Diamanda Galás: The Politics of Disquiet
EDWARD BATCHELDER: The first thing I’d like to ask you about is the current project that you’re working on. I know that you have two CDs coming out in November, and one of them directly relates to the issue of music and politics. Could you start by talking about it?
DIAMANDA GALÁS: Okay. The project is Defixiones, Will and Testament. Defixiones means “curse.” Defixios were lead tablets that were placed in certain places, let’s say, on the graves of the dead to either warn people that if they touch the grave, their ancestors would come to a very bad end, or to put curses on, let’s say, circus performers, enemies of any kind, and all sorts of things. A person who has done a lot of studying on this is John Gager at Princeton. The purpose that I use it for is to discuss the graves that were decimated and desecrated by the enemies of the Assyrians, the Greeks, and the Armenians living in Asia Minor, Pontus, and Thrace. These enemies were the Turks. I use this as a basic description of the overall intent of the work, which is that we will not die in peace.
EDWARD BATCHELDER: How did you come to be inspired by this particular project? How did you come to work on Defixiones?
DIAMANDA GALÁS: Well, my father is from, I always say an Anatolian Greek family but a lot of Greeks object to the word Anatolia because the Turks use it a lot, but it means the “sun rising in the east.” It’s a Greek word. So, my father is an Anatolian Greek.
EDWARD BATCHELDER: From Smyrna, right?
DIAMANDA GALÁS: Yeah, he has people from Smyrna, from Pontus, and later Xios, where they went to, and Egypt, who were not actually Greeks, but where part of the family was Egyptian. As most Greeks do, he had family from all over the world. My mother’s family is Maniates [from the Mani region in southern Greece], so they were closer to Sparta. But he told me all the stories about his relatives jumping, running, rushing into the sea from the Turks, not knowing where else to go. He told me a story of one person who saw a boat coming and he didn’t know whether it was Turkish or Greek, and it was a Greek boat. He has told me stories many, many times. And he’s told them over and over again, and the reason he’s told them over and over again is because they’re very traumatic to him and they’re very traumatic to the person who told him, which was his father. Then I saw the book by Peter Balakian, Black Dog of Fate. I recognized it as being fraternal to the stories that I heard from my father, and this was about the Armenian genocide and the desert marches that they also went through, like the Pontic [Black Sea] Greeks. Then I felt very sure that somebody else understood what I was thinking about because I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I felt so isolated in knowing how I was going to create this work and so forth. I had some very nice talks with Balakian and also Marjorie Housepian-Dobkin, then eventually my friend Sofia Kostas, and many other people.
EDWARD BATCHELDER: So, in short, like your earlier work about AIDS, it grew out of a very direct, personal experience.
DIAMANDA GALÁS: Yes.
EDWARD BATCHELDER: Which you then extrapolated on, the way you extrapolate with all of your work.
DIAMANDA GALÁS: Yes. You don’t hear these stories for 20 years, and then forget them. You don’t.
EDWARD BATCHELDER: It’s part of the process of memory.
DIAMANDA GALÁS: Yes.
EDWARD BATCHELDER: And part of this process of memory seems to be remembering the dead and the way they died. Because even if the story is 100 percent factual, it also plays a certain role in the psyche of the people, regardless of the exact fact content. Hopefully it’s not totally unrelated to the facts, but psychologically, we all operate with a history that’s been passed down to us.
DIAMANDA GALÁS: That’s right. There’s also the feeling that I had experienced for many years, which is of course as a person who is a Middle Eastern Greek on my father’s side. Most people think of Turkey as Turkish—Ottoman Turkish or Turks afterwards or “Turkish”—they don’t realize that Turkey was the center of Byzantium, and the center of the greatest Eastern Orthodox cultures. There was a gigantic amount of sharing of music and literature among all of these groups of people. Then the Turks, wanting to purify the race and get the money off everyone who they felt were wealthier and more ambitious, decided to obliterate the population and take the wealth. We see the same thing happening just with the Assyrians. “Let’s get rid of the population and let’s take the wealth.” Nobody is interested in the Assyrians in Iraq, I can tell you. They are treated like garbage by everyone, by every “special interest” group in Iraq, etc. So you have these gigantic treasures that have been moved. Their legacy has been moved and obliterated. I have friends who are Assyrians who get horrible calls from other groups of people saying, “There are no Assyrians left. You’re lying. You’re not an Assyrian. There are no Assyrians left.” This kind of thing.