FAMILY, SECRETS & SACRIFICE: an interview with Peter Papathanasiou

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

Peter Papathanasiou is the son of migrants and grandson of refugees. His parents emigrated from Greece to Australia in 1956 but were unable to have children, a huge sorrow — and shame — for them among Australia’s Greek community and in their own family. In 1973, Peter’s uncle and aunt in Greece offered to have a baby and give it to his parents to raise as their own. Peter was that baby. He grew up as an only child in Australia, discovering his true parentage at the age of twenty-five when his mother revealed the secret of his birth and the sacrifice that lay behind it. Peter’s memoir, Little One (Allen & Unwin, 2019), is his account of this life-changing discovery.

Interviewer: Samuel Elliott

INTERVIEWER

Has the release of Little One prompted further introspection for you regarding your family history and the circumstances of your birth? Were you always going to tell this story? 

PETER

When you find out you’re adopted and that your parents are not your actual parents, that’s a pretty significant moment in anyone’s life. At the time, I just wanted to document it, and knew that if I let the moment pass, I would never properly remember the feelings I had. So, it just started with writing down three pages worth of notes in January 1999 and letting it sit on my computer. I wasn’t sure if and when I’d get to it. It wasn’t until 2006 when I was doing a writing course in New York City that I finally re-opened the file. It then took another 5 years to write a finished draft of the manuscript, and 7 more years to produce a final polished draft for publication.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote a no-holds-barred telling of your story, ensuring nothing was off limits and no familial stone was left unturned, including discussing feelings of shame, guilt and betrayal, along with detailing the events that triggered these deep emotions. Did you ever feel like omitting some details?

PETER

To me, the most powerful books are the ones which are honest, especially when it comes to memoirs. If the writer comes across as hiding something from the reader, it weakens the work. I felt that it was my duty to be honest with my readers and expose myself, even if it left me vulnerable. When you say that you’re angry at your parents when they tell you that you’re adopted, or that you felt deceived, people could potentially say — that’s not a positive emotion, why are you writing about that? Or when you experience infertility — that’s another difficult topic, why put your readers through that?

I wrote about it all. Life has good and bad, and to pretend the latter doesn’t exist is denying the realities of living and ultimately weakening a story and a connection with readers, who would’ve experienced similar struggles in their own lives at some point. It means being vulnerable, but with vulnerability comes connection. We’re all human. So why hide it?

INTERVIEWER

What challenges did you encounter when writing the book? 

PETER

The first version was over 150,000 words, which felt too long. I was told that the sweet spot for most publishers was about 80,000 to 100,000 words. I’d written about things like school days, awkward teenage years, failed relationships, and Dad immigrating to Australia and the awful workers’ hostels in which they housed new arrivals. When I edited, I found those sections were actually weakening the manuscript. It’s absolutely something that happened in my family history, but it’s not relevant to this particular story. So, that’s when I began cutting the fat. I decided to keep it strictly to the bloodline and all the things the family were going through.

I originally wrote it chronologically, but realised that was also a weak point, and that there was a more engaging way of telling the story. It was a process of structuring the book and writing two different narratives — one from my own voice and one from Mum’s — and then working out a structure which allowed the two stories to play off each other. Here, I was influenced by reading Richard Flanagan’s second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, which adopted a similar structure.

When I originally finished the book in 2011, the story didn’t have an ending. I was forced to manufacture an ending, and as soon as you do that, the book shifts from non-fiction to fiction. I tried to find a publisher but had no luck, so put it in a bottom drawer and worked on two novels in the meantime. In 2018, I returned to my family story and started to remove all the fiction and add new facts; by that stage, I’d lived seven more years of life, the story now had an ending, and I was a better writer. That’s when the book finally came together.

INTERVIEWER

What did the research for penning Little One involve? You must have had countless conversations with many family members to be able to combine the memories into a single narrative. How did you manage it if the recollection of two people were vastly different?

PETER

It was primarily interviews with my mum. I sat down with her, flicked on a tape recorder, and asked her to tell me what happened: all the things she went through after she immigrated to Australia in 1956, and also the events that led to my adoption in 1974.

At this point, in 2008, Mum was seventy-eight years old, and I’m asking her to remember things that happened 50 years earlier! There were many things she just couldn’t remember, or I needed to research myself to try and work out what was happening. Speaking with my brother Georgios helped clarify events Mum couldn’t recall.

One example of contradicting stories is what happened to my other brother, Billy. He’s mentally impaired, his brain never really developed, he’s remained a child intellectually. Mum said that was because Billy had fallen from his high-chair as a baby and hit his head, but Georgios said it was due to an illness that swept through our village. I decided to leave both stories in the book because I thought that made for a better story; it’s what happens in families, people contradict each other, and stories grow. This is not the kind of history that is generally documented, and if there was anything written about it, any records about medical appointments or that kind of thing, from a village in rural Greece in the 1960s, I was never going to find it.

