Christos Tsiolkas is one of Australia's most courageous writers. He has published six novels, several of which have been adapted for the screen. Damascus (2019) is his latest work.
Christos is best known for Loaded (1995), which became the movie Head On, and The Slap (2008) was turned into an Australian and U.S. television miniseries after it won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, was shortlisted for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award and was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
Christos is also a playwright, essayist, screen writer and film critic. His other works include Dead Europe (2005), which won the Age Fiction Prize and the Melbourne Best Writing Award, and The Jesus Man (1999). His critical literary study On Patrick White came out in 2018.
ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Christos.
CHRISTOS: I'm very excited to be back. You're very kind to, this is my third appearance.
ASTRID: You were the first author to appear on The Garret three times, so congratulations Christos.
CHRISTOS: It is an honour.
ASTRID: But more importantly, congratulations on your latest work, Damascus. It is, I think it is truly one of a kind in terms of Australian literature.
CHRISTOS: Ah thank you for that it’s… I mean I really haven't thought of that. Just you saying that, is it strange that it comes from this place. It doesn't – it doesn't feel strange to me, it feels like so much of the book I wanted to write and that question ‘but is it an Australian text’ is an interesting one, you know.
ASTRID: Well I don't think it matters but it is an interesting one because so often when we talk about contemporary Australian literature we're talking about what preoccupies Australia today or place, and Damascus does neither but Damascus I feel goes into a lot of the tensions and questions that you have been exploring throughout your work. So, maybe let's just go back a little bit. I feel like we've jumped straight into the media stuff. Can you give us, you know, the 60 second introduction to Damascus given that it's just come out into the world and then we'll play a little part.
CHRISTOS: Look what I would say about the book is, it is a story about St. Paul the Christian apostle but it's not about the saint, it is about the man Paul. And it is about what was it in the teachings of Middle Eastern prophet in 2000 years ago that would make someone change their life, reject their family, reject their background to follow his words. And so the book is the story of Paul at four points in his life but it's also the story of three people who have been influenced by Paul and by the words of the prophet Jesus and they are Lydia, who is a Greek woman who Paul is working in at her home. There’s the story of Vrasas, who is a Roman ex-soldier, a pagan, who is Paul's jailer when he's in under house arrest in Rome. And it's the story of Timothy, who was Paul's friend and scribe and whose voice we hear after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, after the death of Paul when Christianity is going into its third generation. That's the short 60 second process but it's also, so it is a historical novel but for me it's also a way of addressing questions of ethics and morality that have been with me for a very, very long time. And I think are still relevant to the world we live in.
ASTRID: Most completely. You do include quite a long author's note at the end of the work not just thanking people but explaining some of your thought process behind what compelled you to write Damascus. How long did it take to write?
CHRISTOS: It was five years at the… I mean you know Astrid; you know this yourself that there are stories, ideas they emerge and they're like little streams like that that go into a bigger river that becomes the book. So, the technical answer to the question is five years and I made a decision which I think was a really good decision that the first year I was just going to do research because it is a historical novel because it's dealing with quite big themes, I just wanted to feel confident about the material so I made a vow and it was one of the best things I've ever done which was for that year I was only going to read texts that had been written between the, let's say 4th century before the Common Era and the third century of the Common Era or books of theology, history or philosophy that dealt with that period. And of course, reading the Bible, the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible and I was a student for the first time in my life, I really liked it. I really. So, there's an obsessional nature to this book and then from there I picked up the pen, I guess, 14 months into that process really and started writing. First draft was terrible because it was basically me trying to prove that I knew my history and I knew my theology and it wasn't really until the third draft that I realized that I did have a book – that I could write this book. The author's note is a way of, I think that I really believe that understanding the traditions that we all come from and it doesn't really matter what you where you emerge from in this country, whether you are First Nations or whether you are one of the long line of settler and immigrant and refugee cultures that has come into Australia, we, the truth of the colonial experience is that we are all in the shadows of something called Judaism, something called Christianity. And also, I think something called Greek and Roman culture and I wanted to be clear in the author's note about why I'd chosen to write this book. There'd been a long discussion about whether to put it in the front or the back and you know there are different choices. Why that's an interesting choice is in the final moments of kind of getting it ready for publication. You know, alongside Jane Palfreyman who has been astounding, who's my publisher and editor, it was a way of saying read the book first and then, you know, because I want the reader to have their response to the material as well. That doesn't mean if you want to jump straight into the author's note – go for it. But it was a way of saying look, let me see if I can move you by the story first.
