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Christos Tsiolkas in Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue

March 20, 2013
Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

I indicated in my recent review of Meanjin‘s special Canberra issue that I would write another post or two on the issue. This is one of those posts. It may, in fact, be the only one, for who knows where the spirit will lead me next? Right now though, I want to devote a post to the second last piece in the volume, “Me and my country, Where to Now?”. It’s a conversation between writer Heather Taylor Johnson and Christos Tsiolkas whose novel The slap was one of the first I reviewed in this blog. While the novel was well received critically – won awards and was short/longlisted for others – it was not universally liked. The Wikipedia article on the novel quotes Commonwealth Writer’s Prize judge, Nicholas Hasluck, describing it as “a controversial and daring novel”. It was that …

Before I continue, I should say that this piece has a fairly tenuous link to Canberra – Tsiolkas lived here for a short time in the 1990s I understand – but its inclusion is justified, I think, for the relevance of the ideas it covers. I don’t plan to summarise the whole conversation, interesting though it is, but pick out a couple of points that got my attention – and they mostly relate to The slap.

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Johnson commences by asking Tsiolkas about the mini-series adaptation of The slap. While recognising that the mini-series was not his work, but the work of those who had “translated and transformed” it for another medium, Tsiolkas talks of his overall intention:

I felt a certain responsibility with the screening of the series, a hope that whatever criticism people had of it, that it would be understood as an authentic voice of contemporary, multicultural urban Australia. I share the frustration of so many people of immigrant heritage in this country who have rarely seen their lives portrayed with any complexity or realism on the Australian screen. I also know that there would be people of that experience who either don’t read fiction or can’t read fiction in English and for whom the moving-image media are the only source for story and representation. I wanted people to be angry, frustrated, enraged by The slap, but I also wanted their arguments with it to be based on an appreciation that the representations were neither patronising nor sentimental. My own view is that the series succeeded in doing that.

Although focused on the miniseries, this statement is also, I think, a manifesto for the novel. It’s a warts-and-all story of people, most of whom happen to be immigrants or minorities in some way, getting on with their often flawed lives.

One of the themes that came through to me in the novel was that of violence. I felt Tsiolkas was saying that violence lies just beneath the surface of many human relationships. Later in the conversation he talks about the principles and philosophies, the “politics”, that drive him – feminism, racial civil rights, sexual liberation, post-colonial and communist. A complicated and, as he admits, sometimes contradictory bunch of ideas. He says:

I think that one of the drives I have in my writing is to express the complexity and violence of this tension. It means that though gender and sexuality are among the themes and ideas I explore in all my work, I can’t give myself over to a liberationist idea that the transformation of the individual can resolve these tensions and contradictions.

Hmm … this is pretty complex thinking methinks and I’m not sure I was able to articulate his ideas at this deeper philosophical level, but I sensed something going on and this helps explain it (to me, anyhow). He continues to say that he believes that “sexuality and the body constantly undermine our attempts at mastery and transformation”. This brought to mind the terrible recent rape cases in India and some angry discussions I’ve just read on Facebook about the current court case concerning the gang rape of the 16-year-old girl in the USA. We are not making much progress.

There is so much in this conversation that I’d love to talk about, such as his comment that much “Anglophone and European contemporary literature is moribund”. He argues that the most electric writing is coming from outside the Anglo-European centre. That must, I suppose, pose a challenge to him given his background. But, I’ll move on.

Johnson asks him about controversy, particularly in relation to The slap. Again his response is complex, but his main point is that “I want to pose questions that are unsettling or troubling”. One of the things that bothered me about the conversations surrounding The slap was that people focused on “the slap” itself  – as in do you or don’t you hit a child, particularly one not your own – and not on the social, cultural and, yes, political issues inherent in the relationships involved. The fact that “the slap” plot is resolved way before the end of the novel tells us that this issue of hitting a child is not Tsiolkas’ main point. In fact, he says in this conversation with Johnson that “the language of moral absolutes … may be having a pernicious effect on much of contemporary writing”. And then he says:

I have given up reading blogs because so many people are dismissing work because they ‘don’t like the characters’ or because the resolution of a book is not neat, is not easy. We are reading for confirmation of ourselves rather than to challenge ourselves and I think that is a real danger.

He has more to say on issues that interest me – including Aboriginal dispossession and public education – but I think I’ll finish here, because I need to think …

in Meanjin 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue
University of Melbourne
pp. 178-188
ISBN: 9780522861938

(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2013 11:55 pm

    Thanks for this post, Sue. I read The Slap awhile back and didn’t much care for it – likely because of the violence referred to above – it’s seems to be pervasive sometimes. And I’m not sure I like reading about the reality of it in my daily life in fiction. It’s like it’s on the news, the TV shows, the movies, in most of the genre fiction (crime novels). I’m not sure I know the reality from the fantasy of violence anymore – How much of what is presented or represented is the real deal?

    Living alone I’m protected from all sorts of relationship reality. I only really see what’s shown to me about it. Is it really that bad on the streets and in dysfunctional families? Has the non-stop violence of the TV shows and movies and crime books and news casts invaded our homes, our lives – especially the lives of the kids? And the US has way too many guns in the hands of scared and angry people.

    Makes me want to go read Trollope.

