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Canberra author Peter Papathanasiou on secrets, love and what really makes a family

Genevieve Jacobs 24 July 2019
Peter Papathanasiou. Photos: Supplied.

Peter Papathanasiou. Photos: Supplied.

When Peter Papathanasiou was growing up in Narrabundah, his family felt so insubstantial that it could be blown away by the wind.

His older Greek parents cherished him, but he yearned for siblings, something more grounded and weighty.

But when the Canberra scientist was an adult, his mother dropped a bombshell: he was not their biological child.

Instead, Papathanasiou was born of an act of generosity and family love. Conceived by his aunt after his mother had suffered multiple miscarriages, he was quietly brought back to Australia from the family village in Northern Greece in 1974.

And back in the village, there were two brothers waiting for him.

Papathanasiou is among a line-up of stellar local authors who will feature at the Canberra Writers Festival between August 21 and 25, among them Karen Viggers, Nigel Featherstone, Kathryn Hind and more.

He’ll discuss Little One, a memoir about identity, about meeting those brothers, wondering what might have been, and reflecting on what makes a family.

And although he felt anger confusion and shock at first, much of his book is also about compassion and the transition towards understanding.

“Initially like any major startling event, there is a huge stew of emotions, especially when the woman you thought was your mum is telling you this. I thought she was having me on. That became ‘why didn’t you tell me earlier, why didn’t you trust me?’

“But I reflected on what it actually meant and it didn’t change the past. When you think about the journey Mum and Dad endured, you can’t help but be compassionate and step outside the focus on yourself.”

Little One, by Peter Papathanasiou.

Extraordinarily, Papathanasiou was embarking on a PhD in genetics at the time, inspired by a desire to do something that would help his ageing parents.

He was too late to meet his biological parents, although he recounts a poignant moment decades before when his mother had urged him to speak on the telephone with yet another Greek aunt – and the teenager refused.

He says the journey back to “a poor, forgotten part of the country, way up north” to meet his family took time and courage. Papathanasiou’s older, unmarried brother George, is the carer for his brother Billy, who lives with an intellectual disability.

“It was confronting and scary and intimidating. I didn’t make it in time to see my biological dad either, and I should have gone earlier, I regret that.

“When I got there I feared that my brother George would throw me the keys and say ‘I’m off’. What if he’s angry? What if he feels I’ve been selfish when it took me so long to get there?”

That didn’t happen but Papathanasiou, the urban professional, had to substantially re-think his family role in rural Greece.

“The pace of life is much slower there. You sit in a cafe for six hours watching friends go by, not looking at the phone once. Life slows down and I try to be a younger brother and listen. You’re in their realm, they know how to live there, so you have respect your elders and defer to them.”

At the same time, he and his wife Jane were struggling to conceive their own children. It made Papathanasiou think a lot about the deep desire for family and continuity and what his loss must have felt like for his birth mother.

“When I became a dad myself, [Peter and Jane now have three sons], I couldn’t imagine giving one of the kids away. I wanted to tell my birth mother that her immense gift had worked out. That what I had in Australia was as good as it could be.”

The book began in 1999 when Papathanasiou wrote down three pages of tumultuous emotions about the revelations. Years later, he used it as material on a writing course, then entered some short story competitions.

Encouraged by the reception, it still took years to work out the book’s shape and how much of the family story should be part of it.

The family have reacted positively although Papathanasiou says his mother can’t understand all the fuss about things that happened 45 years ago. He hopes the book, dedicated to all four parents, will be published in Greek so his biological family can read it too.

“I wanted to do it for my family and my kids to tell them that this is where you came from. That’s why you have this long Greek name, that’s why we’re teaching you the language.

“This is who you are and this is where you come from, and this is why our family matters.”

Little One by Peter Papathanasiou is available at all leading bookstores.  

The Canberra Writers Festival will be held across multiple venues on August 21-25. Bookings are now open and while tickets are still available for most events, they’re selling fast. 


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