ON RACISM AND HERITAGE IN DAUGHTER OF ODYSSEUS.
I don’t like this word. Racism. Why you say?
It would have to be one of the most misused and abused words. Its origins are dubious (some say it was invented by a communist mass murderer who himself would have been labelled a ‘racist’). Others will argue that there are no races therefore there can’t be racism.
Some say there is a sinister agenda behind the use of the word, and many dread being labelled as ‘racist.’
Some say that only whites are racist and can’t themselves be victims of racism. This simply is not true; we are ALL potential victims of ethnic hatred and discrimination
I won’t delve into these arguments. What I do know is that there are different ethnicities, races, tribal groups amongst humanity. In the same way there are cats, but there are subspecies of cats: tigers, lions, cheetahs, panthers, jaguars and the good old humble domestic cat.
Differences exist. Humans have for centuries lived in geographical locations amongst people of their own race/ethnicity/tribe. That this race shares similar physical characteristics as well as customs and cultural traits.
It is common for people to gravitate towards their own even in multi-ethnic countries such as the U.S.A, Canada and Australia. This includes friendship and marriage/relations.
So, when people who were once geographically isolated from another group of people, now live in the same location as that group, there is going to be an element of hostility. It is inevitable I believe, as humans are tribalistic deep down. You don’t have to agree with me, but when things get tough, utopian ideas such as ‘We are all the same’ etc won’t hold. This is unfortunate but the truth.
So, there is going to be what is now known as ‘racism’: hostility and hatred towards that which is different because of their ‘race’ and/or ethnic heritage. European colonisation, tragically, was rooted in racial superiority which means if there is a ‘superior’, there is going to be an ‘inferior.’ Colonial literature gives a good glimpse of the hatred displayed by, for example, the British towards the Indians and other ‘natives.’ It is vile to say the least.
Australia itself was built on the conquering of the white British of a land once occupied by the Aboriginal people. You could not get two more opposing tribes of people, so utterly unlike in radical ways. Unlike in appearance, clearly, but in spirituality and customs and attitude towards the land.
The conquest of Australia was brutal. There was genocide, there was a strong belief rooted in Darwinian theory that the Aboriginals would die out and the ‘half-castes’ would eventually be bred so that their Aboriginal ‘blood’ would be ‘weeded out.’ Yes, this description is evil, but what the British did was evil. Yet the British insist they are the bastions of freedom and democracy.
The hypocrisy is mind-boggling.
(Note, I am not condemning the British as a whole: I don’t believe in generalisations and know there is good and evil amongst all peoples).
Into this land of genocide and racial supremacy came the Greeks, this southern European people whose dark hair and dark features distinguish them from the northern Europeans. Yes, there are fair Greeks but they can easily blend in.
The southern Europeans were treated cruelly. Of course, there were the racial slurs: wog, greaseball, spaghetti eaters, dagoes etc etc. Words spoken with pure hate.
There was the bullying, the humiliation of those with ‘ethnic’ features, the fear that the Greeks and other non-Anglos would take over the country.
Some Greek women, just to survive psychologically, completely assimilated, married Anglo-men and abandoned their heritage.
This was my reality as a Greek-Australian. Yes, I experienced kindness and compassion from people of British and other descent; I am not generalising by any means. But when you experience ostracism, dehumanization and nastiness because of how you are born (something beyond your control), a part of you dies.
I have had some shockingly nasty things said to me, and often by northern Europeans who insist on their ‘purity.’ What shocked me was the sheer malevolence of their words and tone.
I look Greek. I look ‘ethnic.’ I don’t look northern European. I have relatives that do, and they can fly under the radar, but not me. When I say ethnic, I do mean large dark eyes, olive skin and, yes, an ‘Aquiline’ nose. I have a Romanesque nose in a land of small, snub noses. And it has been pointed out to me – many times. And somehow it makes me less than human.
Yes, humans are a weird bunch.
As Kermit the Frog once said: ‘It’s not easy being green.’
Well, it’s not easy being ‘ethnic.’
As I already said, a part of me has died with what I have experienced. My innocence, my sense of worth and humanity. It is still with me; it will always be with me. I have experienced vitriolic racism even as a teacher, and this just in the last few years. By students, by those students I sought to elevate and inspire and help in so many ways. The hatred that poured forth was really like a slap in the face.
Some people have the ability to shrug it off. They are tough. I admire them. I am sensitive and words do hurt. Whoever invented the saying: Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, was a liar. Words hurt, brutally so.
As the Bible says:
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea,
is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.
But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men,
Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing.
(Epistle of James)
Ethnic. The Other. An exotic plant amidst sunflowers. This has been my experience. This is the experience of Christine, the heroine of Daughter of Odysseus.
She is a heroine, no doubt. She suffers but strives and perseveres; always perseveres.
2. Greek? Who cares?
When we first meet Christine, as a teenage girl on the threshold of adulthood, we meet a character who had not given much thought to her Greek heritage. Ironically, of course, as this is what created her sense of ‘otherness’ and suffering.