ASTRID: You chose to tell the story through the eyes of Paul. Why?
CHRISTOS: Because he's the figure that I have been battling with for a really long time in my life. This battle is really about listening for me Astrid, to who this man is. And you know, so much of when I was talking about the struggle of getting this you know, of drafts. I think the first two drafts I was still hadn't made the right decision about how I was going to deal with a myth/ mythological superstructure of faith you know. So, was I going to have the resurrected Jesus appearing to Paul et cetera you know which I tried in the first draft and then I realised that’s not what has led me to Paul right? It's not what I take from Christian ethics, it's not the supernatural if you like and that's why I can't call myself a Christian. I don't believe in the resurrection. I don't. I don't believe in the virgin birth. I don't. There's all these things that that to me they're fathomable but they're not. I just can't do have an allegiance to them anymore.
But the Christian ethics are what are fundamental and in the early church, in the early history of Christianity the Christian ethics are the words written down that were spoken by Jesus and the interpretation by Paul. And those ethics are still fundamental to me. And I think to many of us even if we're not even consciously aware of it. When I first encountered Paul was in my early adolescence. I'd grown up in the eastern faith tradition of Christianity orthodoxy which I'm really glad I did because I think it gives our perspective on the Christian story that's different to the Protestant and to the Catholic which tends to dominate the English language world. I think I get ritual coming from that tradition. And I also think I don't have fear of Eastern forms of faith. And then in my adolescence I was struggling with my sexuality. I knew that I was not straight. I don't know what to call myself at that point and for a period I'd moved to high school from the inner city to the outer suburbs of Melbourne. And in that quite difficult stage of shame and confusion I fell in with what were some lovely people of an evangelical church. And that's when I first read Paul's letters and I couldn't read past the prohibition on homosexuality that it forms, that's in First Corinthians. I just couldn't read Paul. It was like I was being told that I had no right to God's love and to God's Kingdom. I struggled and that struggle is still ongoing. You know I think shame is one of the things that connects this novel to other novels. But I made a decision a year and a half after that that I couldn't believe in this God I couldn't believe in God and I left. I left that group and I actually left Christianity and I left religion. I think what I did was put my faith in another system of belief that was communism or socialism. And then in my late 20s in a moment of another form of confusion, not about sexuality but about let's call it about direction about what choices and commitments and knowing that I had to make certain decisions and that that was quite frightening. I found myself going into a church near where I was working, a Protestant church, and fell to prayer and prayed to a God that I didn't believe in. And in that church was a copy of the New Testament and I opened it up and opened it straight to Paul's letters to you know to Romans it was. And I started reading and if I heard Paul's voice and I didn't hear this injunction against who I am, I actually heard these letters that were about how you could find solace in a really savage world, how you could find strength through community and faith. It didn't mean I became a Christian, far from it, it didn't mean that it was like a road to Damascus moment of overnight changing. But it made me realize that I didn't have to be scared of faith anymore and that actually trying to understand faith was really important for me as this individual Christos Tsiolkas but also to understand the promise of faith. And also, to understand the danger of faith. And I think Damascus as a book is about both those things or I hope it's about both those things.
ASTRID: Can you explain what you mean by the danger of faith?
