When Antigone Kefala released her first published work The Alien in Australia, the response by critics and readers alike were rare, and, as she describes herself, were “muted”. The critics weren’t nasty, there was no hostility, and those who liked her work were positive, yet she says their response was like a “major silence”. Poetry is a difficult medium as it is; add into the mix being a migrant to Australia, Antigone always felt on the outer.
Her work was always described by her background – a Greek born in Romania now living in Australia. She was automatically positioned as an “ethnic writer”; she had no hope to be anything else.
“The reader identifies you as an alien,” Antigone tells Neos Kosmos. “The English language is a field in which the locals would like to have the upper hand, so we were coming in at the very bottom of the scale.”
Culturally, she says, ethnic writers were always on the periphery of Australian literature. She says one only needs to look at the Oxford Dictionary of Australian Literature and says writers born in countries outside of Australia were always put into different categories such as ‘minor writers’ or ‘migrant writers’.
“There wasn’t an inclusiveness, an acceptance of writers coming from another language,” she says not wanting to complain, but wanting to acknowledge her – and the plight – of many migrant writers of her time.
Born in Brăila, Romania in 1935, Antigone’s family had long lived in large Greek communities of the Eastern European country but fled following the political unrest caused by WWII. They arrived in Greece as refugees and lived in refugee camps in Lavrio. Greece was already undergoing its own turmoil following WWII, and in the midst of a destructive Civil War. With the help of International Refugee Organisations, she and her family were relocated to New Zealand along with over a thousand Greeks from Romania.
“In New Zealand we tried to adapt and I went to school and then to university,” she explains, where she studied arts at Victoria University in Wellington. At the beginning of the ’60s, Antigone migrated to Sydney, Australia and has lived there ever since.
“I felt at home in Australia,” she says, “there were lots of foreigners, lots of languages were being spoken in the streets of Sydney.”
In her new home, Antigone began a significant career in the arts. She worked at the NSW Department of Education teaching English to new arrivals, and set up specific language programs. She then took up a position as a Program Officer at the Australian Council for the Arts and soon after became the Multicultural Arts Officer, where she assisted lots of artists who had migrated to Australia to find work and connect them with likeminded people. She set up directories, would assist in grant applications, and then would visit a number of communities to assist in any way she could.
“I came to Australia with another sort of baggage from Europe and from the family,” Antigone explains of her journey as an Australian author.
Writing literature in another language, speaking other languages, looking at how the languages and the writing works in comparison to English, are all aspects that defined her style. And Antigone herself, not only as a writer, but as a person trying to be part of this environment, would discover another form of self-definition – through her body of work.
She remembers when things started to shift for her writing to be acknowledged; during the time of the politician Gough Whitlam. He was the then Minister for Culture when Antigone worked at the Australian Council for the Arts so their paths would often cross. He was to her a man who “naturally liked culture”.
“He was not someone that saw [the arts] as an imposition,” she says but when his government ended, everything for her as a writer seemed to close again.
“And now it looks as though it’s going to be closed down for a very long while,” she says observing the current political situation, and how the arts and migrants stand to suffer at the hands of the Federal Budget.
“When the tone of the public debate changes automatically the idea of inclusion departs,” Antigone says.
“Everyone becomes much more narrow in their definition of what is Australian literature, of Australian writers, so all of us – the ethnics so to speak – always fall at the bottom.”
When I asked whether she believes she paved the way for the next generation of multicultural writers, the humble author is reluctant to admit she has. But she has. She also credits her peers, people like publisher Helen Nickas, for helping keep her – and other multicultural writers – in the public consciousness and to keep the discussion alive.
And that discussion is well and truly alive with the new batch of multicultural writers, giving a new voice to migrant writing. Antigone is completely overjoyed by the enthusiasm of the next generation, and had a chance to see it first hand at the inaugural Antipodes Writers Festival in Melbourne two years ago.
“I saw the younger generation coming forward, with some of them writing in Greek even though they were born here and studied here – that was a very positive thing,” she says.
Their writing gives another voice to ethnic literature; another multicultural experience to be written. Having been born in Australia, they are writing about a local experience combined with their heritage.
“I am very hopeful,” she says of the new multicultural writers, “because they are more intrinsically part of this society than we are, because we have accents and come from outside,” she says.
“The younger ones are coming up and they intend to write and express themselves, and they are publishing books that others are reading.”
What will happen in the future no one knows but she’s hoping that this generation will give critics a chance to analytically write about Australian literature with the inclusion of the ‘other’ so the multicultural voice lives on through the published word.
* For over three years, publisher Helen Nickas has been working on an anthology of analytical and critical writing, reviews and essays, on the work of Antigone Kefala that has been published entitled “Antigone Kefala – a writer’s journey”. The book has been co-edited and with an introduction by Vrasidas Karalis (Professor of Greek, University of Sydney) and Helen Nickas (former academic, editor and publisher). The distinguished Australian poet Judith Rodriguez will launch the book on Tuesday 27 May at 6:30 pm, at Steps Gallery, 62 Lygon Street, Carlton. To RSVP email email@example.com
Antigone Kefala’s books include Absence: new and selected poems; The Island; Alexia; Summer Visit: three novellas; Sydney Journals and several others. Four of her works are available in bilingual editions.