As I’m typing this blog post, only a few kilometres away on Lonsdale Street in the city, the annual Antipodes festival is in full swing. There’s fairy floss, carnival rides, imported Greek singers, bouzouki, Greek dancing and, of course, souvlaki. The Antipodes festival has been running since 1987 and, according to their website and to many Greeks in Melbourne, it is ‘a celebration of all things Greek’. But surely there’s more to being Greek than Antipodes, or the collection of ‘wog boy’ films? Challenging the Greek stereotype isn’t the only reason a few prominent Greek-Australian artists came together and created Antithesis, it was also to expose the hidden underground art created by Greek-Australians that for some reason, isn’t pushing through to the mainstream. As the curator of the literature/spoken word side of Antithesis, my aim was to push our voice up against the elitist ‘literary voice’ that, to me, seems to be being rejected by the gate keepers of the Australian literary landscape.
Highly successful and confrontational poet TT.O, who will be performing at the Antithesis spoken word event ‘I speak, you listen: words outside the wog box’ (Bar Open in Fitzroy, Wednesday 23 March), really detests stereotyping of the migrant experience with, what he calls, ‘ethnic writing’. He spoke to me on 3CR’s Spoken Word program about the TV show Acropolis Now, which aired in the late 80s, early 90s. In the first episode, TT.O explained to me, they sent the grandfather, who owned an authentic Greek coffee shop – where people are sitting around, gambling and drinking – back to Greece, and the boys took over. ‘But what do they do to the coffee shop? They make it into a trendy, ethnic restaurant, the kind of thing that people in Carlton and Fitzroy would absolutely adore to go into, because that’s their notion of nice, safe ethnics.’ But what TT.O really objects to is the way the characters speak. ‘They use English sentences and they put accents on them. But migrants don’t talk with English grammar. So this is part of the problem, that what the ethnics are being portrayed as is a bunch of people who are some kind shadow of the Angelo Celtic population.’
But Acropolis Now was written by Greeks. In fact, the majority of Greeks love the show and watch it again and again. Pixie Trangas, a poet who will also performing at the Bar Open event, spoke to me on 3CR about this very issue. ‘Well I think there is a lot of ignorance about our culture, and I think that ignorance has been passed down to the younger generation, and basically they got off on that ridicule of the culture … we just take the piss out of it, because it fills our pockets up, and it’s supposed to make it feel okay, but it doesn’t.’
For me, speaking as someone inside a culture highly based on appearances and ‘what are people going to think!’, we like to deflect or bury things under the carpet, and instead choose to laugh and approve of the stereotype because it’s easier to do that then examine what’s really going on. Any kind of art stemming from the roots of the culture that confronts or holds a mirror up to the truth is shied away from. I performed my poetry at the Cypriot Wine Festival a few weeks ago just to prove this point. Apart from a few youngies approaching me after the show and one older woman in tears, many sat with their arms folded, spoke during the performance and left quickly afterwards. They just didn’t know how to take me. ‘What I’m finding,’ Pixie told me, ‘is that the mainstream prefer light, cold sarcastic comedy rather than having specific themes, underlying the reality of what people are living, whereas you had tragedy and comedy in the ancient Greek days where people wrote serious literature. Today, we don’t have that, we have to form an antithesis to the antipodes to actually get recognised because it’s so not cool and all this cultural stereotypical crap that exists out there. I think it’s sad.’
We’re not the only ones causing problems though. As TT.O put it, it’s also the Anglo-Celtic population’s notion of ethnics. Just the other day I was at a music gig and a girl I met said she’d love to travel to Greece to experience the culture because, to her, they’ve always seemed to have really close-knit families. Instantly I wanted to rebut her but kept my mouth shut because then I would have been there all night telling her my story. But who can blame her? If all she sees on tv, and in books and film are stereotypes, what’s she going to think? The only book/film I can think of that portrays a believable Greek story is Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas, which was made into the film Head on directed by Anna Kokkinos. Yes, Christos Tsiolkas is Australia’s migrant writer. My opinion is that the gatekeepers of literary Australia, and film Australia, don’t understand us, they can’t relate to us, so they don’t let us pass. We have our Christos, our migrant writer, so let’s move on. But there’s nobody exchanging dialogue with Christos.
TT.O knows all about what I mean by gatekeepers. TT.O self-published all of his poetry collections because ‘people didn’t accept what I was writing’. When trying to get his book 24 hours (1996) published, TT.O sent it to twelve publishers, yet nobody accepted it. Still, he invested in getting it self-published and luckily, it took off and is still being printed today. ‘Publishers aren’t going to print dirty words … if it’s sensational and it hasn’t got too many dirty words, not a problem, but you write a novel in migrant English with no explanations, you just write it the way it is, no-one’s going to be interested, you can’t get a publisher, you’re going to have to compromise. If you compromise as a writer, why are you doing it? Leave it to the wogs out of work [Acropolis Now], they know how to compromise.’
Jim, actor, writer, producer and co-curator of the film night for Antithesis, couldn’t agree more about gatekeepers. ‘They’re too scared to fund something they can’t relate to or can’t control.’ It was Jim and director, writer and producer, Ange Arabatzis that launched the first ever short Greek film festival last year. The turnout of 150 people made them decide to branch out; the festival now includes literature, music, and a panel discussion. ‘There’s a lot of Greek-Australian film directors out there making films, and we wanted to create a network, and to show our films, and the theme doesn’t necessarily have to be Greek, it can be anything, so let’s stop laughing at ourselves because there’s a lot of stories about our culture that need to be told. We want to encourage Greek-Australian artists to make films, or write about our culture, rather than have someone else create characters of what they perceive our culture to be.’ As the spoken word curator, I have also inserted two open mic sections into the Bar Open night to encourage closeted poets to come and share a poem with us.
This is the kind of discussion Antithesis hopes to generate at the forum at the Hellenic Museum on Sunday 27 March at 4pm. The forum, ‘I know what I am, and I’m glad that I am: responses from the distant edges of Greekness’, will feature international award-winning film director, writer and producer, Alkinos Tsilimidos; CEO of Melbourne Fringe, Esther Anatolitis; Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Music, Melbourne University, Michael Christoforidis; and actor for stage, television and film, Katerina Kotsonis. ‘I wanted our panellists to have one characteristic in that they were not perceived in the wider community as being “Greek”, and the connotative field that surrounds that,’ Nick Tsiavos, music curator of Antithesis and prominent musician explained. ‘We’re interested in how they reconcile these aspects of a culture they have been born into and immersed and shaped by, and explore their ability to love and accept and practice this aspect of themselves, while transcending it.’
Antithesis starts on Wednesday 23 March. For a full list of events visit Antithesis Festival.