In partnership with the State Library of Victoria, The Garret is hosting ‘The Garret LIVE at the Library’, a series of live podcast events with leading Australian writers in 2018.
Christos Tsiolkas was our first guest. He launched the series on World Book Day (23 April 2018) and spoke to our audience about the politics of writing. He also gave the first public reading of his latest work in progress, ‘Damascus’.
Sharon Mullins: Hello and good evening. Thank you so much for coming tonight. My name is Sharon Mullins and I'm the Communications Manager here at State Library Victoria, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to the first ever ‘Garret LIVE at The Library’, with our special guest, Christos Tsiolkas.
As Victoria's House of Stories, the State Library is delighted to be a supported partner of The Garret: Writers on Writing podcast. Our mission here is to collect the stories of all Victorians, preserving and sharing them for now and for the future.
The Garret shares a similar mission in bringing the voices of the best Victorian, Australian and international storytellers. This series is an extraordinary and inspiring exploration of writing, creativity and our shared love of books.
Tonight's special guest is the magnificent and sweary Christos Tsiolkas. Christos is the author of five novels, several of them bestsellers and award winners, and he is also a playwright, essayist and screenwriter. He's considered a voice of our age and one of the most important writers in Australia today. Christos is also the new patron of Writers Victoria, which is a wonderful thing for our local writing community.
I'd also like to mention that Christos will be launching his new book next month. Christos Tsiolkas on Patrick White is part of the Writers on Writers series, which is published as a partnership between Black Inc, Melbourne University and the State Library. So you can go the State Library's website to find out more about that event and book yourself a free ticket.
I'd also like to introduce you to our host, Nic Brash. It's going to be a great night, so please join me now in welcoming Christos and Nic.
Christos: Thank you very much. It's so lovely to see you all here and on a Monday night. I really appreciate it.
Nic: Welcome. Welcome to the State Library of Victoria this wonderful Monday evening, so many people. Thank you very much for the State Library of Victoria for hosting this magnificent event. The 'booked out' sign is really testament to this wonderful writer sitting next to me, Christos Tsiolkas. He's a very popular man. He's a part of the Melbourne literary establishment...
Nic: You didn't know that did you?
Christos: I didn't know that.
Nic: And I'd like to welcome Christos, again, to The Garret.
Christos: It's a real pleasure and I'm going to say thank you to the State Library and to Writers Victoria. I'm really proud to be a patron of the organisation. I've been coming to this place since I was a kid, so it's... You know, I was on the way to the loos just before, and I was struck by, you know, that I think for so many of us, here, coming to this place was an introduction to the world of literature. It just felt like a really special, almost sacred space to me when I was a young kid, so it's very lovely to be here.
And I want to say a big thank you to you Nic, and to Astrid, as the people behind The Garret, for doing this.
Nic: Thank you. Thank you. Now that self-congratulatory piece is over, I'm just going to start with a nice... I'm just wondering what you're reading, at the moment, for enjoyment?
Christos: For enjoyment? Ah. Well, actually, it is for enjoyment, I just finished a fantastic novel that I... Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety. I don't know how many of you know it? It's a, I would say, forty, fifty years old, US novel, about friendship, and it's remarkably good. And I've... you know, when you read a novel and you have completely become immersed in the world? And it traces a friendship between two couples, over forty, fifty years, and it's profoundly moving, I thought. So it's like a discovery for me, I'd never come across the author before, and, yeah, I've fallen in love with it.
And I've just started Michelle de Kretser's The Life to Come, because I'm on a panel with her in Sydney next week, and I really like Michelle's writing. I've just begun it, so I can't say anything else than that. But as part of preparing for the conversation we're having together, I've been re-reading Questions of Travel and The Lost Dog, and I think she's one of our finest writers.
And, believe me, this is for pleasure, though it may sound quite ponderous, it's not at all. I'm very... the last few months... it has been the last few months, I have become aware of a Polish philosopher, really, Kolakowski, who... I was given a book of essays of his called Is God Happy? And he was a dissident under the Communist government in Poland, and Is God Happy? is a collection of works going back to the early 60s, some of it published never published until the 2000s, after the… you know, the late 1990s and the 2000s, after the fall of the regime.
Anyway, this is a long... But he... I was so enthralled with the collection of writing that I realised that he's written a monumental book. It's 1,500 pages, called the Main Currents of Marxism, which is a history of Marxism. And I really... I just started it two days ago, I'm really keen to lose myself in it for the next few months. Because growing up in Communist Poland, he is incredibly well-versed in Marxism, but he's also well-versed in the destruction the Communist regime brought on his life, and his friends, and his communities. So, I think, as someone from the Left, it kind of behoves me that I engage with this kind of book, and I don't know, it may not sound pleasurable but, trust me, I'm really looking to reading that.
Nic: That is a perfect segue, I could not have designed that better myself, because we titled this discussion tonight ‘Politics and Writing’ and we did so, because I know how important both of them are to you.
So my first question to you, then, is as a political animal, how does politics feed into your writing: both in terms of content and intent?
Christos: You know you feel like you should, by now, have a ready answer to that question, and you don't! So let me and try and... in a way, Nic, if you forgive me, let me take it apart a bit. Being a political animal, I don't... politics is something that has been part of how I have understood my relationship to the world from very, very young, and I think that comes from being, you know, I think a child of migrants, of working class migrants, in a world where you are very aware of the fracture of migration.
So, in a way, as a writer, or someone who fell in love with reading so early on, and as a writer, you are aware of... even before you have a language for it, from a very young age, from a kid, that there is a translation you have to do to your family. My parents didn't... they really couldn't speak English when they arrived, and so Greek was the language that I had to use to make sense of myself to them. And vice-versa. That was the language they had to speak to me. The vocabulary we had was limited, because I was growing up in Australia. I grew up in Melbourne, I grew up with the English language, and it was the English language I fell in love with, because my vocabulary, as a Greek, is really limited.
But that understanding, I think, is, in a way, a nascent political understanding that I think any of you, here, who are children of migrants or refugees, would understand. That's part of the relationship you have as a second generation person to your history.
So politics was really important. Realising I was homosexual when I was in my early teens, kind of, made that question of politics even more important, or relevant, or crucial, in that I knew that I was going... I had to arm myself even before I had dealt with the reality of what it meant to be gay. I just had to arm myself with literature, with politics, with art, with argument, because you know, I think, again, even before I had the words to fully articulate it, I knew that I would have to form a politics in order to live in this world. To be a man in this world. To be a writer in this world. To be the son of my parents in this world.
And I say this, and I really mean this, I got involved in People for Nuclear Disarmament when I was in high school, which was my first actual political involvement, and I met some astonishing people through that involvement, but I also realised that there's a work involved in activism that is... I just don't think, in that sense, I'm a political animal. I think that, probably, I'm a little bit too selfish.
Nic: So did you choose writing to reflect, then, those political, that political, or did the political just manifest itself in the writing?
Christos: No. It's very, very much the latter. Because, in a way, and I'm sure every writer you speak to, Nic, will say this, writing chose me. That's how it feels like. Or literature chose me, or words and books chose me. That's what I feel. And I wasn't reading for politics, I was just reading for the love of literature. It was just in the forming of my political consciousness that it meant that I was looking for a particular kind of writing when I was young. So I was searching for queer writing. I was searching for feminist writing. I was searching for writing that was angry at the world, because I was angry at the world.
One of the reasons why I said the question is... why I don't have an easy answer for that question, is, every step along the way, my relationship to how I feel about writing has changed, and how I see myself politically has changed, and is changing. Writing remains phenomenally central and important to me, and politics remains important to me, but I'm not the same person I was at 17. I'm not the same person I was at 26.
Nic: So when you write a book, do you go in going, ‘I want to get this across, I want to get that across, or I want to get that across, because I hold those views’, or do you finish the book, do you look at your manuscript and go, ‘Oh. That's in there. That's in there. That's in there’, and it sort of takes you more by surprise just because it is a part of you? Is it a deliberate choice, or do neither of those things happen?
Christos: I think there is a part... and, again, the relationship to writing novels and writing stories has changed in part of that process. I was trying to explain this the other day, I think there is something remarkable about that desire to write the first novel. You know, I have... I was reading from such a young age. Man, I was really... I'm so grateful to my parents who didn't have the opportunity to have literature in their life, but they were so proud of my being a reader that they made that possible for me. And the dream of being a writer was something that I think I did have from very young, but it seemed like an impossible notion that you could be a writer, that this, almost... I think it gave it this kind of sacred meaning.
