To Greece and Back: An Interview with Elena Carapetis
The writer talks about her new play The Gods of Strangers and putting her heritage on the stage.
Generally in Australian film and theatre, we don’t consider ourselves as having a multiplicity of identity. We’re very much a nation represented by the every-man, which is particularly relevant to migrant and non-Anglo-Saxon stories. In Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded he writes about a second generation Greek Australian named Ari, who says the following about his experience as a migrant:
I’m not Australian, I’m not Greek. I’m not anything. I’m not a worker, I’m not a student, I’m not an artist, I’m not a junkie, I’m not a conversationalist, I’m not Australian, not a wog, not anything… What I am is a runner. Running away from the thousand and one things that people say you have to be or should want to be.
How do these Ideas relate to The Gods of Strangers?
Much of my work in writing plays so far has been a result of me grappling with my identity as the child of immigrants living on Aboriginal land, whose sovereignty was never ceded. My mother’s home country Cyprus was subjected to an invasion by Turkey in 1974 and I cannot help but feel the resonance of the effects of that event as I live and work on Kaurna country — the parallels are not lost to me. Neither is the bitter irony that many of the Greek Cypriots ran out of their homes with just their clothes on their back, their houses immediately claimed by the invaders, and came to Australia, a place where people like them were still reeling from invasion 200 years earlier.
There is that very common experience among the children of migrants here in Australia whereby you are considered a Greek when you’re here and an Australian when you’re back in the motherland. It’s a kind of identity wasteland where you are trapped midway by the expectations and vales of both cultures. Each nationality has wrapped within the predominant culture clear ideas of what success looks like, what a decent life looks like and how you achieve that. When you grow up surrounded by the expectations of these two disparate cultures, it is easy to get confused, to water down and temper your Greekness or your Australianess. In doing this it is easy to not know what it is you want anymore, let alone who you are. In my case, it took me many years of rebellion, conformity and back again — ultimately I learned that I was human. I love being a Greek Australian but only insofar as these combined cultures connect me to other people rather than separate me.
Fran Lebowitz once said that tourists ruin a city and migrants bring culture. Can you speak to how migrants have changed and contributed to the culture in South Australia, and the importance of bringing those stories to the stage?
I guess the most obvious thing we all enjoy here in South Australia is the impact the migrants have had on our food and wine industry. Where would we be without a lunchtime bahn mi or a late night yiros? Who among us wouldn’t devour a bowl of pasta, no matter how popular the keto diet is proving to be? Thank goodness we don’t use squid merely as bait anymore, but I do lament the massive increase in the prices of things like vongole and lamb shanks, but that’s supply and demand for you.
But beyond this obvious and delicious effect are the impacts made on our culture in the very act of breaking bread with one another. To share a meal, to sit across from one another and look each other in the eye as we eat and share stories, domestic, epic and everything in between, is a significant act of connection. It is spiritual. Everything can be healed and mended through the act of nourishment. No matter where we come from in the world we have this in common, and that to me is a truly beautiful thing. Theatre is this kind of storytelling, it is a personal and intimate window into the deepest parts of ourselves. Representing all of us on stage is important because we all deserve to see ourselves reflected back. Seeing stories that speak directly to our own experience is like being fed our favourite comfort food made by yiayia /nonna/ nanna. It makes us feel understood, valued and cared for.
As much as this is a story about the migrant experience, it’s very explicitly about the experiences of women, their power and their resilience. Why did this story need to be told? How have migrant women shaped your life and creative process?
Stories are generally told by those who have been given the privilege, the space to tell them. This is how history is shaped too, by the victors, by those who have come out on top and who then manage to shape the narrative of what happened for future generations to learn from. In the past western theatre has been very much a man’s dominion, so though wonderful female roles have been written, they have been written from the point of view of the man. Likewise, stories of migrants that are part of our canon are often written by people who do not have that lived experience themselves, so the works can only be written from the point of view of cultural tourist.
Great writers can tell anyone’s story, yes of course, but times are changing. The question to ask at this point is, who is the best person to tell the story? I’ve had a career whereby I have watched other people tell my cultural story and they always seem to shuffle ‘us’ off into some ideal or form that is tempered by the writer’s limited understanding and point of view of who we really are. This has resulted in the women being represented as being subservient victims in the background and I feel that this is dreadfully unfair. I want to take back the balance of power regarding who tells stories and to depict the amazing women who have brought me to this place in my life with the respect, detail and honour they deserve. The women in my family, and I’m certain in many migrant families, are resilient, brave, generous, loving and fierce. And I love them.