The more everything changes and evolves, the more we move away from our beginnings … the more fascinated we become with our past.
People of migrant backgrounds are even more susceptible to this form of nostalgia, to nostos as it is called in Greek, which is what Taxithi – an Australian Odyssey touches upon.
Taxithi is the child of a survey involving more than 20 Greek-born women who have called Australia home since the 1950s and 1960s. Their stories have been adapted into a successful musical, which performed at the Hellenic Museum in March, exciting and moving the audience at the same time. Patterson came up with the idea for the musical after her maternal grandmother, Eleni Constantinou, died in 2010. Those last few days she would mainly talk about the baby she lost while she was trying to come to Australia, and how that child would have been 80 years old.
“I grew up with my yiayia in the house, and Greek is all that was spoken to me at home up until the age of five,” says Helen Yotis Patterson, writer and director.
“When you are away from your land of origin, you try harder to connect to your heritage and preserve your national identity.”
When her grandmother passed away, her fourth baby went to school, and for the first time in 15 years, she had to find a creative outlet. Instead of taking her little boy to the cafe, she took her computer. She would sit there and watch people until one day she began to write.
“I started to consider the number of changes migrants endure, arriving in a foreign land, most of the time so far away from home, and unfamiliar with the spoken language,” Patterson says.
“All my life I’d come across these ladies on the street with their broken English, but once I told them ‘I speak Greek’, their personalities would come to life.”
Travelling back to Greece, she noticed that Greeks there have actually been able to move on, but for most diaspora Hellenes, time stands still.
“In my father’s mind Greece is still in 1964. Migrants tend to think that they’ll always go back to their country,” she muses.
Having all that free time on her hands, she ventured on to interview as many women of Greek background as she could. She asked them all the same three questions: “Why did you leave”, “what happened on the ship”, and “how did you feel when you arrived”. The incredible variations of those answers surprised and moved her so much that she became determined to give voice to these women’s experiences.
“I heard some incredibly sad and happy things that these women had never told anyone before,” she adds.
“All it took was just a gentle push. Taxidi kind of wrote itself.”
Patterson is still fascinated by the many different stories out there which have proven to be of great historical and cultural value, providing younger generations with an insight into the migration experience. A lot of the women who took part in her survey are in their 60s or older, giving in to depression after exhausting their tremendous energy resources.
“These women had to keep moving forward in order to succeed in a new country, to provide their families with a better quality of life,” Patterson continues.
“Their rhythm finally slows down, only for them to be confronted with a crude reality. So many people before us had to part with their homeland, family and friends … to sacrifice an entire life so that we can enjoy the fruits from their struggles today.”
Patterson, who is also a professional singer, has incorporated songs from the era in the production, which she says capture the hopes, fears and dreams of the women who were heading into an unknown future. Helen remembers that during certain songs in the piece, a lot of people in the audience nodded their head and reminisced, cried even. Then they too shared their stories. Stories that burn. Stories that never heal.
Stories like this one…
“One lady from the audience convinced her father to let her go with her brother and come to Australia when she was 18. He lets her go, and then he decides that he doesn’t want to go through with it. When they get to the port, he’s trying to tear the papers out of her hand, however, she has the strength to hold on to them and fight to get on the ship. And she does. And she can hear somebody scream her name. She looks down and her dad is following the ship in a little boat, screaming her name with his arms outstretched, and she’s standing there looking at him cry.”
“This story hurt me to my bones,” she admits, bringing back the memory of this woman’s face whilst sharing her predicament.
“Back then, in the ’60s, when you came to Australia you couldn’t just go back. In 1974, her father passed away.”
Even though Patterson was born and raised in Australia, she identifies with many of the stories in her play. Her Cypriot mum came to Australia in 1951 and her father, who is from Leros, arrived in 1964 at the age of 19. Helen Yotis Patterson’s paternal grandmother Georgia (90) arrived in Australia with her husband Efthimios in 1964. Georgia lost her arm in WWII when a bomb dropped on her home in Leros.
“I guess this is a pain we are all aware of. Migrant children know that their parents carry around pain. It doesn’t belong to us, but we feel it.
“A very strong emotion arises when you see the people in the audience relate to the stories on stage; there’s an instant connection.”
Taxithi’s three main stories represent the three ‘fates’ of migration: the decision, the journey and the arrival, told in the sound of Greek soul tunes.
“Greek soul music is honest and so full of emotions,” she says.
“In rebetika people sing with their heart; these songs are the best representation of our journey and pain.”
The writer and director is considering to run a part two, which will include the male perspective, however, she is worried men might not be as forthcoming as the ladies.
“The acknowledgement of publicly sharing a very personal story might have a negative effect for some people,” she explains, partially blaming the old Greek mentality.
“Many migrant men have been suffering in silence whilst presenting a rock-solid facade to their wives and children, who were relying on them.”
Taxithi will be performed as a rehearsal on 7 September at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane. The full production is on in March next year, and a concert to raise funds will be staged on 23 November featuring Greek women singers in Melbourne.