i first heard about charkianakis from anna dimitrou. anna gave a paper at the deakin hdr conference, & she has kindly allowed me to publish it on reading revival. here is annas note, followed by the paper.
I am sending you the paper on the paramythi which I presented at the HDR CONFERENCE 25TH MARCH 2006.
I give you permission to use it as long as you acknowledge the various authors and that it is my interpretation of them. Regards Anna
PAPER: The paramythi; In what way does it define cultural identity?
Or “What have Ghost Stories, Fairytales and the Didgeridoo got in common?”
Maxine Hong Kingston ends The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a girlhood among ghosts with an allusion to a poetess , Ts’ai Yen who whilst in exile sang
“about China and her family there. Her words seemed to be Chinese, but the barbarians understood their sadness and their anger.”
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker renamed) in her poem ‘We Are Going” makes a protest against disinheritance and exposes the cultural devastation that has been the indigenous experience since the beginning of colonization or the arrival of the ‘white barbarians’.
“We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low…We are nature and the past, all the old ways Gone now and scattered ... And we are going.”
S. Charkianakis in his poem ‘Within Dreamtime’ (1994), writes
He carved his name on the trunk
of a tree:
then he started playing his ancestral Didgeridoo
taking out of his chest the bitterness
of a race
which didn’t condescend to abandon
simply to defend birds in the hands
which always thought as wasted
All of the above narratives, taken from writers of different cultural backgrounds, display the common tongue of displacement literature. The Chinese, the Australian Aboriginal and the Greek Australian writer have ties to a cultural heritage which continues to display signs of very long oral poetic traditions. Perhaps connections between these texts is not so obvious but hopefully at the end of this paper they will be more apparent. In these texts there is a level that goes beyond the rational and it is what I will coin as the paramythic function. This is a new word which I hope to introduce into Australian literary critique and it is what my research is based on. All the above poets express it in their differing styles. It is my argument that through the paramythic or talk story or aboriginal song, these writers express not only their individuality but their cultural inheritance. My particular interest is in discovering, through literature, the cultural wealth of Greek Australian writing, with particular attention given to the ‘paramythic’ qualities present.
Definition of Paramythi: literal and cultural meaning and how is it related to the myth?
What is the paramythi? How is it related to the mythic? It was Frye who said that “myths of concern exist to hold society together”. Lidz says that man sought to understand and control inconsistencies in him self and others and hence told or wrote stories to understand these and come to a type of symbiosis with self and others, his culture and others. Myths recur throughout time and in varying places in different but not unrecognisable form. Yet myths belong to a general collective. Mythic heroes like today’s Superman can be recognised universally and traced back to Prometheus, Hercules or Culhwch, and are extensions of the same story with the same symbolic significance. Yet the paramythi belongs to a more individualised audience and the paramythia that one tells displays an affiliation to one’s sense of self even though that self belongs to a particular community, group or orientation. In other words the paramythi one says, or writes often discloses where one’s identity points towards. The paramythi translated from Greek into English, as a noun, means a fairytale, an incredible story, a falsehood. However used as a verb it connotes solace, consolation, a yearning for an idyllic age of innocence. It suggests continuity from primordial yearnings through to the present. Even though it is like a personal belonging it also suggests a connection to the storyteller, to one’s place in the world, to ancestors and community.
Initially I searched to see whether any criticism or discourse analysis had been made on the ‘paramythi’. There were numerous fictions identified as paramythia in Modern Greek anthologies yet there was no critique of the actual genre. I found only one analysis by Vangelos Audikos, (1994, Odysseas Edition), The Popular Paramythi: Theoretical Introductions. It was in Greek and out of print. Within the Greek Australian context no research had been made on the paramythi explicitly. Gillian Bottomley had explored examples of Greek Australian creative work but within a theoretical framework of ‘transnationalism’ in communication studies. Her paper was published in the Journal of International Studies (April 2002 v 23 i1 p.47. However my hope is to locate the Greek Australian authors who use the paramythi either textually or intertextually, to analyse their work and find common themes and then to proceed to translating these messages so that they will be understood by a diverse and plural Australian society where many voices are heard and appreciated.
Method and methodology
The methodology I shall use will be a type of cultural translation within the Interpretivist framework requiring triangulation of various perspectives ; the multicultural writers’ poetry or prose will be chosen and presented as one perspective, this will be translated and analysed by the researcher who is biliterate, and then the reader who is interested in cross cultural textual analysis will also participate in this dialogue. The reader will interpret according to her or his own ideological underpinnings and so the works can be remade according to reader’s own interests. Using deconstruction the critic as well as the reader also finds new meanings which go beyond what was intended by the writer.
It was Edward Said who described the migrant, the visionary poet as “he who crosses boundaries, the exile involved in an intellectual mission, who can view from another perspective and see the whole consort dancing contrapuntally by merging of differences”. The perspective of the interpretivist will contribute to meaning as in this case I am in a position of cultural alignment, having been educated in the English literary tradition but also aware of the Greek literary and cultural traditions. Therefore this work can exhibit, translate and analyse by looking at style, form and themes, what the texts mean, and their connections to other texts. The analysis of the paramythi covers many areas such as cultural translation, literary history and cultural history.
Initially in my undergraduate studies I was drawn to Maxine Hong Kingston and her use of ‘talk story’ as she used it not only to express self but also to reconcile her present to her past which is a function of myth. The talk story seems to be the Chinese oral equivalent of the paramythi. In The Warrior Woman the most pervasive character is her mother, the transmitter of myth and storyteller, the shuttle between dream and reality (Yalom). The author’s self realisation is revealed in the final chapter “Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending mine.’ Her mother’s oral tradition is merged to the poetry of Ts’ai Yen and her own written craft, a transformation of the talk story into literature. She makes use of the Chinese talk story which had been the only viable strategy for the transmission of culture from one generation to the next in a country where there was mass illiteracy. Chinese immigrants then took this story telling tradition with them to the new world. Myth, cultural narratives, legends and pieces of history would be talk storied by relatives and parents, often to do with their own personal circumstances. Maxine Hong Kingston gave the talk story a new literary meaning, translating a Chinese cultural phenomenon for an American audience. It was Maxine Hong Kingston’s work that prompted me to find the equivalent of the talk story in Greek Australian writing, and to translate and analyse the cultural meaning of paramythi for an Australian audience.
The Greeks have always loved their stories. The paramythi was expressed orally, in folk songs, in children’s stories, in popular repeated sayings and was told by the common people. It was Seferis who pointed out on his treatise “On the Greek Style’ that a modern folk song may throw light on a passage of Homer and fill in the meaning of Aeschylus”. Yet he asks how much of the logical, the rational element is there in our folk tales, in our paramythia, in our myths? Chinua Achebe says that the myth in prose and in poetry comes from man’s deepest apprehension of reality where moments of timelessness are compared to our fleeting moments. He also points out that myths are the most effective exploitation of the true nature of language and yet they are marginalised in that they have suffered from a disreputable name. This is also true of the paramythi. Yet these simple stories told by common people have served to reassure and to describe those thoughts, feelings, desires, dreams that cannot be described any other way. They show development of the psyche (Greek word for soul, spirit, mind) and are the antithesis to material progress.
I have found that Greek Australian writers have inherited a love of story telling and some writers refer to the mythic and/or the paramythic either overtly or intertextually. There is a lot of evidence of paramythia in folksongs written in Australia as well as in miroloia, amanedes and rebetika. The paraloges/ballads are almost paramythia in verse and Greek Oz rhymsters make direct use of paramythia as they sing. It was however in Charkianakis that I found direct references to the paramythi, more so than in the other writers I analysed. After having read countless short stories, poems, novels I found elements of what I was looking for in Antigone Kefala, Vasso Kalamaras, Dina Amanatidou, Christos Tsiolkas, and Fotini Epanomitis.
