Melbourne-based writer and editor Dmetri Kakmi revisits the Turkish island of his birth and the events that drove his Greek family to migrate to Australia in his haunting first book, the memoir Mother Land. In the latest in Readings’ series spotlighting new and emerging writers (sponsored by the Copyright Agency Limited), renowned writer Arnold Zable reflects on the book and talks to Dmetri Kakmi.
Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land is a haunting account of the author’s childhood on an Aegean island, situated near the mouth of the Dardenelles Straits and the Gallipoli Peninsula. Renamed Bozcaada after it was annexed by Turkey in 1923, the Greek inhabitants still maintain its classical name, Tenedos.
Book-ended by the author’s return to the island in 2002, the narrative focuses on a three-year period, between 1969 and 1971, as seen through the eyes of the author as an eight- and nine-year-old boy. The period ends when his family forsakes their impoverishment and persecution for a new life in Australia. The memoir is distinguished by Kakmi’s vivid portrayal of island characters, and his seamless weaving of history, folklore and myth, ritual and daily reality, rendered with the sensuous immediacy of a young boy.
Two poisonous tensions permeate the narrator’s island life. First, there is the enduring tension between Turks and Greeks. The two communities live apart in separate quarters. For the Greek population, the threat of violence and expulsion is always imminent. One act of violence can engender a chain reaction of hatred and reprisal, acted out against a recent history of ethnic cleansing, exile, displacement and potential massacre.
The boy is also witness to his parents’ violent dynamic. His mother is strong-willed, restless, impulsive, and headstrong, the protectress of the hearth, liable to snap at those dearest to her, yet always prepared to do battle with those who bully them. She is a woman with ‘city ways’, acquired after a sojourn in Istanbul. The father, on the other hand, is a man of the sea; in the eyes of his wife, a man without refinement. It is a lethal dynamic, swinging between her constant belittling and his drunken violence.
While Kakmi does not flinch in depicting his father’s outbursts, he also portrays him with compassion. On the sea, Baba is a master of his craft. ‘He could navigate some very treacherous waters around the Dardenelles, a true skill that was not acknowledged because he was illiterate,’ Kakmi tells me, when we meet to discuss the book.
After arriving in Australia, Kakmi suppressed the past. ‘I deliberately forgot my two languages and about my Turco-Greek heritage. More than anything, I wanted to melt in and disappear. I wanted nothing to do with the past. It was too agonising and I missed Turkey more than I can say.’ He avoided anything to do with the island until the death of his mother in 1993. Her passing triggered a ‘tidal wave of memories. It was like the doors of perception had opened and I was virtually drowning in names, events, images, locales, and sounds.’
It was partly a sense of responsibility to his mother’s memory that drove him to write the book. ‘I could see that she was carrying a huge load, and was deeply frustrated and caged in her circumstances. I felt a duty to restore this woman’s life, though I am sure she wouldn’t like some of the things I reveal.’ His moving portrayal of his mother conveys her thwarted passion, her ferocious desire to better her life, and the secret she carried with her almost to the grave.
Kakmi returned to the island 28 years after he left. ‘When I set out to write the memoir,’ he says, ‘it was a hard facts and figures book, a documentation that aimed to commemorate the Greeks of the island, and their culture, especially since their presence had dwindled to 32 elderly people. But this approach proved dull, and would have appealed only to specialists.’ The second draft was written through the eyes of a middle-aged man, reflecting on the past. ‘While it was more personal,’ he tells me, ‘it was so sentimental that I could not live with it.’
Late one night, says Kakmi, he woke ‘with a couple of sentences running through my head. It was the voice of an eight-year-old boy, talking very rapidly, describing sitting under a mulberry tree, having lunch with his mother and sister.’ Kakmi wrote the sentences down, and when he reread them in the morning he knew he had found the voice for the book. He was able to finish a full draft within seven months.
Kakmi’s evocative depiction of place stems from a kind of meta-seeing. It is the vision of an animist for whom all is alive and language is influenced by landscape, a world in which trees can ‘pierce the pregnant bellies of clouds’, and where a breeze can make ‘earth music in the wild sage and thyme and oregano bushes’. Kakmi tells me that this is how he ‘sees things here and now, when I go into the Australian bush. Every moment is alive and connected to that great cathedral of nature.’
As we converse, Kakmi reveals the deeper forces that fostered this vision. In 2002, on one of his return journeys to Turkey, he went through a period when past and present, reality and fantasy, collapsed. He was deluged by sounds and images. ‘One evening in Ankara I woke up in my hotel room and saw a child standing by the window, his arms wrapped around himself, trembling, looking at me with burning eyes. It was me as an eight-year-old boy.’ Days later, while observing a service in a mosque, he heard voices screaming, “Quick, run, they’re going to kill us.”
‘Past and present were colliding in a violent way.’ His entire being was under siege, violated by a brutal ancestral past. While in the short term he experienced great psychic distress, his hallucinations enabled Kakmi to fully access the child he once was, and the raw terror and beauty of the past.
Though defined as a memoir, the book employs the techniques of a novelist in its structure, its development of character, and detailed reconstruction of key episodes. ‘Obviously it happened a long time ago,’ says Kakmi. ‘You cannot recall exactly what people said, or the specific details that build up a scene and make it real for readers. I realised that if I wanted to make this book work for an audience, and not merely be therapy for me, I had to take the characters that were so real in my head, seek their essence and make them universal. I also realised that facts were getting in the way of truth. By taking the boy and creating a literary persona out of him, I was able to pursue the emotional truth rather than the literal facts.’
The finished memoir is a book of revelations. The reader learns of the secrets that have festered for years, secrets that the author himself discovered only as he was writing the book. Kakmi records episodes of brutality and unexpected kindnesses on both sides that can only be fully understood against the reality of oppression. ‘A brutal regime creates brutalised people.’
To create a balanced picture, Kakmi felt it was important to dwell upon relationships that cut across the cultural divide. There are moving portraits of his Turkish friends: his school mate Refik, the Sufi-like fisherman, Ezet, Osil the grocer, and the middle-aged author’s companion and guide, Sinan. By accessing both the terror and beauty, as well as acknowledging the virtues that can be found in people of both cultures, Kakmi paves the way for redemption.
Arnold Zable’s latest novel is Sea of Many Returns, a meditation on displacement, nostalgia and exile, set on the Greek island of Ithaca.
This article proudly supported by Copyright Agency Ltd