Where the Books of the Future are Coming From: an interview with Dmetri Kakmi
ZVONA i NARI's June writer-in-residence was Australian writer Dmetri Kakmi.
Dmetri Kakmi was born in 1961 on the island of Tenedos (renamed"Bozcaada" since its annexation by Turkey in 1923) to Greek parents. The family migrated to Australia in 1971 when Kakmi was 10 years old. He returned to Tenedos 28 years later, and then only for a visit. His fictionalized memoir of growing up on the island titled Mother Land (2008) was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. He edited the acclaimed children’s anthology When We Were Young. The ghost story "The Boy by the Gate" was reprinted in The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2013. "Haunting Matilda" is published in Cthulhu: Deep Down Under and was shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards Best Fantasy Novella category in 2015.
In Ližnjan, Dmetri was working on his new novel. As he explains, "Woman Without a Face, is an ecological horror fantasy about the rise of the Earth Mother. In keeping with my pluralistic world view, the story is inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis and The Arabian Nights. It is set in the Australian outback, and it mixes Australian First Nations stories with traditional Islamic tales to tell a story of transformation and becoming."
Your previous novel, Mother Land, is not a book of resentment. It is a book that calls for peace between people, between Greeks and Turks, and still it is a book filled with violence. How does your family history, your experience of life in Turkey in 1960s and of consequent immigrant life in Australia, shape your political views?
You are changed forever when you grow up in a country that does not want you and you migrate to a country that barely tolerates you. Rejected on all sides, you close in on yourself and develop a hard core of self-reliance that allows you to survive. You must be tough. It can also make you resilient, open-minded and accepting. Therefore, I am of the view that the things that link us as human beings are stronger, more potent, than the things that separate us. We are more alike than we think. Nationalistic politics and rampant capitalism interfere with that signal to the detriment of everyday people. Only global political and economic elites benefit.
When it comes to violence what do you see as an adequate response to it?
Violence is the ultimate existential question. To give in to it or to turn away from it? Given the circumstances of my early life, I have a complex relationship with violence. On a personal level, I am fascinated by it and I am repelled by it. All my fiction is to some degree a response to violence. I cannot get away from it. We circle each other like animals in a cage. In life, violence is not an adequate response to anything. It only makes matters worse, never better. Violence opens a door to the worst aspects of humanity. If you step through that door you may never be able to come back. In fiction, it can act as a gateway to explore extreme human behavior.
We live in a world in which many masks have fallen. The US, one of the most powerful countries of the world, has recently left UN's Human Rights Council which is only a further step their current administration has taken towards completely abandoning cooperation with the international community. Globally, right-wing, nationalistic politics, religious fundamentalism, oppression of minorities and deterioration of workers' rights, as well as refugee/migration crises as a result of imperialistic wars – these problems are not new but now they interfere with the idyllic, illusory life of the citizens of the so called Western World. In these circumstances, what is the role of a responsible citizen today? What is the role of a responsible writer?
This question begs a further question. Can writing change lives, the way it was thought to do in the 19th and early 20th centuries? In the 21st century is it enough to bear witness, the way Anna Akhmatova does in her poetry? Looking at the state of the world, I’m inclined to say no, it does not. Writing changes nothing and bearing witness is next to useless. No amount of writing can stop what is going on in the world today. Everyone is talking and no one is listening.
That’s the cynical Dmetri speaking. The Dmetri who is disheartened.
I must remind myself of something that happened several years ago, when Mother Land came out. I was speaking at a writers’ festival. Afterwards a Greek woman came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you for opening my eyes. I thought friendship between Greeks and Turks was impossible. You taught me otherwise.’ On another occasion, a man told me he keeps an essay I wrote for a newspaper stuck to his fridge door because it fills him with hope.
If your book or your short story or your essay changes the lives of one or two people for the better you have done your job.
Having said that, I believe in art for art sake. Great art has no social conscience, no redeeming value. It is amoral. It has no boundaries and it breaks every rule. It is not didactic and it does not seek to improve. It simply is. As a writer, I find myself caught between these two states.
How has Australia changed in comparison to the country of your youth? What are your most immediate, local challenges as a writer and an Australian who does not share in the dominant Anglo-Saxon identity?
When we came to Australia in the early 1970s, it was a place of hope. The great Labor governments of the day had vision. They looked to the future and they saw a progressive, just society that put workers first. It was a time of social justice and civil rights movements spearheaded by women, homosexuals and Aborigines.
All that was swept aside from the 1980s onwards when neo-liberalism kicked in. Now politicians speak only about profits, as if they are running a corporation, while continuing to cut funds for essentials, like education and health. You have stopped living in a democracy when the government pushes the idea that society’s weak, the elderly, the unemployed, the mentally challenged and the disabled are a burden. You’ve stopped living in a democracy when the government tries to pass a law that can put you in jail for criticizing the government or for participating in a peaceful demonstration.
In this climate, if your name is Dmetri Kakmi everything you write becomes a political act, whether you like it or not. You’re standing out. It’s an act of defiance because you are going against the wishes of the dominant culture, which wants to keep you silent or docile and acquiescent. Many will deny this. That’s because they are on the inside and they can’t see it happening. It’s invisible to them because they are part of the machinery.
Australia prides itself on being a multicultural society. That’s in name only. Provincialism and a small-island mentality dominate. The proof is in the pudding. Most Australians who read this will have one thing to say: ‘If you don’t like it here, go back where you came from.’ It’s the standard response by white Anglo-Saxon Australians, not self-examination. It does not occur to them that if you care about a country’s future, you will criticize because you want the best for it in the long term. Complacency kills.
There is something wrong with a country if it can’t come to terms with its past. Both my countries, Australia and Turkey, suffer from this malady. Australia has one of the oldest, richest, most complex cultures on earth. Yet most white Australians don’t know the first thing about the black histories and the black lands on which they live. Thankfully, that is changing.
The people who control the dialogue are Anglo-Saxons. The rest are marginalized, patronized, or pushed to the periphery. They pay lip service and that’s it. When they drag us out at festivals, it’s usually to talk nostalgically about where we came from and how we adjusted to the new culture. They think we’re obsessed and we can’t talk about anything else.
I take heart that this will change with the influx of African and Asian migrants. Australia will be a very different place in 30 years.
For 15 years you worked as a senior editor at Penguin Books Australia. Thus you've learned all about the world of commercial publishing. Would you say that the current publishing industry is in a crisis? What aspects of this crisis do you find most troubling?
Publishing is in flux. It’s changing from the old-world model into something new and we have yet to see what it will turn into. Not even the people who are in the industry know where it’s headed. They can only guess.
I’ve been in publishing for thirty years. In that time, I’ve seen the old model collapse and a new corporate mentality take over. When I started at Penguin it was a rabbit warren, filled with mountains of paper and people who loved making books. Sometimes we published books because we loved the manuscript or believed in the author, not because we thought it was going to sell huge numbers. All that changed when the company was swallowed up by one global publishing mega-corp after another. Out went the mad little books, the authors who were interesting but didn’t sell that well, and in came the high-concept product with a big-name author attached to it. That is not to say some of these books aren’t good. But it is to say, that the first casualties are the quiet books that may in time become part of the cultural ethos.
Even so, I don’t despair. Small, independent publishers are flourishing. That’s where the books of the future are coming from. The big international corporate model of publishing is unsustainable. It will collapse.
How free do you feel in your writing? What instances of inner censorship, editorial pressure, or expectations of a literary agent do you face in your daily struggle to be an artist and not a mere producer of a product that will be “liked and accepted” by the market, or the consumer?
I don’t have an inner censor when I write. That comes later, from outside. I write what I must write. In fiction, my priority is to the characters that ask me to tell their stories, and I have certain themes that I go back to again and again. I don’t pay attention to current expectations, fads and tastes.
I will give you an example. A couple of years ago, I was invited to contribute a short story to a horror anthology called Cthulhu Deep Down Under. I wrote ‘Haunting Matilda’, a high-octane revenge story that deals with physical and sexual violence perpetrated on a child. The anthology had three editors. One liked the story and I was assured we were going ahead with publication. Then the other two read it and freaked. The story was too confronting and disturbing for them. It was rejected. A week later they recanted. They wanted the story back, but would I mind if we did some editing. Of course, go ahead. What author doesn’t want his work edited, so long as the original intent is not altered? The story was published and it was the only story from the collection that was shortlisted in the best fantasy novella category for the Aurealis Awards.
The point is the editors gave in to (understandable) fears about a public backlash against the book. Thanks to the thought police, we are not supposed to write about certain things any more. They forget that representation is not approval or exploitation. Given the debates raging around ‘cultural appropriation’, those who know me are concerned about the novel I have just finished writing, Woman Without a Face.
To what sides of Ližnjan, Istria and Croatia did you relate? What did you discover that you didn't necessarily expect to encounter here?
Ližnjan reminds me of Tenedos, the island where I grew up in Turkey. It has the same rural feel, the vineyards, the stone walls, the whispering pine forests, the chapels in the countryside, the empty derelict buildings… Even some of the food and words are the same. I forgot that we are linked. Once upon a time the Byzantines and the Ottomans were here. That is my heritage.
I was not expecting the strong Roman presence in Istria, which is pure ignorance on my part. Or maybe it’s just that there is so much left, despite the destruction of the wars…