Nigel Featherstone on Christos Tsiolkas’ fearlessness

This week, Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing, was published, and I plan to attend the launch later this month. In the meantime, it seemed apposite to discuss his essay on Christos Tsiolkas in Reading like an Australian writer. Those of you who have read Nigel’s blog will know that he’s a Tsiolkas fan, so it’s not surprising that he was commissioned to write on him for this anthology. As it happens, I’m a Tsiolkas fan too, so this was one of the essays I was keen to read.

Fearlessness

This essay, though, is a little different to the previous essays I’ve discussed from this anthology, because it’s more about Tsiolkas’ oeuvre than one work.

Early on, Featherstone references Orwell’s essay, “Why I write”, noting that “political purpose” is one of those reasons. Tsiolkas is “one of Australia’s most politically attuned writers of his generation”. It’s relevant to explain here, as Featherstone does, that Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants, is gay, and identifies as a socialist and atheist. Given this (and, I would add, given the grittiness of many of his novels), it is “truly remarkable”, says Featherstone, that in our contemporary conservative Australia, Tsiolkas has had significant critical and commercial success.

Featherstone starts at the beginning – with Tsiolkas’ first novel, Loaded (adapted to film as Head on), which was published in 1995. Now, Featherstone is a writer too, of course, so he is particularly interested in exploring Tsiolkas’ craft. To do this, he shares specific excerpts/quotes* which reveal, among other things, why he titled his essay “Fearless”. Tsiolkas is audacious, from the opening paragraph of his first novel.

I mentioned above that Tsiolkas is “gritty”, which is my description of in-your-face writing like Tsiolkas’. Featherstone doesn’t use that word, but it’s what he means when he says that the writing “could come across as crass”. It doesn’t, though, he says, because it feels confident, which is why readers stay with it.

How he makes it feel confident is the thing, isn’t it? It may partly be in the way, as Featherstone puts it, Tsiolkas “pushes his prose towards poetry”, by which he means “the language is doing more than one thing at once. Featherstone also refers to the epigraph for Loaded. I love that, because I do think the epigraph can contain serious clues to a work. Epigraphs are not there for fun (or, if they are, the fun is also part of the meaning!)

Featherstone looks at what emerging writers can learn about writing with audacity (or fearlessness): it requires, he says, writing not just from the brain, but the body (chest, gut and crotch) and it requires caring deeply about the characters (no matter how flawed).

Featherstone also identifies Tsiolkas’ main concerns – “class in Australia, and the power and privilege of whiteness” – and he describes one of Tsiolkas’ “many strengths” as “his ability to explore political concerns through the depiction of the everyday”. This is certainly how I think of The slap and Barracuda . I wrote in my Barracuda post:

“This dissection of worlds, of  “class”, and of anglo-Australia versus immigrant Australia, is an ongoing concern for Tsiolkas. We came across it in his previous novel, The slap (my review), and we see it again here. Tsiolkas is not the only writer exploring this territory, but he’s one of the gutsiest because he’s not afraid to present the ugliness nor does he ignore the greys, the murky areas where “truth” is sometimes hard to find (though he doesn’t use the word “truth”).”

So, I liked that when talking about the short story “Tourists” from Merciless Gods, Featherstone says:

In this relatively simple tale the author reveals the racism that exists at the core of Australia’s masculinity and the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular.

In fact, I don’t just like this, I love it, because, for me, “the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular” is the main idea behind The slap. As Featherstone writes, “Tsiolkas is a social critic as much as he is a writer of literary fiction”. True, and it’s not particularly surprising. Some of my favourite literary fiction also encompasses social criticism. (Think Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things or Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip.)

The last work Featherstone looks at is Damascus (my review) and again he starts with the first paragraph, and teases out its power – the precision which which Tsiolkas can convey multiple layers of fear. He see fear as being one of the novel’s themes. The opening of this novel is truly terrifying, but another point Featherstone makes is Tsiolkas’ ability to “contrast the heavy with the light”. (Some readers, I know, struggle to find the light in Tsiolkas’ work, but I’m with Featherstone. It is there.)

Nigel Featherstone perfectly meets the brief of this anthology, which was to share how a writer reads. His essay contains very specific lessons that can be taken from Tsiolkas’ writing. However, in doing this, he also conveys the two prongs that make writing sing for me – fearlessness in style, structure and/or content, and generosity in attitude to tough characters and/or ideas. Tsiolkas epitomises both, and so, I think, does Featherstone.

* Do read the essay to see all the great excerpts.

Nigel Featherstone
“Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 125-136
ISBN: 9781742236704

15 thoughts on “Nigel Featherstone on Christos Tsiolkas’ fearlessness

  1. Well, you know what I think about Tsiolkas, but I do like Featherstone’s writing so I’m looking forward to his new novel, and am keenly anticipating what you have to say about the launch!

    • And I thought of you, Carmel, when I read Nigel’s comment and was writing the post. When I finish a book, there are two things I frequently do – check the epigraph again, and reread the first paragraph or two. They often help things fall into place, don’t they.

  2. Sounds like a great essay, and like you, I’m looking forward to reading Nigel’s latest. On Tsiolkas, I have to admit some squeamishness on my part when first confronted with Loaded – no truer sign of my age – but agree with the comment about the poetry he achieves with the prose’s grittiness. (Not unlike Genet, meaning not in spite of but indeed because of it.) And fearless he’s certainly been. Take Dead Europe, for example. Haven’t read Barracuda or Damascus, but thanks to your review reminding me I will.

    • Thanks Sara. The older we get the harder we have to work at being open, don’t we? Tsiolkas can be such a paradox – as gritty s they come but warm and generous too.

  3. I am not a fan of Tsiolkas, but something did dawn on me as I read this post: all the feelings you have about Tsiolkas are the same ones I have for Scottish writer Irvine Welsh. I love all five Mark Renton books, and if someone asks me what they’re about, I sound like a weirdo describing what horrible people the four main characters are. I think the appeal of Mark Renton’s character, for me, is that he’s so close to getting his shit together that I always want to see it through. It feels like real life, except where the average American’s problem is often boredom and stupidity (something author Welsh comments on), Mark’s problems are largely heroin and ripping people off.

    • Oh interesting Melanie. I saw Trainspotting bit haven’t actually read any of his books. I do like social realism as long as the grittiness isn’t gratuitous. Sounds like I should read him.

      • The books are much more graphic than the movie, and the characters even less likable. Sick Boy is absolutely the worst, especially since he trends toward underage girls and pimping. And yet there is something compelling there. I think Welsh reminds you that his characters were boys and school mates just often enough that you really see the potential they had and the mess that is now in front is of you is fixable, gosh dang it.

  4. I have this book and really should have read more of the essays – except you convey their essence so well. As you know, I have been reading a bit of Tsiolkas lately, though I’m not interested in reading Damascus.
    I agree with Featherstone, and Melanie, on the ‘poetry’ of the best grunge novels. In fact this review might make rethink my own expressed opinion that Tsiolkas’ later writing is too middle class.

    • Hmmm, Bill … I’ve been thinking I’d better not discuss too many more essays from this book because I don’t want to stop people buying it. I felt the same with Annette Marfording’s book of interviews with writers. I did 6 from the book and then stopped. I’ll probably stop here with this book or do one more in a while.

      I think it’s very hard not to sound middle class when that’s what we are … at least it’s what we are. It sometimes makes me uncomfortable but I can’t be what I’m not. If I try not to be it will sound fake?

      From the little grunge I’ve read I agree!

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