INTERVIEWER

In addition to conversations, you also did a lot of independent research on what was happening in Greece around the time. Your sense of place and world-building is so vivid and freshly realised. Can you tell us about this?

PETER

A good example is from June 1974, the month I was born. In July 1974, Cyprus was invaded by Turkish forces. Mum said that event caused chaos throughout Greece; the country went into lockdown, and she didn’t know if and how she would return to Australia with me. Because there was such panic and confusion and fear, it was deemed that all unbaptised babies should be baptised to protect them from going to purgatory. That was the impact of a geopolitical event at the village level, and the event that fast-tracked my baptism, which was meant to happen in Australia. Eventually, political tensions eased and the warships and soldiers withdrew, Cyprus became a divided country, the airports reopened, and Mum and I could fly to Australia.

Another example was when my grandparents were forced to leave Turkey as refugees in 1923, against the backdrop of a major population exchange occurring between Turkey and Greece. Mum’s parents and older siblings were a part of that exchange, and her dad told her stories about how terrible it was. I needed to do research about the trek that took place out of Turkey and the conditions awaiting refugees when they arrived in Greece. Those events also explained why my family ended up in the mountainous region in the north of Greece, which was newly-won and needed populating.

INTERVIEWER

Your story moves between first and third person, and includes conversations, not just a recounting of events. Why did you adopt this narrative approach? Did it afford you more freedom to write?

PETER

By structuring the book according to years, while moving back and forth in time, I was able to maintain some narrative freedom while still writing about each year’s events. For example, Mum went to a Greek orphanage in 1973 to adopt a baby, but failed. She told me about the questions she was asked about their family, what money and assets they had, the train journey she made from Florina to Thessaloniki, and Dad’s cousin taking her for coffee afterwards to help her process what had happened. All those little details allowed me to paint a scene, while some of the things Mum said allowed me to write dialogue.

Personal experiences came in too. Our family home in northern Greece hasn’t changed very much since it was first constructed in the 1920s: it’s still got a tiny kitchen with small windows, and only recently had some modern appliances installed like a dishwasher and hot water system that doesn’t rely on burning wood. Travelling to Greece and seeing all this with my own eyes meant I could basically turn the clock back in time to a period when the house was even more basic. In 1973, there was no colour TV and dishwasher; instead, there would’ve been a radio and drying rack.

INTERVIEWER

You lovingly detail Greece, specifically your family’s village. Was it a place you immediately identified with? Was it everything you’d envisioned?

PETER

When you find out you’re born in another place, and you finally get to see it, you look at it differently. It’s natural to feel an immediate affiliation. In Greece, I finally heard people pronounce my name properly! And then you taste the delicious food and it agrees with you. It’s something that’s hard to describe, there really is some intangible quality, you immediately warm to the environment.

But then I also found, after staying a while, how different I was from the place. There’s a more laid back pace of life, almost meditative. People aren’t in any great rush and can sit and have conversations and coffees in cafes all day. I’ve never really been able to do this and struggled when I tried; I grew bored after an hour or two. By contrast, my brothers could do it all day, every day. It’s all they know.

So, there’s both an immediate familiarity, but then, after a while, a distance too. I’m sure I would change if I stayed for longer. Like growing a beard — it feels strange at first, unfamiliar, but then more comfortable as it begins to work in concert with your face.

INTERVIEWER

Your ‘uncle Savvas’ dying meant you could never meet your biological father — you describe it as ‘a jigsaw puzzle that will never be complete’. I sensed you were expressing a lingering guilt about not going to Greece earlier to meet him. Is that a fair reading?

PETER

You’re absolutely right. Even today, I still regret not going. I say in the book that it’s hard to mourn someone you’ve never met, but I’m aware of the significance of my biological dad as the architect of my adoption. When he died, more than anything, I felt I had missed an opportunity. It wasn’t like I’d lost somebody from my life; I’d never met the man as an adult. So, why didn’t I go to Greece earlier? Because I was scared, I was intimidated, I was distracted and consumed. Plus, I already had a dad, and didn’t really need another. Looking back on it all now, I realise how foolish that was.

You can see the same sort of fear in me when I finally arrive in Greece. My brother Georgios was now caring for Billy, and I feared he would toss me the keys to the family home and say — you look after him now, I’m going travelling for six months, good luck.

When you’ve not met these people before and not been to this place, you tend to build things up in your mind. That’s just human nature, we tend to overthink and go to the darkest place possible. That’s what I did, and why it took me so long to get there.

