Christos Tsiolkas: On His New Novel ‘Barracuda,’ Australian History, and the Power of Hip-Hop
Author: Dan Lopez
September 25, 2014
Australian author Christos Tsiolkas is perhaps best known in the U.S. for his novel The Slap, which chronicles life in a Melbourne suburb following an incident at a garden party in which a man slaps a child who is not his own (soon to be a television miniseries on NBC starring Zachary Quinto). Tsiolkas’ latest work, Barracuda (Hogarth), returns to the complicated world of class politics, family, nation and shifting cultural expectations to explore the rise and fall of a queer athlete from the wrong part of town. Danny Kelly’s struggle with failure and the shame that springs from it offers a brilliant glimpse into the adolescent psyche as well as illuminating the perennial calculus of fitting in.
The author spoke to Lambda about hip-hop, Australian history and religiosity.
Dan is a creature of routine—first as a swimmer, then later as a man overcoming his shame. Do you think routine—structure—is itself a saving grace?
I am not an athlete and so have no direct experience of the physical training that is required by a swimmer to achieve their goals, but what I share with Danny Kelly is a joy in routine. It took me a long time to learn discipline and an even longer time to learn patience. I think back to my father always cautioning me to be patient and how I ignored him for a long time. As a youth and a younger man, I thought patience was overrated, that one needed to confront the world with hunger, to be impatient. I had to train myself to sit down at the desk, for hours on end, to confront the empty page and begin to write. Part of that training was structuring my life around the necessity of getting up every morning, drinking my coffee, taking my walk and then beginning to write. It was bloody hard at the beginning—my impulse was to flee—but now, that routine is part of my life, and it has indeed saved me. Through routine and discipline, I have found a way of taming my demons, or at least not allowing them to have mastery over myself. When I read back on what I have written and the voices in my head tell me it is no good, it is shit, I don’t walk away but stay there and continue to write. Through the routine and labor of writing I have found that there is a space that is mine, that offers solace and peace even when it is damn hard and I think I am getting nowhere. I know I am very fortunate to be able to work within such a space. I try and remind myself of that as often as I can, to not take it for granted. I now know that was the lesson my father was trying to teach me.
I’m interested in the way prejudice plays out in Barracuda, especially in light of the recent racial strife we’ve seen in the States. To American readers, many of the optics surrounding Danny (his race, most notably) give him privilege, yet we know from reading the book that that’s far from the case. Is it fair to say that Danny represents a perpetual “other” for the Australian state, and if so, why?
Your question makes me remember the first time I visited the U.S., as a young man in his early twenties. I have relatives in Astoria, in New York City. My aunt said to me, “I am born Greek and I am proudly Greek but I am American first.” I remember that statement blindsiding me completely. I had never heard a Greek immigrant in Australia make such a claim—in a sense, it would have been absurd. Australian culture kept reminding my mother and my father that they were Greek first. That first trip in America, I realized that I was white. Meeting African-Americans, entering your culture, I realized I was an observer of a nation marked heavily by the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We were never a slave nation. We were a nation founded for transportation of convicts. That difference is immense and will always differentiate our two nations. What the U.S. and Australia share is that they are both nations in which immigrants and refugees have found sanctuary. That is no small thing. But they also share a violent history against their First Peoples. That promise of sanctuary means that there is an “American Dream” and, to a much smaller extent, an “Australian Dream.” That violence also means that there is an “American Nightmare” as well as an “Australian Nightmare.”
