Saturday, November 07, 2015
Ἁπό τους καθ᾽ημάς Αντίποδες,᾽ the title of Greek Australian academic Dr Christos Fifis’ latest publication, is a particularly apt one. Bearing connotations of appropriation (Asia Minor was referred to by the Greek people as η καθ᾽ημάς Ανατολή – that is, “Our Asia,” until the Catastrophe of 1922), the title causes the reader to pause from the outset and ask: To what extent do ‘OUR’ Antipodes form part of the Greek world? How ‘our’ are ‘our’ Antipodes, in the sense that the term has been generally understood within the various constructs of Hellenism?
Fifis’ book, written in Greek, and seemingly targeted towards a Helladic audience that would know its Antipodean cousins, better purports to be a brief handbook on the history of Greeks within Australia. While it does not present any particularly new research material to add to the corpus of works already published on the topic, the book is novel because of its wide focus and sophisticated attempt to place the Greek community squarely within the broader Australian social context.
Such an approach is important. Until now, there has been a tendency by historians of Greek background to present the Greek community in Australia as within a ghetto, left to its own devices and completely untouched or uninfluenced by the world around it, reflecting personal ideologies about the structure and ultimate aims of such a community. Fifis on the other hand, goes to great pains to show how at each stage of its development, the Greek community was affected by such events as the Great Depression, the Second World War, Menzies’ crusade against communism, the institution of multiculturalism and even the conservatism of the Howard era. According to Fifis, rather than being a hidebound entity of finite ideologies and perspectives, the Greek community has evolved, in reaction to and constant dialogue with the broader Australian community, from a society of bourgeois shopkeepers, to one dominated by the proletariat and social activists, to one, in these days, of social conservatism, reflecting outlooks of social and economic class. His argument is expertly made through a nuanced analysis of Australian history from the Greek perspective (“our” Antipodean history) that deserves further attention.
Fifis’ comparison of the Greek-Australian community of Melbourne with that of Alexandria, which became popular during Greek Consul-General George Veis’ controversial sojourn in Melbourne, and outlining why both socially, economically and linguistically the two bear no relation to each other is original and utterly convincing. In my mind, a parallel with the Greek colonies of the Crimea, would be more convincing.
Though he outlines the basic development of most Greek communities in Australia, Fifis pays most attention to his own community, that of Melbourne. Mercifully, though he discusses the rift between the Archdiocese and the Communities that has polarized various Greek communities around Australia, he is one of the few historians of Greek background who do not inflate the importance of it. Instead, Fifis perceptively identifies within that rift, further than the conflicts of ideology and power, a broader tendency within the Greek community towards division and ultimately, disintegration. To advance this argument, he rightly points out that while the conflict between the Archdiocese and the Communities has dominated Greek-Australian discourse, it and its effects have been largely irrelevant to the majority of Greek-Australians who have traditionally expressed themselves through the formation of an innumerable number of clubs based on their place of origin, rather than any entity that expresses a religious or political affiliation. While he lists some of these clubs, particularly the more ancient ones, Fifis does not delve into their doings at any length, we suspect because historically at least, they are not worth the effort.
In keeping with his impressionistic attempt to render the totality of the Greek-Australian picture, Fifis proceeds to provide insights into the various spheres of activity that Greek-Australians have involved themselves in, including the union movement and campaigns for social justice, again endeavours that are intrinsically linked to the prevailing social conditions in Australia at that time as well as politics. While Fifis provides an exhaustive list of Greek-Australian politicians, he takes pains to explode the myth, widely held in Greece (and in Australia) that the involvement of such persons within Australian politics can further the “Greek” cause. In actual fact, (and Fifis quotes extensively from Greek-Australian politicians who state that while they are Australians first, though proud of their ethnic identities), such attempts when they exist, are met with suspicion and derision by the media and the wider community.
