A letter to my father

BY Daniella Trimboli

THEME LEADER Nikos Papastergiadis

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

Daniella Trimboli shares an intimate letter to her father about culture, politics, life and family expectations.

Lately I have been recalling a confrontation I had with you in my late teens about ‘boat people’. It was not the ‘boat people’ confrontation where I, outraged by your comments, stormed out of the house, jumped into my ’85 Corolla and burned down the road to a friend’s place where I stayed until I cooled off. No, the one I am recalling just led me to my room, quietly, to sulk.
        A news update about asylum-seeker arrivals had come on telly, as they so regularly did at that moment in 2001; Howard and Beazley going head-to-head in an election campaign that contorted asylum seekers into grotesque poster children for all that the country could ‘not afford to be’. I must have muttered a comment about the inhumanity of the situation, and you must have muttered a disagreement. There was some talk between us that ignited quickly – like so much talk between us back then –causing the walls to sweat and everyone else in the house to stop, drop and roll to the nearest emergency exit. I then did something that one loathes to do, especially when one is a female: I opened my mouth to say something clever and articulate, but what came out were incomprehensible words that shook until they snapped into a blub, betraying my intellect and falsely suggesting surrender.
        What I recall next is sitting on the floor against a wall in my bedroom, where you joined me soon after. You sat on the floor opposite me with a look I had not often seen on your face. For a few moments I thought it must be the look of an epiphany: the realisation that you were sorry – wrong, even – and now understood my perspective. But the look was, in fact, that of an exasperated father. A father pitying a daughter too young to know better, and too old to be told otherwise.
        ‘I just worry about you, Daniella’, you said with a sigh. ‘You’re a dreamer. And the world does not take kindly to dreamers’.
        It has been at least twelve years since that confrontation, and about seven months since Australia’s twenty-eighth federal election, the election that brought Tony Abbott to the helm as this country’s prime minister. It followed a drawn-out period of internal bickering in the Australian Labor Party and the cruel public shaming of our first female prime minister, Julia Gillard. While there was a lot I didn’t like about the Labor leadership during that time, I still felt sure they were the better choice of our two major parties.
        The majority of the Australian public felt differently – they felt Abbott’s two-point platform of ‘economy, economy, economy’ and ‘stop the boats’ was a winner. Voters seemed untroubled by his racist comments and hardly flinched at his demeaning remarks about Australian women. In fact, they found these things endearing.
        ‘At last’, the nation regaled, ‘the return of a leader not afraid to be politically incorrect!’
        Abbott’s daughters loyally shadowed their father throughout his election campaign, awkwardly laughing off remarks about their good looks and the sex appeal of his female party members.
        ‘We are nothing but inspired by Dad’, they swore to us.
        The Australian public did not seem to mind Abbott floundering every time he was asked a question, or that he was knowingly backed by the country’s wealthiest mining and media moguls. They saw no contradiction between his Christian moral high ground and his militant approach to asylum seekers, the disabled and the socially disadvantaged. Abbott and his team won – in the words of the media – ‘by a landslide’. Since then, his government has actively worked to cut funding to education, Medicare, the science portfolio and all Australians genuinely struggling – including carers, people with disabilities, pensioners, students and the unemployed. It has also failed to support workers of longstanding Australian companies such as Toyota, Holden and Qantas; moved forward with plans to mine the Great Barrier Reef and to destroy more Tasmanian forests; worked to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, allowing hate speech to become congruent with ‘free speech’; and blatantly ignored brutality and death in its offshore detention centres. But perhaps its most dangerous move of all has been to quickly and strategically shut down our access points to information about government activities. SBS and the ABC – our only free-to-air television stations actually trying to provide objective, factual news – have been probed for bias, while Murdoch-funded stations remain untouched.
