In a Sydney Writers Festival conversation with Michelle de Kretser, Andrew Pippos, winner of the 2021 Readings Prize for his debut novel, Lucky’s, said “the fact that we can talk about a Greek-Australian literary tradition is a sign that Australian literature is developing”. It made me think about Greek-Australian literature and what I know about it, which is not a lot, really.
First, though, what does he mean by his statement? I’m assuming he means that Australian literature is enriched by encompassing significant, identifiable bodies of work from Australia’s constituent cultures, that when there are such bodies of work they reflect on, feed into and, therefore, change and expand the majority culture?
When I think about my own reading of Greek-Australian literature, it is, of course, Christos Tsiolkas who comes to mind. Before him was Beverley Farmer. She is not Greek, but she married a Greek man and lived for some time in Greece, which experience fed into her early writing. I loved her insight into village life and relationships – but that was more about an Australian experiencing Greek culture in Greece.
Greek-Australian literature “proper” goes way back and, in my superficial Internet search I uncovered rather a lot about it, most, though, behind paywalls. Some of those had useful abstracts, and some I could access via my membership of the National Library. I skim-read a couple. But, I also found a blog, From the plastic pen, containing a post that had also been published in Meanjin in 2017. The post is titled “Living in a hyphe-nation: Exploring the Greek-Australian identity through literature”, and the author is Peter Papathanasiou. Papathanasiou is Greek-born and Australian-raised, and has just published a debut crime novel, The stoning, featuring a Greek-Australian detective.
Concerned about the next generation, the Greek-Australian-Australians, Papathanasiou posed the question:
How had Greek writers in Australia explored their hyphenated identity, and what could future generations—including other ethnic minorities—learn from their writings?
And then, he shares some literary history that I had found in those pay-walled academic articles. The earliest example of Greek-Australian literature, he says, was oral poetry at the start of the 1900s, which was shared “at events such as family celebrations, social gatherings, and entertainment in smoke-filled coffee houses (kafeneia)”. Poetry, Papathanasiou, says “has traditionally played a central role in Greek literature” and it continues here “although all types of Greek-Australian literature (poetry, prose, drama, theatre) have been represented, poetry collections have predominated”. Not reading a lot of poetry, I wasn’t aware of this, though I have read Komninos (1991), by Greek-Australian performance poet, Komninos Zervos.
Anyhow, Papathanasiou says that the first Greek-Australian literary work to be published was George Nicolaides’ short story “To gramma tis manas (Letter to mother)”, in 1913 Afstralia. From the beginning, he says, “family was a central theme, along with social issues, community activities, and migrant experiences”. He discusses the various waves of migration. In the 1920s, Orthodox Christians driven out of Asia Minor following the Turkish War of Independence brought well-educated immigrants who “introduced new subjects to the local literary scene because of the atrocities, poverty, and political upheavals they witnessed”. Then World War 2 and post-war migration brought stories of “the Greek army’s heroic fight against the Axis powers, and the united struggle of Greek and Australian soldiers against a common enemy”.
However, he said these waves did not result in much exploration of the Greek-Australian identity. These first-generation migrants wrote mainly in Greek and were “largely preoccupied with exile and dislocation, and haunted by trauma”. They wrote about “the fear of ageing and dying far from the homeland, patriotism (to Greece, not Australia), communication difficulties, and problems adapting and assimilating”. A change in theme came when second-generation migrants started writing in English, and their “connection to the fatherland” grew increasingly distant. They were were interested in “ethnicity and hybridity”, and their writing changed “from loss and yearning to identity and self” and
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.
With third generation Greek-Australians now on the scene, Papathanasiou suggests that the subject-matter is changing again. There are still explorations of migration and identity, but these are no longer exclusive. Contemporary “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”.
Interestingly, alongside his discussion of subject matter, Papathanasiou also tracks changes in the publishing of Greek-Australian writing from self-publishing, at the start, through small independent publishers, like UQP and Fremantle Press, to the bigger publishers like Allen and Unwin, who have not only published some Greek Vogel award-winners but also publish Christos Tsiolkas. Pippos’ Lucky’s was published by Pan Macmillan.
Papathanasiou’s perspective, written in 2017, is similar to that written in 2014 by Penni Pappas on the Neo Kosmos website. She describes a similar trajectory in publishing and subject-matter, drawing in particular on the work of Helen Nickas who established Owl Publishing in 1992, to publish writing by Greek-Australian writers. George Kanarakis, writing in The Cud, provides another, and similar, but more detailed survey of Greek writing in Australia. All are worth reading if you are interested in the subject.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d conclude on a quick reference to cafes, because most Australians of a certain age will remember at least one Greek cafe in their neighbourhood or on roadtrips. Pippos’ publisher, Pan Macmillan writes that, as a child, he regularly visited the family’s café in Brewarrina, NSW. These early experiences “laid the foundation of his work as a writer”:
The compelling role of the Greek-Australian café within modern Australian identity is increasingly documented in popular culture and history books alike. While sadly few exist now, for much of the second half of the twentieth century these cafés could be found on urban shopping streets and in rural country towns. They represented a new Australian zeitgeist and symbolised every-day multiculturalism. The Greek-Australian cafe milieu gave Andrew his earliest sense of community.
Lucky’s is set around a restaurant chain. You can read Lisa’s thoughts in her review.
A few years ago, I reviewed a little (literally) memoir – from the FL smalls collection – Growing up cafe (my review) by Greek-Australian, Phillip Stamatellis. I enjoyed his evocation of a cafe-based childhood.
The aforementioned Komninos also has cafe heritage. On his website we are told that “his maternal grandfather came to Australia in 1908 to work in a café”, and he, himself, born in Melbourne in 1950, grew up living above his family’s cafe-fish shop. There are poems about cafes in his collections.
It’s pretty clear that the Greeks enjoyed cafe culture long before we Anglo-origin Australians ever did (and in so doing they enriched our culture). But, for many second generation Greeks, as Stamatellis shares, the cafe which provided a living for the parents also brought challenges for the children
my nostalgia is burdened by an unseen weight, a sense of entrapment.
Anyhow, I enjoyed my brief foray into Greek-Australian literature, partly because its trajectory seems similar to those of other diaspora literatures here, albeit they may be on different points on the continuum. It brought to mind my recent post on Diversity and memoir and the idea that writers from culturally diverse backgrounds do not want to be tied to writing about that background. In the Greek-Australian case it seems like there’s been a progression from a close focus on their heritage to broader concerns. Is this is the trajectory that most immigrant literatures will naturally take – or is it forced upon them for lack of support and opportunity?