Father’s From the Edge edited by Helen Nickas, Owl Press Melbourne 2015, was launched by Anna Couani on 12 May at 6.00pm at the Macleay Museum at The University of Sydney .
It’s kind of strange to be launching a book that you appear in. This anthology consists of Greek Australians writing about their fathers. I’m a half Greek Australian. My mother’s background is mostly Polish. My parents met in Sydney, at Sydney Uni when they were studying Medicine during WWII. I’m not very Greek, being the child of a Kastellorizian whose family came here around 1918, and growing up in a period when bilingualism wasn’t valued as it is today.
This project, of getting creative writers to write about their fathers has posed all sorts of difficult questions. I wish I were one of those writers (some are in this book) who seem to have had a childhood living in a monolingual idyll in domestic bliss with their loving parents secluded on the margins of Australian society, cocooned in a supportive Greek community. That wasn’t the template that I could use. That narrative didn’t fit onto my experience but as well as that, I don’t write stories. I think of my work as realistic not naturalistic. I often use autobiographical material but have never written a biography or even a memoir. In the 70’s I wrote in the sociological frame for my tertiary studies, about my parents in Surry Hills, so I have studied my parents as a phenomenon. Generally, I keep my family out of my creative writing and see it as a privacy issue because the audience, conceivably a Greek audience, might consist of people who know my family or my parents. For the last couple of decades, my brothers, who don’t usually read my work, give me reports from people who have read my work. My parents have occasionally attended a reading where I was reading my work. So the thing is, how much do you want to reveal and do you want to reveal anything negative? Being doctors, my parents were considered saints in the communities they served. Why would I want to make like a nasty fly in the ointment?
But this task, writing about one’s father, one’s father on the edge, meaning on the margins according to Helen’s introduction, also suggests to me, a person ‘on edge’ which describes my father quite well. I don’t know if the word ‘comfortable’ would have ever been used about him. And as I mention in my piece, he had the ability, through his withering silent treatment, to put everyone around him on edge as well. Dean Kalimniou’s piece describes a father situation that I find really amusing, recognising my own father in it. He describes his father as a crypto Greek and crypto Aussie. People who came here very young or who were born here, especially before the 50’s when so many more Greeks arrived, can be equivocal. They are kind of assimilated but also not. They might be proud of their ethnicity but also hide it out of habit. I know my father said that people would attack him and his brothers if they walked along the street speaking Greek. That would’ve been in the 1920’s and 30’s before they grew up and started to look more dangerous. They all had a very Aussie way of talking, had a mastery of Aussie slang but could toss in a few words of Greek used as coded commentary with each other.
There’s also the idea in the phrase ‘from the edge’ that people are living somehow precariously. And some writers in the book paint a picture of a total larrikin, a larger than life character, and remind me of one of my uncles, Uncle George, the bad boy, not exactly parent material. George Alexander’s father was definitely a bad boy, but maybe also a character built from the bad boy wog template of Hollywood movies, either by himself or by George, imigration is so difficultt’s hard to say. I find it intriguing that Vrasidas Karalis (Professor of Greek at University of Sydney), so highly achieved, so intellectual, had a devil of a father. Who would’ve thought it? And Vrasidas writes his father piece in the 3rd person, referring to himself as ‘the son’, so obviously there must have been some kind of distancing for Vrasidas to depart so completely from his father’s model. Especially with the people you know, it’s fascinating to think about the writers themselves and their fathers and the way they represent them. Of course these fathers, like my uncle, were people who were products of terrible misery as Vrasidas points out.
Quite a few of these entries are written as short stories focussed on one event or incident. The writer has shaped the work as a short story, with the biographical element made secondary. Like Martha Mylona’s beautiful piece about her father’s funeral. The sense of loss is represented powerfully by the fact that the father is obviously absent. And there are shards of memories intruding into the narrative that is not actually a narrative. It’s a guilt-filled episode. Like many in the book, there is a sense of guilt, especially where parents are remembered who made extraordinary sacrifices to come to Australia,to provide their children with a better life and with education. In the case of Helen Nickas, the father concurred with his children’s decision to migrate, knowing that there were no opportunities for them in Greece at the time. The loss was a sacrifice and many of these stories pay homage to sacrifices that parents made either to let their kids go or to migrate with the family. And what comes through these texts very strongly is the fact that migration is so difficult, something people seem to forget these days when talking about asylum seekers. People don’t naturally want to leave the place where they grew up and live as strangers in a new country.
Also in the book, there are lessons from the edge. Just lately, since my father died 4 years ago, I’ve been thinking about some of the habits I inherited from him, things like eating an apple right down to the seed. You tend to think that’s just a matter of habit or style but actually it is a habit of poverty. Many of the stories in the book describe a father who is a gardener, so happy to be in the backyard tending a garden. But these fathers are not the gourmet gardeners doing it as a hobby like we might today, these men were/are people continuing the habits of subsistence living, practising agricultural skills they learnt as children. It just happens that this is the healthy alternative. Efi Hatzimanolis labels the Greek Australian suburban backyard “a hybrid space of memory and agonism.” When the working life might be mindless and you’re trapped in low paid menial jobs, agricultural work is uplifting and people can feel productive and capable, falling back on their substantial skills.
Efi’s text is one that gives us a taste of the Australian (Wollongong) context and one of the few that mentions The Great Schism in the Church and the left wing Greeks who have been and remain a considerable force in Sydney and Melbourne. Her piece collages chunks of text – memories of Greece and the war, work in the steel mills and ongoing conflicts, minor skirmishes that typify a particular kind of cantankerous Greek dad.
There are so many more pieces here I could mention obviously. The book has a lot of variety, from Despina Michael’s lesson in Cypriot history to Nick Trakakis’ reflection on masculinity. There are funny stories and everything else besides. So I’d like to applaud Helen Nickas for this interesting publication and also for continuing to publish works through her press, Owl Press. It’s a fabulous enterprise independent of mainstream publishing, which makes it unique.
I’d like to finish with a short excerpt from John Charalambous’ piece, Disgust. He describes how he feels affronted that a cashier in a supermarket doesn’t differentiate between him and his father. He writes:
I usually resist the temptation to look at myself in public windows. But the girl has awakened an anxiety. Approaching the escalator, I look into a glass-fronted advertising board. I see two old men, Dad stooped and bald with a ring of white fluff, my own head quite grey, both of us yellowish. Two Greek men. That is what strikes me: that we are a genetic island, a unity, a remnant of a distant place.
– Anna Couani
Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and artist who taught Art and ESL most of her life. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, Small Wonders, Flying Islands Books. Some of her previous work is available at http://seacruise.ath.cx/annacouani/.
Father’s From the Edge is available from http://www.owlpublishing.com.au/how-to-order.html