September 2009

Fotis Kapetopoulos

features

An Interview with Christos Tsiolkas

I had been trying to meet Christos Tsiolkas for weeks. My work colleagues were starting to doubt that I ever knew him and my credibility was seriously faltering.

Tsiolkas, the winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for The Slap, (among other awards) now has a best seller. Tsiolkas was not returning my calls!My status anxiety had reached freakish levels. We're both Greek Australians, of similar age, (he's younger), and we inhabit Melbourne's northern suburbs from which the characters in The Slap emerge. I should have pursued my writing forcefully; I should have left for the US; I should have become a lawyer, a politician; I should at least have become rich, famous; I should have... I got the call! 

"Sorry mate, I have been flat-out and the Melbourne Film Festival is on; I have been there every night." Tsiolkas is apologetic and I feel like a wanker. 

We met at his home in Preston on a cold, grey Melbourne morning moulded by drizzle. We hugged and kissed. "Ela, mate come in mate, coffee?" We were the characters from The Slap, in a scene repeated millions of times in what could have been my uncle's house in 1969. We were the new class in the old burb. We may have been drinking coffee on a laminated kitchen table from the '60s, but we were not our parents. 

"What I felt was new in the novel for me was trying to work out what this new middle class is. We are all tertiary educated yet we all have a foot in a kind of parental, familial working class, culture," Tsiolkas said. 

I wonder aloud if we can ever lose that ethnic chip on the shoulder. Can we ever stop that gnawing internal beast, the "wog"? The wog, which fills us with equal measure of arrogance, pride and self-loathing? 

Tsiolkas addresses this directly, "My nephews and nieces will have a different consciousness. There are such strong bonds between them and their grandparents, but there will be a less tense understanding of migrant ethnicity."

I think of my son, the little emperor controlling all at his yia yia's when Tsiolkas says, "You know, they will not be hampered by class. Their parents are not speaking of class in the same way their parents did."

Unlike his other novels, The Slap is the first book in which Tsiolkas is not consciously in.

"I loved creating characters and in developing the story. Dead Europe had a lot of me in it and was a very difficult process of writing, with many stops and starts, the material was difficult, whereas with The Slap, I was observing."

I am flippant and point out that The Slap is the bizarro version of Neighbours

He breaks into a bona fide laugh, "It's Neighbours with ID!"

He then drops tone, "It's a soap opera in a suburban framework, but I would hope that there is something much more interesting going on underneath." 

I know the people in The Slap, we all know them. The Slap is the secret life of us without asphyxiating political correctness, or banal quirky warmth.

Tsiolkas agrees: "People of immigrant background to say to me, 'I know these people, they are me', and some Anglo people say, 'I don't know who these people are, they don't exist'. It is a very polarising book."

Who are they? The Greek Australian educated man in his 40s desperate for recognition with licentious behaviour; his nouveau riche cousin who shifts to the South Eastern suburbs trying to wash off the working class wog in him only to be anchored to it by his brutality; the upper-middle class Indian Australian professional, married, bored and unsatisfied, but coming to the realisation that she is also just an immigrant in Australia; the delusional and overtly politically correct Anglo Australian with her alcoholic husband pretending to be an artist. You also hear the voice of the dying first generation of immigrants, those who did all the hard work. But their voice is not full of rustic sophisms.Their voices are human, weighed down by fears, prejudices and memories of youth. But, there is optimism in The Slap, and its kernel is found in the values of the young and the old. 

"I was writing against some of the assumptions we make about people and culture. The young people, Richie and Connie are both quite well adjusted. Richie is the product of a single mum, which in our culture is looked down on, and Connie is the product of a bisexual and somewhat perverse marriage," emphasises Tsiolkas. But there is no left wing romanticism here either: "Some dysfunctional relationships do create kids which are f-cked up, but equally with the same experience with kids I've known, it may actually lead to somewhere better." 

Tsiolkas shines a light on a new mainstream Australia and goes to film to make a point. "I just saw Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum and it is set in the African European world of Paris. There is no hard politics in it, but this is the reality. There is one cut-away on a white woman on a train and usually that cut-a-way is the reverse, it is on a black woman. We don't embrace our diversity in a meaningful way, because we're still embarrassed about race. We are still embarrassed about the history of migration, and when we do it is heavy handed or banal." It's evident to him that: "Every generation that comes out of friggin' NIDA speaks with the same accent." 

The Slap begins at a barbeque when Hugo, an uncontrollable four-year-old boy, is slapped by someone who is not his parent. The repercussions of that slap on a group of friends herald the complex cultural, racial, class and gender relations that create the palimpsest of contemporary Australia. 

"I hate that kid Hugo," I hear myself say to Tsiolkas, and in swift recognition of my shame add, "but at the end of the day it is merely a child; what Harry does [the character responsible for the slap] is wrong."

"Precisely," Tsiolkas is animated in his enthusiasm, "many people of migrant background have responded like that."

"Harry is fascinating. He is the richest of all the others in the book, but he is still working class." 

He also has a darker history. "If Harry did not have that history, his slapping of Hugo would have been something we would all have understood." As a reader, The Slap, shifts your values, it expresses our hypocrisies. "I wanted to have complexity, I would like the novel to work in a way which the reader changes positions. There are two slaps in the book, the first one, the slapping of the child, and there is the one where Richie (a teenager) is slapped by his mother at the end of the book who is scared and confused. We all understand where that comes from." 

While the world is a backdrop in The Slap, to the characters, as Tsiolkas points out, "the world is just there, it is what it is." It is their world, their northern suburbs. We, the other Australians, inhabited the northern suburbs long before they were hip, before Westgarth had trendy cafes, restaurants, over-priced organic fruiterers, and boutiques. 

"We never called it Westgarth," emphasises Tsiolkas, "that is the process of gentrification -- it's not Thornbury, it's not Preston, it's something else... I had an Anglo woman from Northcote saying, 'You made me have doubts about that old Greek couple across the road; I never knew they were like that.'" 

"A friend who is a writer, from Anglo background said something very interesting about the book. He felt that The Slap, for the first time and in an unapologetic way, took the centre of the world to be Melbourne," says Tsiolkas. More olive skinned, squat poor people once inhabited these suburbs, now they are younger, richer, taller, fitter, cleaner, politer and better educated.

The Slap has a direct and polarising impact on readers. People who may not have read a book in years are reading it. It has sold over 80,000 copies. 

Tsiolkas agrees, "I got stopped by a Greek woman in Brunswick and she said, 'Are you Christos Tsiolkas, because my husband has not read a book in 25 years, and he just finished The Slap.' " 

On the impact of the book's success Tsiolkas is unambiguous: "It has given me the freedom to be a writer."

I raise the fact that some of the arts and cultural set of Australia feel uncomfortable with Tsiolkas's writing. 

"There is a burning anger out there in some sectors that I got away using the work cunt in the first page. From the outset I say that it will be in a language which is not their language." He looks for inspiration in European and American writers and cinema of Jean-Luc Godard or, John Cassavetes. "I reference the great Europeans and why would I not take from the great Americans? It frustrates me sometimes and I feel stifled in Australian culture, for all its larrikinisms, it's still on England's teat." 

As we come to the end of a hyper frenetic conversation, I tell him of my deepest fear -- of being like Hector in the book, the anguished educated Greek Australian desperate for my parents', peers' and society's recognition.

"Hector is not very admirable," points out Tsiolkas, "he was a hard man to write, because it forces a certain level of self-awareness of just what hypocrites we all are... how narcissistic and vain."

But, we're all a little hypocritical, narcissistic and vain, and why not? 

"In the scheme of things not bad at all really; we're not fascists," points out Tsiolkas. I leave, and like Hector I begin to ask the question, where am I, who am I?

Oh, that's right, it's Preston and it's time to go to work.