It was Charkianakis poem ‘Against the Barbarians’ which illustrated what I understood as the most authentic description of paramythi and its role today. He called it “ the people’s most lean diet, serving a universal need for rich and poor alike. Since it has been discarded by critical logic which makes fun of it, we now have the situation where psychiatrists act our grandmother roles and again the world dies in despair.” The enemy of dreams, of poetry and of imagination is what Charkianakis describes as the ‘barbaric spirit’ which could be analogous to the infiltration of critical logic and materialism. This barbaric spirit is what Maxine Hong Kingston’s writing seeks to speak against in writing her memoire and it is also the cause of the protest songs of the Aboriginals. Charkianakis transmits this message in his poem ‘Within Dreamtime’. He sees the Aboriginal playing the digeridoo and “carving his name on the trunk of a tree” as the only viable defence of his cultural heritage. The western spirit of materialism, he writes, is as useless as spilt milk for the indigenous native. Guugi Yimithiri speaks of the sense of loss his tribe has experienced in witnessing the gradual degradation of his people’s culture. They see language as the backbone to cultural identity “by keeping our language strong, keeps us strong..language teaches us kinship, keeps us together”. Language and its oral expression is important for the indigenous Australian as it is for the Greek Australian poet and so they recognise a common relationship through the stories they each tell, their only weapon against the penetration of barbarianism.
Greek Australian authors using the paramythi
Antigone Kefala’s poetry has a distinct style and due to her background she has access to a plural vision yet her writing conveys a sense of being foreign. Her tone has a fatalistic longing and dreams blend with reality. In European Notebook and in The Alien themes of cultural dislocation are conveyed in a self conscious confessional style. Old world impressions are contrasted to the present urbane, uncoloured reality
“You that had lost the image and the way
had lost now even the recollection of the way
and had wandered through the broken walls
in that far country.” ( ‘Memory’ in The Alien, P.18)
Her short novellas could be called poetic prose, read like a paramythi yet for adults.
She describes a narrative sequence of events but then adds her own reflection. She comments on stories she remembers showing an affiliation with an oral tradition. She specifically refers to oral personalities. Angeliki , in The First Journey (1975), was viewed by the narratorial voice as ‘an oral person who spoke of the old country ... but didn’t talk about its disaster, only the good memories of life” yet her own style is not oral but self consciously literate. Creative writing is perhaps her tool against despair as well as her way of keeping memory alive even though it alienates her even more from her society, as it did in Maxine Hong Kingston’s case. Both were migrants trying to reconcile their present to their past, needing some sort of anchor, a connection to a collective unconscious in a new land which had a very different cultural heritage to theirs. This led them to create a new mythography.
In The Island she writes of her protagonist Melina that “she felt the others felt an immense pity for her in their eyes” as she was divided from them by an experience that could never be theirs “that I was burning out a last effervescence of sound, burnt by a gift that I possessed that could not save me now, a gift that was my doom, that divided me from them”(p.74) She sang a song to them that was the archetypal Greek migrant’s song, based on a myth but which was also expressing her innermost concerns , the fear of loss of memory and identity , “of the road of forgetfulness that went deeper and deeper taking away the mind’s landscape, and the signs and the return journey an unmapped dream”. The theme of the dream dissolving she repeats in ‘Coming Home’ (European Notebook)
“What if we forgot who we are
Become lost in this absence
Emptied of memory
We the only witnesses of ourselves, before whom
Shall the drama be enacted?
Cultural identity assumes an important part of her work as does the theme of exile but the paramythi transmits her own personal experiences using her own unique style.
Exile is considered the great drama by the modern Greek writer Seferis in Mythistorima; “We were searching to rediscover the first seed so that the ancient drama could begin again”. For Charkianakis the theme of exile is viewed in a more positive light as he compares exile as the curse that becomes a blessing in Soil and Ashes, his first poem ‘Instead of a Prologue’;
From the Earth to the Fire
All your journeys
Your dreams green
And your grief a longing
So that in your hands may blossom the charred remnants
And you may accept as a blessing the curse.
In Ancient Greek drama exile away from the mother land was considered a curse. Io in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound was the archetypal forced migrant, left to wander the earth, moon shaped and tormented because she had not bent her will to Zeus’ will. Odysseus is the mythic figure who has been rewritten by so many writers. Seferis in ‘Upon a Foreign Verse’ connects with Odysseus through the paramythi and it is as though Odysseus speaks to him personally “humbly and calmly, without effort, as though he were my father or certain old sailors of my childhood”. The paramythi expresses the poet’s connection to the past but is a way of transmitting his ambivalent feelings towards Australia as “a place of dreams cradled together with the bitterest nostalgia of the immigrant’ (‘Fremantle’ in Australian Passport 1992). In ‘Exile’(1966), the pre Australian period of his life, when he was in Germany, he writes as though a confession “I who read all volumes of silence, who saw the sun falsifying its light, I was forced to ask refuge under the shelter of the air”. If he had never left the security of his familiar surroundings he would never have discovered the peace he found; “One day we left parents and siblings we each left some occupation and we followed nothing for nothing and discovered peace.”(in ‘Studying Death’ 1984, Adelaide). The sojourner ,older and more experienced, by being alone and recognising that he too , like all humanity was “following the one way road of the body (life’s inevitable progression towards death) had learned, having accepted the positive outcomes of displacement in Australia, the blessedness of total dispossession of all material and social comforts.
Charkianakis’ poetry deals with deep existential questions which often begin in simple observations. He does not idealise life’s reality, nor does he make it sound idyllic as in fairytales yet the fairytale plays an important part in his world view. It serves as a reassurance in a world gone wrong, “yet without the dream life is unbearable” in ‘Dream ‘ (1979). It explores a vision of wonder, reveals a heightened sensitivity connecting past to present and bridges the oral to the written so harmoniously trying to “capture and decipher the hieroglyphics sent by God’ (in ‘Simply Thus’ Australian Passport, p.16). His allusions to other authors and popular sayings illustrates how “a poet creates his forebears” as Ritsos had once said, how he needs to look back at the sayings of the ancient but also modern Greeks even though it is the voice of the common people. He appreciates and makes use of the voice of experience and even repetition.
His positioning as a migrant, but also a philosophic thinker has taught him that it is the migrant who has experienced life in all its dimensions. The migrant might appear to be like the mythical shipwrecked figure or even like the disabled people on wheelchairs (a metaphor for the silencing caused by inability to speak the language in the host country). Yet it is the migrant who can allow cinders to blossom as the eucalyptus blossoms after a fire, and to move history on as Y. Ritsos said. This saying was used as a foreword to Charkianakis poem ‘Again and Again’ in Australian Passport, 1987, p. 133).
At the other end of the paramythic spectrum is ChristosTsiolkas. He uses the paramythi subversively in Dead Europe(2005), daring to break all boundaries, approaching social fears and taboos in the search for self. He uses contradiction by mixing high and low culture in a gothic style , with notions of the barbarianism implicit throughout the text. He uses it to explain racism , exposes fear of the past, fear of aristocracy, fear of racial degeneracy and fear of the barbaric which does not only belong to the past but is ever present and continues to the future. Demons, ghosts, evil spirits intermingle with humans. Racial hatred prompts the dissolution of the self which oscillates between a paranoid identity, a schizophrenic existence identifying alternately between superman (the creative artist/photographer) and no man. It could read as a Greek tragedy but it reads more like a Nietzschean nightmare with a Faustian theme. It is caught between the need to connect and the inability to do so. In Greek culture those who are isolated from community and family are considered weird, outsiders, barbaric. Tsiolkas positioning allows him to present this alternate version of the paramythi as does Fotini Epanomitis in The Mule’s Foal. Their version disrupts the notion of paramythi as consolation, and reassurance -- in a world gone wrong. It seems to take part and is complicit in continuing the nightmare of the world unhinged. He consciously seeks to make a severance from the past, perhaps his own by searching the dark side of his self but this only causes a cycle of alienation. The stories or paramythia he tells reveal his affiliation and his identity. They are extremely personal journeys placing his stories on the other end of the paramythic spectrum and approach gothic surrealism.
The Greek oral tradition is based on the mythological epic form. Gods and heroes, demigods and other idealised world replace ghosts of the Chinese talk story. The Greek mind had a transcendent imagination, its way of understanding was visual with an obsession for being and truth and used the mythic to explain society to one another as well as to understand one’s position in the world. Tsiolkas perhaps employs some of these traits but exposes a very dark side, his mythic characters are ghouls and demons and he uses these to explain his view of society and self.
Charkianakis’ direct reference to paramythia and dreaming as well as reference to Eastern Orthodox spirituality lifts his poetry to another dimension. It is not negative although it does relay a realistic impression of self and society. Because life is hard he suggests a return to the land of dreams and paramythia, to the sea which symbolises paradise. Themes he explores are “poetry as the poets attempts to raise fireworks and sparrows”, wonder, silence, light, exile, loss of memory, return home. At the end of each poem he places a date and place as though recording his own autobiographical journal.
In Charkianakis’ poetry, and especially in its tone, I found connections to both Eliot and Seferis, as they all display a broad poetic vision using insights from everyday simple things which become metaphors for universal truths. He, like Seferis and Eliot, is affected by the émigré experience. and they make heavy use of memory as a theme. He not only makes memory visible but also tangible so that the reader can almost feel “the sting of the salt of the open wound” (in ‘Road of Double Directions’ 1986) which is not allowed to close or sense the frozen state of the crane in the return gaze, imagine his puffed up stance and recognise his own inertia, his own feelings of suffocation, his inability to fly freely and circumnavigate the world (‘Boomerang’ 1997). His unique position as an acclaimed theologian and academic does not deter from the fact that his poems can reach all levels and touch the simple as well as the literati. As a Greek Australian writer he is aware of deep, personal, cultural and social concerns which embrace many people irrespective of nationality and has appreciated the wonder in contemplating the everyday, small events of life in Australia.
This work does not seek to be postcolonial in that it makes a protest of colonialism. Rather it is in finding, through paramythia and talk stories, the significance of an oral tradition being adapted into literature and thereby proclaiming a search for personal identity, but also for roots, connections into one’s past but also movement into the future with a voice that has been enriched by the diasporic experience. By entering a textual and intertextual analysis of the paramythic in Greek Australian texts, diasporic writers will be given the chance to speak in their own voices even though, in many cases, they will need to be translated and deconstructed.
Those interested in this kind of work would not be just scholars in multicultural analysis but also in how living cultures adapt, how cultural identity is revealed through literary studies. It is an opportunity to widen the critique of a national literature that is changing, is not homogenous but diverse and made up of such writers who display traits from an oral poetic tradition spanning thousands of years. There are connections between the Chinese, the Aboriginal, and the Greek Australians and these connections become even more apparent because of the diaspora experience. Taken from the marginalised position , from the corners, and allowed to be the subject of investigation, to be appreciated they will perhaps “strike us a blow” as Gadamer says of literary texts. “Only then can it be accepted with an accent that is the beginning of a long and often repeated effort at understanding” and so to begin to the work of cultural translation. Spivak wrote that cultural translation is in effect learning to listen rather than to speak and learning to speak to rather than for others. Theorists involved in cross cultural and transcultural frameworks are literary scholars such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhahba, cultural anthropologist Geertz and philosophers such as Gadamer and Heiddeger. As the investigation has to take into account the movement from orality to the literacy, classical literary critics such as Havelock and Walter Ong will also be referred to. Representatives of modern Greek literary tradition will include Kakridi’s analysis The Poet and the Mythic Tradition as well as Seferis’ On The Greek Style and Charkianakis theological appreciation of Neos Erotocritos of Pandeli Prevelaki.
The sole purpose of this paper is to promote scholarly work
and research. No part of this work may be published or copied
without the permission of the author Anna Dimitriou