One of the great things about working at the Melbourne School of Government is that I work alongside a group of individuals whose work is focused on the research/practice interface. This manifests itself in a number of ways, but one of these is the engagement of practitioners in our teaching. I have the great pleasure of teaching one of the core subjects on the Master of Public Policy and Management – Policy Design and Implementation – alongside Maria Katsonis, who in her day job, works in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and is an incredibly talented public servant and teacher.
But this post is not about my colleague’s fantastic contribution to teaching or the incredible experience of leading a subject alongside such an experienced and generous individual. It turns out that Maria has talents that expand beyond the policy wonk sphere having recently published her debut novel, The Good Greek Girl.
In this book Maria charts her experience of growing up in Melbourne as the daughter of Greek immigrants. Whilst her parents had a clear sense of what she should do and what her future would entail, Maria had rather different ideas. After dropping out of her economics degree at the University of Melbourne (where ironically we now teach together), she embarked on a career in the theater. Not only was this a life choice her parents were not happy with, their world was further rocked when she came out to them as a lesbian.
The core of this novel is about Maria’s relationship with her family and culture. Despite the fact that she later abandons the theater to work in policy and goes on to graduate from Harvard with one of the top MBA degrees in her class, this does not make the relationship with her father any easier. She has already shamed her family in the eyes of the Melbourne Greek community. No matter what she might do, Maria is poignantly aware of not fulfilling the roles that her family and culture have set out for her, whilst her brother lives up to expectations.
Maria then finds herself in a position that most of us dread as she finds herself orphaned. Her mother had first experienced a huge stroke and Maria writes in an incredibly touching way about caring for her after this and the impact her subsequent death has on her. Although her father has still not forgiven her, Maria remains living with him and cares for him until his death. She speaks about the process of reconciling huge feelings of loss alongside the reality of a father who seemed to have rejected her.
In the wake of the death of her parents Maria experiences chronic depression which culminates in her being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Maria writes very honestly about this experience and the impact that living with mental illness has on a person’s life. She talks about her experience of recovery and how she returned to work post breakdown. Never one to do things by half, Maria acknowledges her mental illness in the workplace and ends up writing an op-ed about this experience in The Age newspaper. It is difficult to understand the courage it takes for an individual to confront mental illness and then to speak so openly about this in the hope that this will support others confronted with similar feelings and situations. Many individuals owe a debt to Maria for speaking about these issues in such an open matter, although as she explains this has not always been an easy process, particularly whilst dealing with ongoing mental health issues.
Whilst the subject matter sounds on the whole rather bleak it has some highly tender moments, often including Harry or Nikolas, Maria’s nephews. It is also a highly positive novel in the sense that it recounts a journey through some incredibly difficult experiences. But is does not have a sad ending and we see Maria emerge from these experiences and in doing so rediscovers her culture and her relationship with this. She discovers she is a Good Greek Girl after all, although perhaps one that is a little unconventional.
This is such a great novel and although dealing with a specific cultural group at a particular point in time and space, many of the themes will resonate with others. It is also very important in acknowledging many of the dimensions of the reality of experiencing and living with mental illness. This is something all of us will confront at some point in our life, if not personally in terms of family and friends. For those unsure of what to do and how to act if a family or friend experiences similar issues then this book is a must read and offers a lot of helpful advice.
As a warning, don’t read this if you are hungry. Maria talks in evocative tones about Greek food with extreme frequency and in ways that left me salivating at the thought of garlicky lamb, crumbly feta and fragrant tomatoes. Having been lucky enough to dine at Maria’s house these sections often left my belly rumbling. This book was launched in Reading’s in Carlton earlier this month and I understand sold a huge number of copies. I can only imagine what this is doing for sales in Greek restaurants around the city.