We are all marked by our individual histories but also the history of the nation and time we find ourselves in. Australia is a colonial space, founded by the British Empire to house the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh convicts who were largely the disenfranchised of the industrial revolution. The British claim on this land also meant that there was a colossal dispossession of the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the continent. This violent rupture still disturbs my nation; I think we have not yet come to terms with it. The first legislation enacted by the newly formed federation of Australia in 1901 was the White Australia Policy. It meant that only English-speaking “whites” were allowed to enter the country. White was Aryan. White was northern European. White certainly was not southern European, Anatolian or Middle Eastern. After WWII, when Australia needed to rapidly expand its industrial base, immigrants and refugees from first southern Europe and then eastern Europe, including displaced Jews, were given papers to migrate to Australia. That is how my father entered the country in 1955. He worked on the hydroelectric schemes, worked on building the Olympic Village for the 1956 Melbourne games. The prejudice my parents experienced here was real. They were seen as “not quite white,” even though they were European Greeks. The White Australia Policy was only officially terminated in 1972—within my own lifetime. What is remarkable is that from the 1970s on, there has been a spirit in the nation that has seen it redefined from “White Australia” to “multicultural,” to the extent that there is genuine pride for the fact that so many Australians came from across five continents. But, as you Americans know very well, the tragedies of history cannot be easily overcome; it takes generations and it takes consistent vigilance. So racism still disturbs the Australian consciousness. We exist together, we work together, we fall in love, we have children together, but then, there are those vicious and terrible moments when we are in conflict. And unfortunately, in those moments, those who see themselves as “true” Aussies, i.e. from Anglo and Celtic backgrounds, presume an authenticity that is not granted to those of us who are from different linguistic and racial backgrounds. That is why I wanted to make Danny a mixture of these heritages. He is Scotch-Irish on his father’s side and Balkan on his mother’s side. I thought by making him from both these backgrounds I would hopefully be able to indicate something of the complexity of prejudice and culture in Australia.
I apologize for being long-winded about our history, but I am conscious that American readers may not know much about my country. I hope that makes some sense of Danny Kelly’s confusion and questioning.
The book talks about “wogs” and how it’s a term that gets applied to everyone who isn’t Scotch-Irish, white Australian. Is there a strong sense of coalition building in Australian among non-Scotch-Irish whites as a result?
On the day-to-day lived experience, yes. I grew up in a working-class immigrant neighborhood. My friends were Greek, Turkish, Slav, Chinese, Vietnamese and Lebanese. And yes, we were all called “wogs” by the Aussies. I learnt from very young to be comfortable in Muslim households and in Catholic homes and around Buddhist families. I just assumed this was normal, but I am very glad for that experience. And yes, I think we all had a sense of being united against the “Aussies,” the Anglo-Scotch-Irish. But prejudice and bigotry exists in every culture. I don’t want to romanticize the experience either, to ignore the strains of xenophobia in my own background. Nevertheless, I do think that for the majority of us from immigrant backgrounds, we sense a sharing of experience, we acknowledge the huge sacrifice our parents made in coming to this country, and we are aware of the obligations and responsibilities that come from this debt. We are fortunate to not have had immigrant ghettoes in Melbourne, and that different communities live side by side.
Danny’s best friend, Demet, speaks about Australians being caught between England and America. Can you talk a bit more about the cultural balance there?
There is a concept in Australia called “the cultural cringe”—the sense that because we are so far removed geographically from the world, real culture happens elsewhere, it doesn’t happen here. That is one of the reasons sport is so important to the Australian psyche: it is the one endeavor where we can tell ourselves we punch above our weight. We supposedly have overcome the cultural cringe, but I am not so sure we have. We are a continent, but also a sparsely populated nation, and for all the advantages of new global technology and cheap air flight, there is still a sense of how far we are from the “center.” We do feel that we are at “the arse-end of the world.” It takes nineteen hours to fly to L.A.; it takes twenty-four for me to fly to Athens. Geography still matters. When Demet says that Australia is caught between England and the U.S., she is not only making a cultural point; she is also making a political point. As a young nation, we followed Britain to war in places thousands of miles from Australia. Now, after the Second World War, because of our military ties with the U.S., we are in Iraq and Afghanistan, again places thousands of miles away from us. She is making the point that Australia has not yet learnt to stand on its own feet—that it still looks for affirmation from the superpowers. There is one interesting development I have noticed in my nephews and nieces and amongst their peers. There is a greater acceptance of us being close to Asia—a sense of how we are both an Asian and a Pacific nation. I think this will continue to be an interesting development in Australia. We are slowly, very slowly, shedding our European skins. It is taking us a long time. But as the U.K. increasingly becomes European and we increasingly become more Asian and Pacific, it will hopefully create a more interesting and robust Australian identity.