        Outcries against the government’s incessant and ruthlessly inhumane actions can be heard, but they are quiet compared to the deafening apathy of the majority. The cumulative effect of Australians overlooking what is actually happening in their civil domain creates an ominous hum I can no longer ignore. But I can understand why you tried to goad me into doing things with my life that I inevitably refused to do, Dad, like pursuing my management degree instead of switching to arts, like working for the government instead of a not-for-profit arts organisation, like investing money, like buying a house, like getting married to someone more like you and less like me. Perhaps things would have been easier.
        We live in a world that does not take kindly to dreamers.
        While it is nice to tell people your daughter is studying in Canada on a scholarship, it is hard for you to know what to say when they ask, ‘What kind of job will she get when she finally finishes?’ (Especially if followed by the playful, ‘Oh, so that’s where my taxes are going!’) You do not know what will happen to your daughter when she finally finishes. In fact, you feel certain she will not be fit for the ‘real world’.
For the record, it looks about as ‘real’ in here as it does out there, Dad. I have one year left of my PhD and the research environment gets increasingly dog-eat-dog as I proceed, even here, in your so-called ‘dream world’ of humanities study. The pressure of cost and effect, business strategy and competitive edge is everywhere: peers seeking to outdo each other’s publication output, fellow students willing to put up with blatant exploitation because speaking up about it might cost their already limited chances of a job, social alienation, ‘how many conference proceedings do YOU have?’, rejected funding proposals, little-to-no financial compensation. In fact, the whole thing reminds me of a conversation you and I had once about the increasing pressure you were under in your own workplace. As a supervisor of civil construction who was reaching deadlines more quickly and cheaply than ever, you were subsequently being met with demands to do it even more quickly and cheaply the next time.
        ‘Here’s a pat on the back for helping our profit margin grow … now a little push in the back to get you out there to make the profit margin twice as big in half the time!’
        ‘Oh, well’, you said, shrugging your shoulders. ‘That’s life, eh?’
        I hear a strange blend of pride and resentment in your voice when you speak about work. Like your father, you seem to live for it. But perhaps because of your father – the way hard work defined him as a man – you begrudge it, too. You complain about the pressure and the less-than-ideal conditions. I remember the day your Dad, my Nonno, passed away. On the hospital bed, Nonno frantically tried to remove the drips in his arms, muttering to you in Calabrese that he wanted out of the hospital, he wanted to die with fresh dirt under his fingernails. You were terribly saddened by that. You knew that the market garden was his sanctuary, his safe place. I am sure this knowledge has a lot to do with your own persistent work ethic, Dad. It is your way of accepting the legacy of hard work, of keeping the dirt fresh under the fingernails of ‘us Trimbolis’.
        Now Tony Abbott is prime minister and new funding cuts have begun. One of the key issues his treasurer promised to target was university research that ‘isn’t important’. We know what an Abbott government thinks is important: 1. economy, economy, economy and 2. stop the boats. There is little people presence in such an agenda, so I expect humanities research to be the first to go. So, you can see how, at thirty-one years of age, I’m starting to realise you were right. I am a dreamer, and perhaps this is not a good life strategy. All these years of work and study in the ‘dream world’ and I am still facing a future with limited opportunities. I have built my life on dreams, have built my own real world, hoping that in doing so I might help to engineer changes to the social and cultural playing field that make it okay to be here. But the more I sit down at 7 pm to watch the news, the more disappointed I am by how small and regressive the changes seem to be. At the end of each day, the Australia I live in wants figures and statistics, relentlessly driving us back to material wealth, a tough-guy persona and balance sheets good for the middle class and pretend-good for the working class. This Australia hates dreamers, and even if it acknowledges some element of worth in your work, the bastards will grind you down anyway; they will take your dreams and turn them into nightmares.
        I have always had trouble understanding that if I can’t beat ’em, I should join ’em.
