Diasporic Identities – Dionysia Mousoura-Tsoukala

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Diasporic Identities in the short stories of Greek Australian Female Writers: An approach to examine Greek migrant identity in the 20th Century through Dionysia Mousoura-Tsoukala’s short story “The Tractor”

Andrea Garivaldis

This paper deals with the notion of diasporic Greek identity as it appears in the short-stories of Greek Australian female writers during the twentieth century. Due to the limitations of space, the focus is drawn only to one of the short stories chosen to be the most representative of diasporic identities. The selected story is Dionysia Mousoura-Tsoukala’s work “Το τρακτέρ [The Tractor]”[1].

The current bibliography on Greek literature makes little or no reference to identity, with the exception of a few works such as the literary contribution of Professor Kanarakis, titled “Όψεις της Λογοτεχνίας των Ελλήνων της Αυστραλίας και Νέας Ζηλανδίας [Aspects of the Literature of Greeks in Australia and New Zealand]”(Kanarakis 2003). Although the Greek literature in Australia written in the first half of the twentieth century was predominately that of male writers, the female voice emerged dynamically in the second half of the century, making the female voice very distinct (Georgoudakis 2002; Nickas 1992). Thus, the Greek female writers in Australia appeared in the post-war era, during the Greek mass migration, with Vasso Kalamaras being the first, followed by Dina Amanatides and many more.

In an attempt to analyse the diasporic notion of identities in the selected short story, a devised model of ‘identity indicators’ is used, where the chosen indicators act as factors of identity formation. This model consists of a seven indicators, namely: place, language, socio-cultural elements, core values, religiosity, family formation and national symbols.

The story is told from a man’s point of view through Vassilis, the main character, as he reflects on past experiences concerning his family. It is a rather long story of about ten pages and written in the simple demotic language in an easy to follow narrative style. In a condensed style it presents a range of life experiences and messages in relevant to Greek persons of both the Diaspora and Greece. It provides a detailed view of a Greek migrant family’s struggle in Australia to survive, establish a home, and, at the same time, remain focused on their dream of return to the homeland. This dream is symbolically represented through ‘the tractor’, as also shown in the title of the story. The uniqueness of this story lies in the realization of the family’s return to the homeland, even though it happens under unpredictable circumstances. The writer uses a range of images from the recent past, such as the death of the man’s wife, interwoven with other images from the far past, including World War II and the Greek Civil War, followed by the family’s emigration to Australia.

Although Mousoura-Tsoukala’s stories concerning life in the homeland are usually set in her personal birthplace, the island of Zakynthos, this particular story deals with a family originating from the northern region of Greece. The setting begins with a scene in the family’s ancestral village outside Thessaloniki, where the main character gazes at the fields filled with wildflowers in the heart of spring[2].Vassilis experiences a potpourri of emotions as he remembers his wife Yiannoula, now passed away, and takes on a spiritual conversation with her about the life they lived together in Australia. The peaceful atmosphere becomes increasingly moving while the monologue progresses it. A flashback transfers the setting in Melbourne where the family lived for all their migrant life. The story unwinds presenting the family’s life from the day they disembarked in Australia until the day Yiannoula dies of breast cancer. Finally, the setting returns to the ancestral village in Greece, with Vassilis concluding the narration and expressing his view about the days to come.

Yiannoula is described as a beautiful lady, devoted wife and mother who sacrificed herself for the family. With her inspiration and perseverance, she was the source of courage and strength for her husband who feels lucky to have had such a force-driving and able wife. She was the one who kept the family’s dream alive, thus, to sustain their financial and emotional energy in order to save enough money to be able to actualize their return to their ancestral village, and there, to buy a tractor and work their land. The couple appears to have lived happily together, although life was often too harsh on them.

Yiannakis, the couple’s only son, was very young at the time of his parents’ migration to Australia. Having spent his early years in a solely Greek speaking environment, when he first went to school he could only speak Greek. His inability to communicate in English caused him embarrassment, which, together with other unpleasant experiences, influenced him psychologically in that he grew up to hate school. For this reason he did not succeed academically, however, he learnt a trade, “earning good money” and grew up to be a hardworking and honest person. Yiannakis is in love with Anna, their Italian neighbours’ daughter, whom he has known since childhood.

The story covers a range of rich and complex themes with the main one being the struggle of a young migrant family migrating to Australia with the dream of earning enough money to return home and then buy a tractor which they would need in order to be able to cultivate their land.

