Dmetri Kakmi and 'Mother Land' - Interview Part One

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by Paul

Last year, I interviewed Dmetri Kakmi for the annual Port Fairy Ex Libris Book Fair. His memoir Mother Land had recently been published in Australia by Giramondo and, while I tend to read fiction in preference to non-fiction, there were many qualities about this particular book that made it one of my reading highlights for the year. Twelve months later, and on the eve of Mother Land being released in the UK by Eland, I thought it timely to transcribe the tape of that interview by way of introducing the author of this powerful piece of writing to a wider audience. The book is also available in Turkish through E Yayinlari.

I began by asking Dmetri, who is also a senior editor for Penguin Books Australia and a widely-translated essayist, how he’d approached the writing of Mother Land.

DK: It’s been a very rewarding experience for me [as an essayist] to put my thoughts on paper and to communicate ideas with people, but I’ve always seen myself as someone who writes 5, 10, 15,000 words at the very most, so I never considered writing anything as long as Mother Land.

It came about because in 1999 I returned to the island where I was born in Turkey. (It’s called Bozcaada in Turkish and the Greek name is Tenedos.) We left in 1971 and came to Australia. I hadn’t been back for almost 30 years. I was 10 years old when I came here [Australia] and I was almost 40 when I went back. What I found on the island was that the Greek community, although it had existed there for many thousands of years, was on the verge of disappearing. We had gone from 4–5,000 Greek people living on the island at the beginning of the 20th century, to 2,000 people in the 60s. Then I went back in ‘99 there were 32 elderly people left. When I went back there 2 years ago, there were 12 elderly people. I realised that when these people die, that’s it – complete wipe-out – so I came back to Australia feeling very despondent, and not knowing what to do about it.

I was talking about this with the then-editor of the A2 section of The Age – a wonderful novelist called Susan Johnson – and she said, ‘You should write an essay about this for The Age.’ I grabbed the opportunity and wrote a piece (I call it my Wog Goes Home And Has A Good Sob story). I didn’t take it very seriously, even though what I was writing was very heartfelt. I thought: Who’s going to be interested in reading about all these Greeks dying? I was astounded, therefore, when I received literally hundreds of letters; not just from Greeks and Turks, but from Australians, people from Spain and Egypt – the piece has been translated into 5 languages. Soon after it came out in The Age, the publisher of Giramondo, Ivor Indyk, rang and said, ‘Can we have lunch?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not.’ And while we were having lunch, he said, ‘You know there’s a book in this essay.’ I went: ‘Nah, there isn’t.’ And I didn’t take his suggestion seriously, but he’d planted a seed and about a year after that I started to scribble.

What I was doing, I guess, was writing a chap-book; trying to capture the stories, the mythology, the history of the Greek people who had lived on the island. It was a dry little book with facts, figures, that sort of stuff; it would only have appealed to the specialist. I had no intentions of publishing. It was merely something I was doing to honour the people I had grown up with. An act of homage, I suppose.

I wrote in this manner for about a year or two, but I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing. An emotional core was missing. It didn’t speak to me and I didn’t love it. One day my sister rang and said, ‘Do you want to have dinner?’ I said: ‘Sure.’ And while we were having dinner, she told me the most extraordinary things I’ve ever heard. She told me things our mother had told her before she died – my mother died of cancer in 1993 – things she had never spoken about to anyone. I left that night feeling shaken. The stuff was shocking, it was saddening, but it made lunatic sense of a lot of the things that were happening with my mother when we were growing up. Like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces all over the place; and suddenly all the pieces fell into place and I thought what an interesting story this is. I went away and within the week I started incorporating my mother’s story into the manuscript, but I didn’t know how to do it, other than just dropping stories here and there and sort of mixing her into the narrative. It still wasn’t gelling for me, until one night I woke up at 2:30 in the morning and there was a voice in my head. It was the voice of a 9-year-old boy speaking very rapidly, describing sitting under a mulberry tree, having lunch with his sister and his mother – it’s the depth of summer, on the island. I woke up, crawled out of bed, turned on the computer, sat there for half an hour and typed out things – 2 or 3 paragraphs – that were just running through my head.

In the morning, I had a look at it and thought: I’ve finally found a voice for the book. It had taken me three years to get there, but suddenly I knew how to tell the story. And it’s the voice of myself as a 9- 10-year-old boy, which is the central part of the narrative – Part Two. Once I found that, I felt confident of what I was doing. I knew where I was headed and how the story was going to be told. Then one evening my father rings and says: ‘Are you still writing your book?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ He says: ‘Come over. I’ve got something to tell you.’

Now, when people say, “Come over I’ve got something to tell you,” I reckon it’s best to stay away because it’s usually going to be bad news, but in this case it was really fortuitous. There’s a character in the book called Athena. She’s the boy’s second cousin; she lives next door and he’s completely besotted with her. She’s almost his mother’s age, but she’s this golden angel and he wants to marry her. One day, Athena disappears and is never seen or heard of again. Well, that night my father told me what happened to Athena. I left his house feeling utterly devastated. It was like I’d been walking on solid ground for all of my life, and suddenly that solid ground had turned to thin ice. Everything I had believed in vanished and I was left with a void that I had to fill in again. I knew the next day that I’d finally found the backbone of the story. It was going to be two women’s stories and around that I was going to hang the story of the Greek people of Anatolia.

For part two of this interview click here.

1 comment:

kathleenmaher said...

Fascinating--I'll look for this book. Wonderful interview.