    • March 21, 2013 8:07 am

      Thanks for responding Bekah, I recollect now that you didn’t like it much. Your questions are way too hard for me to answer but really valid ones. Being simplistic, I tend to be wiling to read about what I perceive to be “real” violence but avoid books and movies, mostly genre, that are “escapist” violence. I detest violence and get no pleasure from watching it for fun. There’s a fine line of course … And if I were to analyse it I’d perhaps find there was not much line at all but for me I’ll read it where I think it’s intended to be commentary and not where it’s intended to be “fun”/”escapist”.

      That said, I think we could do with less depiction of “real” violence on TV in the news etc … The steady diet can’t be good for our psyches surely. BUt again, I know I’m being a little simplistic and, perhaps, morally absolute!!!

  2. March 21, 2013 4:27 am

    It’s exhilarating to read such complex thoughts and arguments, to have someone not water down their take on the world just because the majority of media these days opts for the dumbed-down. Makes me feel guilty for not yet having read any Tsiolkas though!

    • March 21, 2013 7:58 am

      Exhilarating is a good word for it Hannah …. That’s exactly why I wanted to do a separate post on this piece in the issue.

  3. dorothy10silver permalink
    March 21, 2013 1:28 pm

    I think it’s great that you’ve chosen to write at length about this conversation with Christos Tsiolkas. As you point out, he expresses complex thoughts and insights without talking down to his readers. I think it would be very easy for such a successful writer to sit back on his haunches and not challenge himself any further, or challenge readers either. With regard to Tsiolkas’s criticism of much contemporary fiction, I agree with you that there are important points of discussion here – and all of us who read widely, and review widely, will doubtless have our different points of view. Tsiolkas homes in on the type of fictional character he’s sick of reading about, but, for me, it’s the prose itself which often disappointingly glib and shallow.

    • March 21, 2013 3:40 pm

      Thanks Dorothy … I like your point about prose versus character in terms of contemporary fiction. Certainly for me, the two things that really turn me off a book are stereotyped flat sort of characters and cliched dull writing. I don’t mind if something doesn’t work wonderfully well if the author has given something a go, has gone “out there” a little or even a lot, in an attempt to reach her/his audience.

      I guess though that Tsiolkas has a point about wanting to see a greater variety of characters being written about. This reminds me of the Toulouse Lautrec exhibition we’ve just seen and how he took portraits to a different level by choosing “working class” people to depict – the show dancers, prostitutes, bar girls – rather than the upper class. Apparently, because he was the “in” thing, some upper class women went to him but went running when he depicted them with, shall we call it, verisimilitude rather than with what we’d call today the airbrush! Oh dear, I’ve rambled haven’t I!

  4. March 21, 2013 5:41 pm

    Just lost my comment so I’m mad and probably won’t rave so much now. I thought ‘The Slap’ was a great and uncomfortable read on many levels. Wonderful language, close-to-the-bone characters. I think the ‘slap’ was a formidable device, and not what the novel wished to convey which was rather, as Tsiolkas says, a raw Australian reality. He is wildly successfully in presenting this. I also believe that too often the reading public selects and praises books that second the smug communal identity – or how we all think we should be!

    • March 21, 2013 9:17 pm

      Thanks Catherine … isn’t it infuriating when you think about and compose a comment and then it goes? I’m glad you tried again. I agree with you re “the slap” as a device. It’s a shame that it ended up derailing some of the commentary.

  5. acommonreaderuk permalink
    March 21, 2013 6:53 pm

    Very interesting. I think “the slap” itself was pretty inconsequential – it was the general assumptions that not a single character had any redeeming features which made me turn off – all the relationships had an element of violence about them. However, the mini-series was absolutely compelling in a soap-ish sort of way.

    • March 21, 2013 9:15 pm

      Thanks Tom … of course I disagree with you about the book, The slap, so we’ll just have to agree to differ on this one. I did think the miniseries was well done though … and not too soap-operish really. It had some high drama but it didn’t go on for years! And it didn’t have the soap opera stares at the end of each episode! (No, I don’t watch them but we catch the last couple of minutes of one most nights when we turn on the first news of the day!)

  6. March 25, 2013 7:05 am

    Once again, a fascinating post and related comment string.

    I like Tsiolkas’ writing and enjoyed ‘The Slap’, mostly because it felt so strong and vibrant and real and dangerous. Hard going, perhaps, but necessary. Certainly contemporary living as violence is his theme and he’s been exploring it for a long time. Is modern Australia, whatever that is, violent? Not obviously, but there is an under-current, and I’m glad that through ‘The Slap’ this is getting an airing. Perhaps like Tsiolkas, I believe in a literature that matters, that isn’t just comfortable entertainment.

    I’d love to write more, but it would turn into an essay.

    • March 25, 2013 6:56 pm

      Thanks Nigel … glad you’ve enjoyed the comments as well. You are always welcome to write an essay. I agree that it was hard-going. I think there is an undercurrent of violence – it may be more or it may be similar to before but either way it’s not good enough I think. I don’t think literature that matters is always difficult or uncomfortable but I think it often is. I feel I should be able to confront it and think about it if a writer feels strongly enough to present it (unless of course the writer is being gratuitous about the violence or sex or whatever, but I don’t believe that’s at all the case with Tsiolkas). I understand though that some readers find it hard to confront some things … in the end, I suppose, we all have lines we draw, don’t we?

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