When I wrote Loaded, which was my first novel, it came out of a decision... I made a decision that I was going to quit full-time work. I was going to work part-time, and I was going to give it everything I could to see if I had a novel in me. And because I didn't know how to write a novel, I hadn't done creative writing courses, I read, and I saw film, and listened to music. I think those were my three schools in terms of writing. I just thought ‘I am going to put everything that I am, and everything that I think, and everything that I dream in this novel, because I don't know if I'm ever going to do it again, and I don't actually know if I can do it’.
And, then after Loaded, I think every other book can never have that, I guess that kind of... it is really 'fire in the belly' because you are... it's you, as a writer, with no reputation, no readership, no one has any knowledge of you, seeing if you can do it.
I think, any of you, if you're writing your first novel, don't lose sight of how important that is. I assume a lot of you are here from Writers Victoria? I worry sometimes when I hear writers talk about ‘What do publishers expect? What do...’ You know, ‘How will I sell this novel? And it's like, don't... it may run counter to everything you've been told, but I would say, just go with the novel you want to write, as a first novel, because you will never have that opportunity again.
Every novel since, subsequently, I have thought of structure and style. And every novel, as it has progressed, has become more about me exploring what it is to be a writer and the craft of writing. And so, what I have now that I didn't have as a man in my 20s, was a notion of the work of the novel, and the work of telling stories, and wanting to develop that craft.
Nic: Go on.
Christos: Can I just... it's just because, in terms of... Yes, so to your question, I have... every novel I have thought, ‘What do I want to say?’ Really what happens is you find a character, you find a voice, and when you find the voice that's when the novel begins really. Every novel has been... You know, The Jesus Man, which was the second novel, I wanted to talk about what it meant, because my partner and I had gone through the recession in the early 1990s, and what it meant to be unemployed, what it meant to be lost in a world where work is demanded and expected of you and meaning comes from work. So I wanted to write that.
And then I wrote a book called Dead Europe which took me seven years, and it was about the failure of Communism, and it was about the death of a notion, a romantic notion of Europe, I had. And that's probably the most political novel I've ever done, and I was very conscious that I was writing a political novel. And I came away from that exhausted.
I'm really proud of the book, but I came away exhausted, and I thought, I'm going to write... I'm just going to go somewhere really simple with The Slap, which is a novel about what it was like to live in Howard's Australia. That's what I wanted to write. And to write about a middle class Australian world that was not longer white and Anglo or, necessarily, white and Anglo, that actually looked like me. And so that's politics.
But I'm now at an age... And then Barracuda was about class. I knew that. But I also knew that Barracuda was about shame, and I knew that Barracuda was about failure, those things as well. And now, with a new novel, I think I'm realising that there are themes that are... that they keep recurring in my work and in my imagination and in my politics, and I think it's a... So I'm writing a novel about Saint Paul, so I think the recurrence is the question of faith. Whether the faith is a religious faith, or a political faith, or even just a... let's call it an existential human faith. What does it mean to be a good person in this world? That's the theme I'm most interested in now.
Nic: You say you're exhausted writing Dead Europe. I was exhausted after reading it!
Just to go back very quickly to something you said before, when you finished Loaded, did you... because it was your first novel, was there a moment where you thought, ‘That's it. I've got everything out’?
Christos: Man that exhilaration of when... I mean, of course, I mean you redraft, but that moment when I finished the last line of that book was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life: that I've got a novel. And really what I had discovered in the process of committing to writing that book was that I wanted to be a writer. That's what I meant when I said that there's a selfishness about my political activism, is that I realised I wanted to be a writer, I didn't want to be a politician or an activist. I wanted to be... I knew that that was what I... that that was my source of happiness.
I have to... part of being political is to acknowledge how it's not some kind of individual... I mean, yes, there is talent and there is the individual work you do, but there is also... Fortunately, I was really fortunate, I had parents who gave me a safety to explore, to be. They never stopped loving me, regardless of the challenges of the way I wanted to live my life. I was incredibly fortunate with my partner, Wayne, who… he's here tonight, who, in our mid 20s, said to me, ‘Of course you can go part-time. Of course you don't have to work full-time. We don't have to have the big house. We don't have to... we can make decisions that fit around work’.
