‘Your normality stinks of blood’: writing the aftermath of a killing

About five weeks ago, as I was walking home through the drizzle after a date, my friend Zoe Mavroudi, producer of the must-watch documentary Ruins, got in touch to ask if I could help in translating a piece from French. The piece, by Dimitris Alexakis, concerned the killing of the queer and HIV activist Zak Kostopoulos in Athens a few weeks prior. Even with my high-school French I could tell it was spare and powerful writing, and I offered to ask around. I posted a request on Facebook and went to bed. 

“The sole fact that Zak was probably seeking safety in the place where he found death is enough to cry for the rest of one’s life,” writes V.

Two days after his death, stenciling appears on walls throughout the city: “Your normality stinks of blood.”

‘Like a prayer’: In memory of Zak Kostopoulos

Next morning there were two offers to help – one from Darren Russell, a Cairns sexual health doctor who is a fluent French speaker, and another from Rose Peach, currently studying literary translation in Paris. Darren offered to do a first draft the same day and Rose offered to follow up, and so I created a FB chat with Dimitris and Zoe, and we were away. 

Zak Kostopoulos

The translation came together quickly, thanks to Darren and Rose. Finding a home for the piece took longer. It was finally published, today, in full. I’d love for you to read it. Trigger warnings for homophobic violence. 

There are a couple of words and images in the French and that first draft that will stay with me forever. One is the hard-to-translate s’acharner. It translates as ‘to hound’ in English, but if you can hear the Latin echoing through the French, the stem is a word meaning meat, or flesh – as in charnel house, i.e. a chamber for human remains. In my head I translate s’acharner as ‘to reduce to meat’ — referencing the single-minded obsession of a dog pack on the hunt; a hunger that obliterates humanity. 

The second describes the owner of a jeweller’s where Zak sought refuge, going in for one last kick at his head, like a footballer taking a penalty shot.

At one point we were pitching the piece to a well-known Left publication, and they wanted to cut it down to a couple of thousand words of straight (ahem) reportage. That misses the point of the piece. It’s not just a bad thing happened. It’s about how you know what happened and how you tell that. 

We considered splitting the piece into two – one with the first half, describing the media circus and the farcical investigation, the other with the second half, describing the communities organising in response and struggling to make sense of the attack and its aftermath.

I wrote the words below as a kind of foreword to the second piece – an attempt to translate queer politics into a form that straight Left scholars might be able to recognise as politics. I am glad it wasn’t needed, because the piece was published in full in e-Flux Conversations. 

Exiled in time: mourning and protest

Cathy Caruth describes trauma as ‘unclaimed memory’ – the experience that refuses to be encoded in memory as a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. Instead, traumatic experience demands to be be relived in the present, in the form of flashbacks, and it registers in the body and in dislocations of time and place.

In the aftermath of Zak’s killing, the imperative is to resist narrative closure. There has not yet been a credible, independent investigation. Almost as soon as it happened, the usual suspects – the police, the media, the juridical establishment – went to work to wrap the event in a containing narrative. Nothing to see here: just a robbery. For Zak’s loved ones, the most immediate task was to unpick that shroud of counter-narrative, to let the body be seen, to let the event register in the community body assembled in protest and mourning.

Trauma, in this sense and on this occasion, is analogous to Raymond Williams’ description of structures of feeling as ‘social experience which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognised as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating’ but which has emergent, connecting and dominant characteristics that, on analysis, yield important insights into social transformation.

The piece that follows is not easy reading. The writing marks the temporal dislocation characteristic of trauma: recollection in the continuous present tense, current events in the past tense. It is a fragmentary and multivocal account, reflecting the diverse perspectives that cohere in the community experience of grief and loss. For their safety, speakers are identified only by first initials. Even pseudonyms could mark out innocents for targeted harassment. This, as much as the text, speaks to the intensification of an incipient fascism in Europe.

Alexakis carefully describes the negotiation of tensions arising between queer and anarchist people and groups in organising action in response to the killing. Some are predictable: disagreement over the use of violence; conflicts over the language of protest and critique. He highlights, as well, the way queer politics are so often unrecognised as politics within the broader Left and autonomous movement.

Writing in ROAR about the Gezi Uprising in 2014, Cagla Aykac notes ‘Minorities were present from the start — they already knew how to think, write and talk about all this.’ Others, she argues, ‘had to learn a new language, and many still struggle to declassify their tongue,’  and integral to this language is ‘splashing color, joy and pleasure.’

Using this language, Alexakis vividly evokes a queer politics that is geared not only to social transformation but also to preserving space for tenderness and celebratory gesture amid protest and mourning.