By Jeana Vithoulkas for Neos Kosmos
The Secret Man’ explores the ties between Greek migrants and Australia’s First Peoples
The intersection of indigenous Australians and migrant communities in this country is a story that longs to be told.
Katherine Kizilos, an Australian writer of Greek background has made an important contribution to this story with her novel, The Secret Man.
“There is a story of intermarriage between indigenous people and migrants of Greek and Italian background that hasn’t been written about,” Kizilos says.
She points to Alick Jackomos who was married to a Koorie woman and was a leading advocate for the Koorie community working alongside Doug Nicholls.
“I came across him when researching for the Victoria 150th Anniversary project and I mentioned him to my mother who said, ‘I know him.’”
Kizilos believes that the particular feeling that Greeks have for their own homeland and that strong attachment to home is something that resonates strongly with the feeling that indigenous Australians have for their land.
“Why do Greeks want to go home? This isn’t really prevalent in other cultures and it connects us to indigenous people here in Australia.”
The book, set in a sprawling house in Melbourne owned by the Karanicholas family, begins with the return of Alex, Aspacia’s son who has been away. We understand immediately that this a troubled, weary man, anxious about his homecoming. While his disquiet revolves around his difficult childhood at the hands of his father Jack a stern, authoritarian man, the story unravels beyond what Alex knows and the secrets that have been kept hidden in the family for years.
The genesis of this secret is in Greece during the Second World War where Jimmy, an indigenous Australian soldier, is fighting in the Battle of Crete. He fails to escape with the other Australian soldiers and goes to the mountain to fight alongside brothers Jack and Manolis as part of the Greek resistance against the German occupation. He forges a deep friendship with the men and when he breaks his leg, he is hidden by their mother in their house in the village. In Crete, Jimmy feels protected by the locals ‘like he was their only child, or a brother.’
Aspacia meets him while he is in hiding and begins a friendship in secret until he disappears one night in dark circumstances, with fatal consequences for those who hid him. She never expects to see him until she migrates to Australia with her husband Jack. It is in Australia that their friendship deepens into something else and another secret is embedded into this family tale.
While the character of Jimmy is entirely fictional, Kizilos discovered after writing her book that there was an indigenous man as one of the many Australians who served in Crete.
She discovered this in a book written by the father of well-known Age journalist Michael Gordon, Harry.
Kizilos, the first person of Greek background to be employed at The Age, was a colleague of Gordon’s for many years.
“Harry’s friend was the first Aboriginal officer in the Australian army and he had been stationed in Crete. When Harry met him years later, he was surprised to find the former soldier was struggling, making ends meet.
“It opened Harry’s eyes to racism.”
Kizilos maintains she did not set out to write a parable, but The Secret Man evokes the larger story of indigenous presence and history in this land being deliberately kept a secret from us, hidden from view as if everything started with the arrival of the white invaders.
Nevertheless history is writ large in the characters of this book. They can’t escape it.
“People who are oppressed feel constrained about expressing themselves. Whatever feelings they have, are manifested in private. Jimmy is like that. He painted for himself, even when he couldn’t afford materials to do it, he would manage it somehow.”
I ask her how she felt writing Aboriginal characters and we discuss the controversy of ‘cultural appropriation’ raised by American writer Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016.
Shriver claimed that political correctness was standing in the way of writers being able to tell any story they like in fiction, even when these stories belong to other minorities.
“I told the story of Jimmy through Ascpacia,” Kizilos explains. “I didn’t do that for a political reason. In fact I wrote it before this debate took place. Although I do write from a man’s point of view in the character of Alex and I believe that men can write female characters.”
Although Kizilos is an erudite woman with a keen interest in history – she cites Patrick O’Brian as one of her favourite authors – the main theme she wanted to explore in The Secret Man, was family relationships.
“I am an only child, but it intrigues me when I encounter siblings who have different recollections of the same event that happened in their families. They experience it completely differently.”
This is Kizilos’s second book. The first The Olive Grove – based on her travels to Greece and Turkey, is a work of non-fiction that explores culture and history from a unique position of being both and outsider and an insider.
The Secret Man took several years to write while Kizilos worked at various jobs.
“I’ve seen my profession collapse,” she says of journalism. “And it may not be the smartest thing, wpaint
riting novels, but I am compelled to write, to tell stories.”
A compulsion that benefits us all, for Kizilos’s voice deserves to be heard.
The Secret Man is a dark and sad story, sensitively and beautifully told.