An Interview with Peter Polites

On Writing, Character, and Same-Sex Domestic Violence in his Novel

By Samuel Elliott

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No reader of contemporary Australian fiction could honestly claim to know many novels that feature same-sex domestic violence. Much like the endemic issue itself, it has remained largely hidden, a source of shame, one that few possess the courage to address. Enter Peter Polites, one of the key figures of writing and performance troop SWEATSHOP, the autonomously-run Western-Sydney-based group dedicated to giving minorities, a platform to be heard and appreciated by both their contemporaries and the creative arts scene as a whole.

His recently published novel Down The Hume follows the life of Bux, a young, openly-gay Greek-Australian from a traditional, puritanical family and chronicles his doomed, highly-abusive relationship with Nice Arms Pete; one punctuated with frequent acts of violence that chillingly mirror those he experienced during his formative years in the family home.

The bearded Polites greets me at the front door of his Western Sydney apartment, radiating a disarming warmth and offering a handshake before expertly fixing me a Vietnamese coffee (‘the sweetener and milk-powder are already in the mixture!’). Steaming beverage in hand, we step out onto the balcony. For every cigarette Polites carefully smokes, more as a natural break between answers than any overriding need for nicotine, I’ve punched three.

The author first explains the origins of Down The Hume; the idea was sparked serendipitously through writing a short story for Seizure literary magazine. ‘The voice started from there,’ he explains. ‘Down The Hume, it’s kind of an interpretation of the way people speak in Western Sydney and the way noir novels have been written historically. Short, clipped detail.’

The way in which Polites has readied himself to write the novel could explain his exquisitely understated, tight prose. He disappears briefly, returning with a shoebox packed with loose sheets and slips of paper. There were hundreds of individual pieces, some scribbled on receipts, others on torn scraps of lined exercise books, and everything in between – clearly the first writable material, snatched whenever inspiration has abruptly taken him.

‘So, when I wrote Down The Hume, I was walking around, I made notes, so I’d write dialogue on the back of receipts, and then I’d make all these.’ He digs in and removes a fistful, letting them slip through his fingers. ‘Sometimes it’s what I’ve heard, sometimes it’s little ideas that I have. Do you know about the Shower Principle, where you think about something deeply and think about something else and it’ll come to you? Yeah.’ (The Shower Principle involves deliberately distracting oneself with menial and mundane tasks in order to allow for the flow of uninhibited, unforced moments of inspiration).

He gestures to the nearest wall. ‘I’ll arrange them all there, and then I’ll cut them into a story. The one for Down The Hume filled up the whole wall. Like literally a satellite map. There’s a narrative underneath all that, and that forms.’

So when the disparate and seemingly unrelated thoughts, vignettes and half-formed ideas were compiled and cultivated, Polites began writing Down The Hume in earnest. ‘I knew exactly where I wanted it to go.’ He’s quick to point out that while he follows a plan the majority of the time, he still allows for some freedom during the actual writing process, an element of improvisation that likely hearkens back to his performance work with SWEATSHOP.

‘I don’t plan it out meticulously. It’s like when you’re driving at night through cross-country. You know the roads you go on, and you can see that the headlights have lit up in what’s in front of you, and you know what the destination is. Planning is the best thing for your writing, the more planning that you do. It doesn’t mean you can’t engender spontaneity but if you plan it, it gives you a track.’

Through mapping out every aspect of the story, the novelist has been able to slip gradually into the minds of each of the character he creates. This level of dedication makes for compelling, realistic writing, but wholly immersing oneself in characters, some of whom are responsible for beating, abusing and otherwise tormenting their loved ones, also can cause a deep psychological toll. Such was the case for Polites. ‘Yeah, for six months, I did that. It was a hard place to go, it was a hard place to be in for six months.’ The hardest places were the minds of Nice Arms Pete and Bux’s father, the two main abusers in the novel.

Polites did not limit himself to drawing from same-sex domestic violence, he also based much of the story on all other forms of spousal abuse. ‘I had to go into the part of my head that could understand domestic violence as a victim and as a perpetrator… and as a victim of domestic violence, seeing it in my community and the women in my life, and some of the queer women, some of the gay men who have experienced it, and understand their perspective as well.’

Polites emerged from the endeavour unscathed, though he stresses that, much like the stern warnings on any commercial for a pharmaceutical, results may vary. He shares that he first started writing after a mental breakdown, potentially putting himself back into harm’s way in order to write such a frank, inimitable novel. The current of the conversation then turns to what many would consider the core of the book – confronting spousal abuse in all its forms and variations.

“‘In terms of theory of knowledge that’s what I hope to contribute – how the culture of domestic violence is enacted in Australia. That’s an ecology, you know, so the reason why Bux is being bashed is the same reason why people are being dispossessed of their lands, why there are people in refugee detention centres, it’s all part of the framework.’”