I was really fortunate with Loaded, that I published it... I wrote that book in the mid 1990s when the publishing industry was changing because these formidable women were becoming publishers at places like Random House and Allen and Unwin. People like Jane Palfreyman and people like Sophie Cunningham who were not scared of queer writing, who weren't scared of different kinds of writing, they were wanting to publish those kind of books. If I... five years earlier Loaded might never have been published. Five years later it might have come out in a very different kind of culture and not have the effect it did.
But, yes, I just knew after writing that book, that I was going to write another one. The hard thing, where I had to lick my wounds was after The Jesus Man, which is a novel which I probably should have spent more time with, but I was learning how to write with that book and I am also proud of a lot of it. And it was wasn't a success. It failed. And I think that was the... you know that's... I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but there was the sense of ‘Maybe I'm just not good enough really’. I can't explain it better. ‘Maybe I'm just not good enough’. What it taught me was you have to have... Is it ego? It must be an element of ego, that trust in yourself, to believe that you can continue, even after that kind of... what felt quite lacerating, because I was quite young, the reception of that novel. But, again, if it wasn't that I was in a world of people who were looking after me, I don't know, I may have really lost myself after that.
Nic: I wouldn't have thought as a Communist, owning the house was actually a problem? In you 20s, I wouldn't have thought that was much of an issue?
Christos: No. There wasn't. It was about where you rented really.
Nic: Sticking to the theme of politics, I wonder, in your view, what is the current political environment for writers, and does it facilitate free speech?
Christos: So I'll answer that in 140 characters or less! No. Is the short answer to it.
Nic: So it's no to the second part, does it facilitate free speech?
Christos: Yeah. Look, I think there are two ideas that come from politics and from philosophy, in trying to kind of understand my way in the world, and one of them is the notion of justice and social justice. And that's where... and that is central to how I want to be, and live, and think in the world.
And the other one of the notion of freedom and liberation. And I think that the cultural moment, for me, seems to be that people are actually scared of... And because I'm not on social media, guys, it's a very strange relationship I have to all this. I don't go on social media. I've got a LinkedIn account with very little information, only so that a friend from high school can find me, but I don't…
Nic: Why not? Why don't you go on social media?
Christos: I went, on the really early days of Facebook, and I think I lasted two week before I realised I was wasting my time. Like, I understand completely... I was talking with my brother about this yesterday. He was getting all these messages from cousins in Greece. So I understand that that is something that is phenomenal, really, even 15 years ago, that kind of ability to have that contact with people across the globe was not possible. But, as a writer, I felt like it was wasting my energy, it was actually making me work less, and it was corrupting the kind of arguments I wanted to have. And I mean arguments in the positive, not the negative, and that's where I think that free... where my concern lies.
I have been really struck, over the last two, three years, that writers I really respect have said to me, ‘I'm really scared to publish this’, or, ‘I'm really scared to write this’ because I'm worried that I will be attacked on social media. And I think that's a ferociously damaging thing for us. My observation, and again I will – and please trust me, I don't think I'm coming from this old, fuddy-duddy, Luddite position, I'm talking to you as a writer, and wanting to think in the world – that it is impossible... Let's take one of the big... let's look at something like immigration and the status of the refugees, which is probably one of the... for me, it is the question of our age.
There is no bloody way you can address that in 140 characters, and you can't address that in conversations that… ignoring nuance and that not about developing... I really believe in the notion that comes from the political philosopher Hannah Arendt that we do need a public square. We need a space where we can all... like, this group of us, can have a conversation. And, in my experience, it's much easier to have it in when we are in that physical square.
I think there's a potential with social media and the Digital Age to create those squares, but I don't see it happening at the moment. What I see is people shutting each other down.
So what does it mean for me? I think the question of how I remain committed to a notion of justice, and how I equally remain committed to a notion of liberty, is the political question that I... not as Christos Tsiolkas, that is most important to me now.
I'll use this example, because I think example is a way of trying to make clear what I mean. So the one... I always talk about the Charlie Hebdo massacres that happened in France. Now I have been... I try – and I think I am – committed to an anti-racism agenda: all politics, I would say, all my life. I would say from when I was in primary school. And I actually have a deep respect for... I have a deep respect for religious search, and that includes the history of Islam, and the histories within Islam, and the commitments of Islam. But I was outraged by what had happened to these people being shot and massacred for publishing a cartoon.
And I remember writing to two editors of newspapers, here, in Australia, saying that I would like to write a piece condemning that violence. And why I wanted to write it was that I think we needed voices, not just mine, we just needed to voices to say, ‘You can be committed against racism and xenophobia and the atrocities of what we've been doing to people on Manus Island and Nauru and, at the same time, defend a notion of free speech’. I think those things are not incompatible. They need a dialogue, we need to know how to argue that, but I think those things are possible. And both editors said to me, ‘We're not going to publish it, because we're concerned about your safety’. Which is not an unfair concern to have, but I'm saying that I want those kind of conversations to not be impossible to have. I think we need to be able to do that.
And, you know, that's where I have come in conflict with a lot of my friends who are activists, in that I think that there is a notion I have about censorship that comes from being a writer, and being a writer who as a reader was from early on hungry for work that was challenging, hungry for work that was sexually controversial, hungry for work that slaps you around the head because it was so confronting. And my politics have gone in very many different directions, but what anchors them is that concern about justice and liberty, and one of the things that hasn't changed is my deep suspicion of censorship, in any of its forms. That doesn't mean I don't want to have an argument about it.
Nic: It's your show Christos! Take a sip, a long sip, because I'm going to ask you now to read a little bit from Damascus.
Christos: There was always a nervousness about reading from a work that's still in progress, because what I'm reading to you now could completely change, it may not be there. But it's the fourth draft, I've got one more draft that I really want to work... because I don't think the last section is working. So I want to do that.
But it is about Saint Paul, you know, the Christian apostle. As I said, I think faith is a really... I've been battling and wondering what faith means, both in my life, since I I lost my faith in God when I was in my mid teens, and then I attached my faith to this notion called Communism, and that got shattered in the late 1980s, early 1990s, with... And one of the reasons I'm reading someone like Kolakowski, now, is it still reverberates for me, kind of, the having to take stock of what happened under those regimes and what was done in the name of Communism.
And, I guess, maybe a way of trying to make sense of why someone like myself, writing a book about Saint Paul. And it's... I'm no longer a Christian, and I'm no longer a Marxist, but I am deeply influenced by a series of ethics that have come from both of those traditions. So I am, still, and probably will until the end of my life, I will be wrestling with those traditions and what they mean. And I can see... I could not be on stage tonight talking about justice, if it wasn't for those two traditions. But, clearly, what was done in the name of those traditions is also a violence that I'm trying to comprehend.
Anyway, so, I will read you from Damascus. It's really short. It's the beginning. There is some swearing, even thought it's set 2,000 years ago, believe it or not. And what I'm going to read is the opening.
The girl, white cloth over life body, is shivering. Her fear has a stink. The harshness of sodden goat pelt. Her mouth twitches. Her hands tremble at her side. Her rushed prayers are inaudible. Then a flicker, a rolling of her eyes, and it is as if some demon has alightened. Her quaking ceases. Her eyes shut and immediately open wide and clear. Her gaze makes the traverse of the sun. Her eyes on every man that ring the half circle around her. And she speaks.
‘If you are without sin, then caste your stone’. Saul, standing apart, flinches. He recognised the words of the false prophet.
One of the men steps forward. He stands determined and his glare stern and contemptuous. ‘Shut your filthy whore mouth’.
There's the faintest whistling of wind as his rock takes flight, and then the brutal crack, as it finds its target. Stone slams into flesh and bone. The gash on her forehead, the shocking ejaculation of blood. The girl is fitting and jerking on the ground, a cloud of dust and dirt. Emulating the first, the others fling the judgement stones. They smash against breast and thigh, cut through loin and back, and there is the breaking of ribs and then of spine, a callous and ugly sound that terrifies the ravens. They take flight, scatter from the laurels and thistles, their madden screech burns across the morning sky.
A foot twitches, a gurgle from her throat. No more than that. She has not cried out. She has not had time to scream, and the body is limp and broken on the ground. The white prison garb is seeped in blood, the salt smell of it, and the coarse and bitter stink of her piss. The foul wretched odours released from her bowels. The girl is dead and justice is done.
The men bow and listen to the reading of the priest. He is hurrying, as if conscious of the pulsating heat of the rising sun, and wishing to escape the black swarm of flies and wasps that are already descending on the accursed body. He intones the last word, and the men quickly sweep their hands along the ground, rub the grit across knuckles, fingers, palm and wrist, begin the purification.
The priest turns towards the south gate of the city, and the men follow him. Not one of them looks towards Saul. He maintains the solemnity of the bow, as if still in prayer. His eyes fixed on dirt and ground. But he knows, he knows that not one of them dared to look his way. He looks up only when he can no longer hear the stead of their feet, the clapping of their sandals.
The old death worker had stepped out from behind the laurels. He drags his cart next to the corpse, impatiently calls for his apprentice to come and assist him. The boy jumps to attention, peels off his tunic and skirt, then binds the cloths around his mouth and nostrils. Naked, he rolls the girl over. A thin shaft of shattered jaw bone has pierced her chin, and the split gash is the pink of meat laid on a butcher's trestle. The boy turns to him once more, and as he does, the body squelches. The sound of a foot stamping on oozing mud.
The vileness reached Saul's throat. He leans forward and wretches. The old man looks towards him, then shrugging, he too rips off the cloths that wrap around his torso. Every bone is visible through the scorched membrane of his aged skin. Years of poverty have sculpted him in the very form of hunger. He too bends over the body.
Saul wipes the bile from his lips and chin. ‘Don't bother searching her’, he calls out. ‘She has nothing’.
The old man pokes at the body. It is not his want to believe anyone. Then with a shrug, he notes to the boy. The boy shoots upright with an elegant grace. He turns to Saul. ‘Uncle, what was her crime?’ He is Syrian. And in his tongue, and the shock of the long skin of flesh that collects and covers the head of his sex. ‘She denied the Lord God’, he answers, in Syrian, ‘The Lord God of her people. She had to be punished for the inequity of apostacy and the wretched sin of blasphemy’.
At this the old man snorts, ‘She was just a chick of a girl. What does she know of blasphemy?’ He wipes his nose, collects the snot, and rubs it across his straggle of chest hairs.
His next words are a sneer, ‘Did you hunt her? Was she one of yours?’ As if Saul were a filthy mercenary. As if he were a slave trader. A collector of tax for the dirty Romans.
A thousand curses are on his lips. ‘Shut your foul mouth, you piece of shit. Child of a whore, bastard, whore-mongerer’. But no sound comes forth. His head heavy, the light is banished, and the world is blackness and the curses are snatched from his lips. The din is a madness in his head.
He has to cover his mouth with his hand not to let the words be heard. ‘If you are without sin then cast your stone’. Brazen words, unholy words, the Devil's words.
‘Are you real, uncle?’ The naked boy is before him, his hand raised, almost as if about to perform the iniquity of touching him.
He jerks away from the boy. ‘Do your foul work’, he spits at him. ‘You've been paid’.
Saul turns from them and ascends the hill. Thistles brush and scratch across his calves. He can hear the vile old stranger laughing. He hears the thud and, again, the squelching, as the girl's body is thrown on the planks of the cart.
They call after him. The torrent of violence in his head is such, he can't discern if it is the apprentice or the old man. ‘Do we bury the cunt or do we burn her?’
Nic: Just ask one very quick question and then we'll have questions from the audience.
I'm just wondering what it was like going from writing to think now, one, at least two contemporary novels in a row, and then an historical one? How did you find it different going from contemporary to...?
Christos: Look, actually, Nic, I think one of the great experiences of my life really. I didn't say this when I was introducing it, I mean why Paul? All the reasons I gave before, but I've always loved the letters in the New Testament. So, you know, I've always been... Not always, but I have... I don't know, the idea... Oh God, again, I'm being long-winded, but I promise I will get to the question.
I had been reading a lot about religion and I came across an image, I was in Denmark with my partner, and went to the State gallery, and there was an image of a 19th century painting of a girl cowering in a corner, and I was really taken by the image and I thought ‘What is it?’ And I realised it was a slave girl about to be thrown to the arena, into the Roman arena. And I think that's... we were talking about justice, and what I think in a secular age, you forget, is that that notion of justice comes from Paul. So I fell in love with his letters and I fell in love with that notion of justice.
But, also, in the letters, the words that have condemned my sexuality for millennium in the Christian tradition. So, I was trying to understand both those things. And so knowing that I've never written an historical novel, that there was elements of it in Dead Europe, I thought "I'm going to take a year where I'm just going to read, and I'm going to study, because if I'm going to write this novel I really have to understand this world. I have to understand this tradition. So I read the Bible, and for the first time in my life, I read the whole Bible. I made a decision that I was not going to read... I was only going to read history and theology and philosophy about Christianity and the Roman world, and the Greek world, and the Jewish world, of the first century A.D.