Georgios tells me not to feel guilty. It would’ve been preferable if I’d gone to Greece earlier to meet our biological father, but it would’ve been better if so many other things had happened in our family too. The most important thing is that I’m in their lives now.

INTERVIEWER

When you and Georgios were hanging out in the village and being continually approached by people expressing their love for Billy, you experienced a revelation that the entire village had raised him, and that he was the apple of their eye. This communal notion of parenting really struck me. Did it stand out for you?

PETER

It’s that old adage — it takes a village to raise a child. And my brother Billy is evidence of that; quite literally. Although my brothers’ lives in their small town are rather limited, I do envy their sense of community. I don’t know my neighbours in Australia very well — they change as often as properties change hands. It can be different in a smaller town, there are people who’ve been there for generations or who’ve known each other for a long time. In Florina, so many people see Billy as special, as charming and funny and loveable. They empathise with Billy, who’s been unable to lead a normal life, but they also empathise with Georgios, because he’s had to give up his own life to look after Billy. There’s actually two lives that have been impacted by Billy’s impairment.

From my perspective, I try to offer my support as best as I can. The Greek economy hasn’t been strong recently, and Georgios has had months where he’s not been paid from work. Billy receives a disability pension, although this sometimes takes months to come through. So, I send money to my brothers whenever I can. It’s my way of acknowledging we are a family and showing my love.

INTERVIEWER

Little One has only recently hit bookshops, but are you working on anything else?

PETER

I originally wrote Little One between 2008 and 2011, before putting it in a bottom drawer and writing two novels. So, the next thing in the pipeline is my crime novel, which I first wrote as part of a Master of Arts in London from 2014 to 2017, and features a Greek-Australian detective character based on my brother. That novel is now on submission to publishers. And I’ve begun writing a new novel too.

My memoir was my introduction to the world of publishing. It’s really heartening to hear people say that it’s a fascinating story with many powerful moments, but that it’s also beautifully written, and a quality work of literature. So hopefully that augurs well for my fiction soon being published.

I’ve been publishing a few short articles as well. With a growing family at home — three little boys all under 5 years of age! — sometimes that’s all you can manage in the free hours you find. But my long-term plan is to be a career writer and continue writing books.

An Excerpt from Little One

Chapter 1
1999

It was the hottest day of summer, a Saturday in January. I sat cross-legged in my study, surrounded by piles of undergraduate textbooks, flicking through them, leaving light fingerprints of sweat on the pages. Having studied science and law for six years at university, I was about to embark on a PhD in genetics, and so was packing my old textbooks away. Seeing myself on each meticulously highlighted page, I sighed lightly, remembering all the time I’d spent understanding, memorising, and ultimately regurgitating those passages in cold, cavernous exam halls. The focus was now going to be on experiments not exams, data not grades, discovery not curriculum. Occasionally I stopped to read an extract, which brought back even more memories of lectures, lecturers, tutorials and classmates. It was a job well done, graduation with honours, but all behind me now.

Mum looked into my room again. She had something on her mind. She hoped I wouldn’t notice but it was impossible not to—she had poked her head in umpteen times that day. Having lived with my parents my whole life, I could tell when they were genuinely busy and when they were ‘hovering’. The phrase ‘helicopter parenting’ could very well have been coined for them, and especially for Mum. I knew she loved me, but at times it was to the point of suffocating her only child.

‘Mama,’ I said, ‘what’s up?’

Mum stopped, leaned against the door frame. She didn’t respond for some time. ‘Eh,’ she finally said, ‘nothing.’

‘You keep walking past my door. A dozen times now. It’s not nothing.’

She rubbed her hands together pensively. Eventually, she asked: ‘Are you busy?’

I returned to flicking pages. ‘Matters of world importance,’ I replied.

Mum was silent. Failing to sense my sarcasm, she continued to stare at me. After a few moments, I looked back up and met her gaze. It was as if she were assessing me, sizing me up for something. As she gazed longer and deeper into my eyes than I thought anyone ever could, I felt lightheaded. There were generations in that look. Mum’s stature was small, and her hands tiny, with purple veins protruding, her fingers beginning to turn in with arthritis. But at that moment, she appeared like a giant.

Slowly, almost cautiously, I closed my book. ‘Mama . . .’ I said,

‘ela, what is it?’

Finally, she spoke: ‘Can you come to my room. I’ve something to tell you.’

My stomach tightened.

As I followed Mum down the carpeted hall, a memory cut across my brain. The last time she had insisted we talk in her room was during my first year of university. My aunt in Greece had died suddenly.

Mum closed the door behind us. Her bedroom smelled of fresh linen. I didn’t exactly know where Dad was—probably out the back in his shed or at the betting shop—but knew he wasn’t in the house. The large, north-facing window amplified the hot summer sun like a magnifying glass.

‘Please, Panagiotis, sit down.’

Mum always called me by my Greek name during moments of significance. It had been there in hospital during emergencies, in church during baptisms and funerals, and at home during lectures for teenage misbehaviour. I didn’t mind it, but I knew what it meant. Someone had died, or was dying.

‘I’ll stand, Mum. Please, what is it?’

Mum took up position on the edge of the bed, her bare feet resting on a thick blue rug. Looking down at her hands, she began.

‘When I was young, I tried many times to get pregnant. Although your dad and I succeeded three times, I miscarried each time. Three.’ She held up three bony fingers. ‘One, two, three babies I carried but never met. Even after all this time, those memories are with me, every day of every week.’

I listened, silently.

‘Your baba and I wanted so much to have a family, we were losing our minds. Those weren’t easy days. We’d been through a lot, coming all the way out to Australia after the war. In the end, the time came when we thought we had no other choice. We had to consider the option of taking someone else’s child.’

Mum’s eyes suddenly welled up and her face went red. She took a deep breath. Uncertain of what was to come, I did the same.

‘Now there were places in Greece where you could adopt babies who weren’t wanted. But you needed to meet certain standards, have money and status. And your dad and I didn’t. So in the end, my brother Savvas and his wife Anna proposed to have a baby for us. They already had two sons who were almost teenagers, so their child-rearing days were well and truly behind them. But they were willing to help your baba and me. I felt terrible about my brother’s wife having to carry and give birth to another baby for me, her non-blood relative. But our lives here were childless and, well, meaningless. In the end, an arrangement was made. Anna fell pregnant, and I flew to Greece.’

A tear rolled down Mum’s left cheek. She pulled a folded tissue from her pocket and wiped her eyes. She fought hard to compose herself and not lose her place in the story.

‘Your dad worked here while I was in Greece, and sent money when he could. During that time, I completed all the paperwork that was needed to bring you back to Australia. Six months later, we flew back. From that day, you haven’t set foot in your country of birth, and the only contact with your birth mother was when she and I talked on the phone. To you, she was simply your aunt. And to her, too, this was the case. Even though she loved you dearly, it was for us to raise you in the way we chose. You became our child. She saw the benefits of life here, and it was why your dad and I came out in the first place. Your brothers, the two boys whom I’ve always said were your cousins, know everything you’ve been doing all these years.’

Brothers . . .

I put my fingertips to my temples, as if to steady myself, and let the new word nestle inside my brain. Brothers were such an unfamiliar concept. They had always been something the other kids in school had as I was growing up, in higher grades who protected them, or in lower grades whom they beat up.

‘Your brothers were, I think, twelve and ten when you were born, so should now be thirty-seven and thirty-five. Both are unmarried. The eldest, Vasilios, was named after your grandfather but likes being called “Billy” to distinguish himself. He doesn’t work and is somewhat handicapped, or “slow”, as we like to say. The younger brother, Georgios, works for a power station. Unfortunately, Anna died six years ago. Your birth father, my brother Savvas, is old and weak and plagued by alcoholism. He blames it on having to look after Billy all these years.’

Mum wiped her face and eyes again, and took another deep breath.

‘You’re probably wondering why we took so long to tell you. I wanted to tell you long ago, and keeping this from you for twenty-five years has made me grey before my time. But your dad and I knew we couldn’t tell you too young—you wouldn’t have understood. And back then, I was still too ashamed that I hadn’t had my own children. It seems so foolish now but it was cultural. The older you got and the further you went with your schooling, the harder it became to tell you. We didn’t want to do anything to ruin all your hard work. I wanted to tell you before you started university six years ago but the timing wasn’t right. The timing was never right. So we waited until you finished and were able to start work. But now, you’re about to do even more study. Your dad wanted to wait longer, perhaps another year, but I imagined by then you’d be buried in something else. At least now, the news will have some time to sink in.’

She rubbed the soles of her feet back and forth on the rug. Herheels were dry and cracked from age and exposed footwear.

‘You deserve to know this. Some parents don’t tell their kids. They keep the secret forever. But I know that even if people don’t see all that goes on, God does. There are no secrets from Him.’

Mum momentarily glimpsed skywards and crossed herself, before returning her eyes to me.

‘So,’ she said, ‘that’s it.’

*

You can buy Little One from Allen and Unwin and listen to Peter speak about the book on ABC Conversations. 


Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. His writing has appeared in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, The Versatile Gent, Vertigo, FilmInk, Verity La, Archer, Boss Hunting, The Boomers Club, The Big Issue and The Independent. He currently divides his job in the television industry with finishing his latest novel, Schooled, a confronting coming-of-age story that was short-listed for the 2019 Varuna Writers’ House Publisher Induction Program (P.I.P.). Links to all of Samuel’s works and interviews can be found here.