Other themes include:

1) the adverse conditions caused by war which forced large numbers of Greeks to emigrate to other lands;

2) the long and dangerous journey to Australia by sea;

3) the difficulties faced by migrants during the mass migration period regarding housing and settlement;

4) working patterns concerning migrant families with one spouse working day-shift and the other night-shift in order to be able to look after their young children;

5) the attempt by migrants to purchase their first house in their settlement but at the same time a risky effort as they are not aware of the terms and conditions of banking and legal policies;

6) the erosive effect of time on migrants staying focused on their initial dream of return but at the same time gradually beginning to adjust, and unavoidably integrating into the host society, thus finding it impossible to return home;

7) the occasions of serious illnesses and death which had a detrimental effect on the survival of a family;

8) inter-marriage among Greek and non-Greek second-generation persons;

9) the illegal taking of land owned by migrants by their relatives in the homeland;

10) the appalling way in which returnees are treated by the locals;

11) the decision of family members to transfer the remains of a loved person and bury them in their place of birth as it was their foremost wish;

12) the choice to visit the homeland every few years as a negotiated pathway of balancing life ‘here’ and ‘there’;

13) the carrying out and fulfillment of goals by the second-generation children set by their first-generation parents.

Several notions of diasporic identity appear in this story. The characters’ life in Australia is embodied with nostalgia and the urge for return to the homeland. However, the husband and son eventually decide to live in Australia as this is where they now belong and this is where the son’s future is. Identity is challenged in a variety of contexts. However, the concepts of ethno-cultural and personal identity are hugely tested in four main dilemmas which constitute important issues in this story: a) the dilemma of actualizing the dream of return under different circumstances as to how it was initially planned, considering that a member of the family has died and is buried in the foreign land; b) the dilemma of one deciding to live in the foreign land as having set roots there, against their initial plan to return home; c) the dilemma of second-generation young people to live in the country of origin, whilst they have already established relationships in Australia; d) finally, the dilemma in acknowledging, as projected by the protagonist, whether during the long absence from the homeland it is the migrants who have changed or perhaps the locals?

The place indicator reveals a number of notions of Greek identity: a) the reference to the family’s village in Northern Greece, outside Thessaloniki, Thermaikos Bay declares locality; b) the Patris ship, which departed from Piraeus full of migrants travelling to Australia, is a powerful symbol of homeland as indicated in its name ‘Patris’. Greece is also portrayed vividly through the landscape which the main character describes as being at home during spring-time, when nature is at its best.

The same indicator in its diasporic quality presents Australia as the “lucky country”, where “everything seems easy to achieve, everyone can have a job, people live in harmony despite the different religions, languages and colours, where there is no war”. All these positive attributes of Australia are highlighted so that a contrast can be made with the conditions back in Greece. At this point the writer, through the main character, maintains that the insecurity, poverty and miserable life conditions in Greece forced the “best of the population” to immigrate to other lands in search of a better life. It is also indirectly postulated that those in control of Greece who stayed behind would have felt satisfied for managing to get rid of so many thousands of young Greeks by sending them away “to be fed” by other nations. Greece, conversely to Australia which is portrayed to be a land of wealth, is referred to as ‘Psorokostena’, a term often used by many Greeks to describe their ‘poor country’.

The Culture indicator indirectly approaches issues such as the dowry required for a girl in order to get  married, stating that Yiannoula had received a house with a piece of land attached to it. During the family’s journey to the new land Christmas traditions were celebrated and Greek carols were sung aboard the Patris at Christmas. Cultural influences also appear in the mother’s relationship with her non-Greek prospective daughter-in-law as she indirectly introduces her into the Greek culture through food and cooking. Thus, the mother prepares her son’s marriage to the Italian-background girl by showing her how to make the traditional ‘pita’ the way her son likes it.

The language indicator identifies language characteristics, proverbs and sayings. There are examples where Yiannoula sings folk songs to her little boy during the journey aboard the ship to Australia,[3] showing the interconnection of traditional songs and music with Greek life. Other linguistic features pinpoint language expressions in casual conversational contexts. The general language of the text reflects the rich sample of cultural characteristics in Greek life-style and society.

Family is very important to Greek migrants and this is shown through the family bonds indicator. These bonds are solidly evident throughout the story-lines expressing a strong relationship between husband and wife, and that of parents and children. Thus, Yiannoula is portrayed as a focused and devoted wife who admits a loss from her battle with cancer, while continuing to give advice and guidance to her husband and son regarding their future. She accepts to be buried in the host country rather than her motherland in order for her husband and son to enjoy the benefits of staying in Australia, in contrast to the settlement difficulties in Greece should they decided to go back.

Through the religiosity indicator migrants are found to realise that it is very difficult or almost impossible for them to actualize their return to the ancestral land, comforting themselves in the thought that ‘God is everywhere’ and therefore ‘their souls can be rested in any land’. Thus, Orthodoxy is given an ecumenical dimension and a transnational character.

