Saturday, October 04, 2014
“Controversy is only dreaded by the advocates of error.” Benjamin Rush
Recently, Neos Kosmos featured an important piece of writing penned by Elena Piaki, a year 12 student of literature who sought to portray “collapsing values, such as democratic or cultural values, that were longstanding in the history of Greece but are collapsing due to a rise in xenophobia and fascism - a concerning phenomenon in Greek society.” She attempts to achieve this through the framework of a very human story, involving the relationship between a brother, who has been seduced by Golden Dawn propaganda, his sister and Laila, a Pakistani migrant friend.
From the outset, the reader is seduced by the expert use of language and clever juxtaposition of symbols. Thus the singing geraniums of Greece (evoking a seventies fun in the sun Greek movie – the basis of many a Greek stereotype) are contrasted with the crimson poppies of Pakistan, which are grown for heroin and thus symbolize exploitation and death. Greece then, is a land of opportunity, one that is a haven and a healer.
Piaki’s expert depiction of the Greek landscape is however, by no means conventional. Lavender walls, limestone churches with the sun bathing their arched windows in golden light, the palace of Knossos and the obliquely streaming sunlight is contrasted with the Golden Mosque of Lahore with its splendid domes and embellished arches. In this inspired passage, Piaki is challenging externally imposed and yet ubiquitously internalized constructions of our own esteem. Could we assume that it is because Laila sees the achievements of Greek civilization as naturally illumined by the sun and thus superior to those of her own, that she feels the need to share her own people’s accomplishments through a comparison with a man-made structure that does not give its own light but merely reflects it? Or is this what the cultural supremacist in all of us wishes to see? Piaki leaves all this tantalizingly ambiguous as she subverts her narrative to cleverly give voice to deep, dark, nefarious instincts and purposes that lurk beneath the subconscious and, in indulging in a masterly chiaroscuro of words, acquits herself brilliantly.
Thus as the composition progresses, this natural illumination is diminished. In its stead, we are given a ring of street lamps producing a wan light, and a darkness that is overpowering. Gone is the warmth of hospitable, life-living Greece. Rather, it is now cold, the shop fronts are unlit and the fountain, a symbol of vitality, has now become an ‘ice-sculpture.’ It is in this hostile, unrecognizable territory, which forms a corollary to the increasingly unrecognizable brother, as he recedes from the light and warmth of friendship and family ties and falls further and further into the darkness of Golden Dawn, that a terrible crime of racial hatred will take place. Piaki inverts the physical environment and nature itself, in order to demonstrate just how unnatural and alien crimes of racial hatred are to civilized humanity.
In keeping with Piaki’s understated approach, the actual abuse that takes place is not described. Instead it is left to the reader’s imagination and this merely serves to highlight the dramatic intensity of a piece that is sophisticated, well-constructed, multi-faceted and highly polished. We would all do well to look out for the youthful Elena Piaki’s future work as, she is undoubtedly a writer that displays both talent and promise in equal abundance, one that deserves our community’s support and encouragement.
Regretfully, both these aforementioned elements appeared to be lacking in the majority of reader responses when the piece was posted in social media. Instead, Elena was treated to a barrage of hatred all of her own by members of the Greek community affronted by her temerity to tackle her subject matter. Her skill in writing, her sensitivity of depiction, all these things passed them by as moths in the night, and instead, they accused her, simply by virtue of the fact that she dared to pen an imaginary piece about the bashing of a female migrant, of self-hate, racism and ignorance.
Some of her critics employed the tried and true Helladic tactic of prohibiting all right to analyze of depict Greece in anyway, if one is not born or does not love there, hence: “I’m sick and tired of the uninformed 'Australakia' shooting their mouths off at topics they know nothing of.”
Others adopted a similar approach, but instead enlisting the fact that Elena is young, in order to imply that her work has no merit:“Keep bagging Greece! Great stuff from a little ignorant kid...”
These responses paradoxically reinforce the effect and power of Elena’s work. Some of the vitriol and indignation conveyed in them is reminiscent of some Turkish responses whenever the genocide of the Christians of Anatolia is broached. In short, it is difficult for some within the community to even countenance the fact that Greeks could be violent and intolerant and when their perceptions are challenged, they then do become violent and intolerant.
Of concern however, are those responses that seek to castigate Elena not for implying that Greeks, just as all other people are capable of racism but rather, for considering that violence against migrants or foreigners is reprehensible. Thus: “Naive , and uninformed is definitely what you are when you call the Greek reaction to 1400 years of muslim invasion , destruction ,slavery and genocide - racism.”
And then there is this which draws together all the elements of the previous responses while further making assumptions (in this case as to the legality of the fictional Leila, whose status is not set out in the original text) of its own:
“Illegal immigrants are deported in Australia on a daily basis! How dare you expecting Greeks to keep illegal immigrants in Greece?! You are right! You don't live in Greece, you have no idea on what's happening in Greece at all...all you do is to call the people there racist! Shame on you!”
In drawing out such deeply disquieting sentiments from her readers, Elena can be assured of the enduring poignancy and relevance of her work in a manner only to be dreamed of by other established writers. She also provides a mirror on a community which not only must address endemic racism as a problem instead of seeking to deny its existence but also on the sections of it which are nasty, aggressive, narrow in vision and incompletely incapable of providing that mutual support and encouragement that comprises a community’s primary role. If this is to be the young Elena Piaki’s first and traumatic encounter with the broader Greek community, one that supposedly prides itself on its offspring’s progress and accomplishments, we all need to exercise self-scrutiny when we ask why latter generations are fleeing organized community involvement and indeed its entire discourse, in droves.
This is because Elena, a writer already on the way to greatness, does not need us. Our community however, if it is to remain relevant and renew itself in the future is in dire need of the razor sharp pen and freshness of approach of every Elena out there, wishing to engage in discourse with things Greek, no matter how confronting or disturbing to our sensitivities these may be.
It was reputedly the Buddha who observed that: “In controversy, the moment we feel anger we have already ceased to strive for the truth and instead have begun to strive for ourselves.” We have Elena to thank for seeing in the sleek Meander, a deadly spider that has taken within us, a multiplicity of terrible forms.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 October 2014.