A cold, wet Melbourne night did not deter an enthusiastic crowd from gathering at the Immigration Museum to share in museum curator Jan Malloy’s warm and engaging conversation with Osamah Sami and Maria Katsonis in the MWF session: Good Muslim Boy, Good Greek Girl.
Sami and Katsonis have authored recent memoirs Good Muslim Boy and The Good Greek Girl respectively, but as the evening progressed it became clear that as well as good writers they are multi-talented, funny, intelligent, insightful and compassionate individuals.Malloy described both memoirs as “raw and honest”, placing great emphasis on the importance of family. Katsonis and Sami reinforced this impression in the conversation to follow.
Katsonis talked of how she wanted to “take the readers” with her on her journey, and emphasised the importance of “emotional truth and authenticity” in doing this. Sami shared his amazement at receiving an edited version (of his work from his publisher) of the much larger manuscript he’d submited, wondering where all his stories had gone. He too emphasised the importance of putting “the reader in his shoes”. Much laughter ensued when he described how his mother, after hearing of a review of Good Greek Boy which used this expression, thought it meant Sami was having shoes thrown at him in the Iraqi way of expressing displeasure. He was able to reassure her that this was not the case.
When she was writing, Katsonis said, her mentor kept asking her what her story really about. It had been her intention to record the decline of her mental health and hospitalisation in 2008 – a “cataclysmic” period in her life. However, it became clear that the story was about far more. Katsonis was able to explain how the memoir became a story of her family and her upbringing, of loss, of her relationship with her “violent” father, of being a “failed economist” in dropping out of a commerce degree to pursue her love of theatre. In a reading from her book Katsonis described a childhood of playing backyard cricket, waiting for Mr Whippy, a day at the beach with her family and the “archetypal wog lunch’ they shared while surrounded by BBQs filled with neat rows of sausages.
Sami spoke of his early years in Australia, of not knowing English and being “set up” by classmates at school to say things which got him trouble. He shared with great humour how, after failing to achieving a Year 12 result high enough to study medicine at university, he “faked it” and led his family to believe he had been accepted . It was expected that medicine would be his future and he did not want to disappoint. He talked of his life in Iran with his “muncles” and “funcles” – aunts and uncles on his mother’s and father’s sides of the family. In a reading from Good Muslim Boy he demonstrated his capacity for storytelling. The reading described Sami playing with his brother and “mousins” at a shrine in Iran where soldiers were buried. While they played some men arrived to unload a corpse and events led to the corpse being dropped and its shroud falling open. Sami vomited after seeing the “martyr’s head, mouth wide open and no eyes”.
Malloy asked Sami if he was a Good Muslim Boy. Sami reframed this question by asking, “what is good?” He pointed out that “good” is in itself a judgement and that what is good will be defined by people’s experience. “We are what we are.’ Katsonis described herself as an unconventional Good Greek Girl, one who had not followed the traditional path.
When asked what message they would give to politicians about Australia’s current approaches to immigration Katsonis reflected on all that her parents and family had contributed to their adopted communities. Sami identified communication as the key and hoped that one day it would be possible to talk to the real person behind the “veil” of the politician.
This reviewer attended Good Muslim Boy, Good Greek Girl anticipating a dissection of our current immigration policy or a robust discussion concerning racism in this country. Instead he became so enthralled listening to the speakers’ personal stories that for a short time he forgot he was a reviewer and put down his pen. He realised he was listening to the lived experience of two people from migrant backgrounds and that this story and its telling was the most important thing at all. It is this message which needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Listen to the stories!