You see, Christine sees herself as normal; just another teenage girl obsessed with pop stars and socialising and checking out hot young men. The fact that others pointed out her differences hurt her no doubt, but she still tries to live a normal life.
But her Greekness is always there, like the air she breathes. Subconsciously. So, as she prepares for an evening out on that Christmas Eve, she reflects on the night ahead at a gathering known as ‘Greek Night’:
It was not uncommon for Greek girls to lose their virginity on nights like these. Greek Nights, when the young Greek-Australians of Adelaide gathered at a designated bar to share in their Greekness, the latest hits from Greece played alongside traditional songs and created a bond. People joined hands and danced traditional dances in circles, as brothers and sisters sharing the same ancestral heritage. They were united . . . for a few minutes.
Christine relished these moments. Something within her stirred—she couldn’t quite put her finger on what. She had never given much thought to her Greek heritage. It was just something that was there, like air. Greek School was a boring chore to make her parents happy; Greek Dances were a time to dress up and admire young men from afar.
But hands joining to dance the Kalamatianós was akin to a secret magical rite.
(Daughter of Odysseus: Ithaka Calling)
Born in Australia, thousands of kilometres away from her ancestral homeland, yet something as simple as dancing with others of the same ethnic background transforms Christine into another person. Something stirs within her, the blood essence, her ancestors moving within her, call it what you will.
It is something intrinsic to all of us. It is magical and worthy of preservation.
3. Is this my homeland?
It is only as Christine plunges into severe depression that she begins to delve deep into philosophical concepts such as: who am I, where am I, what is the meaning of life?
She was born in Adelaide, Australia. She lived in the suburbs, on land once belonging to another tribe. Now taken over by another tribe. Both tribes extrinsic to her.
And it is as she wanders these streets that she plunges into almost a state of shock, an awareness that leaves her questioning. That something is not right. All of this, her being in this place, is smothering her.
She looks around her as she is wandering and is confronted with something macabre, something monstrous:
When did it come back? When did she first see the black clouds hovering above her, dispelling the light she’d revelled in that morning? They’d swooped over her so quickly, so unexpectedly that she’d fled the mall.
Or were they unexpected? Could depression be banished so easily, this demon of death, this black hound?
The streets led her here and there and nowhere. They took her past houses with high fences and closed doors. Past snarling dogs and old ladies with purple hair who smiled but looked through her. Past leering men with beer guts and flannel shirts: men wallowing in their sleaze, in their monotony.
Monotony . . . monotony. . . .
A car screeched by, and the gorgons inside glared at her, daring to turn her to stone. They hollered obscenities. She continued to wander, like a nomad, like the first inhabitants of this country.
(Daughter of Odysseus: Ithaka Calling)
Extreme perhaps. Is she really being smothered and harmed in any way? Surely her depression means she is looking at the world through distorted lenses that are a reflection of her blackened state of mind.
You see, Christine is not living life to her full potential as she should be, as she deserves. As we all deserve. So yes, she is being smothered, poisoned; she is drowning in a sea of nihilism and nothingness:
A land that had once been the home of the Aboriginal Tribes of the Great Adelaide Region, whose belief system taught that everything in the physical world was touched by the footprint of ancestral beings that had walked the Earth, shaping the landscape and establishing the rituals, rules and laws that guided them.
The spirits had disappeared; the storytelling and songs were silenced; and a foreign body now occupied the sacred land.
But the silence, the emptiness was deathly to her. Christine felt like a stranger, an alienated and isolated creature, segregated from this country, its people and its history. Neither indigenous Aboriginal nor descendant of the British colonists, there was nothing she could relate to, nothing that inspired her and infused her with purpose.
The thought of this—the first time she had had this thought—overwhelmed her. She panicked. Her breathing became rough, desperate. She imagined herself in fifty years’ time, roaming the same streets with the same feelings of mind-numbing nothingness.
Streets and suburbs that once upon a time felt like home were now hideous warts covering this country. All she could see was a dead heart and a people she could not understand.
(Daughter of Odysseus: Ithaka Calling)
She is stumbling, dazed as it were. As if true to the words of a Greek poet: that this is not my country but I ask, what is?
What do I wish? she wondered desperately. What do I want? I, who am exiled on this island?
The answer came instantaneously, as if it had been waiting to emerge all this time. She wanted a world transfigured, magical, and divine. She longed to see the Earth arise out of her chaos—beauty out of ugliness. She desired to walk the land of her ancestral beings, to find her roots and blossom, to bear rich fruits and thrive in her land.
(Daughter of Odysseus: Ithaka Calling)
And so, the search begins. A search that, at its heart, is to find a sense of belonging and pure joy and love. A search away from ethnic hatred, of racism and dehumanization. A search that, if it must, lead one to traverse seas and lands to find that concept that is intrinsic to humans. The search for home.
For Part Two, click on the below link: