Saturday, May 18, 2019


Is there such a thing as Greek-Australian literature? If so, what language should it be written in? Who is its target audience? In what way can it be considered to be Greek? In what way can it be defined as Australian? Does the mere fact that a person of Greek origin writes in English allow their work to be classified as Greek-Australian? What purpose does Greek-Australian literature serve? Is it an assertion or an examination of identity? An exercise in cultural perseveration? An internalisation and reproduction of cultural stereotypes imposed upon us by a monolithic Greek narrative or the discourse of the dominant culture in Australia, seeking to legitimise its violent appropriation of sovereignty in this country by abrogating to itself the right of determining how ethnic minorities will relate to the mainstream and each other? Does such “Greek-Australian” diasporic literature ", as it exists, and its figurations of cultural memory or historical trauma exhibit commonalities with the literature produced within other ethnic communities sharing the same space? How does diversity in race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and physical capability shape or influence the discourse? Which values underlie it? For how long does one have to be in Australia before their writings are considered to be "Greek-Australian" or "migrant writing"? What are the criteria according to which any sense of "authenticity" can be ascribed? What questions, themes or overarching literary characteristics are typically Greek-Australian? Finally, considering that as a community we have a presence in Australia that exceeds a century, what is the significance and purpose of considering these issues?
All these questions and many more are raised for discussion by the upcoming Greek Writers’ Festival, under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria. The organising committee itself constitutes a paradigm of the diversity that currently characterises our community as a whole. George Mouratidis, poet, translator and academic, is completing his doctoral thesis on the literature of the Beat Generation and has just released his debut poetry collection: “Angel Frankenstein” to critical acclaim. A functioning bilingual who writes poetry in both Greek and English, and is currently co-editing the upcoming issue of Cordite, one of Australia's premier poetry journals. He is also legally blind. Trilingual writer Dmetri Kakmi, born in Tenedos, now in Turkey, is the acclaimed author of “Mother Land,” a biographical account of his childhood in an ancestral homeland whose rulers considered him a foreigner. He is also an acclaimed horror writer and essayist who teaches writing and is a long time advocate of LGBTIQ issues. Journalist, poet and social activist Dimitris Troaditis, has penned numerous poetry collections in the Greek language, as well as being the author of a ground-breaking history of the Anarchist Movement in Greece. Original members of the committee also included academic, lawyer and highly regarded poet Dr. Tina Giannoukos, publisher and academic Helen Nickas, and academic and translator Dr. Dina Dounis, the last two having conceived and successfully convened the Antipodes Writer’s Festival in 2012.
Seven years have passed since that festival and the world appears a fundamentally changed place. The Greek community is indeed at a crossroads. The complication and rupture of what was previously considered "social cohesion" occasioned by identity politics, the emergence of discourses of hatred and intolerance both within and without the Greek community, the creation of semantic and ideological echo chambers as a result of the rise of social media, the disintegration of traditional modes of organisation within the Greek community, the emergence of alternate narratives of identity and cultural affinity and the marked retreat of Greek as a spoken and written language in Australia have caused us to fundamentally reassess the manner in which we define ourselves, how this is expressed and our role within the broader cultural and political discourse in Australia, and indeed, within the wider literary community.
In the meantime, writers of Greek background have continued to write. Though it cannot be doubted that Greek is a language in retreat in Australia, almost every other week a Greek language book is launched in Melbourne. Primarily the preserve of the first generation but not necessarily so, the writing of Greek literature serves a number of complex purposes. Apart from acting as a cathartic group experience that assists in coming to terms with cultural and linguistic dislocation and dealing with the trauma of migration, it also signifies an act of socio-economic and gender emancipation given that education and writing was considered traditionally to be restricted to the male elite classes in Greece.
The early Greek writings of such poets and social activists as Dina Amanatidou, Yiannis Lillis and Alekos Doukas have proved influential in providing a sense of “mission” and articulating a unique diasporic perspective that has defined Greek language literature in Australia. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that women have been at the forefront of this process within our community. What, therefore, is the legacy of memorialising the Greek migrant experience in literature? Academic Anna Chatzinicolaou will lead an all female panel discussion at the Greek Writers’ Festival, with Dina Amanatidou and Lella Cariddi about the capacity of literature and storytelling to record and immortalise the migration experience. Using that discussion as a reference point, my own insufficiency will direct a panel with historian of the Greek community Dr. Christos Fifis, poet Dr Tina Giannoukos and translator Dr. Dina Dounis to examine the century old corpus of literature written in this country in order to ask the question: “Is there a definable Greek-Australian literary canon?”
