Dmetri Kakmi, author of Mother Land, widely-translated essayist and senior editor for Penguin Australia was interviewed live.
Click to read Part One of this interview.
PB: Very often, when people talk about discovering their stories from their past and then coming to terms with them, there’s a catharsis in that process. Yet the moment we decide to share those stories in a public domain, as a writer concerned with the craft of writing, one also has to decide what's going to work as part of that story and what isn’t going to work. You just can’t unburden everything. In Mother Land, there are a number of acts of brutality, some of which the young Dmetri witnesses, but some of which he also participates in. How difficult was it to share those events and to write them, and to know what to put in and why you were putting them in?
DK: The best way to answer this is to say that once I found the women’s stories and realised that in order to make this a successful narrative, I had to [include these events] even though I knew that no one in my family would be happy with what I was revealing. Athena's story would’ve been acceptable ... but there are things about my mother’s past that are incredibly private. I had to think deeply about whether to include these stories because, although my mother is dead, my father is very much alive, and of course you don’t want to hurt people. At the same time, I felt a great responsibility to tell these women’s stories because, in that part of the world, women’s lives are invisible. They are not brought to the fore in ways that they are in our society. With both women, there was a great deal of shame and guilt and sense of wrong-doing. I didn’t see it that way at all. To me they were simply human beings who were trying to be as honest and truthful and open about their lives as possible. I felt honour-bound, in a way, to tell these stories and to say: There is no shame; it’s okay.
I actually consider both these women heroic, even though some people who have read the book have said: ‘You’re mother was a bit of a bitch really, wasn’t she?’ I don’t think she was. I think she was a kind of savage heroine, and Athena turned out to be quite a radical and a rebel. For me, there is enormous pride in telling these stories. So once I came to that conclusion, I thought: Stuff people being upset – I couldn’t give a damn. If they didn’t want the stories to come out, they shouldn’t have done these things in front of a child who'd grow up to be a writer.
My father, thankfully, is illiterate and will never read the book. I know that’s an awful thing to say – “thankfully” – but it saves a lot of anxiety, to be honest. Some Greeks may read it though and they will tell him. The Turkish edition is coming out in early 2009 – he can’t read Turkish either, but we do have friends who do, so it will come out eventually; and I have to say I dread it because I don’t want to hurt him. At the same time, I think I’m honouring his wife’s life and, although there are some rather brutal sections in the story between husband and wife, I don’t think the father comes across as the brute that Judith Armstrong's review in The Age made him out to be. I don’t think he is at all. I think there’s a lot of compassion in that character. Um, I’ve forgotten the question ...
PB: About the acts of brutality that the young Dimitri participates in and how difficult you ...
DK: Well, look, I realised that if I was being honest and open about everyone else’s life, I had to be as open as possible about my own life, otherwise it is a coward’s book and is not worth writing. I suspect what you’re referring to is the animal-killing sequences.
Towards the end of the story, the boy – the narrator of the story – for reasons he does not quite yet understand, begins to turn from victim to perpetrator of violence. I’m not going to go into the details because the reader should discover them for themselves; and yes readers have been shocked by them, but to be honest I’m glad I put them in because the reason those sections are in there, quite apart from truth-telling, is [to convey] that a brutal environment creates brutal people. I could not have said that as well without running the risk of making the boy, who is, after all, our narrator and the one who we identify with, not all he seems to be. I’m glad it’s in there. Secondly, I wanted to say something about the nature of violence, how it can spread through a community like a virus and affect even the most surprising individuals.
What surprised me is the controversy those scenes have generated. I keep thinking: This is bizarre; so he’s killing animals – big deal. You know, this is a book about an entire race of people being annihilated; this is a book about husbands and wives and children beating each other to a pulp – no one wants to talk about that, but everyone wants to talk about a couple of cats and dogs being killed. Of course it’s unconscionable – one should not hurt animals – but there are bigger issues here and it came to the fore for me recently when I was being interviewed for an article in a Greek newspaper. The journalist, who is a Greek writer herself, said: ‘Look, I’ve got to ask you about something that really, really disturbed me.’ And I thought, here it comes: the cat scenes again. But she didn’t. She said, ‘There is a lot of violence here towards women.’ I actually reached out and hugged her. I said, ‘Thank you so much. You’re the first person who actually wants to talk about the violence towards people rather than cats ...’ I think that’s a difference in culture ... And certainly for Greeks and Turks, the notion of genocide and a culture being wiped out is a very real issue; it’s not so real here [in Australia] although we do have our treatment of Aborigines so it should be a real issue. Frankly, white Australians are being hypocritical when they say that issues of genocide in Mother Land are too far removed from their reality. Yeah, well, look at what happened to the indigenous people of Tasmania and many other parts of Australia during the early years of white settlement...
Part Three of this interview appears here.