Throughout the book, the adult Dan struggles with a desire to return home to Australia. At the time, he’s living with his lover, Clyde, in Scotland—Clyde’s home. Why is it important that both these men have such a strong tie to their home countries?
Belonging—finding the space to be at peace—matters to all of us, but Clyde and Dan have very different understandings of what “home” might be. Clyde comes from a nation, Scotland, that is fiercely proud of its history, and one that is largely culturally homogenous. I remember years ago a Scottish writer saying to me that you had to live in Scotland for at least three generations to be able to write about it. I was outraged: as a writer from an immigrant background, I thought that was absurd. But I also understand that Scotland doesn’t have a “new world” immigrant heritage; there are generational connections for someone like Clyde that are not available to Dan. My Scottish friend was embarrassed when I challenged him, but I now realize that he wasn’t being xenophobic or myopic. He had a notion of identity that is more fixed than any I know. So the question of belonging is more vexed in Australia; we are still working through who we are, what we are, where we come from, our relationship to Indigenous history, to our colonial history, to our multicultural history. I don’t think that it being an open question is necessarily a bad thing; maybe there is something vital in Dan never being able to definitively answer the question of where he belongs. Maybe we as Australians should embrace that ambiguity and not be afraid of still being a “work in progress.”
In the past you’ve spoken of how the upcoming generations won’t have the same anxiety about class that your generation has had. Danny seems to be an exception to that. He can’t seem to escape the gravity of it. Has your thinking changed on the subject, or is Danny a special case?
If I did say that, then I was mistaken, or maybe I was taken out of context. It seems to me that the older I get, the more important class becomes. I think the recent global financial crisis has returned class to the center of politics. But certainly, class doesn’t mean the same thing for Danny that it means for his parents or for his grandparents. It is one of the reasons I wanted Glasgow to be part of the novel. Glasgow is a city built by the industrial revolution, one of the first working-class cities. I think Danny’s grandparents and also certainly his father, Neal, have a confidence in affirming their working-class backgrounds that Danny doesn’t share. It is a different world, there is no longer a socialist or communist movement to anchor such an identity, and so class battles with other identities—gender, race, nation, sexuality—in order of priority.
In Barracuda, I wanted to trace my own continuing struggle with the questions of class. I am proud of coming from a working-class home, terrifically proud of it, but I also realize that I can’t assume that identity the way my parents could. They were laborers in factories. I am an educated man, I write for a living, I live and work and exist in another kind of world. I am so very glad for the opportunities that my parents’ hard work has afforded me—I’d be an idiot not to appreciate them—but I can’t help sometimes feel a melancholy at how far removed I am from that working-class world. I think Demet, Dan and I share that melancholy. One of the opportunities that this life has afforded me is that of travel. I have glimpsed the consequences of deep economic recession. Class has not gone away but rather has been transformed, and we are still grappling with a language to define it. I think that is true throughout the western world, where there is an increasing gulf between cosmopolitan urbanized elites and underemployed or unemployed disenfranchised communities. I think it is one of the great questions of our age, and all I could do in fiction is try and give it some texture—some sense of what that means.
Danny seems more comfortable with his sexuality than he does with any of the other things that mark him as an “other.” He has no qualms about referring to gay parents as “superpoof,” for instance. I found this fascinating, especially considering the stereotypes we have of the sporting life. Did you feel it was important for Danny to have a space in his life that felt completely comfortable?
Danny’s voice came to me first. I heard him very clearly, the voice of a determined, enraged, competitive young man. But not very long after I wrote a first draft of the chapter that begins the novel—with the thirty-three-year-old Dan looking out on Loch Lomond—I knew he was homosexual. I took it as a given; that was the voice I heard. But I realized very quickly that I didn’t want to write a coming-out novel, that it wasn’t what is central to this book or to Danny. That’s one of the reasons I developed the structure I did—the alternating between the third-person narrative moving chronologically forward and the first-person story moving backwards. I realized it would allow me to make jump cuts—to move the story through time without being bogged down in the unimportant moments. I wanted to trust that the reader can understand this character without seeing him coming out to his parents or friends or siblings, that we are expert and mature enough to make those connections for ourselves. I am not saying that sexuality is unimportant—of course it is not—but Danny’s struggle to find atonement, his struggle to become a good man, is not about sexuality. I trust that a reader also understands this.
