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John Vasilakakos
The Set-Up

Academic, translator and author
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Interview by Zelda Cawthorne
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John Vasilikakos was born in Greece in 1951 and came to Australia in 1965. A graduate of Melbourne University, he has received a doctorate and published widely in Australia, Greece and America. His Greek fiction includes Adumbrations of the World, The Shipwreck of the SOS, According to St John and A Psychological Portrait of a Greek Migrant, while his plays in Greek include The Identity and Attention: Fragile! His criticism includes Studies in Modern Greek Literature and Modern Greek Literature of the Diaspora: Australia in Greek, and The Poet S.S. Charkionakis: A Critical Approach to his Work (co-authored with G. Kehagioglou and X. Kapsetakis). His work is also included in various anthologies and has been translated into other languages. He has taught Modern Greek and Interpreting and Translating at Deakin University. He is married with two children and divides his time between Melbourne and Athens.

His Greek fiction includes
Adumbrations of the World, The Shipwreck of the SOS, According to St John and A Psychological Portrait of a Greek Migrant, while his plays in Greek include The Identity and Attention: Fragile!

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Weekend Books
Greek writer bears our gifts
Zelda Cawthorne
Herald Sun, 13 January 1996

Zelda Cawthorne on Australia’s Greek promoter

There was Maria Callas, the megastar. And there was Maria Callas, the homely misfit desperate for love and security. ‘Deep down, she was a split personality; a sad, tortured woman who died in misery despite all the glory, riches and fame,’ says John Vasilakakos. ‘Aristotle Onassis (Callas’s lover) was extremely cruel to her. She badly wanted a child, but he forced her to have an abortion. That’s what really broke her. Just like Medea.’

The great soprano whose life unfolded like a Greek tragedy would make a compelling subject for the stage. John Vasilakakos, writer and academic, needs no convincing.

Though Vasilakakos - Dr Vasilakakos to his Modern Greek students at Deakin University - migrated to Australia at the age 14, he has won an international following. His novels, essays and plays have enjoyed commercial success and wide distribution through their translations, including Chinese. And the Australia Council’s Literature Board has funded him to do English versions of his acclaimed plays The Identity and Attention Fragile!

Now Vasilakakos has been given his sixth grant - this one worth $8000 - to translate Australian writer Beverley Farmer’s 1983 book Milk into Greek.

‘There have been many works by migrant writers about life in Australia, but this time it’s the other side of the coin: a book by an Australian about life in Greece. Beverley Farmer is an extremely gifted writer; one of those rare stylists who can condense a thousand images into a few words.’

The true story of the Melbourne-born author who married a Greek migrant, then went with him to northern Greece where she lived in his family home and reared their son. should prove an eye-opener.

The Greek edition of Milk will also be part of an important strategy: the promotion of Australian literature abroad which, it is hoped, will increase not only sales, but also an understanding of Australia.

Sitting in the book-filled study of the comfortable Prahran home he shares with his wife Mary - also a literary translator -and their two small daughters, is a man deeply wary of labels.

‘I believe ‘ethnic’ is basically racist,’ says Vasilakakos, who also disapproves of ‘multicultural’ in its Australian context, especially when uttered by vote-conscious politicians.

‘Some may call Australia multicultural, but in spite of the rhetoric, it remains an English-speaking country dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

‘It is not like a Cairo or an Alexandria, where Egyptians, Greeks and Italians truly intermingled. Here, there are many cultures, but no real mixing. The stronger, dominant culture will always resist that.’

Yet it is also a culture Vasilakakos sees as basically tolerant. ‘In America, where Greeks have become so much more assimilated, I would be forced to write in a language I’m not comfortable with. Here, I’m given grants to write in my own.’

Last year, recognition also came from Melbourne University when it awarded Vasilakakos a doctorate for his research on Greek-Canadian writer Nikos Kachtitsis. Soon to be published will be the English translation of his novel The Set-Up. And then there’s the Callas play.

‘I think I may take it to America,’ says the reluctant multiculturalist. No slight intended to Australia or Greece. After all, the diva was born in New York.

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