Christos Tsiolkas - Winner 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize
Christos Tsiolkas is 'one of Australia's pre-eminent contemporary novelists' (The Age).
Born, raised and educated in Melbourne where he continues to live, Christos is one of our Global Greek Writers and one of twelve of Australia’s best writers who recently came together at Melbourne Town Hall for a night of celebration and reflection, sharing the common and different experiences that define Australia's past and present, to mark the opening of Australia's newest cultural institution, The Wheeler Centre.
It was a night of storytelling, each writer reflecting on those tales that have been handed down to them through the generations, each giving voice to an inheritance of wisdom, of understanding, of identity.
This is Greek Australian Christos Tsiolkas' very moving story, one that many of us in our Global Greek World can relate to and we thank him! (Thanks Konstantina M, Athens, for drawing it to our attention)
Teachings of my grandmothers
I NEVER really knew my grandparents. Both my grandfathers died in Greece before I ever visited there, and I met my grandmothers only twice in my life, once when I visited as a boy in 1975, and then again as a young adult in 1990.
For many of us, migration and distance has shaped the nature of our families and the cultures we believe we belong to. The stories I have of my grandparents' lives are second-hand, filtered through the memories, longings and secrets of my parents.
I am grateful that I did have an opportunity to meet my grandmothers. They both shared the same name, Spiridoula. But even those encounters were made difficult by the limitations of my Greek and the overwhelming chasm of experience that separated myself, a privileged child of the First World, and those two women, each born on the eve of the 20th century, in a peasant Eastern Mediterranean world that was to be torn apart by two Balkan wars, two world wars, an occupation, two dictatorships, a civil war.
I remember sitting in a kitchen in Athens with my maternal grandmother, and she crying, wanting to know why her daughter had only visited her once in all the time she had been a migrant in Australia.
I tried to explain the distances involved, the expense.
My uncle Mitso, who was sitting with us, took me aside and explained that once in the early '70s he was driving his mother from the village to Athens when they came to a fork in the road.
My giagia asked, ''Mitso, if we turn left instead of right, can we go and visit Georgia in Australia?'' You have to remember, Christo, my Uncle said to me, this is a woman born in a time when women were doomed to illiteracy and the shadows. Your giagia can't even read a map. And look at you, you are now a university student, you want to be a writer. You don't know how proud that makes us. But if you ever forget where you come from, tha se sfaxo, I will slaughter you.
I want to share with you a moment with this grandmother. Not anything she said but something she showed me.
I was a 10-year-old in the village, visiting from Melbourne, and my grandmother took me to the chicken coop to get a bird to prepare for dinner. She pointed to the one of the chooks and said, Go, catch it and kill it.
Now I was an inner-city Australian child and poultry and meat was something I believed just magically appeared on butcher's slabs and supermarket shelves. My giagia pointed to the bird and I shook my head.
No, I insisted, I can't do it.
She was appalled. What do you mean, she said, you are nearly a man and you don't know how to kill a chicken? What has your mother been teaching you?
She adjusted her headscarf, hitched up her heavy black mourning skirt, chased after the chicken and brought it to me.
Now, she ordered, wring its neck.
I started to weep. The bird was fluttering in her hand and I was too scared to go near it. Taking pity on me, she ordered me to sit down next to her and proceeded to break the bird's neck. It was one swift stroke, a wrenching motion and the head pulled away from the body. There was blood and the beast continued to struggle in her hand. By now I was howling.
She ignored my tears and started to tell me how to prepare the bird for cooking. The hanging of the body in the cool of the cellar, putting the pot on the fire, placing the bird in the near boiling water, plucking the feathers first from the wings, the legs and then finally from the breasts.
When my mother arrived back from visiting her sister she was horrified.
What have you been showing Christo?
Something you should have showed him a long time ago, my giagia admonished her daughter.
That night we ate roast chook and I learnt something about the real meaning of placing food on the table.
I look at my nieces as they play with my father and mother, watch my aunt surrounded by her grandkids. I feel fortunate to have met my grandmothers, spent time with them, I feel a sadness that I could not have known them better, that I never met my grandfathers. I wonder what I could have learnt from them about war and occupation, dictatorship and democracy, poverty and suffering; but I also miss having been instructed on the smaller, just as important stuff, like how to prepare the grapes off the vine for wine, dry tobacco, build a shelter, tend a vegetable crop. I watch my nieces play with my father and mother and think this is what unconditional love is.
A few years ago a woman brought a dying bird into the veterinary clinic in which I am employed. The vet said there's nothing we can do, we have to put it down. She explained that we could inject it with litho barb but it is easy to miss a vital organ in such a small creature and it can be a horrible death as it literally drowns and suffocates from the poison.
The most humane thing to do is to break its neck, she explained, do you want me to show you how to do that?
It's OK, I answered, I can do it, my grandmother taught me...
Watch and listen to Christos Tsiolkas as he tells this wonderful story
To read the original article at The Age, Click Here
About Christos Tsiolkas
Greek-Australian author and playwright, essayist and screen writer, Christos Tsiolkas' first novel Loaded (1995) was made into the feature film Head-On (1998) by fellow Greek Australian, director Ana Kokkinos, starring Alex Dimitriades. His works are considered to be autobiographical to a certain extent, drawing on his many experiences growing up as a member of a cultural minority in Australia.
Other novels include The Jesus Man (1999), Dead Europe (2005), which won the 2006 Age Fiction Prize and the 2006 Melbourne Best Writing Award, and his most recent novel The Slap, where a man slaps a child (not his own) at a suburban barbeque, the consequences of which reverberate through the lives of all of the witnesses to the incident.
The Slap won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009 for best novel in the South-East Asia and South Pacific area.
In an interview with Neos Kosmos Newspaper in Australia, after receiving his award, we were delighted to read his answer to the question
What will you ask the Queen when you meet her?
(traditionally Commonwealth Writers Prize winners get to meet Queen Elisabeth, the Head of the Commonwealth)
I will ask her to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece!
From all of us in the Global Greek World, Christo, we congratulate you on your success, we thank you for the support and hope you do just that!