Reviewed: God Forgets About the Poor, Peter Polites, Ultimo
‘You don’t know the first thing about me,’ a mother tells her son, a writer, in the powerful opening chapter of Peter Polites’ God Forgets About the Poor. ‘A son can never see his mother as a woman. You will only see me in relation to you. I have lived a thousand lives before you were even a thought.’ The woman, who we will find out is called Honoured, dismisses the ‘gay things’ her son has written before. Honoured dares him to write her story instead, of migrating from a village in Greece to the suburbs of Western Sydney. People will love it, she tells him. As a former librarian checking out Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for patrons, she knows Australians love to read about war, romance, and migrants’ suffering.
Honoured’s sharp observations are a warning that this novel won’t bow uncritically to the genre Polites has elsewhere called ‘the migrant trauma memoir’. Polites’ first two novels Down the Hume and The Pillars focused more squarely on masculinity and racialised experiences of gay men in Western Sydney. In this third novel, the writer engages in ruthless self-critique, via Honoured’s jab that maybe her son is not really gay, just an ‘extreme misogynist’ with no interest in the suffering of women. The novel suggests that the dismissal of certain subjectivities is in fact linked: ‘The way this country doesn’t understand women is the way they don’t understand migrants.’ In God Forgets About the Poor Polites takes up the challenge to tell Honoured’s story and understand her as a person, before she was a migrant and a mother.
In On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous—an example of ‘migrant trauma memoir’ that Polites says is an admirable exception—Ocean Vuong considers the power dynamics embedded in a son writing about his mother in a language she can’t read. That novel is styled as a letter from a son to his migrant mother (‘you’) about their gulf in experience. Polites playfully engages this model and twists it. In his opening, it’s the mother addressing her son about what will sell in the Australian publishing market. She speaks, possibly in Greek, and while we can imagine her son’s interjections we don’t hear them. The translated names used throughout the novel, such as Honoured, Resurrection, Open Sea and Clear Voiced, also put primacy on the Greek language, reminding readers that Greek speakers hear the name’s meaning each time they are used. From the beginning, Polites places Honoured where she sees herself, even if others can’t—at the centre of her own story.
As powerful as Honoured’s voice is in the opening chapter, it would be difficult to sustain the relational ‘you’ for an entire novel. Polites wisely opens the story out into different perspectives and places, moving from the mountain village Lefkada where Honoured is born in the 1940s, to 1970s Athens where she goes to university and courts suitors, and eventually to the suburbs of Western Sydney where she raises her family, essentially alone, from the 1980s onwards. Poverty chases them in each place. In Lefkada, babies die because there’s not enough to go around. In Belmore, Honoured’s daughter rebukes her younger brother: ‘Don’t you understand? We cannot afford all the things you want.’
Poverty is defined by material scarcity. But there’s a sensual richness in Polites’ writing that anchors the story in the material world beyond money, through connection with nature, food and other bodies. One of the most poignant points in the book comes not from the story but the acknowledgements, where Polites cites an academic chapter called ‘What Do Starving People Eat? The Case of Greece Through Oral Culture’. He thanks Dr Violetta Hionidou ‘for letting me read this chapter and realise how famine foods are integral to our communities.’ As the novel shows, nourishment and pleasure—that connection with sensation and materiality—are perhaps even more important in times of deprivation.
In Lefkada, Honoured’s mother gives her a spoon of cherry jam with a basil leaf on top. It’s a memory-image that repeats: bitter and sweet together; the persistent desire to provide children some small treat. Later, visiting Honoured at the Canterbury Hospital, her adult son eyes the cafeteria’s plastic-wrapped lamingtons and thinks about how the rich would never understand ‘the lure of mindless eating’. It’s a habit he and his mother share: ‘Both of us wanted to be out of our bodies in separate ways.’ Countering this dissociation, Polites’ elemental language offers concrete images, tastes, smells and other sensations. The simplicity is potent. From it emerges a nuanced portrait in which a mother—in her full and challenging complexity—is truly honoured.