Christos Tsiolkas: A Slap to Stereotypes
On April 27, novelist Christos Tsiolkas visited Sampsonia Way to give a reading with Sofi Oksanen and Tommy Wieringa. The event was sponsored by City of Aslyum/Pittsburgh in partnership with PEN/America. While he was here, Tsiolkas sat down for a chat with Sampsonia Way editor Silvia Duarte.
In his work Tsiolkas explores the changing lifestyle of Australia’s middle-class and confronts issues such as multiculturalism, homophobia, and infidelity. His book, The Slap, is itself a slap to stereotypes and prejudices associated with contemporary family life.
In this interview, Tsiolkas —Winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize— talks about the pitfalls of political correctness, the smugness of his generation, and The Slap.
In The Slap you tell a story through eight interconnected people of different generation and personalities. Tell us about the process of getting inside the minds of these characters.
Writers steal from what we see around us. I am becoming more and more interested in getting into other people’s minds. How does a woman think? How does a man think? What is the difference between those two? There was a Turkish writer who said, “When a writer picks up their pen, they are bisexual.” She didn’t mean in terms of sexuality, she meant in terms of the mind. You can inhabit a man or a woman’s mind.
It must have also helped that you come from a huge family and were surrounded by many voices.
I grew up in a house that we shared with two other families. So we were always on top of each other. You can stand back and say it was really crowded, but it was a fantastic way to grow up.
I think that the other reason I like to get into other people’s mind is that I feel like an outsider because of my Greek heritage in an Anglo-centric country.
Why are you so interested on the relationships between parents and children?
I’ve taught in the public school system, so those issues were really interesting to me.
It’s also because people of my generation are always talking about how to raise children. The way we discuss families and children can be an obsession sometimes. How harsh people can be about choices that mothers and families make! I wanted to write about it.
I was really worried that my friends—who in the U.S. context would be Democrats and progressives—were making choices to send their kids to private schools. They were making really conservative choices about where they were living and they were always using their children as an excuse.
Where did the idea of Hugo—the four-year-old boy who received the slap of your title—come from?
The germ of the idea came from a barbeque that mum and dad had at their place and lots of people came. My mum was in the kitchen cooking—she was getting a bit frantic—and Jack, the son of friends of mine, was playing around her feet and taking out pots and pans. Mum kept saying, “no, Jack, no” and Jack wasn’t stopping. And at one point Mum turned him around—it wasn’t an aggressive act—and said, “Jack, I said no.” And he said, “No one is allowed to touch my body without my permission.” And my mom was just looking down at him mystified.
It was not at all an aggressive moment. But I thought those differences between these two generations are very interesting in terms of the way we see children and the way the children see adults.
I don’t know what the situation is here in the U.S., but in New Zealand, which is a neighbor, they passed a law making it illegal for a parent to hit a child, and it is quite controversial. For my mum who grew up in Greece during World War II, it was acceptable to hit a child, and suddenly she is looking at this little boy who is telling her, “You can’t touch me.”
Your book is also about families, different generations and, above all, conservatism. I really enjoyed reading about Aunuk, the character who doesn’t want to have children. What did your Australian readers think of this character?
In a way Anuk is a little bit of my alter-ego because she is someone who doesn’t have children of her own. And people have asked me why I put Anuk in and why she has the second chapter. But I am glad that you like her. I think a lot of people don’t really like Anuk, and I’m not surprised by that.
For a long time Australia has produced these terrible soap operas that are very popular. They are very terrible, but if you look at them everyone is blonde and blue-eyed and everyone lives in big houses and women are married and have children. So it was important for me to have her work in that industry and to ask what kind of Australia we want to represent to the world and to ourselves.
This novel is also about classism and discrimination.
Yes. Uppermost in my mind while I was writing the book were the tensions between the more established immigrant groups in Australia and the hot politics around refugees. Under John Howard [the Australian Prime Minister from 1996 to 2007], there were a lot of people afraid that every Muslim was a terrorist. There was a real turning away from the politics of multiculturalism and a turning back to nationalistic politics about who belonged in Australia. Also we still haven’t been able to even approach reconciliation with the indigenous people.
Behind the conflict of classes is the issue of political correctness. How can political correctness be dangerous in a society?
I tried to understand political correctness and I think there is a valid element. Well, in the school system, for example, it is actually important to teach young kids that they must not use some words. But, on the other hand, it gets tricky because then we get scared of words and we get scared of writing and we get scared of looking at the complexity of the issues and we get scared of debate.
How are we scared of debate?
Let me give you an example. When I came to Los Angeles I kept noticing posters about America in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was on a panel about writing contemporary lives and all the other writers were from the U.S. So I said, “I have a question for you. How does the fact that you are in a state of war affect the stories you are writing?” And it was like I farted in the room. It was like I asked an embarrassing question. And it was astounding to me that those questions aren’t asked all the time. How do we respond to this reality?
Other thing that surprised me was that on page seven of an L.A newspaper there was a little article about two U.S. soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan. If two Australian soldiers were killed, they would have been on the front page and there would be a huge debate. But here this was buried on page 6 or 7. Even someone who supports the war, how can they support what is happening in the media?
So coming back to The Slap you killed a lot of stereotypes with this book.
But what is the point of writing if you are just going to write stereotypes. You want to inhabit your character. You want to live your characters. They are flesh and blood. They are real.
Read Silvia’s bio.