And I made the decision that I was not going to read anything that wasn't... so I'd read history that was contemporary writers writing on that period, but I was for a year, I was not going to read anything that wasn't written after the first century A.D. and that was written before the fourth century B.C.
And, my God, it was the best thing I've ever done, in the sense that, I mean I went to university but I was not a very good student, it was the extra-curricula activities that were my education. And I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was a student. I was understanding, or trying to come to an understanding of, this rich terrain of philosophy, and theology, and of history.
So whatever happens with this novel – and you always will go up and down, with ‘Is it working? Is is not working?’ – I think what I have learned from the last few... it's four years now, working on Damascus has been incredibly profound for myself. For the first time in my life I feel like I've been a good student.
Nic: Okay. Let's go to the audience for questions.
Audience: Quick question. What's the hardest thing you've ever written, and what's the easiest? If you have time.
Christos: I mean I want to say Dead Europe because it was such a long process, and there were two periods in the writing of it, where I thought I was just going to give up, because it was taking me into really savagely dark spaces that novel. It was really... But, so that, you know, as a human, as a person writing, Dead Europe is probably the hardest thing.
But as writer, there was an essay I did for The Monthly on asylum seekers and refugees, about four years ago now. I'm an Ambassador for the Asylum Seeker's Resource Centre and I wanted, in that essay, to write a way of having the kind... like, how did we get... be on this wicked impasse, in our nation, around these questions? And there's something about writing non-fiction, so I went through these real difficulties with Dead Europe, or I've gone through difficulties with fiction, but there's also an exhilaration with fiction when you're flying – when you've got the story and you've got the voice. But with non-fiction, which is important to me, but I am very careful when I do it, you have a fidelity to truth that feels really different to fiction, where you have a fidelity to emotion, which is another kind of truth.
Whereas with... especially because I was writing on refugees, I just wanted to make sure that I was being as rigorous in what I was doing as I could be. And so, in terms of your question of hardness, that's the hardest thing I ever had to write.
Nic: And the easiest?
Christos: Well, The Slap. The Slap was the easiest because it came straight after Dead Europe. And, in a way, I had been so lost in trying to write a novel that was... oh God, I sound like a wanker, but this was how I meant it, I wanted to write a novel that was as much philosophy as it was story, so it was a really hard book. And then, with The Slap, I was just, like, I'm going just going to write fiction. I'm just going to write a story about my world and just create characters, and see where that story takes me. I still had the politics, as I said, I wanted to write about how did we become such a bloated, greedy nation? But that was the easiest one I had.
Audience: Christos. You mightn't want to answer this, because it's about a work-in-progress, but Damascus is in the news nearly every day, and I'm wondering if there are any analogies?
Christos: Certainly. I mean... certainly, not being... I mean I'm not going to assume that people know the Christian history, so the reason the novel is Damascus is because in the New Testament stories, Paul, who was Saul, the character I read, had a conversion on the road to Damascus, that's where the notion of the Damascene moment comes, when we have a life-changing event. So, of course, it's called Damascus because of that relationship. But in doing that study and research and reading, I became very aware of the deep agony of the destruction of Jerusalem in the seventh decade of the first century AD… you know, of the common era.
And because I was... you know, how can you not be moved and disturbed and heartbroken by what is happening to the Syrian people? My background is Greek, so I have been going back-and-forth from Greece for a long time now, and the misery of the refugee situation in places like Greece and Italy is just beyond – I mean we've got our own misery in terms of the things happening on Manus and Nauru – but the misery of refugee life on the streets of Athens, which is a country that has been broken economically, so you are the lowest rung. It couldn't help but resonate as I'm writing this, and I was thinking of, what it would have meant... that the Jewish people became a refugee nation with the destruction of the temple, so that does become a theme in the novel. And part of what I'm trying to rewrite with that last section is that I don't belabour that, that I don't make it consciously political in that way. That I give you, as a reader, a sense of what that would mean, that a whole nation, and city, and people, became exiled, which is what is happening to the Syrian people.
