Seeing and Believing Explores the Longings of the Displaced Expatriate
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Gillian Bouras
Columnist Anna Roins
Seeing and Believing
by Gillian Bouras
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”The conspiracy of beauty here continues to bind me and countless others fast and often helplessly.”
Author Gillian Bouras, recipient of a New South Wales State Literary Award, and shortlisted for the National Biography Award (Australia), and the UK Fawcett Book Prize brings us full circle with the publication of Seeing and Believing (Gialos Publishing, Athens, 2016), a sequel to her first book, written over 25 years ago, A Foreign Wife (Penguin Books Australia 1986).
Seeing and Believing captures the continuous adjustment to a whole new culture amidst the sea changes of her family life in an interesting, quietly rendered memoir that is beautifully written with crisp, clean prose.
|“. . . experience separates us from our siblings and school friends. Other things separate us, too, I think: chance, health, choices. In the case of expats, the act of departure separates us from the companions of our early years.”
AUTHORLINK: Ms Bouras, thank you so much for your time today. We enjoyed Seeing and Believing, which is the sequel to your first book, A Foreign Wife (1986). Now, over 25 years later, you continue to delight your fans with an authentic look at the life and culture of a traditional Peloponnese village set against moving stories of your family. You also examine the longings of the displaced expatriate. You say, ”In a strange way, I think I miss Australia more when I am there, becoming nostalgic for times and people that have vanished forever”. What is it about being an expat that separates you from the people you left behind and the people you come to know, do you think?
BOURAS: We really have only our formative years in common, I think. When those are over, experience separates us from our siblings and school friends. Other things separate us, too, I think: chance, health, choices. In the case of expats, the act of departure separates us from the companions of our early years; they remain attached to a familiar place, while we have chosen or are forced to adjust to an unfamiliar place. And to a new language. There is a difference, however, between being an expat and being a migrant, I think. When you are a migrant, you are forced to use a part of yourself you’ve never used before. This is not necessarily true of expats. But of course, you can test yourself by staying put: my brother, for example, has been a volunteer with the State Emergency Service in Victoria for many years, and has had all kind of experiences I have never had, and would not want to have! I suppose the expat separation is a matter of place, culture, language, and the passage of time.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you.We also enjoyed your references to the rural Australia you left behind; like the Wimmera and the city of Melbourne in Victoria. You juxtaposed them against the pastoral Peloponnese you soon discovered. What were some of the similarities and differences that made an emotional impact on you?
BOURAS: The Wimmera is a district in NW Victoria, and we lived in a township in that district, exactly half-way between Adelaide and Melbourne. The Greek village and the township were similar in many ways, in that they both had small populations and a history of comparative isolation from outside influences. They were also both very clannish, and did not take to interlopers kindly: to be accepted, you needed to have been in either place for several generations. You also needed to conform quite strictly to community expectations.
The basic difference, I think, was that of the one between pioneer and peasant. In ‘new’ countries, the settlers had to make things up as they went along, whereas peasants simply repeat an age-old pattern. My mother-in-law, for example, knew exactly what she had to do every day.
AUTHORLINK: Interesting. How do you think you have evolved creatively since A Foreign Wife (1986)? What advice would you give to your younger self?
BOURAS: I suppose my writing has matured: I hope so! I’ve become better at selection and omission, I think, and readier to experiment. I’ve realised that all experience is grist to the mill, so to speak.
When I came to Greece, I took my own advice: Have a go, yer mug! That good Aussie instruction. That was a long time ago, and I suppose I’m still trying to do that. Younger people need to be brave; they need to refuse to worry about what other people think. This is one of the bonuses of age, I think: you feel much freer to do your own thing.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. You have won a few awards for your writing and your private papers are stored at the National Library of Australia. How did this come about? The collection contains personal correspondence largely about the cultural adjustments required in settling into a Greek village.