‘You know it is about domestic violence, but there’s also so much else at play in there as well, there’s desire for legitimisation and how the state commits acts of violence, embodied by the characters. It’s something that’s not talked about and it’s something that’s a complex issue. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of my friends and it’s a huge issue.’

The author explains that the idea for the novel might have originated from what he had witnessed, though it developed into several types of domestic violence that he wanted to explore throughout. ‘I wanted to explore two forms of same-sex domestic violence in that book. The first form is Nice Arms Pete, and that violence is a very working-class form of domestic violence, where it’s a physical assault. And then Bux meets the character of the doctor, who’s middle-class, and to me, they do it in a much more psychologically complex way, because they’re aware of all the discourses.’

Polites believes that much of the discourse around domestic violence is obsolete, but is seldom challenged. ‘We always talk about it, about a person just leaving. But it’s a much more psychologically complex puzzle of why everything is at play. And it starts with personal narratives, but then it also has all the structural reasons as to why someone would stay in that relationship.’

Down The Hume does not exclusively depict same-sex violence, but also that of the more familiar spousal abuse many have grown up with, witnessed between a father and a mother. Polites cites one example: Bux’s father flipping a table in a memory that haunts the character, and how that exact outburst is replicated by Nice Arms Pete half a lifetime later. ‘Two women a week now, are murdered in their homes because of domestic violence and I think that there’s something wrong inherently, about our culture, about our whole culture.’ The author relates this to Australia’s long-ingrained obsession with hyper-masculinity, and how warped and dangerous it can be as well as perennially lasting, especially how it has been portrayed in film and mimicked by each proceeding generation.

‘Starting with Crocodile Dundee, going into the heroes that Hugh Jackman plays.’ He expands further, looking at Australian culture and what he perceives as being wrong at its very core, namely the frequently abhorrent (and underreported) treatment of refugees, an ever-increasing penchant for racism and racist ideals, ignoring the plights of the individuals in place of celebrity and beauty worship and finally, our wildly inaccurate, rose-tinted view of our own history: ‘We won’t even admit to the national horrors that our own founding stories.’

He concludes this with a final, troubling prediction. ‘I think that unless people start collectively challenging myths and creating new stories and doing the groundwork for a more collegial society, it’s going to get substantially worse.’

He offers up some suggestions as to how to remedy the scourge of domestic violence. ‘The resolution is through working with an understanding of the culture of violence within our country. In terms of theory of knowledge that’s what I hope to contribute – how the culture of domestic violence is enacted in Australia. That’s an ecology, you know, so the reason why Bux is being bashed is the same reason why people are being dispossessed of their lands, why there are people in refugee detention centres, it’s all part of the framework.’

The author stresses that he has faith the situation can be bettered, provided we make a concerted, united effort to improve ourselves and our country. ‘But I do think there is hope. I’m not a doomsday prepper. You know, I think that the more we challenge and understand narrative, the better our society will get.’

“‘I had to go into the part of my head that could understand domestic violence as a victim and as a perpetrator… and as a victim of domestic violence, seeing it in my community and the women in my life, and some of the queer women, some of the gay men who have experienced it, and understand their perspective as well.’”

Polites turns introspective, looking to himself and why he pursued the vocation of writing in place of more sure, more financially-stable careers. He first lists what is required for any writer serious about dedicating themselves to the craft, an essential mindset – which is tantamount to accepting a life without glamour, accepting that there might never be that big break, choosing a modest existence of creating instead of wealth and shiny possessions.

‘You have to give up material, structural and material comfort, it’s a really important thing,’ he branches into describing his own situation and how this unwavering belief has allowed him to flourish. ‘I had to give up the idea of working nine-to-five, having a nice job, a nice place, having furniture that I didn’t find on the street. I had to give all that up. Luckily, I have a partner who shares the same values. It’s really hard to find someone that isn’t, you know, that doesn’t value the material things.’

With a like-minded partner at his side, and a sense of purpose to guide him through life, it makes sense that Polites has reached a point where he can produce works like Down The Hume. ‘Once you’ve made that sacrifice in the name of art, you will look at your work more creatively and the urgency and energy will come across in that work.’ This passion, this drive, which pervades each word of Down The Hume, shows that Polites has all that is necessary to produce novels that will challenge the norm and withstand the test of time. The author has devoted himself to penning works that depict the zeitgeist in Sydney, aiming to shock readers as individuals, and us as a society, into finally eradicating domestic violence once and for all.

As a debut novel, Down The Hume is a tour de force that has been lauded by critics for its literary merit and unique insight into spousal abuse in contemporary Australian communities. What then will the author’s next work achieve? Polites assures me that he is busy with something, though he does not confide any more than that. Regardless, it can be established that Western Sydney has a writer dedicated to exploring Australian lives and sorrows.

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