Furthermore to the diasporic aspect of identity, transnationalism is also evident throughout the text and is particularly expressed through the family’s aim to repatriate. The fact that migrants did not buy any new furniture or other household items, especially appliances that could not be taken back to Greece on their future return indicates that migrants viewed their migration as only temporary. The constant connection of the main characters’ state of mind with the homeland is enabled through memory and through the symbol of the ‘tractor’. This transnational interchange is also evident from the reverse context; thus, when the main character finds himself in Greece after his wife’s death, he experiences a similar mental process taking place as he feels emotionally connected to Australia. The decision of the son to take his mother’s remains to the homeland, as well as seeds of native flowers from Australia to plant in the garden of their family house in Greece, adds a very strong sense of transnationalism to diasporic identity.  It is thus evident that transnational identity “accents the attachments migrants maintain to families, communities, traditions and causes outside the boundaries of the nation-state to which they have moved” (Vertovec 2001, p. 574).

This story provides numerous examples of migrant life in Australia expressed through a wide range of representations. The erosion of identity is particularly well illustrated. For example, identity changes from its original powerful composition of strong love, nostalgia, and ‘symbolic’ dream of return to the ancestral homeland, to a passive, accepting, modified, and accommodating identity which develops after many years of living in the new land. Thus, Yiannoula accepts that Australia is now the family’s home, Vassilis is happy to spend his retirement years in both Australia and Greece, and Yiannakis, a second-generation Greek, is going to marry an Italian-background girl and live in Australia, although he will often be taking his family to his parents’ ancestral village.

The case of Yiannoula dying of breast cancer is yet another example of the problems faced by many women, including Greek migrant women, which is important to consider in the research process of identity. The female Greek-migrant identity is thus revealed in its social-health dimension. This issue creates questions of whether many migrant women struck by cancer have been victims of ignorance about prevention, exposure to hazardous jobs, or simply having suffered too many hardships.

Finally, the Greek diasporic and transnational identities are well interlinked as the surviving characters decide to spend time in both the adopted country and the ancestral land. This bi-polar identity, swinging between ‘here’ and ‘there’, establishes that even the dead wife’s and mother’s remains can be transported and buried in the homeland. So, in this way the female figure becomes the new symbol of return, replacing the tractor which had been the driving force of repatriation while she was still alive. The concept of return in this context is modified in that it becomes a series of regular visits or temporary stays. A chain of identities becomes the regulator of the ‘migrant-longing-returnee’ dilemma.

References                                                                    

Georgoudakis, E. (2002). Ποιήτριες Ελληνικής Καταγωγής στη Βόρεια Αμερική, Αυστραλία και Γερμανία, Ακροβατώντας ανάμεσα σε δυο πατρίδες, δυο ταυτότητες [Female Poets of Greek origin in North America, Australia and Germany, Pacing between two countries, two identities], Thessaloniki: University Studio Press.

Kanarakis, G. (2003). Opseis tis Logotehnias ton Ellinon tis Afstralias ke Neas Zilandias [Aspects of the Literature of Greeks in Australia and New Zealand], Athens: Ekdoseis Grigoris.

Leivada, K. (ed), (2004). Ανθολογία Ελληνικού διηγήματος [Anthology of Greek Short Story], Athens: Politistiki Synergasia, Ariadne Series, pp. 155-165.

Mousoura-Tsoukala, D. (2000). Ο Κραταιός Νόστος… σε πεζό ρυθμό [The Powerful Nostalgia in prose rhythm], Melbourne: RMIT University Greek-Australian Archives Publications, pp. 119-30.

Nickas, H., (1992). “Writing the “other: the Literary Contribution of Greek Australian Women Writers”, Greeks in English Speaking Countries, Hellenic Studies Forum, Proceedings of the First International Seminar, Melbourne: Hellenic Studies Forum Inc.

Vertovec, S. (2001). “Transnationalism and Identity”, in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp.573-582.

[1] Mousoura-Tsoukala, D. (2000). Το Τρακτέρ [The Tractor], Ο Κραταιός Νόστοςσε πεζό ρυθμό [The Powerful Nostalgia, in prose rhythm], Melbourne: RMIT University Greek-Australian Archives Publications, pp. 119-30; also in Leivada (2004).

[2] “Απριλομάης, μ’ όλες τις μυρωδιές και τα λουλούδια του. Με τα μελτέμια και τα μπουρίνια του ν’ αγκαλιάζει το Θερμαϊκό και να χαϊδεύουν απ’ άκρη σ’ άκρη τον όμορφο Βορρά [It is AprilMay, with all its smells and flowers. With the northern winds embracing Thermaikos Bay and caressing the beautiful North (of Greece) all over”

[3] Μαράθηκε ο Γιαννάκης, πικράθηκε ο Γιαννάκης…