Race and racism drive Christos Tsiolkas after The Slap

Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Author Christos Tsiolkas doesn’t mind tackling difficult areas of Australian identity and his thoughts on race and racism reveal some of what is behind his new novel.


ANNABEL CRABB, PRESENTER: The writer Christos Tsiolkas is the son of Greek immigrants who would never have imagined when they arrived here that one day their child would write a novel about their new homeland that would sell more than a million copies and dominate a summer’s worth of backyard arguments.

That novel was The Slap, which went on to become a hit ABC series.

Tsiolkas is now one of Australia’s best-known writers and thinkers. I caught up with him to talk about his new novel, Barracuda.

Christos, thanks for joining us on 7.30.

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS, AUTHOR: Thank you very much.

ANNABEL CRABB: Listen, you’re a great Australian novelist, but I am seriously pleased that you do not write our tourism material. Some of the Australians in your novels just are so awful. Are we really like that?

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: Yes. Yes, sometimes we are really awful. Sometimes we are incredibly parochial and incredibly selfish, incredibly fearful. Maybe we are still insecure about who we are, so we tend to want to be represented in particular ways. I think that may be – I don’t think Australia’s the only nation that has that insecurity, but it is an insecurity that I think is part of our culture.

ANNABEL CRABB: The new novel Barracuda is about this boy Danny, who’s a second-generation Greek boy, working class …

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: Second-generation Greek on his mother’s side, but Scotch-Irish on his father’s side, which is …

ANNABEL CRABB: Right. And he’s a working-class boy who leaves his school and all his mates to go and be trained as an elite swimmer at a really posh boys’ school. And I guess social mobility is something that we treasure in Australia and we think that we have, but sometimes I think we overlook just how painful that process can be and to me that’s the most sort of heart-wrenching part of your novel.

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: You know, in a way I think Barracuda has been a novel that I’ve been putting off writing for a long time. I’m not Danny Kelly, I’m not the character, but I think one of the most wrenching and most exhilarating experiences of my life was when I got into university. And suddenly I was torn from a working class migrant world that after a few years at university, after choosing this – following this desire to be a writer, I feel that I am no longer a part of. I’m very proud of that – of where I’ve come from. I’m really proud of who my parents were and are. But I don’t feel like I have an ownership to that notion of working class that my parents did.

ANNABEL CRABB: Isn’t this such a deep part of Australia, this migrant cycle that happens, that you’ve got these people that come and live here, bringing all of their expectations and their own histories and their own cultures sort of snap-frozen who have to adjust to the world that they find and then the world that that world becomes. I mean, you wrote in your piece for The Monthly recently about the extent of hostility towards asylum seekers in first and second-generation migrant groups in Australia, which I think touches on this, doesn’t it?

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: In that piece it’s certainly true that I think one of the histories of migration is that every immigrant group turns on the other. It’s part of how we defend our space in this country. But I also think that if you – whatever position my relatives may take about asylum seekers, if you actually sat down and explain the situation to them and explained – conveyed the exile of that individual, of that family, of that child, that woman, that man – I have heard it again and again from Greek immigrants, from Vietnamese immigrants, from Italian immigrants – it doesn’t matter where they come from – we have so much space here. We have more space. With that article in particular, I wanted to say that we don’t need to be frightened of talking about racism. Maybe it goes back to that thing I said about this – our insecurity as Australians about who we are. Racism is part of who we are. Racism is part of the history of this country. Racism is inevitable in a colonial nation.

ANNABEL CRABB: So what happens to these kids, these migrant kids? You wrote about them in The Slap and Danny is a classic example, caught up in that incredible cocktail of aspiration, shame, pride, love for his own background. What happens to these kids?

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: I will try and answer as Christos Tsiolkas, the person first and then talk about the characters. I had to do battle for so long about, “Am I Greek? Am I Australian?,” a battle that took so long and that was quite wearying. And I look at my nieces now, my nephews and nieces, who’s – one parent may be Greek, another parent may be Irish-Australian, one parent may be Chinese, one may be Dutch. They seem to possess a greater confidence about being able to live this duality, that they’re actually – and I’m really – I think that’s really important. I think that’s – to go to your question about, “Will we always be racist?,” yes, but we won’t always be racist in the same way we are now, I think – I have to be hopeful for that. And I think that’s partly what I wanted to do with the character of Danny in Barracuda, kinda to say his questioning of what it means to be Australian is not identical to mine. Because he’s from a different time, he’s from a different context.

ANNABEL CRABB: Well there’s nothing like the sniff of a redemptive ending, is there? (Laughs)

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: (Laughs) People are going to ask me what this book is about, and I had a note that was above my desk at the beginning of writing this book and it’s how to be a good man. That to me – yes, it’s about a boy who wants to be an Olympic swimmer. That’s part of what the book is. But really, it’s about how do you be a good man? It’s about how do you come back from something so shameful – and failure, real failure is shameful. And real failure does mean that you can do things to yourself and you can do things to others that are unforgivable. The question I wanted to ask was: can that occur and at the same time that you can make atonement? Are we forever going to be judged by something that happens in our youth?

ANNABEL CRABB: Well, thank you for joining us on 7.30, Christos. The book, congratulations on it; it’s a great adventure, but also furiously thought-provoking at the same time, very typically of you. Thanks for joining us.

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: Thanks very much, mate.

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