        Admittedly, I’m not entirely at fault. I mean, you’re the one who said that eating Kraft spaghetti was sacrilege! So I’ve never really known how to reject these little cultural problems, like Kraft spaghetti (which is, by the way, as yuck as you said it’d be), but toe the line on the big cultural problems, like our attitudes toward asylum seekers. In my world, asylum seekers are real. In your world, they are ‘boat people’ and ‘boat people’ do not have real names or numbers or documents. Mostly they are not real because they did not wait in a queue that does not exist, so we let them drown at sea.
        In hindsight, I know that if I had quit dreaming, and done what I should have, I would be wealthier and more successful than most of the skip kids I went to school with. I would be more than just the only one of Nonna and Nonno’s eight children and god knows how many grandchildren to have a degree (or three): I’d also have money … a nice car, a big home, property investments, a big fucking diamond ring, a haircut and a real job. You know, real stuff. I wouldn’t stay awake at night haunted by images of Reza Berati’s family mourning his brutal murder in the Manus Island detention centre. In short, I would be a successful migrant story – a walking, talking advertisement for all that ethnic Australians can do if they just put their mind to it and adopt the right values. I would have shown all those people that made your life hell growing up that they were wrong. Hey, you amounted to something, dago! You might have rocked up to primary school wearing no shoes when you were young, but look! You produced such wealthy spawn! Oh, hindsight, you smug bastard, always showing up here shining that bright light in my eyes. And yet, in spite of finally finding the right path in the real world, something continues to plague me. In this quiet place of defeat, hindsight keeps something in the dark.
        Perhaps one day we will talk about this in person, though in my mind, we already have, several times. (See, daydreaming, again!)
        ‘Okay’, I would say, ‘forget about me studying philosophy and cultural theory, what about all the work I’ve done researching multicultural Australia, Dad? The same multicultural Australia that since the 1970s gave “new Australians” like Nonno and zio Michele and Uncle Rocky and you space to express your cultural specificities in an otherwise narrow, Anglo-Celtic country? What about Gough Whitlam and migrant rights? Giovanni Sgro and working rights for Italians? Are these not things worthy of energy and attention?’
        You would shrug, nonchalantly. ‘Well, you would not need to worry about knowing and studying these things because we’d already have succeeded, if you had done what you should have, Dani.’
        I do not understand what you mean.
        You clarify, with a laugh, ‘Nonno’s dreams would have already come true, you see? He wanted us and all you kids to be successful!’
        I fall silent for a minute or two. ‘But, wait’, I say, raising my eyebrows in disdain, ‘Nonno had dreams? I thought you said the world does not take kindly to dreamers?’
        You lift your head towards the ceiling and stare at it for an exaggerated moment.
        ‘Allora’, you say at last, with a dropped voice and hands whipping up in front of your face, preparing to bring home the punchline, ‘it doesn’t! That’s why it would have been such a success had you been more of a success’.
        I see it now, so clearly. It is the irony of migrant success: someone before you fought through life as a dreamer so that you would not have to. ‘So Nonno and Nonna strove and fought and resisted and swore in their world of dreams, so that I could live stably, and orderly – and successfully – in the real one’.
        Dad, I want to thank you, sincerely, for showing me the real world, and the right path within it. And I want to thank you for doing your utmost to keep me on it. Cara papa, I know your concern truly comes from a place of care. But, if you need me, I am afraid to say that I will be on a different path, in your ‘dream world’, a world that is very real to me. I will be there because I understand, now more than ever, that this is where I exist, and where I absolutely must exist.

Dr Daniella Trimboli is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. She was jointly-awarded her PhD in Cultural Studies in 2016 by The University of Melbourne and The University of British Columbia. Daniella has worked as a Research Fellow at the Research Unit in Public Cultures at The University of Melbourne, and has taught in Cultural Studies, Tourism and Australian Studies. She is an assistant editor of the Journal of Intercultural Studies.


This piece was originally published in Melbourne’s Mary, no. 5, 2014, and in the online arts space I’ll Be Your First Mate, November 2014.