CHRISTOS: So, sometimes you know you do go, okay the author is dead it doesn't matter Christos Tsiolkas thinks. This is what, you know, and other people will have their own interpretations. Damascus of all my novels feels closest to Dead Europe which was my third novel, which is also I think about faith but not about spiritual faith but faith in ideology. And Dead Europe came out of having to make a reckoning with a systems of belief that promised so much, that people committed their lives to, for the most valiant and righteous or you know of reasons which also caused some of the worst suffering of the 20th century. So, I think the danger of faith and we all know this, is when faith becomes fundamentalism. When faith becomes that the idea that – whether the idea is a moral idea or whether the idea is a political ideological idea – is more important than the individual life. And that's the danger of any kind of faith. That doesn't mean that faith is unimportant, or I think it's necessary really to just existentially to go on in the world. But I just think it's impossible not ask those questions of faith and belief. And you know, it was wonderful Astrid to disappear. I think this contemporary moment is a really difficult moment for all of us. You know, as writers but just as people in the world. You know, there's the ferocious partisanship and anger and rage that seems to be destroying a long consensus of democracy. There is the real threat of changing climate and how we deal with that paramount question. And also, for me – and again this goes right back to Dead Europe, the question of the stranger and the refugee. I use the word stranger in Damascus. But what is the – what is it that we owe the stranger the refugee the person who is made homeless by the contemporary world? Those questions are so important. But I didn't – why I think that is because the culture at the moment is so spiteful – if I can use that word – and if so, it seems to me not prepared to do the work of patience, in terms of listening to each other. I think escaping into a world 2000 years ago, maybe it was an insidious instinctive thing I found as a writer to go what if I. The ethical questions that are so important to me, as a contemporary person in the world, they were there 2000 years ago. And it was a way of. So yes, it's a historical novel but I hope it kind of speaks to us as well.
ASTRID: It's a historical novel but I mean you've mentioned ethics and the early Christian church. Although of course in the first century A.D it was not called the early Christian church.
CHRISTOS: It was a Jewish religion.
ASTRID: In a world that was bloody, violent and in flux with competing power plays, politics, racism, class, all of it. As a reader I find it fascinating to actually sit back and think of you, Christos, trying to put all of these things on the page at once because of course the day to day morality of the ancient world is not the day to day morality of our world. The two most striking examples I think that came through for me in the work was the common practice of infanticide and exposing infants, particularly girls but not only girls, you know to the gods as a punishment as a rectification of…
CHRISTOS: As a play as well because these people
ASTRID: As an offering as well
CHRISTOS: Yeah because you know, it was there was seen. You know, you go to the ancient sources and it was a punishment that you had a child that was born with a disability, it was a punishment if you were really, really savagely poor and you gave birth to a daughter who was not going to be able to sustain the household. And so, you would go to the mountain and abandon the child as an offering to the gods.
ASTRID: The bloody and violent pagan gods were not the God of Judaism or later Christianity and the other difference is the approach. The contemporary approach to sex and child prostitution and all of that which is explored in the novel in a different way. And like the world was bloody and difficult and poor. And the fellowship trying to figure out how to follow the prophet Jesus, but they also disagree…
ASTRID: With what they think Jesus said or represented or wanted them to do. And so, it's history but it's history overlaid with the beginnings of religion that's not a religion yet. You must have made, I mean there are personal choices that you've made in here based on all of the research that you did. What were the conundrums that you faced in trying to bring this together?
CHRISTOS: I think the… On the most immediate and simple level, is the craft question of how do I bring a contemporary reader in 2019 into a world of two millennia past? Where yes it was…You know we would not know each other.
CHRISTOS: We would not be able to have the language to communicate. It would be a derangement. Right? So, but that's the work. The work was trying to find a language that could be both contemporary but also be truthful to that would place you as you were writing it and say yes, I mean I mean in ancient Rome or ancient Greece or ancient Anatolia. Yeah, in the first century of the common era. So that was that was incredibly important. That's where the research was fundamental. I'm also… owe I think a huge debt to the editors and the people who I trust to read various drafts.
ASTRID: Including Angela Savage who’s appeared on The Garret before?
CHRISTOS: She is so wonderful, and she read you know, she read an early draft and just it was inspiring. Malcolm Knox – the novel’s dedicated to him because after the second draft, I didn't know whether I could still go or whether it was going to work and he gave me the most lovely encouragement because I think he thought you know, you've basically to say: you have to finish it Christos because it will never go away, this novel. And the others, there are two, there are actually two works that have been really influential in my life and one is Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and the other one is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, which I think are both novels of astonishing ethical clarity and astonishing writing about saying we're going to try and make you place you in the ancient world. And so, on one level that was to your question that was actually as a writer, that was the very most difficult and the most exciting part of writing Damascus.