Audience: You talk about your parents with such love, and you mentioned – and I've got friends who are second generation and their parents still don't speak very good English – I'm not sure how much English your parents speak and read now, but how do they go with your work? How do they understand your work? Who reads it, how do they get hold of your work, I guess? Are they... you know?
Christos: Maybe it was a certain freedom I had. My parents were... they never learned how to read in English. Dad had two years of primary school education in the village before he went to work, and then there was World War II, there was the Civil War. Mum did finish primary school in the village, but she was... I mean, as a girl it was... I mean, really, it was inconceivable that she would have any further education. So they read Greek. My father passed away about five years ago now. And I think maybe I had a certain freedom to write how I did, knowing that they could never read it!
Nic: The truth is he's never told them he's a writer. They think he still works part-time at the vet!
Christos: Yeah. Yeah. They were so happy when I got that job!
But, Loaded, the first book, got published in Greek. And all the novels have been published in Greek. And they have been incredibly understanding of... like Mum read Loaded which is... it's not an easy novel for my ... for any ... it's not an easy novel, really. And her favourite ... given that, her favourite novel is A Picture of Dorian Grey, alright, so I think there's maybe some connection! And Dad's favourite novel was The Grapes of Wrath.
One of the great things about... I really enjoyed about going back to Greece, was actually finding these books I loved in Greek. It's one of the stupidest things about... that we have such a strong, migrant multi-cultural world, and it's so difficult to find books in other languages in this country. It's ridiculous. And thank God for Northcote library that has a really good Greek section that I use for Mum.
But Dad started two pages of Loaded. He said, ‘I can't read this!’ Which is fair enough. I am really grateful that he lived, both to see the success of The Slap, because as a man who loves his child, he was always worried about I was going to make my way in the world, and so I think he was really thrilled with that success. And he did say to me that he read the whole of The Slap, and he loved the Manolis chapter, which is about the old man. And that's the greatest critical gift I've ever been given, is when he said that.
And, yeah, and I think, yeah so they've been amazing really. One of the parts of learning that I've done is, and you don't know this... oh, I did know this, I should speak about myself, when I was really young, is I just assumed that your parents never change, or that you know more than they do. And it's one of those humbling realisations when you go, ‘Of course they know about these things. They've lived them and experienced them in ways that I cannot even imagine really’.
Audience: Hi Christos. I find that, reading your books, I kind of get the idea of what the Greek culture is a little about. I've read quite a few of them. Do you read any books from different authors, from different countries, that you get the sense of their culture a little bit, and if so, who are they?
Christos: I'm just going to... just say, her, because I've just been reading a collection of short stories, she's a friend, a Filipino writer, Daryll Delgado, and I love reading those stories, because it gives me a sense of a Filipino world that I... you know, I've been to the Philippines, it was very... but it was very, very small… it was a really important, wonderful trip, with fellow writers too, who are here tonight. It's just been phenomenally lovely to be in her voice and in her world.
God it's... who are the other writers? I do... I mean, do you mean contemporary, or can I go back? I think, for me, the Russians have been a constant source of – and maybe there's a similarity because there's that Eastern Orthodoxy that maybe makes my understanding – I've never been to Russia, through their literature I want to go, I so desperately want to go to that country. And I will keep the politics aside, it's actually the literature that is there, first, for me, about why I want to visit Russia. I want to be in Russia. I've just been re-reading Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope, which is one of the great novels about the... accounts of what it was like to live under the Terror. I think I will always continue to read the Russians.
Just because I think it might not get the audience it deserves, one of the greatest films I've seen, over the last decade, is called Loveless, and it's a Russian film that is starting its season this next week. And I think it's one of the most lacerating film experiences that I've ever had. I just finished writing a review about it, and I think it shows us a mirror about how bereft our world is. Can I just recommend it to all of you, if you get a chance, over the next few weeks, and want to see a film that I think is really important: do see Loveless.
I feel absolutely like... I mean, because I know there's hundreds and I'm not... I'm just forgetting them, but I would have to say, Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer, kind of, reading his work makes me feel like I understand a world that is not mine at all, that experience that you were talking about.
Nic: At this stage, I'd like to sort of say, Christos, that we could keep going. I'm sure that everyone here would love to keep going. It's always a pleasure.
Christos: And Nic, thanks for being really patient my friend!
Nic: Please thank Christos for the time.
Christos: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.