“Writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals”. – John Steinbeck.
“Constantly searching/ in these underground rooms/ to find you/ to reach you/ to tell you something...” – Antigone Kefala.
“So this is the Antipodes Writers Festival,” the effervescent journalist, media personality and author Angela Pippos exclaimed in the vestibule of the Wheeler Centre, as the strong tones of Coraly Dimitriadis’ unique poetry performance resounded through the doors, losing none of their intensity in the process. “So where are all your berets?”
An apt remark if there ever was one. For if there was one thing that emerged from the recent Antipodes Writers Festival, is that the gamut of Australian writers of Greek descent is so diverse, their topics, styles, languages of choice, message and values so unique that it would be difficult, nay futile to seek to find common threads through all of them. From its commencement, a scintillating conversation between the much lauded and yet touchingly humble and very human Christos Tsiolkas and the sagacious and personable Professor Nick Papastergiadis on aspects of literature as they pertain to multiculturalism, broader Australian society and our relationship with Greece, to its conclusion, a homage and critical look at the works of some of our most important and long-standing poetic voices, those of Antigone Kefala, Nikos Nomikos and Dina Amanatidou, the Festival gave voice to a surprisingly remarkable array of talent, in fields unsuspect.
The brainchild of academics and literati Konstandina Dounis and Helen Nickas, the Antipodes Writers Festival, held under the auspices of the Greek Community’s Antipodes Festival truly gives lie to the oft cited cliché that our community is not capable of showcasing anything more elevated than the bouzouki and the souvlaki. Here, two passionate academics who are closely integrated within the Greek community share their passion for Greek and Greek-related letters by conceiving on a grand project – to bring together all those for whom writing is a way of life, provide them with the opportunity to share or discuss their work and that of other writers and, together with the large public that attended the weekend festival, seek variously to define, redefine or cast aside categorisations as to where and to whom they belong.
Such an enterprise is not an easy one for the term “Greek writers” is a loaded one, carrying with it a great deal of historical and other baggage. Nonetheless, it became apparent during the course of the Festival, that there are a multitude of groupings around which writers belonging to our community coalesce, while refusing to be restricted by the broad terms of reference of such groupings. Greek language writers, especially poets, primarily belong to the first generation (though in the case of the irrepressible George Zangalis, his work and activism for the rights of workers is an example of harnessing the strengths of Hellenism in order to effect social change) and in a session chaired by the luminescent Associate Professor Vrasidas Karalis, Helen Nickas and Konstandina Dounis, accomplished translators of Greek-Australia literature in their own right, discussed with the diatribist, the need to preserve and translate the canon of Greek language Australian literature, in order for it to become a reference point to the coming generations, who as it became apparent from subsequent discussions were largely not cognizant of and unaffected by writings in the Greek language, which they find inaccessible.
English speaking writers were viewed closely within the Festival and their motivation and viewpoints were truly fascinating. Some are still grappling with their Greek heritage as an unshakeable burden. In this regard, angry younger generation writers (and Professor Vrasidas Karalis did point out the symbolic truism that “killing one’s parents” is an act of emancipation), would have done well to heed Christos Tsiolkas poignant observation that upon maturer consideration, there is much to be gained from the simple dignity, decency and positivity that can be found among members of the first generation.
Others have been able to look past perceived generation gaps and incorporate aspects of their Greek identity into their fight for social justice (Jeanne Vithoulkas), as a broad brushstroke on a canvas replete with a multitude of global influences (Luka Haralambous and Angela Kosti) or as the foundation and backdrop for the acquisition of diverse literary inspirations that lead to the creating of truly polished and accomplished verse (Tina Giannoukos). Indeed, in Jeanne Vithoulkas and Tina Giannoukos, their functional bilingualism gives rise to a nuanced and sensitivity of thought which is breathtaking. In the case of the ingenious Angela Pippos, such an identity can even be used to augment and provide a workable and successful point of reference for a most unlikely and ostensibly unHellenic pursuit – being a devotee of the AFL.
Writers on the fringe of Hellenism also provided thought provoking viewpoints. The magnificent Arnold Zable with his jewel encrusted prose and acclaimed John Charalambous each in their own way, provided an insight into how aspects of multi-faceted Hellenism can appear to the ostensibly ‘uninitiated’ and how these can provide inspiration and motivation for the production of considered and moving writing. Both Charalambous and Helen Arthurson, author of a children’s book raised a motif that is very dear to my heart – the concept of a garden or the natural world and how, in Charalambous’ eyes, this acts both as a way of providing continuity with a long lost way of life in Cyprus but also as a way of asserting control over an unfamiliar society, at least on a family level. Arthurson’s perspective is also unique. Growing up in urban Richmond, her longing for wide, open, natural spaces was requited upon a family trip to Greece. This love of the natural environment has caused her to write a children’s book where the natural world and conservation are key themes.
Proving that Hellenism is a concept that defies boundaries and borders, the peripatetic multi-talented Victoria Haralambidou, main protagonist of the internationally acclaimed “Brides,” born in Saint Petersburg and now residing in Sydney, along with Helena Spyrou, discussing the works of the late Anna Kannava and Tess Lyssiotis, provided a unique insight into how concepts of migration and the working class can be translated into quality film scripts.
For me, the best and most fulfilling part of the Festival was being able to ply writers with questions, seek advice and revel in their company. To listen to the pneumatic Tom Petsinis read out a highly evocative depiction of a liturgy from an unpublished work was a unique privilege, matched only by the opportunity to bounce ideas off him during the interval. To bask in the enigmatic warmth of the seraphic Michael Michael’s prose-poems is to be transported into a world of pure and unadulterated light while to listen to Kostas Nikolopoulos probe George Megalogenis into providing a deep and comprehensible analysis of Australian politics is to drink cool water in a mountain stream and understand, albeit for a moment, all the secrets of the world.
In being able to gather and showcase a diverse group of writers in such a sophisticated way, abjuring labels and celebrating difference, shows how our community truly has come of age. This is in no small part due to the dedication of the organising committee, Helen Nickas, Konstandina Dounis, Nick Trakakis, Dimitris Troaditis, cultural activist par excellence Dina Gerolymou and the indefatigable Penny Kyprianou. She, as well as Robert Henlein knows that: “There is no way that writers can be tamed and rendered civilized or even cured. The only solution known to science is to provide the patient with an isolation room, where he can endure the acute stages in private and where food can be poked in to him with a stick.” Και του χρόνου.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 June 2012