Why I rebelled against my migrant family to become an artist

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Koraly Dimitriadis

Koraly Dimitriadis

Koraly Dimitriadis Photo: Kit_Haselden_Photography

It took me 30 years to break out of my culture to become an artist, but I always wanted to be one. I don't blame anyone, it just happened that way. In primary school, I loved to draw. The breadth of my creativity widened in high school where I wrote poetry and short stories. I was so captivated by Shakespeare I'd lock myself in my bedroom and pretend to be passionate Juliet.  

In hindsight, I can understand why my parents didn't allow me to peruse my dream to study art. I was devastated, but they are migrants from remote villages in Cyprus where one chicken was shared between 12 children. They came to Australia for a better life, and that meant giving their children the opportunity of education, a luxury they did not have. Art was for the lazy, I was told. It was not a career. So I swallowed my art and studied accounting/computing instead, substituting fiction for textbooks. I worked in IT for many years for large corporations, occasionally dabbling in my art.   

When you are disciplined into cultural norms, as a woman, you refrain to question, or venture too much outside of the rules. It's a fear that chains you to culture. Be a good daughter and we will approve and love you; disobey and you'll suffer the consequences.

Poets and writers Koraly Dimitriadis and Ben John Smith

Poets and writers Koraly Dimitriadis and Ben John Smith Photo: Ange Arabatzis

My goal was that of my parents': succeed academically, make money, but only up until you find a husband, at which point all must be abandoned when it is time to have children. Of course you can return to work part-time (if your husband agrees), but not full time, not unless you are poor, because then who will take care of the children? But if you marry a man of substance (of your own kind), it shouldn't be a problem. A woman's career and dreams are only secondary to her husband and children.

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So that's what I did. I was married at 22. But when I came off the antidepressants I was on for eight years to get pregnant, I couldn't stop the thoughts. My doctor told me to write. I did. I wrote 20,000 words in secret. Nobody knew except my husband. One day I revealed to a close female relative around my age that I wanted to be a writer and she said to me "who's going to care what you have to say?"

I was pretty fragile and weak back then. Easily swayed. Always waiting for people to tell me what to do – the right thing to do – because that's all I knew. I stopped writing for two years until the arrival of my daughter when I not only gave birth to her but also to the creativity I had kept buried all these years. I was 27.  

Every time my daughter slept I wrote. I couldn't stop. I started reading again. I read Christos Tsiolkas' Loaded and I couldn't believe a Greek man was writing so honestly and explicitly about life within our culture. I didn't even know it was possible to be so outspoken and brave. I contacted him and it wasn't long before he was mentoring me. He actually believed in me. He suggested studying a writing course at RMIT.

My marriage ended. I had to move away from my family and my culture – nobody knew where I lived except my ex husband. Everyone thought I had gone mad from my writing but I all I wanted was to be free and think for myself. The writing liberated me. I met creative and interesting people through my course who introduced me to things I had never tried, like seeing live music at the pub! I didn't know how to date as I had never dated before. My family was pressuring me to go back to the marriage. I wrote of my experiences and would attend open mic poetry every week and perform.

I emerged from my culture angry. Angry at all the years I had lost conforming, angry at myself for not knowing any better. I was shocked at the subtle and unspoken racism in the arts world, the preference for elegant literary writing influenced by England. I couldn't believe the pretentiousness of how it all operates. I wanted to say to them all "do you know what it has taken for me to get here and now you don't want to hear what I have to say?"

I spoke out, probably at the detriment of my career. But I spent my whole life not speaking up and now there was no way I was stopping. Men who had achieved success made me angry. It wasn't their fault, but they did. And I was surprised by how excluded I was from feminists groups. They were so white. I don't sound like them. Growing up in a non-English speaking background my vocabulary is not as fancy as theirs. I'm just an angry Greek girl who should hold her tongue.

These days I've lost a lot of my anger about the past. My family have slowly started to accept me as an artist. It feels good to be able to say "I am an artist. I am a performer. I am a writer. I am a poet. I have a theatre show next year. I have made films". I may still feel like a black sheep in many ways, but I feel more alive than ever.

Koraly Dimitriadis is a poet, writer, actor, performer and filmmaker. www.koralydimitriadis.com