BOURAS: A writer friend simply suggested that this was what I had to do, so I got in touch with the NLA. I’m glad now that I did, because much correspondence of an interesting nature is bound to be lost in this hi-tech age. It won’t be possible to find a bundle of mysterious letters in the attic.
|“I’m always aware that Time is a great destroyer.”
AUTHORLINK: Apart from one work of fiction and a few children’s books, the rest of your books are non-fiction based memoir. What is it about writing in the memoir genre that you enjoy? Was it your intention to record the folk-lore of Greek village life before it was lost forever? Would you say recording your heart’s ‘folk-lore’ is like a legacy to your grandchildren?
BOURAS: I have a background in history, and have always been interested in modest or hidden lives. When I left Australia, oral history was becoming popular, and I had ideas of doing something like that, but then felt my limitations. I did realise that my mother-in-law’s generation was disappearing fast, and that was one reason I wrote Aphrodite and the Others, available from Gialos Books, Athens.
And I had my children very much in mind; now I think that, yes, this is something I can leave my grandchildren. I’m always aware that Time is a great destroyer. My grandfather kept a sketchy diary during his years in France and Belgium during the first World War; I just wish he’d been able to write more. I have a few letters from one of my great-great grandmothers; she was very much a pioneer, and I treasure those.
I often found my life in the village very hard: for me, writing is one way of solving problems, or at least getting to see them more clearly.
|“I proofread the work, but so do other people: a necessity, I think, as the eye is only too ready to slip heedlessly over the page.”
AUTHORLINK: That’s so fascinating about your grandfather. Tell us a bit about your writing schedule. Do you write every day and do you aim for a set amount of words per day? Do you write on a typewriter or longhand? What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk? Do you proofread and edit all your books or do you get someone to do that for you?
BOURAS: The theory is that I write every day. The practice is not quite up to that, but it’s safe to say that I think about writing every day. I’m seldom without a notebook, and I never switch off. Writers never really take holidays!
I started off with longhand. I remember sending handwritten sheets to a typist in Patras when I was writing A Foreign Wife. I had a typewriter, but found long hand easier for a long time: Fay Weldon has said that a mystic relationship develops between the mind, the hand, and the pen, and I’ve always been inclined to agree. Twenty years ago, my brother insisted I acquire a laptop, but even now I often rough notes out in longhand.
There is always an editor. I proofread the work, but so do other people: a necessity, I think, as the eye is only too ready to slip heedlessly over the page.
I don’t know about actual quirks. I do become anxious and restless if I’m not writing.
AUTHORLINK: You draw an interesting comparison with how foreigners see Greece, as opposed to how actual Greeks see themselves. You refer to the great writer, Kazantzakis, and how he maintains the Greek traveller “sees no visions without being mindful of ulterior motives… The foreigner, however, undergoes no such tearing of the heart, and thus is able to get to the heart and essence of Greece.” Would you like to elaborate on this?
BOURAS: Kazantzakis was always in a state of conflict about Greece and about being Greek. He said he could love Greece more when he was away, and at the time of his death he had been away eleven years. Obviously, the foreigner has not got the same baggage as the native, but he/she often has his/her own. Many a classical scholar has come with romantic ideas (seeing the Parthenon through a mist of tears, for example), has stayed too long and hence learned some bitter lessons.
I knew very little about Greece when I first came here, and had to learn about its infinite variety: what is true of say, Thessaloniki, will not necessarily be true of Crete. I also learned about the power of history and race memory. In the case of white Anglo-Celt Australians, these influences have been diluted, again because of migration.
|“I grew up in a humour-loving family: we were always encouraged to see the funny side of life, and, very importantly, to laugh at ourselves.“
AUTHORLINK: The style of your writing, as well as the collective nature of Greek people, at once hilarious and tragic, make the reader laugh out loud as well as shed a tear. There’s a funny story about, “this strange apparition whizzing by” – you, at age 60, wearing a helmet going for a bike-ride in the village – and how a much younger woman complained she’d like to, “but what would people think?” How do you go about layering humour in your work or is it incidental to the subject matter that you are describing?