Danny’s seems to conceptualize life through physicality. Throughout the novel, he laments the shortcomings of language to express what he feels. In contrast, the physically of the body, of movement and senses, are direct and reliable for him. I’m thinking particularly of his love affair in prison. Is this an athlete’s view or is this something else?
Danny doesn’t trust a duplicity in speech that comes from being in between classes, in between identities and experiences. His rupture occurs when he gets the scholarship to an elite school and discovers that though the people there speak English, it contains codes that he is not privy to. In the same way, Demet discovers this when she goes to an elite university. I referred to a melancholy that I experienced realizing I can no longer exist in the working-class world my parents come from. I think the melancholy has to do with this, the fact that the bourgeois world I live in now speaks in codes and conducts itself by manners that are not explicit, that are ambiguous and alienating. Danny’s time in prison is important because it brings him back to a working-class world, yet it also introduces him to literature. He can again discover a language that is direct and speaks to his experience. It is no accident that the novels he falls in love with are those of Dickens, of Hardy, the short stories of Chekhov. These are writings that speak emotional truth. It can be argued that I am romanticizing the working-class world, that even if Danny had remained in his multicultural suburban school, he would have found himself silenced because of his sexuality or because of his ambitions. But I think he would have understood the attack; he would have known the direction the punches were coming from.
I found the scene when Danny is at his swim mate Martin Taylor’s house particularly poignant. Martin is one of the “golden boys” that Danny despises, yet he’s conflicted because he has romantic feelings for him, too. Is it accurate to say that Martin is a stand-in for Danny’s complicated views of home?
Thank you for mentioning that; that scene is important to me. The first draft of the novel was incredibly messy; I was very close to giving up on it. But a version of that scene was there in the first draft. I knew it caught something of what I wanted to express about class and aspiration. The scene was a kind of anchor for me in that it kept me at the desk and made me determined to commit to the novel. Rather than the word home, maybe again belonging is more apt. Martin is the golden boy and Danny really comes to understand the world of the golden boys by visiting Taylor’s family’s beach house. There is something tantalizing and precious in that world that he glimpses that weekend, and I don’t want it to be dismissed as merely covetous. Danny sees a possibility beyond the previous limits of his own world. In this case, he can’t trust language to translate that experience back to his father. He knows that Neal will dismiss such yearning or dreaming outright as suspect or reactionary. For me, it is in this moment that the break between Danny and his family, his old friends, his old world, becomes clear. He loves Martin. Like all of us, he cannot separate the individual he adores from the yearnings and expectations that surround his coming to love. Danny is so very young in this chapter that I wanted to be truthful to his age, and not to have him be too self-conscious or self-aware.
Your use of words like “cunt” has generated a lot of discussion, most of it centered around the lexicon of working-class, immigrant communities. There’s a pride in that casual vulgarity, isn’t there? Your characters seem to be making an us-versus-them distinction with their word choice. Can you talk a little bit more about the role that pride plays for these communities?