In terms of kind of dealing with the savagery of the world that was there, I made the choice to – I mean Paul's story’s the spine, and I've written, and I call his story Saul’s story which is his Jewish name. Paul is the Greek name he was given. And I write it in the third person because part of what this book was or is, is my attempt to understand this man. Whereas everyone else, all the other three characters Lydia, Vrasas and Timothy, are in the first person and they do, because they're doing what I'm trying to do, I think, that I'm not trying to make sense of what this man's mission, words were.
One of the things to do with the violence of that world was understanding in the reading that most of the people were: if they weren't slaves they were living in the most abject of poverty. And that's what you don't get from reading the ancient texts actually. You don't get it because the voices of the slave have been, they haven't been written and in fact what is I think truly still radical and revolutionary about the words of Jesus are that they could speak to the slave. I mean that's you know, you read ancient work and you do not hear the slave or if you hear the slave it's as chattel. It's phenomenal and frightening and that's what I wanted to do. But even in doing that, Lydia came quite late. I'd always – she's referred to in the in the Book of Acts and the canonical Bible as the first non-Jewish follower of Paul. There's two lines in the Book of Acts and she's named. And I knew something about the fact that this woman was named and also in the research you know, discovering that so much of the established church, once it became the official religion of the Roman Empire was about the facing of women in the early movement. I knew I wanted the woman's voice but initially I was writing in the voice of Lydia’s slave, Goodness. And I tried, Astrid, to really make it work but the reality of this savage world was that if I had the slave speaking, the stories there would be places she could not go. That was how hierarchical the world is. The slave voices are in the book. But I couldn't make it a main character. And that was humbling to just think, God this is how vile this world was. But the other thing to you, I hope it answers partly answers the question you're asking, to love the stranger as yourself. To not throw the first stone. To actually think about the moral weight of that lesson. The first shall be last and the last should be first. Which is a I think one of the refrains in the book. Those aspects of Christian ethics and they come from the formation of long years of Judaism. They are so central still to the way I think about the world and I am in the world. But the division of our humanity into the good soul and the corrupt flesh is something that I cannot come to. I said before I can't call myself Christian and that's one of the reasons I can't call myself Christian because I think that creates and has created so much suffering.
And so, Vrasas, who is, he is impossible in a way, to understand because he lives up on a code. You know, a pagan code that is so impossible and ugly to us now. But I also, there are aspects of that honour code that I think are important or worth thinking about and I hope people will take that in the character, that they won't dismiss him completely.
And the other person who becomes really important is Timothy because he was born to a pagan Greek father and a Jewish Greek mother. And it's Timothy’s probably the character that's closest to me. It's attempting to do that reconciliation and to say is there a way forward that isn't about splitting us into body and soul, where one is condemned as corrupt and one is pure. I mean, I cannot live in that dichotomy.
And the other figure that is really central to the novel and became more and more central with each draft is the figure of Thomas, who we know from the canonical Bible as the doubting Thomas. But in the research one of the most – and I write about in the author's note – one of the most enlightening moments was coming across the apocrypha. So, these are books that, and texts that had been eliminated from two thousand years of Christianity really.
CHRISTOS: They had been censored. And we were very lucky that these documents were found in the middle of the 20th century buried under the dunes in Egypt, in an old monastery where some, conceivably some monks had stored them away, when after the Council of Nicaea these books became banned. We'd heard about and we knew that there was a Gospel of Thomas and they’re referred to by some of the early church patriarchs but always as a radical, always as dangerous. And that includes the Gospel of Thomas includes the Gospel of Mary Magdalene the Gospel of Judas. All these, all these texts that make you understand there were these different currents to Christianity, to where the church, to where this faith could have gone.
What was I think, truly astounding about the Gospel of Thomas is that there is no resurrection story. So, there is only the death of Jesus. And it's only the sayings of Jesus and I think now why we have the doubting Thomas story. And for the readers that don't know the Christian history, I'm just going to be really quick about that in the Gospel of St. John which is part of the canonical gospels, there is a moment where Jesus appears to his disciples and one of them is down is the doubting Thomas who refuses to believe he is being resurrected from the dead and he puts – you know there's the famous Caravaggio image of him putting – his finger into Jesus’ flesh. I think the reason, because these are early attempts to try and make sense of this confusion in this early faith. I think that's the reason we have the doubting Thomas figure is because there was a tradition that said: no this man, it's impossible to rise from the dead. This is not what happened. But that doesn't make this man's, this prophet's words invalid. So, Thomas became more and more a figure that I wanted to explore again to do that, that the questions of the body and the questions of the spirit and as a challenge to Paul. And that was exciting because you know, I'm not a theologian Astrid, I'm not a historian. I have through writing. I think it started it – Dead Europe. But certainly, with this book just fallen madly in love with those disciplines. But I am a fiction writer. That's what I can do. And it was actually you know, Thomas is also an apocryphal story because in Aramaic the word means twin, is Jesus’ twin. And that was you know, having that as a possibility was also exciting as a writer because you're not only talking about ideas with these people you're saying, so this was this man's twin and he had to kick you know, he saw his brother suffer what was in the Roman world, the most miserable, shameful, torture and death which was to be crucified. That was for the runaway slave, that was for the dissident, that was for the most hated of people in society. And that as again and that is what is miraculous about that you know, if you can listen to it and try and put aside the long institutional history of the church to actually listen to those words that go out to the prisoner, that go out to the slave, that go out to the persecuted, they still bring with such force and power.
ASTRID: They do. Christos, I'm going to read you two lines from page 89. This is from Lydia's section.
There'll be no master and no slave in the promised kingdom no caste. And there was a greater gift no women and no men in the coming kingdom. We would all be equal.
I read that and all of the rest of your work came crashing down because I felt it tied to what you've often talked about which is equality in class and these random divisions between us all that keep us away, as opposed to help us understand. But it's such a radical thing that you've tried to do, bring out all of the discrepancy, all of the questions, all of the fear. And I don’t mean fear in a negative way, I mean the genuine fear of: how do we keep Jesus' words alive? What do we do? What responsibility have we been given? What are we supposed to do, that was alive in the people who knew Jesus and the first and second, third generations that came after? It's a massive task.
CHRISTOS: Yes. God, maybe you need a little bit of you know – when you're in the middle of it, I think you don't think about, you don't think about it as a massive task and I don't think you can see it in that way, Astrid. Because you will stop writing. I think just doing this interview and I was thinking about referring to the Yourcenar and the Kazantzakis. I think there is something emboldening about knowing that there are works that can, that can do the interrogation of the spiritual and can be spiritual in them themselves, is heartening. You know that, so you know that I'm not I'm not equating myself with those writers because they're two to the most astonishing writers I've read. But there there's something about going, I will attempt to do this. And is there a kind of yeah, I think there was a sense of wanting to say that you know, there is so much I think is important in this early history that we don't know about. We don't like – not only that there were these different currents in the faith. We don't know about the salves because they're not in the text. We don't actually think you know, when we were young, we watched ‘Gladiator’ and you know…
ASTRID: Not the full story.
CHRISTOS: No, but that you know I really enjoy ‘Gladiator’ but that doesn't take you into the misery of what that you know, that these people who, just because they were born as slaves or were born or happened to be come in a war, could be treated any way that that you know, the noble desired. They were sex chattel, they were slaves, they were fodder for the most gross acts in the arena for people's entertainment. And to actually live with that, to actually say that, can I write this? And can I make you now kind of, extend a sympathy across two millennia to that world? That was one thing I wanted to do with this book
ASTRID: You've mentioned that. You found it difficult. And there was a point, at least one point, where you thought you wouldn't continue, or you couldn't continue. Forgive me for being blunt here Christos, but you are a really famous writer in Australia. I'm interested in kind of teasing out – did you think that you couldn't do it physically or did you think that you could do it and then no one would read it or that it wouldn't work and you wouldn't achieve your goal?
CHRISTOS: I think it's a combination of all it, I'm trying to think. So, I think there was fear from people who I really trust that it would be unpublishable.
ASTRID: You know that’s interesting, unpublishable why?
CHRISTOS: Oh, I think a combination of, because it's not working, so you're going to get you know you, it's going to fail as a novel. And also, I think it's as if, I think there’s a kind of fear that we can only now read things that are immediate to our lives, that you can't actually write that people are not interested in, you know, would just go ‘oh this is a book about early Christians. I don't care about early Christians. I'm not going to pick it up.’ And that's you know, I think that was the fear. I never, for myself to be really honest, that's a good question. So, one was a both a – and it's not like you know – I really, really increasingly want to get away from any kind of divisions of the world. So, it's not like publishers are just sharks wanting to feed off you. I have been incredibly lucky with Jane Palfreyman, who has been my publisher from the get-go, and it's given me such an astonishing space to work from and freedom and who edits my work with absolute love really. But at the same time, you know the publishers are commercial entities. So, you know those are the navigation. So, it's not that I don't take the question, the fears that come from those commercial considerations seriously, I listen to them but they're not the reason I write. So, the biggest fear was that I wasn't going to be able to write and that it was going to be a failed novel, like every novel. I mean there is that – every novel you put out in the world comes with this kind of burden of fear because every novel in that way feels like the first one because you want to write something of value.
ASTRID: Have you considered Christos, that now that you have published Damascus, you and your publisher, you might be opening the door for other writers in Australia to not have to write about the contemporary Australian experience or what we often see because that's exciting.
CHRISTOS: Yeah that is exciting. I mean, I think the, look you know, what you want to say how you want to respond to that is let us write whatever we want. You know that the freedom to do that. The question of who has the right to write which has become one of the big I guess, if you want to call it moral literary questions of the contemporary age is not an unimportant one. But yeah – there is but – I think it's incredibly important and we all as writers have to deal with it. And you know I would go back to something like the Jesus man and think you know, I would have wished though, had been more clear about writing in an Aboriginal voice because I know what I know now, you know. And for example. But I also think, and this is where the but is that you need to feel. I worry that there is fear now, that there is a censoring voice in each of us as writers and that to me is dangerous. Yes, let us think through the ethical and moral implications of what we do but we should have been doing that all the time.
And also, to be a little bit gracious with works of the past and to go, you know the man I was in 1997 is not the man I am now. You hopefully learn all the time, so you know, not to rush to be critical. And that was one of my fears for Damascus. It’s like I've been wrestling with Paul, but I've become his defender because I think he’s been, he gets charged with a range of homophobia, as a homophobic misogynist, as anti-Semitic even though he was Jewish. And it's like, do not read this human life through a 21st century lens. If you do that, then let's say burn all the books. And I have been committed in the past to ideologies that said, burn all the books, and where we got to was abject horror and terror. So, I mean I think sorry Astrid, to the question…
ASTRID: Oh Christos, don't apologise to me. I just want you to keep talking.
CHRISTOS: I think if, I think there may not be an accident. You know, we all write in history right? So, I am part of a generation of the first wave of post-war migration that came into Australia. So, there's you know, there's these three really distinct… I mean so many periods but really, three really distinct periods to Australia.
One is the long, long history of the First Nations people, you know. And we know, we know shamefully still too little about that. And then there is the crisis, that the moment of colonialism, when this became a brutal prison for the refuse of the British Isles and then that long colonial history. And then I think, it is the impact of multiculturalism – what we now call multiculturalism. And they all, then it's not like they're distinct. It's a call and response across the areas. But why, what…
For people like myself, our parents couldn't do what I'm doing. They didn't, you know, they just couldn't do it. There wasn't the space to write and reflect and to actually have the freedom to reflect because that's a privilege. But I think right back at the beginning of the interview, so talking about growing up in one of the Eastern manifestations of Christianity is that it doesn't feel… It doesn't feel strange. It doesn't feel un-Australian to want to write about – where do ethics come from? And of course you know, that's there in my own personal history. So, I I actually don't think I have that block going: can you write about this? Is this something that is un-Australian – not that any of us would use that term – but I think that's what you're suggesting, that it feels like…
ASTRID: I really apologise because I did not mean to suggest that it was un-Australian. I guess, in a clumsy way what I was trying to suggest was, it's not the normal kind of book that I find published in Australia at this moment in time, and I read a lot of Australian works published in this moment in time. So, not un-Australian but unusual for it to pass my desk at this point in time in Australia. And that fascinates me, and I think that regardless of the quality work, which is extremely high and it's a beautiful, beautiful work. I think you deserve extra kudos for reminding us all that just because we're in Australia we don't have to write about Australia.
CHRISTOS: Yes. I mean look, thank you for that. That's very, very generous. And I was being playful with it – un-Australian. I know you don't mean that but um…
Yes, I would... I would want to say however, that if this, what I would love is that a reader of this book, when they finish, whatever their response, next time they pass someone begging – whether it's on Princes Bridge in Melbourne or it's you know, Salamanca Markets in Hobart – wherever they are, that they get that, maybe there's a just a moment where the space between two thousand years ago and now collapses and going you know, again the question of what we owe the poor, abject outsider. What we owe the stranger hasn't gone away.
I mean that passage from Galatians that you know, is referred to in Lydia is… it's still us – think about it. You know, we are not man or woman. You know, we are not a Jew or non-Jew, we are not master, and we are not slave. We are one in Christ Jesus, which is you know I'm paraphrasing of that text. This was written. This was written by someone called Saul of Tarsus, known as Paul in the Western tradition. That was written 2000 years ago. That still sounds radical now. And that it was written 2000 years ago is why I want to say this writing is important because it is… it's the… it has actually been part of the struggles of the last 2000 years. It's been both an inspiration has been a challenge and sometimes it's been, unfortunately, the danger of fundamentalism working. You know, I didn't realize this, Astrid until I finished the novel but in being in this world… I realize I can't believe it's taken me so long, but I now completely understand that there is a real ethical imperative to believing that the ends don't justify the means. I think that's the struggle that's in the novel. I would, I would just say to writers listening that we need to think deeply about what we do. But let's not be scared you know, let's not be scared to take on history but also let's not be scared to take on the contemporary. I think that fear does seem to be prominent at the moment. And I look, you know me… you know there's a space but I think there's something to my mental health that's been important about not being on social media. Because the ferocity of hatred. And it really is hatred, and it’s is coming from people whose politics I love or would respect. Whether it's feminism or anti-capitalism or you know, that it's you know, queer politics. But it's just bile, in terms of reducing what we do to the most… it's bad faith. That's what I want to say. I think it's bad faith to always be emerging from a position of distrust.
ASTRID: Christos you have published many novels in Australia, collection of short stories and an essay on Patrick White that came out in 2018. In your essay on Patrick White you take a step back and you look at what he the writer meant to you and to your writing craft.
I can imagine some other writer who may or may not end up listening to this conversation with you, sitting back one day and writing about you like that. What do you hope that writer comes up with?
ASTRID: Just to put you on the spot.
CHRISTOS: I don’t... You know Astrid, I hope…I don’t want to, I actually don’t want to… I think what would be most illuminating would be for that writer whoever she is to.. to do what I did with White and respond personally. You know and kind of… it would be an honou r to have someone write about you. I wrote in the Patrick White book that I never met the man and I'm actually kind of glad I didn’t and I gave a little token to a house he was living in Sydney, I just, through the letter box, it was just a thank you. I didn't sign it or anything… because he was so important to me. I think, yeah, I would just take a step back and go, it doesn't that for that book, if that book was ever to be written, I actually don't think it's important what Christoph Tsiolkas thinks.
ASTRID: And that answer Christos, is why you're one of our most gracious and important writers. Thank you so much.