BOURAS: I seem to be a fairly intuitive writer, so the humour is never planned. Funny things simply happen. I was very fortunate in that I grew up in a humour-loving family: we were always encouraged to see the funny side of life, and, very importantly, to laugh at ourselves. Yet many of us have an autumnal temperament, so humour is often a life-saver. It must be very grim to have no sense of humour!
AUTHORLINK: Yes, too true. In your book, you made the comment that it was unlikely older Greek women ever made any decisions of any significant or autonomous kind for themselves. While ‘autonomy’ is a Greek word, you wonder how many peasant women ever knew its meaning. They knew tradition and custom, obedience and worry, and fretted over status and reputation. How difficult was it to live side by side with these women? We note you and your mother-in-law, Aphrodite had a mutual respect, although your relationship was fraught with conflict – as seen in your book called Aphrodite and the Others (1994).
BOURAS: It was very difficult, but then my mother’s experience in the Wimmera township was not dissimilar. A major problem for me was the lack of curiosity: nobody ever asked WHY? And I used to drive people mad with my questions. They usually had no answers beyond ‘That’s the way it is.’ Nor was I used to the emphasis on the group at the expense of the individual. And my interests were considered very peculiar: my mother-in-law put my grey hair and glasses down to too much reading. She herself was illiterate, and that was another huge difficulty, as the mindset of an illiterate person is (naturally) completely different.
But I learned a tremendous amount, and would not have missed all these experiences for anything.
AUTHORLINK: Gone grey because of reading? Hilarious. Which three people, living or dead would you like to have as a dinner guest and why?
BOURAS: I’d have to have Nikos Kazantzakis, even though I know I would find him quite terrifyingly intimidating. Anita Brookner, my favourite author, would be intimidating in quite a different way, I think. And Gough Whitlam, a great Australian and a great Prime Minister: and he had studied Ancient Greek.
|“We are only specks in the grand scheme of things (if indeed there is a scheme), and no experience is unique.“
AUTHORLINK: The debates would be fascinating. And just to finish off, you said, “It is a good idea to celebrate the life you are living now rather than keep on mourning the one you have left behind.” How does one do that exactly, in your opinion? What helped you?
BOURAS: The answer is obvious, but hard to bear in mind and to practise. Carpe diem: seize the day. All we have is the here and now, so it is a good idea to live in the present moment. I know this idea has helped me, even though I think about the past a lot, and about what might have been, and how I might have done things differently.
My grandmothers were religious people, and strictly Nonconformist. We had always to think of other people, and to put ourselves last; we also had to recognise that self-pity is not a good thing, and that there is always someone in a worse plight: that is so true today, when the world in general is in such a dire state.
It also helps to develop a sense of proportion. We are only specks in the grand scheme of things (if indeed there is a scheme), and no experience is unique.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, a list is good advice. Ms Bouras, thank you so much for your time today. It was a real pleasure talking to you. We wish you every success for Seeing and Believing and look forward to reading your future work.
BOURAS: Thank you.
|About the Author:||
Gillian Bouras was born in Melbourne, Australia and was a secondary school teacher before moving unexpectedly to the Peloponnese with her husband and children in 1980. It was there that she began writing about her personal experiences.
She has written six works of adult non-fiction, one cross-genre and two children’s books. She is also the recipient of a New South Wales State Literary Award, and shortlisted for the National Biography Award (Australia), and the UK Fawcett Book Prize amongst others. In addition to her published books, Gillian has contributed short stories and articles to newspapers and journals, presented papers at conferences and participated in literary events. Gillian Bouras has her personal papers stored at the National Library of Australia – eight boxes in total between the years 1963 and 2001.
Gillian lives in Greece, but visits Australia whenever possible. She has three sons, three grandsons, and a granddaughter.
You can find Seeing and Believing on Amazon and all good book stores.
|About Anna Roins:||
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.