Unsurprisingly, considering his background and continuous contribution to the organized literary and educational activity of the Greek community of Melbourne and beyond, Fifis provides a valuable overview of the emergence of Greek language education. Of interest is his presentation of the opposition of the Archdiocese at the time to the institution of the study of Greek at a tertiary level, owing to fears that the lecturers would be ideologically unsuitable, showing how the rifts within the community influenced seemingly unrelated aspects to its existence. His presentation of the development of Greek-Australian media is also of great value, tracing its polarities and ultimate paradigm shifts. He also provides an important understanding of the contribution of Greek-Australian writers, both in Greek and in English, perceiving in their works, patterns of nostalgia/ therapy (for the first generation) and attempts to interpret and contextualize aspects of Greek culture and the mythologies of the Greek identity (for the second generation). In his analysis, proving the unpredictability of the Greek community, Fifis refutes the theories of early critics who believed that the first generation would not indulge in the writing of literature.
Sadly missing, however, is any substantive mention of the contributions of Greek-Australians to Australian sport, especially through Aussie Rules Football or through such Olympic Gold Medallists as Michael Diamond. An analysis of their importance could show how their achievements served to ‘legitimize’ and render the Greek community ‘intelligible’ to the mainstream. Similarly, actors and public personalities such as Lex Marinos, one of the earliest points of contact for television with the ethnic community, or the importance in redefining ethnic cultural identity in the works of Nick Giannopoulos, George Kapiniaris and Mary Koustas have also been overlooked, though this is justifiable, as they deserve a lengthy scholarly treatise of their own.
Most significant then, are the matters that Fifis does not mention in depth particularly those pertaining to the second generation. No real attempt is made to analyse the involvement of the second generation in the activities or structures founded by the first generation. Active youth organisations that exist on the margins of the Greek community that are currently undergoing a viral reassessment of their cultural traditions within the Australian context such as NUGAS, AHEPA Youth and the various vibrant Pontian and Cretan youth groups are not treated in any significant way. Instead, Fifis dwells upon language loss, acculturation and assimilation within the latter generations, occasioned often, as he states, as a result of mixed marriages, the tendency of modern ‘homogenous’ couples choosing to rear their children as monolingual English speakers being taken as a given. According to him, this process is irreversible, even with the recent infusion of new migrants from Greece. It remains to be seen to what extent they they will be assimilated within the already existing Greek community, or form a micro-community of their own.
These omissions are purposeful, masterful and in no way detract from the importance or value of Fifis’ work. Instead, they go to the heart of Fifis’ central thesis: What are ‘our’ Antipodes? Can an acculturated second generation really share the same sense of belonging and perspective so as to render the same values to the word ‘our’? Does it makes sense for that generation, born and bred in Australia, to refer to their homeland as the ‘Antipodes,’ with all the connotations of inversion of the natural order of things that this term conveys? The answer, both in Fifis’ eloquent silence and in his sensitive and well-reasoned conclusions about the second generation Greek Australians, is, probably not. As such, he rightly recognizes that a treatment of the diffuse, integrated, largely assimilated and almost indefinable Australian-born generations is beyond the scope of his work, (they are not Antipodean, they are native) one that remains as a sociological and historiographical challenge for his successors.
Fifis’ view of the Greek community in the Antipodes is thus multi-faceted, sophisticated and thoroughly ambivalent, as is evident in the last verse of his original poem with which he concludes his overview and in which his entire understanding of “our” and “Antipodes” is questioned: “Australia of the impatient departures/ and of the pleasant arrivals./ Some fifty years later/ who are the genuine Australians and who are the migrants?/ And who are the New Australians?/ And what are the Aborigines who didn’t count back then?”
A work that should be compulsory reading for all who would appreciate the complexity of the Greek Australian community within its proper context (especially Greek consular officials), Dr Christos Fifis’ latest work will certainly be a seminal text in the further study of who we are, and most importantly, in who we perceive ourselves to be.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 7 November 2015