CHRISTOS: You are very kind. It's an absolute pleasure being on The Garret. Can I make it a fourth time one day, see?
ASTRID: You most definitely can, Christos. We need to talk about the most embarrassing books we did love but their politics are terrible.
CHRISTOS: Yes. Yeah, I really want one of the festivals to do this. I mean you know, one I always come up … because it's not embarrassing but it is a struggle – Astrid knows because we've talked in the past about … because there's so much ferocious heat around the question of call our culture and all that. You know, it's almost like there is a prohibition about what you can read or,, you know, the authors past must affect your reading. So, for me one of the most inspiring writers has been Celine, the French writer, whose journey to the end of the ninth and death on the instalment plant. You know, I think maybe to the previous question, you'd want someone writing about my work to go, I think this man really loves Celine because it’s there, right back from Loaded days, they are books I keep returning to. I mean I cannot be lied about how much his writing meant to me, because it's also about how you put the vernacular and class into the actual language. I mean, he did it in French but how do you do that? He was also a fascist and one of the most virulently ugly of anti-Semitic writers in the early 20th century. How do you weigh that? That's something that we need to talk about but I come down going I can't… I can make judgments about the man, but the books are still going to be part of my DNA as a writer for the rest of my life and I'm actually glad they are. You know, going right back to childhood. You know, some of the first books you fall in love with Enid Blyton. I don't want them to disappear from the shelf because they were all so magical. What you can do now, I think, is a as a teacher or a parent or as a guardian is to go, look there is a way to read these books. You know, you put them in context, which is not so different to when I've sat down with kids in my life to talk about black and white movies sometimes. To go, you know, you forget that that's a lot, an old technology that may not make sense, so you just have to very, just very simply explain technology and how it worked back then. And then hopefully you know, they get excited once they know what they're looking at. And again, once they know what they're reading. And I still love reading Agatha Christie. I mean you know, and it's like you know, she's not very favourable to Greeks.
CHRISTOS: She doesn't trust us at all. But I still… I mean you and I have talked about it. I think it would be a great session to actually be … to talk about works that are problematic, not only maybe for the person who wrote them – because in a way that's simpler and simpler to go okay, she or he did this in their life but the book stands on for what it is. Harder with you know, another writer that I adore is Mailer, and there is misogyny in Mailer, in some of my favourite Mailer. So, there's a task you do reading through that to also get to what I adore about the man’s writing.
ASTRID: It’s such an important conversation to have because we can't sanitise history. We can't sanitize all the literature that has come before. You need to unpack it and understand it, understand the beauty, but also be able to address and move on from the bits that really fucked up the world and not do it again, make our own new mistakes that someone else will pick apart in no doubt in 50 years.
CHRISTOS: You know what but… I think sometimes you know, it's hard to know from within the present moment. But it's not like this hasn't been – it's not like this is new to critical thinking. You know, I think you know, you would read critical texts from early in the 20th century and people were already doing that. They were putting the writing in a context. This is this is not new. I think what is defining of the present moment is that… is the absolutism, another form of fundamentalism. So, it's no longer… yes. I just reread for example, Wuthering Heights. Which is... I love that book, but you know it's also deeply confusing to a contemporary sensibility. I still think you are carried away by the language and you can get carried away by the audacity of what Bronte was doing in that novel. But you know, people writing about that in the mid 1950s, it wasn't as if this is new. But I think there was a sense where you could be both critical and admiring, and that those two did not cancel each other out. I think that's gone. It seems to me that ability has gone or that that sense of the critical responsibility.
ASTRID: It's time to bring it back.
CHRISTOS: I think so. I think we need… but you know we need to because I write as a critic or write as a film critic as cinema is my other really passionate love. I think. I would you know, if I was doing courses in creative writing or English you know, I would like to bring my favourite critics to the table and to ask what is it that that critic does. What is the function of the critic? And I'm I don't want to pretend that I can speak in full knowledge of all this because I'm not an academic, but I don't... I suspect that work isn't being done.
ASTRID: It's not. Christos, thank you so much for coming back to The Garret.
CHRISTOS: And I'll shut up now. Thank you.