I still remember vividly the thrill I got as an adolescent when I first heard hip-hop, just the sheer jolt of wonderment and joy. It was a musical form that became central to many of the immigrant communities in Australia—it became our music. It was the excitement of a new musical form we were responding to, and we loved that you could dance to it. Rap spoke stories of racism and urban experience that we completely understood. I don’t think that the way we started to appropriate the word “wog,” that hateful word that blighted my mother’s and my father’s lives, would have been possible without the inspiration of rap music, the danger and shock in an African-American voice using the word “nigger.” The menace in hip-hop–the fact that rap music allowed accents and words and insults and jeers that were impolite, urban, working-class, and, yes, dangerous to be heard—was important. I was just beginning to write when I fell in love with hip-hop, and rap was a lesson in the potency of words. Cunt is a misogynistic word; cunt is a difficult word; cunt, too, is a dangerous word. But it is also a beautiful word, an expressive word. I am a white man, I can’t use nigger with the freedom an African-American writer or artist can, nor do I want to. But cunt is part of a vocabulary I grew up with in the way that it transcended gender. Girls at school used it as freely as the boys. It was a word of abuse, and it was a word of affirmation, as well. I think this is something forms of middle-class feminism have ignored. I fear sometimes that a puritanical form of gender and sexual politics is a mask for a fear and suspicion of working-class people. I am conscious of what I am doing every time I use the word. I want to interrogate the word, try to understand it. In Barracuda, it is Demet who call’s Danny’s new school Cunts College. It was very important that a girl coined that phrase. I thought of other possibilities—Pricks College, Arseholes College—none of them had a similar power and class punch. I think that is because it is not a safe word; it is because even the middle class fears it.
Danny’s mentality right up until that critical race is that he’s the best, the strongest, the winner. It’s how he mitigates all the shit getting thrown his way, but—and I thought this was very clever—when he does lose, he has no mechanism to deal with any of the negativity in his life, so he spirals into shame. Can you talk a little bit about that stripping away of his only defense?
I started writing the novel envying Danny, envying what I called the purity of his goals. Unlike writing or any artistic endeavor, an athlete can quantify his/her achievement. If she is the first to cross the line, she is the best in her competition, in the country, in the world if it is the Olympics. For a writer and artist, I don’t think it matters how many awards you win or how successful a particular work may be. There will always be the internal voice jeering: You’re not that good. Your work won’t last. But in the process of working on Barracuda, interviewing sports people, living in Danny’s head—that initial envy turned to compassion. The ruthlessness of competition is something that doesn’t make sense in the arts, nor should it. There is no objective criteria for determining “the best;” it isn’t possible. It is a freedom that an artist has that isn’t available to the athlete. An athlete can only be “the fastest, the strongest, the best,” for a very finite and limited period. If the athlete has only the desire to win, the inevitable failure of the body can become catastrophic. This is Danny’s experience: failure leaves him devastated. He loses himself. I was very struck by the number of ex-swimmers who spoke about the importance of family. It seemed to me that the ones who had made the most successful transition into a post-sporting life had family and friends who continually reminded them that there was more to life than winning. It determined how I wrote about Danny’s family. But in the most despairing moment, the moment of failure and shame, it doesn’t matter how loving the world around you is; you have to go through that terrible fire on your own. That was the story I wanted to write with Barracuda, of how this one man, this one ex-swimmer, made it through the fire.
One thing that perhaps doesn’t get as much attention in the media when talking about this book is the religious stuff. Danny’s mom is a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness, and it’s something that has caused the family—the larger family and also Danny’s nuclear family—a lot of consternation over the years. Why did you decide to write about religiosity in this way?
I wanted to make Danny’s mother a Jehovah’s Witness so that we get a sense of Stephanie having had to make her own choices and sacrifices in her youth when it came to belonging. It also meant that she was an outsider in the Greek community of Melbourne. I thought that would be more interesting, that it would allow for an exploration of family life rooted in ideas of faith rather than in nationhood or ethnicity. I think that the excommunication that Stephanie experiences is brutal, but I didn’t want to be superficial or arrogant about the truth of such religious belief. I wanted Bettina, Danny’s Jehovah’s Witness aunt, to have a real presence and sincerity, so that we respect her even in her apparent hardness. I grew up Orthodox Christian—a religious experience based on ritual, celebration and tradition, a form of religion very different from puritan and evangelical Protestantism. I am attracted to the discipline and commitment of Protestant faith but also repelled by the austerity and the rigidity of it. It may be my own fear or weakness, but I am not interested in the God of Judgment. Yet, I am fascinated by people who try and live their life with the burden of such a faith—fascinated and frightened by them in equal measure. All this is a roundabout way of trying to explain that I am a man of faith without a faith, and that the enigma of religious experience will be one that I will return to, I suspect, for the rest of my writing life.