Christos Tsiolkas is one the most important Australian writers of the last 20 years. If you grew up the children of migrants in the 1980s then Tsiolkas speaks of you, if not for you.
Barracuda, his latest novel, affirms Tsiolkas’ place in Australian writing. It’s a book about class, failure, violence and final redemption. The main character, Danny Kelly, is a teenage swimming freak of Greek Scottish background living in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Danny’s prowess in the water secures him a scholarship to an elite private school he calls, “C-nts College”.
Danny enters the WASP world of blond blue-eyed “Golden Boys” and aspirational “Templestowe Wogs” as the outsider. A cruel early scene is how Danny’s peers humiliate him after his Greek-Australian mother fronts up to school and she looks more like Sophia Loren than a young Betty Churcher.
I meet Tsiolkas at Melissa Greek cake shop in the northern Melbourne suburb of Thornbury. Greek Australian men and women sip frappe and gossip about relationships, talk about money, argue politics, compare house prices, plan holidays to Greece and Bali, and discuss which schools to send their kids to schools they never attended.
They inhabit Tsiolkas’ books, they are us – the the new wog middle class. The ones who went to university, focused on “making it” and wonder when “making it” ends. You can’t throw a stone between Thornbury and Reservoir up the road without scoring an emerging artist, a young mum sipping coffee with her baby secure in an all-terrain pram, a lesbian couple looking to buy property, a hipster evaluating single origin coffee, and late 40s Greek Australians subdividing their parents’ land to develop town houses. More than 70 new businesses – restaurants, coffee houses and bars – across this suburban belt in the last three years! The north is shedding its skin, but it wasn’t always like that.
Once the milk bar reigned supreme, with people like my Aunty Sophie working downstairs and running and living in the rooms above. The RSL and the local pubs had no boutique beers, just VB and take-away long necks. The fish ‘n’ chip shops were run by Greeks, and the word “wog” left scars.
“Mate it’s about time the Hawaiian shirt was seen more around here!” Tsiolkas laughs when he sees me.
“They’re in fashion again man! I fell back into fashion,” I say.
Hawaiian shirts are a hangover from when the late 70s and early 80s when I pretended to be a surfie to counter the standard Greek youth look of disco bunny. I never surfed.
We hug and peck each other on each cheek as Greeks do.
“It’s too loud here, let’s go to my studio,” Tsiolkas says and we walk past renovations,restorations and home auction signs.
“Mate, what’s the story with Greece? What’s happening?” he asks.
“Full on, but it’s turning slowly. You know Greek’s will be OK, they’re still out having coffee, partying,” I repeat an unfair and all too common statement that makes light of the Greek economic catastrophe.
“It’s the middle class,” I add. “They can’t adjust. Too easy for too long, no taxes.”
We sit on the floor of his sparse, neat studio.
“I bought the studio after the success of The Slap,” Tsiolkas says. Greeks, regardless of class, education or geography, all know the importance of owning property. It’s hardwired. You can slave for someone else, but you become a king in your own home. Home ownership transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrants from southern Europe. After the war they came to Melbourne’s north, and leapfrogged class.
“I’ve come back to class,” Tsiolkas says. “You know, it’s the first time in my life I don’t have to worry about money, and that reconfirmed class as the most important politics.”
Tsiolkas has shifted class, like many of us, the children of immigrants. Barracuda draws on Tsiolkas’ “disorientation”.
“When I entered Melbourne University many years ago. Bang! A world I never knew existed. I met phenomenal people, but it wrenched me from a world that I belonged to,” he says. “Even my wogness feels abstracted now because of that experience.”
“Abstracted wogness” – that’s the new nexus between culture, class, racism and being “in”. There was a time when the word “wog” would elicit fear or be met with violence.
Once upon a time, there was nothing hip about being a “wog”. There was an authenticity to the racism – brutal and unadulterated – but now it’s nuanced. Anyone can claim to be a “wog”, to know “wogs”, to be in love with “wogs” and almost everyone can use the term. So why do I still feel like tearing a hole in someone who uses it when they’re not wogs?
There’s not much “abstracted wogness” in Danny in Barracuda. He carries Ari’s internal chaos from Loaded and the Harry’s rage from The Slap. Self-loathing, distorted class and ethnic pride, youthful lust are all coiled tightly around an inner rage that can explode at any time.
“Danny swims to burn his rage. I get rid of my it through my writing,” Tsiolkas says. “Danny could have come out of The Slap (and) in some way it’s a return to Loaded … hopefully I’m a better writer and I’m a middle-aged man writing as an adult,” Tsiolkas says.
“I’m a middle-aged teenager,” I say. For Greek Australian men of our generation becoming middle aged is a surprise. How are we to be men? Our fathers were brave, survived wars, fascist regimes, left their country and settled in an unknown land of flat suburbs and six o’clock swills and were called wogs by those who meant it.
Yet our generation complains, worries and obsesses about money, career, sex, hair, weight… money, career, sex, weight. Can we actually have any more Greek lawyers, accountants, developers and politicians?
We were spoilt and obsessively loved by our mothers as Danny is in Barracuda. We were supported to achieve in the vanilla world, the one we desire but fear.
Loaded heralded Tsiolkas’ arrival as the enfant terrible of Australian Literature. Dead Europe positioned him as a master of the dark and The Slap was the chorus for ethnic middle class angst. Barracuda, brings them together. Danny is Harry, he is Ari and he is the complex clash of class and race that bubbles underneath the mild and boring hedonism of “Australia Oi Oi Oi”. Tsiolkas has no more wiggle room. Like an athlete he must perform again and again.
“After The Slap my position in the literary world changed. Up until then I felt the outsider, suddenly I had success,” Tsiolkas says. “In the beginning of writing Barracuda I believed that the difference between a sports person and an artist is that the sports person has clarity and surety of success. I came to sports because of envy,” he says.
I don’t know if Tsiolkas played sport, but I relay my story about my first year at Adelaide Boys High School in 1975 when the headmaster grabbed one of the new boys at school by the hair after he dared kick the soccer ball over the cricket pitch, and said: “Son, there will never be wog ball in this school!”
“You never know how good you are as an artist, no matter how successful you become,” Tsiolkas says.
Do any Greek Australians know what “real success” is? If we were athletes there would be no confusion, you’re either a winner or a loser.
“The obsessive will of the athlete is similar to that of the artist, the difference is the age,” Tsiolkas says.
We’re not Danny, we’re not Ari, we’re not the young Greek men we were – tough, angry, cool, smelling of sex – we’re “serious men” now, middle-class and middle aged.
“I was nervous before the release of Barracuda,” Tsiolkas says. “Expectation terrified me. I kept asking: “Am I writing for myself or was I writing for a public. Was I another persona?”
When Tsiolkas’ late father became ill last year, it reminded him of “greater things”.
“Writing is not more important than my family and people I love,” he says.
We stop talking about Barracuda, writing, success, class and politics and we talk about our fathers. Tsiolkas lost his father last year, mine died 20 years ago.
“As a man, I’ve been thinking of my father. He was an incredible gardener but I don’t have that skill because like many Greek guys his age he did not let his kids touch the garden.. but writing is my garden.”
Our fathers settled here, so we can sit on the floor and talk about success. Soon, we start again on the rise and fall of the modern middle class of Greece.