His incisive questioning of Australian society has seen his latest novel The Slap become a best seller and won him the Commonwealth Writers Prize. We talk about multiculturalism, class and getting into the minds of his characters.
The most important stories can begin with the tiniest events. Take the central act in the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, the decision of one adult to smack someone else’s misbehaving child. The slap echoes differently for different people: what is for some an unacceptably violent act is a reasonable form of discipline for others.
But Tsiolkas has grander ideas. Never one to shy away from tackling the big issues, his novel—The Slap—takes this seemingly trivial event as the starting point for nothing less than an analysis of the often-uneasy social interactions among the diverse individuals and groups of suburban Australia.
The book delves into the minds of the eight witnesses to the fateful blow, who between them comprise a cross-section of modern Australian society. Tsiolkas explores each individual’s reaction in a different chapter, all written in the first person singular. The remarkable way in which each character observes the world and people around them shows how the societal tensions—of culture, race, gender and class—play out from their unique perspectives.
A Greek-Australian himself, Tsiolkas has a clear ardour for analysing the tribulations of his home country.
“It is a book about morality; it questions what I think Western liberal-democratic societies have abandoned or been scared to ask.”
The Slap has garnered rave reviews for the author’s capacity to explore the multiple identities of its characters, as well as winning him the Commonwealth Writers Prize—the prestigious award for fiction across the 32 Commonwealth Nations—an experience he describes as “incredibly satisfying and humbling.”
The novel has been described, almost routinely, as controversial – perhaps because of its tender starting point and the immediacy of the book’s central dilemma; perhaps alluding to the way it has dissected the often-ignored prejudicial undertones of modern society. Its author believes that such portrayals say something about the audience.
“If it has been controversial it goes with what I have said that it reveals a selfishness at the core of contemporary Australian life that makes us uncomfortable. Australia prides itself as being ‘egalitarian’, as having escaped the inertia and pervasiveness of the European class system. But in the last two decades Australians have grown richer and richer and more selfish as they have done so. Less egalitarian, more xenophobic. It is this tension between what we believe about ourselves and who we are that may make the novel ‘controversial’.”
The legacies of colonialism are a common feature in discussions of Australian culture, not least in literature. Tsiolkas’ counterparts, he believes, try to make sense of their countries past with literature set in a historical context – the relationships between the ethnic groups that migrated to the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But Tsiolkas’ Greek heritage has given him to a different outlook on these issues. The Greek-Australian community began to become a significant element of Australian society in the 1950’s, when immigration was encouraged as a means to fuel Australia’s economic expansion.
“You can’t separate the politics of multiculturalism from the politics of class, from the rest of the politics of what is going on in society. In Australia, multiculturalism worked because after World War Two the country went through a great period of industrialisation and it needed migrant labour to make it succeed. Australian society is least tolerant, most xenophobic when there is economic uncertainty: during the recessions of the early eighties and early nineties for example. It is not a particularly Australian phenomenon. It is a global tension, I think.”
Tsiolkas’ accomplishment in The Slap is to shed light on this tension through the experiences of eight individuals – four men and four women of different classes; Greeks, an Indian and a French Jew among them. How hard is it to relate to such diverse characters?
“For a long time I was scared to write in the voices of women, in the voices of other cultures. But I have experience in writing now. I have learnt something about the craft. If I cannot imaginatively express different consciousness, different experiences, different points of view, then I should give up writing now. That is what I do as a writer of fiction.”
A writer of fiction, but not just a novelist. Tsiolkas has written a handful of plays and film scripts, the most recent of which was 2000’s Saturn’s Return, a sensitive exploration of the fragility of the relationships formed by Australia’s modern youth. More recently he has stuck increasingly to literary fiction, but his output remains impressive – nine novels and scripts produced in the last decade. The work keeps coming, and he was recently surprised to find that he needed a change – if not a break, at least a retreat.
Tsiolkas was a resident at the Cove Park artists’ colony in Argyll for two months earlier this year and believes that this experience might have put him on the path to his next project. It has certainly introduced some much-needed quietness into his hectic life.
“Scotland has seduced me, the drama of the landscape and the historic link of its people with Australia. Being here has granted me another sort of peace, has allowed me to filter out some of the white noise that has hampered me starting a new book – the white noise that is an inevitable part of a literary life.
“It is good to learn I can escape it. I have started on the next novel, and just the other day pulled out a first draft of a play that I have not looked at in years.
“I have begun to work again.”
Originally published at http://fest.theskinny.co.uk/article/99752-christos-tsiolkas