Living histories with Taxithi’s Helen Yotis Patterson
Born to Greek immigrants, Helen Yotis Patterson is a Melbourne-based writer and performer whose childhood was furnished with the honest and impassioned stories of her late grandmother’s life in Greece and experience of relocating to Australia. With a firm connection to her family’s past and an acute need to catalogue and share the untold immigration stories of other Greek women, Helen wrote Taxithi – An Australian Odyssey, which after a sell-out season at fortyfivedownstairs in 2016 will be returning to the Alexander Theatre in early June.
Ahead of her upcoming performance with Maria Mercedes and Artemis Ioannides, we spoke to the writer and performer about the influence of immigration on identity, the importance storytelling for the preservation and evolution of culture, and the resilience of women.
MLIVE: Your family migrated from Greece to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. What have you learned from the stories surrounding their experience?
Helen Yotis Patterson: I guess that big changes shape you as a person. [After migrating to Australia] my family held onto their Greekness. Their nationality is part of who they are. They didn’t shed their skin and completely throw themselves into a new environment and let go of the past. It’s a really strong connection—much like a long invisible string that holds them to the past because it has become part of their identity. And so I’m a 45 year-old Greek woman who has only been to Greece once, I was ten years old, and yet I still identify as a Greek person. My family also taught me about resilience. My paternal grandmother lost her arm in the Second World War when her home was bombed, and my other grandmother lost several babies, and although she is 98 years-old and living in a nursing home, she’s still grieving those babies like it happened last week.
MLIVE: Growing up, were you always interested in storytelling and the arts?
Helen Yotis Patterson: My Mum’s mum was a real storyteller and so they [stories of Greece] were kind of our childhood fairytales. They always had an element of magic curses and interesting characters so our lives were furnished with the people that lived around us. There were all these rich and fascinating stories, and she was also really honest. She never put people on a pedestal—they were always really flawed. Even my grandfather and the kids—nobody was perfect. I’m really grateful for that because it’s given me an honest eye.
MLIVE: The women in your family are very important to you. What are some of the values your mother and grandmothers instilled in you?
Helen Yotis Patterson: I guess the idea of loving no matter what; loving passionately, and that’s not necessarily sexual love or romantic love, but loving the people in your life; and being forgiving. My Mum was an incredibly forgiving person. It’s not like she didn’t get mad, but it was over really fast. [I learnt that] it’s ok to be mad. Be mad quickly and have it over fast. I don’t necessarily know if it’s a Greek thing, but I guess we’re a lot more open about it. There’s no hiding of feelings. I never had to guess why Mum was mad—I knew. It’s not a passive aggressiveness, just aggressiveness. A connection to the past and to family is also really important.
‘I’ve captured all of these glimpses of people’s lives and have put them under a glass dome for us to look at and think about.’
MLIVE: Can you tell us about Taxithi and how the idea for the play came about?
Helen Yotis Patterson: In the last few weeks of my maternal grandmother’s life, I went to see her in hospital. I held her hand and we had this absolutely mind-blowing conversation about her life. She was telling me about her marriage, her children, and we talked about her baby who died of cot death. It would of been about 1935—something like that—and we talked about how fresh the grief still was. It just got me thinking about how incredible the lives of immigrants are. They have to adapt and change in such a remarkable way, and I just thought that if she’s so incredible, I’m sure there are other women like her. Wouldn’t be fascinating to collect their stories? Because, you know, it’s all coming to an end. I really feel that acutely. As these older people die, the big Greek parties are going to stop. We’ll stop going to church, we’ll stop listening to Greek music and that Greekness that’s been poured into us from the moment we popped out is just going to dilute until it disappears. That’s the way it has to be because that’s life, but it’s so sad. [Culture] is our way of clinging and recording, so I guess that’s why. The way that these stories have come to me meant that it was time. I heard stories from women that they had never told anyone before. So it’s incredibly moving for them and it’s important for me to pass this on to my kids because they won’t have what I had. The noise, the chaos, the love, the music, the characters, the yelling and the screaming. The absolute joy and pain of it all.
MLIVE: What do you hope audiences take away from the work?
Helen Yotis Patterson: First of all, I feel really passionately about welcoming new people to our country. What this show does is it highlights how it’s hard to come to a new country. It engages people’s empathy so they will hopefully think about what it’s like for somebody to come to this country, and to remind them that we were once new too. The play is similar to a museum piece or an exhibit. I’ve captured all of these glimpses of people’s lives and have put them under a glass dome for us to look at and think about. The most important thing is that I’ve written it for women—for us. It’s an incredible experience doing this show because as soon as we start, as soon as the music starts, a wave of emotion comes from the audiences and hits us. It’s incredibly cathartic when you’re performing the soundtrack of your life. We want to the show to be warm and familiar for people.