including other ethnic minorities—learn from their writings?
The earliest example of Greek-Australian literature was oral poetry at the start of the 1900s. These literary works were conceived in public not private, at events such as family celebrations, social gatherings, and entertainment in smoke-filled coffee houses (kafeneia). Poetry has traditionally played a central role in Greek literature, with two Greek poets winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last century. This trend has carried over to the local setting: although all types of Greek-Australian literature (poetry, prose, drama, theatre) have been represented, poetry collections have predominated.
In published form, the first Greek-Australian literature was George Nicolaides’ short story To Gramma tis Manas (Letter to Mother), which appeared in Afstralia, the first Greek newspaper in the Antipodes, in 1913. From the outset, family was a central theme, along with social issues, community activities, and migrant experiences. Greece itself also served as a central reference point as writers experienced a surge of emotions that reflected either a longing for the old world or a search for identity in the new. During the 1920s, Orthodox Christians driven out of Asia Minor following the Turkish War of Independence created a new cultural atmosphere and dynamism. These new immigrants were well-educated and introduced new subjects to the local literary scene because of the atrocities, poverty, and political upheavels they witnessed. These writers expressed horror but also hope. I should know: my grandparents were two of these refugees who fled (to Greece). They told their stories to my mum, and she passed them on to me.
Greece’s involvement in World War II from 1940 and subsequent wave of mass migration from 1952 had a similar impact on the Australian literary corpus. Stories emerged of the Greek army’s heroic fight against the Axis powers, and the united struggle of Greek and Australian soldiers against a common enemy. To this point, the exploration of the Greek-Australian identity through writing had been relatively minor. First-generation migrants, who wrote mainly in Greek, were largely preoccupied with exile and dislocation, and haunted by trauma. Looking back on it now, the subject matter is hard to relate to, yet easy to understand: the fear of ageing and dying far from the homeland, patriotism (to Greece, not Australia), communication difficulties, and problems adapting and assimilating.
It was only when second-generation migrants started writing in English that themes such as ethnicity and hybridity began to properly appear. As the connection to fatherland grew ever more distant and the ghosts of the past ever more silent, so did the writing change from loss and yearning to identity and self. The rigid identity of the alienated migrant fell away, replaced by a new entity: the hyphenated Australian, whose conflict was more internal than external. These writers explored the dilemma of living between two worlds and with dual identities, the use and maintenance of Greek language and traditions, and surviving in a modern Australia while still bound by conservative parents. It was tense writing, fraught with internal conflict and doubt, to which I could readily identify. Contributing to this change was the multicultural environment prevailing since the Whitlam years of the 1970s, which encouraged an increasing number of diasporic Greek-Australian writers to emerge and tell their stories.
With the change in themes came a corresponding shift in publishing. The earliest Greek-Australian writers were self-published, which itself has always been a respected practice in Greece and never carried the same stigma as in the English-speaking world. The first Greek-Australian book in 1916—E Zoi En Afstralia (Life in Australia)—was self-published, and written as an encyclopaedic book providing information about the Greek community in Australia. Slowly, during the 1970s and 80s, smaller publishing houses began to embrace the second-generation writers, with University of Queensland Press and Fremantle Press leading the way. Through their commitment to publishing the winners of the Vogel Literary Award, Allen & Unwin also published two novels by Greek-Australian writers—Jim Sakkas’ Ilias (1987) and Fotini Epanomitis’s The Mule’s Foal (1992). Notably, Tsiolkas’s The Slap was also published by Allen & Unwin in 2008, and there are now many others.
Thematically, as Greeks have felt more socially and psychologically at ease in Australia, and more an inseparable part of the broader society, the literary picture has gradually become more multidimensional. Explorations of migration and identity endure: migration, through ancestral curiosity and return journeys to Europe; and identity, when personal beliefs are called into question. But these topics are no longer exclusive; today, Greek-Australian writers deal with a broad range of subjects including class, culture, gender, sexuality, faith, politics, economics, and sport, and blend various genres including memoir, autobiography, travelogue, and magic realism. With the emergence of the next (third) generation, there appears to have been a reconciliation between the first-and second-generations to fully accept Australia as home.
So where do we go from here? If Greek-Australian writers are now mainstream and multifaceted and global, is their search for identity still relevant?
This is when I return to the BBQ and my The Slap moment. Identity is most often invoked and defended when a person’s values are challenged. In its purest form, identity is a way of integrating the many of aspects of self, and of positioning that self in distinction to others. But identity for migrants or the descendants of migrants is an elusive creature, a multi-headed hydra with a complex interpretation that can change according to context. One day, I’m cheering for Greece in the Euros; the next, for the Socceroos in the Asian Cup. One minute, I’m munching on a snag at a sizzle; the next, I’m defending my son’s right to be bilingual. With multiple identities trying to co-exist, it’s enough to make you feel slightly schizophrenic.
I’ve written previously about my own search for identity. Due to my migrant parents’ inability to have children, I was born in Greece in 1974 and then adopted and raised by them in Australia, not learning the truth until I was 25. It’s an unorthodox story to say the least, but it’s a trajectory that makes my connection to Greece even stronger than most second-generation Greek-Australians, and has influenced my own writing accordingly. By contrast, my own kids don’t have the same ancestral complexity; their lines on our family tree are solid and straight, not dotted and angular. They are, however, the product of intermarriage, so their search for meaning and belonging may be even more challenging. Literature can’t provide all the answers; nothing can. But at least it can provide context and offer up some lessons from the past to allow the next generation of hyphenated Australians to find their way.
With the economic crisis in Greece ongoing, migration to Australia has picked up again during the 2010s. In an unexpected silver lining, the crisis has created an explosion in art and creativity as stories of austerity emerge. Given the similarities with the 1920s when traumatised Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor fled to Australia and brought their stories with them, who knows precisely what this latest wave of immigration might mean for Australian literature, either in the current generation or even the next.
We’re at a fascinating timepoint for the Greek culture in Australia, and particularly within the realm of literature. With first-generation Greek migrants ageing, the second-generation intermarrying, and the language declining and traditions lapsing, the Greek identity is clearly changing. It will be interesting to see how this translates into writing, books, and the future stories that are told, perhaps even by my sons when they grow up. Given the continued connection between Australia and Greece today, it’s hard to imagine my kids won’t be curious to find out more about their history when they’re older. Fortunately, the stories are already there.
Until then, I cherish the moments seeing my mum speak to her engonia (grandchildren) in her native tongue. These will not be here forever.
Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece and adopted as a baby to an Australian family. He is represented by Rogers, Coleridge and White literary agency in London and is currently working on his first novel. He holds an MA in creative writing from City, University of London, and divides his time between Australia, London, and a small village in northern Greece. You can find him on Twitter here and Facebook here.