by Helen Demidenko
© all rights reserved
Last year I spoke at Warana Writers’ Week… My Baba, despite her poor English, came to the session to provide ‘moral support’. All through my reading, even with my glasses off, I’d been unable to look away from her, hands folded in her lap, scarf over her hair…
Six or seven years earlier I hadn’t even heard of Warana Writers’ Week. The only time I went to the city was when there was something on at the Ukrainian Hall, and for me, that wasn’t too often. I’d stopped going to Ukrainian school after less than a dozen lessons (I was a horrible girl and I’d made my Baba cry) and I’d avoided Plast, the Ukrainian Youth Organisation, altogether. My Tato nearly flipped when I told him I thought it was fascist. I was going out with a good-looking Croatian guy, getting average marks at school, and hoping for a job at Woolworths. In short, I was turning into a kangaroo.
The idea of writing-or anything intellectual, for that matter-simply did not occur to me. People in my district did not become writers. Being literary was suspect, and anyone with inclinations in that direction wore the humiliating tag of ‘art wanker’. We sat in the long grass before our commission houses and played war games in the bodies of abandoned cars. We dared each other to run across the freeway and pinched packets of chips and bottles of Coke from Fang Yu’s foodstore. We celebrated dole day every fortnight while our parents renamed it ‘vodka day’, ‘beer day’, or ‘raki day’, depending on their ethnicity. We went to the soccer on Saturday, waved our parent’s flag and ate our parents food. We watched the telly and ate junk food and told each other stories about who was fucking whom and just why Mrs Izbegevic’s husband had given her a broken nose….
[After winning the Vogel] I spent the next twenty-four hours in an agony of self doubt. I flew to Sydney the next day to be interrogated on just how I’d come to write a book like that. And it suddenly occurred to me that, now I’d won, it was time to take responsibility for my stories… on a personal level winning the Vogel did one other truly amazing thing. If you knew my family personally, you’d call it a miracle. It got my Tato on a plane… My father is petrified of flying. He’d drunk so much vodka the hosties had to stretcher him on board…
So my father who can read and write neither English nor Ukrainian flew to Brisbane to see me after I won a prize for writing-words. So my mother who left school at twelve to work as a domestic, read her first book. So my Baba came to Warana Writer’s Week… Da. Svidaniye.
This piece is extracted with permission from Southerly, Spring 1995.