Saturday, May 21, 2016
There is a reason why Greek men are constantly at war with their fathers,” my obsessed with Greek mythology friend once told me. “The ancient Greeks knew this, which is why it appears in the ancient myths. Gaia, in her quest for emancipation from her husband, Ouranos, gave her son Cronos a sickle, and made him cleave off his father’s genitals. Rhea, Cronos’ wife, gave Zeus the knowledge to defeat his father. The Titanomachy can thus be explained as the struggle for emancipation by a younger Greek generation, against their fathers, who are bent on oppressing them and preventing them from growing up.”
There can be no doubt that in ‘Fathers from the Edge,’ a recently published compendium of narratives examining the complex and multi-faceted relationship between Greek-Australian writers and their fathers, examples of latent and sometimes not so latent forms of progenitoral aggression are manifest. As the editor, academic Helen Nickas, for whom this book is a companion to her much acclaimed ‘Mothers from the Edge,’ states: “While there is much affection in the depiction of fathers, these are not from an idealized perspective. The writers don’t seek to romanticize their fathers but to understand them, especially as time has mellowed and matured their feelings about family relationships.” This ‘warts and all’ (from the offspring’s perspective) portrayal of Greek fathers has as its aim, to provide a glimpse of the manifold ways in which life lived within two cultures can impact upon a familial relationship, paving the way to understanding and ultimately compassion.
In many respects, the above mythological analysis is an apt one. In most of the twenty-four stories comprising the collection, fathers are portrayed as remote, unintelligible and Sphinx-like figures, impossible to comprehend. Such relationships as are formed between such fathers and their progeny, rather than a meeting of minds, are based on delineation and demarcation of boundaries. Fathers are left to battle their own impenetrable demons, most of which have to do with the trauma of dislocation and relocation to another country, war, or family breakdown, often appearing selfish and thus subverting the Greek-Australian stereotype of the selfless all-providing father, while their Australian-born or reared children look on incomprehensibly and with increasing feelings of resentment and dislocation, a resentment that was often mutual. As Despina Michael writes in ‘The Orange Grove:’ “Dad loved us, but resented us at the same time. We had colonized him. He could never leave.”
These titanic fathers, are often figures of childhood terror. Dmetri Kami writes of his father in ‘The Fisherman from Tenedos’: “Although I forgive him for striking his wife, I am haunted by the screams and sobs that put my sister and I to sleep for the first years of our lives.” In ‘Those Three Words’ Dimitri Gonis gives voice to his own Titan, a father formidable and gigantic, whose dimensions can only be appreciated and reconciled with the passage of time and the utterance of the magic words ‘I love you:’ “The truth is, we kids feared my father, We’d hear him turning the key and instead of running to the door, we’d run away from it.” Such intimidating fathers, problematic as they are, (Vrasidas Karalis opens his story ‘The Age of the Father’ thus: “When he died, they all sighed with relief; he had been a problem for years”) also remain an obstacle in their children’s own maturation, for their impenetrability, causes their children to be unable to identify with them and cleaves a rift of culture, time and personality between the generations. Until that rift is healed, it remains as a wound, rendering all before it dysfunctional. “For the son, he remained an enigma,” writes Karalis. “An indecipherable palindrome.”
Some authors, such as Nick Trakakis, attempt to render their fathers effable by resorting to classical history, geography and literature. In ‘Of Blood and Spirit,’ Trakakis makes the following observation in his quest to understand his father: “But there is something else, something more remarkable, I have found. My father, as I said is Cretan. And what are Cretan renown for? Love of freedom: fierce independence. Nobility…” It is almost as if a return to the fundamentals, that of ancestral place of origin, provides the key to our viewing of our Titans in a more humane perspective. It is not without coincidence then Dmetri Kakmi defines his father primarily as being ‘from Tenedos.’ As Tina Haralambakis writes in ‘Offshoots:’ “My life-long obsession with my parents’ homeland most likely began in early childhood, while listening to my father strum his guitar and sing along to his old recordings of Greek tangos.” She makes an important point. As progenitors, our fathers defy and transcend temporal classifications. They are both past and present, suggesting that our present with them must in subtle ways, be qualified by the past. Such an idea is taken up by Helen Nickas, when she feels to ask her father in: ‘A Belated Letter from a Daughter ‘Down Under’: “How do I feel about my homeland? Is it still home for me?”
On the other hand, in Victoria Kyriakopoulos’ brilliant piece: ‘KISSmania,’ the life-rejecting negativity of the protagonist’s father stems from his geographical background which does not permit him to come to terms with his new environment, and impedes his offsprings’ engagement with their world: “No was her father’s standard, inflexible response to anything alien and threatening from the outside world. Helen was expected to respect his authority, his better judgment, no questions asked.” In that world, dethronement of the Titan is personified in a supreme act of resistance: Attending a KISS concert in defiance of the father’s prohibition.
The inability of fathers and their children to find a common language within which to articulate their relationship is often expressed as a possible impediment to its natural progression within the stories. Dmetri Kakmi, for instance asks: “Would things be different if he and I spoke the same language? Would we be able to share intimate thoughts and feelings, or does he belong to a generation that has no place for such shilly-shallying?” In Justice Emilios Kyrou’s story: ‘Yiannis Kyrou, a courageous spirit,’ such questions are turned on their head, as is the relationship of provider/protector, beneficiary/suppliant, as Justice Kyrou uses his knowledge of the English language in order to shield his parents from experiencing racism. Justice Kyrou’s story is to be distinguished from most of the other contributions as, even though he was made to feel ashamed of his origin, it is apparent throughout the text that he not only fully understood his parents’ perspective, but also shared their values and aspirations. As such, the only gap here, was one of education and considering that in obtaining this, Justice Kyrou was fulfilling his father’s expectations, this in no way impinged upon the maintenance of a close and loving relationship.
When I was asked for a contribution to ‘Fathers from the Edge,’ I was unsure as to how to proceed. Unlike Dmetri Kakmi, my father and I do have a common language in which to articulate our relationship: English. Unlike many of the other authors, I have no use or need to seek recourse to history, geography or a grief-stricken past to explain my father to myself, for he arrived in Australia when he was four and has no memory of Greece. Our values, aspirations, attitudes and level of education are commensurate with each other and I revel in no one’s company more than his. Furthermore, how do I put into words my admiration and love for my own creator, friend, advisor and guide, a person who to this day, constitutes my ultimate male role-model, being possessed with a nobility of soul and plethora of attributes that I continue to aspire to attain, despite the flaws in my own character?
Ultimately, I decided to attempt to provide an account of what happens when the gods descend from Mount Olympus, assume human form and choose to walk among us, as equals. My story, “Coming out Greek,” is therefore a tale of how my father and I grew up together, seeking to embrace a common ethnic and cultural identity, while reconciling the disparate strands of a linguistic, historical and social melting pot, which we discovered side by side. The act of emancipation that forms the climax of the story is not my own, but rather my father’s, in coming to terms with the same type of racism faced by Justice Kyrou in his own past, but resolving its effects in a radically different way.
Helen Nickas’ publication of ‘Fathers from the Edge,’ is timely given how many of our fathers and custodians of the foundation myth of our community are now slipping way. Now is the time, if not to reconcile but at least to analyse and appreciate the complexities of a relationship that forms the social and psychological background to the entire history of the Greek community in Australia.
Fathers from the Edge will be launched on Tuesday, 24 May at 6:30pm at the Greek Centre, 168 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 May 2016