Occupying the middle space between Greek language writing and literature written in English, it is important to acknowledge the existence of bilingual literature, which assumes diverse forms, such as in the interspersion of song lyrics or expressions in Angela Kosti’s poetry, the Greek/English interplay of George Mouratidis’ poetry which denotes a hybrid linguistic reality occupying the same plane simultaneously or what lies behind conscious choices to write in one or the other language. If literature is a vehicle through which we make sense of the world, what happens to writing when the author writes in a language other than his or her own? What is the impact of bilingualism or multilingualism on an author’s aesthetics and praxis and their negotiation of a largely monolingual literary and cultural landscape? Dr. Tina Giannoukos will speak to acclaimed authors Maria Tumarkin and Ouyang Yu, a prolific bilingual poet, translator and novelist, as well as yours truly, about this topic, one that has seldom if ever occupied the minds of the Greek community before now.
The participation of a large proportion of non-Greek panellists in this year’s Greek Writers’ Festival is not coincidental. As the organisers point out, the Greek-Australian community does not exist in isolation. It constitutes a vital, relevant component of the broader cultural, political and literary dialogue and it is for this reason that the festival inspires and fosters such necessary discussions with culturally and linguistically diverse writers and performers from across the ethnic spectrum and across generations. Writers and performers from the Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, African, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Australian First Nations, as well as the LGBTIQ communities will all take part. The theme of the festival being "diasporic dialogues," it is contended that all communities in Australia have a lot to share and learn from one another, not only as migrants, children of migrants, or variously marginalised minorities, but also as artists. Thus, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, Aboriginal author, academic and activist Tony Birch, Aboriginal Greek author Dylan Coleman, along with a rich cross-section of acclaimed and emerging writers, poets, and performers including Michael Mohammad Ahmad, Lee Kofman, Ramona Koval, Sami Shah, Ouyang Yu, Lucy Van, Ling Toong, Sharifa A. Tartoussi, Krishnamurthy Prasad, and a host of others will smash stereotypes and give Greek-Australian literature, through a shared and holistic appreciation, an ecumenical reach far beyond what could have been imagined by its ‘founding fathers,’ as it were. For instance, the erudite Prof. Vrasidas Karalis will chair a discussion about gender identity and art as rebellion and with much-loved authors Mary Koustas and Maria Katsonis in “Growing up Greek and Rebellious,” a panel discussion that officially opens the festival from a unique feminist perspective. Another discussion chaired by Prof. Karalis, this time in the Greek language, will consider the influence of existentialism, humanism and religious traditions in Greek-Australian writing, with acclaimed "first generation" poet Nikos Nomikos and myself, Other discussions lead by poet and researcher Dr. Lucy Van examine how literature from marginalised communities challenges the colonial monolingualism of Australian literary landscape with irrepressible ΠΟ., Dylan Coleman and Sista Zai ("The Politics of Language"), or, in another panel, analyse the relationship between the written word and the visual image in avant-garde poetry and the narrative possibilities that can be produced in "The Word and the Image" multi award-winning poets Bella Li, Stavros Messinis and the inimitable Thalia. Indeed, such a vast array of key questions and their implications for the future can potentially establish Greek-Australian literature, and the Greek community more broadly, as a key participant in the multicultural narrative.
Punctuated by bilingual poetry readings, music performances, writing workshops by such luminaries as award-winning Young Adult author Will Kostakis and acclaimed poet and Editor-in-Chief at the Melbourne Poets' Union Dr. Tina Giannoukos, open mic events, book launches and a homage to one of the most important literary institutions within the Greek community, the Greek Australian Cultural League of Melbourne, this year’s Greek Writers’ Festival will highlight the art of writing as it pertains to our people, as a mirror of our own multi-faceted complexity. Along with the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival and the annual Film Festival, it serves as an invaluable tessera in the comprehensive mosaic of our Antipodean hypostasis, one that provides ample scope to pose existential questions about our continued presence and relevance both to the Greek and to the Australian social and cultural narrative, permitting us to distinguish an ontopathology of identity that is uniquely our own.

First published in NKEE on 18 May 2019