Identity has many layers. Growing up in Western Sydney’s thriving multicultural mix - home to more than 1.6 million from 70-plus nationalities, and with more languages spoken than in any other part of Australia - Peter Polites’ love of literature was sparked early.
Coming from Greek descent, Polites' mother was one of the few librarians from a diverse background, and passed on her love of reading to him; by the time he was 16, he had read the complete works of George Orwell. Now an author, playwright, spoken word performer and associate director of SWEATSHOP - a literacy movement aimed at promoting critical and creative writing in Western Sydney’s marginalised communities - Polites identifies as a Greek writer first, though his raw debut novel Down the Hume certainly thrums with an erotic queer charge.
Grappling with national identity, sexuality and toxic masculinity under the burnt-orange glare of the Hume Highway’s streetlights, it plays within the narrative tropes of noir. Packed with lust, betrayal and self-destruction, our painkiller-addicted protagonist Bux attempts to rescue his doomed relationship with a drug-pushing gym-bunny who's also mentally and physically violent, boyfriend 'Nice Arms Pete'.
“I’m interested in the melodrama, loser, loser genre as opposed to the hard-boiled, fallen detective stories,” Polites says. “What I think is really sad is that we haven’t seen more minorities embrace it, because it’s just a perfect vehicle for the place where minorities sit within the state.”
With no interest in crafting a coming out narrative, particularly as he looks around Western Sydney and sees plenty of heartening acceptance, Polites wanted to reestablish the noir genre, drawing on the novels of James M. Cain, particularlyThe Postman Always Rings Twice. “You wouldn’t say [Cain’s] exactly literary, right, because it’s so plainly written, but that is literary in a way. He does something you’re not supposed to do, which is not writing a lot of exposition, which is really hard to make work in fiction. I’m not sure if I did it well?”
A gripping read, I’d argue Polites most certainly did, but don’t take my word for it. As The Hate Race author Maxine Beneba Clarke attests on the cover, “This is urban storytelling at its best.”
Western Sydney gave Polites a coming-of-age no other part of the country could, he says. “What’s amazing about it is actually the extremities, so although you have pockets of high-density, low income areas, the complexity of that is you’ll find a lot of tradespeople actually earn more than most office workers.”
Nor is the Greek community some homogenous mass, with a notable divide between the strict morality of the Greek archdiocese and a more progressive, left-wing social democracy. Then there’s the quaint diaspora of the 1950s, who came from farms to work in factories, as opposed to the new wave of university-educated middle class escaping the financial crisis, leaving the country’s poorest behind them.
“The part of the Greek culture that I come from is people sitting around coffee tables telling these long-winded oral narratives and then other people interrupting and contrasting, a very peritectic, conflict-orientated dialogue, and I think that’s where I cut my chops,” Polites says.
Acknowledging he’s a newcomer on a continuum of queer Greek diaspora authors that stretches from Constantine Cavafy to Christos Tsiolkas, Polites is also well versed in the homosocial history of literature as posited by gender and queer studies scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “A really important part of that is the idea of avatars, shadow sides and doubles, so if you look at the book closely you’ll see that a lot of the characters have doubles,” he says.
In this sense, estranged Cypriot school friend Telly mirrors Bux, with their paths threatening to cross in anger. He also encounters a possible new love interest in The Doc, who starts working at the nursing home where Bux is an assistant nurse. But a mirror can be distorted.
“I see Nice Arms Pete as a narcissistic personality that echoes elements of the national cultural mix of Australia,” Polites says. “So, for example, Australia lies about its origins a lot, pretends that it didn’t commit a genocide, and has also been let down by its international role models, whether that be the UK or America, the father figures if you will, in the same way that Nice Arms Pete has. It’s that masculine violence that is normalised in terms of, ‘oh, boys will be boys.’”
Polites is looking to carve his space within this problematic nation state. “How do I normalise that behaviour and how does Bux legitimise this desire he has for Nice Arms Pete slash Australia, while simultaneously copping the abuse structurally and physically from Nice Arms Pete slash Australia?”
Coming to writing reasonably late at around 27, Polites says the craft helped him deal with a period of mental illness. “I kind of used it as a form of narrative therapy after recovering from some bad stuff and I probably wrote about 100,000 words of rubbish, unpublishable garbage.”
Having stuck at it, Down the Hume is a staggering achievement, the announcement of an important new voice in Australia’s queer (and Greek) literary scene, and one that makes his mother and sister proud. “The big matrilineal figures in my life are all that matters,” Polites says. “I really respect the women in my family and that’s kind of why I tried to write a novel, you know?”
SWEATSHOP allows Polites to help guide other aspiring Western Sydney writers. “You know, that trope of the curmudgeonly, difficult writer, I think that’s just ego and narcissism,” he says. “There’s a really complex relationship when you’re in SWEATSHOP and you’re listening to young writers, and you’re going, ‘this is amazing, you’re going to be better than me,’ and you try and give as much of yourself as you can. Sometimes altruism benefits you more than the person. Part of community work is you’re kind of healing a wound. Unless I was based within a community structure, doing the advocacy for people from diverse and queer backgrounds, I don’t understand what the point of my written career would be; it just wouldn’t exist.”
Peter Polites’ Down the Hume is published by Hachette Australia and available now. Grab a copy here.
You can also catch him in person at the following events: