On a recent Sunday afternoon, I made my way to the launch of the illustrated children’s book, Soumela and the Magic Kemenche by Dean Kalimniou. It was a cold day, a long drive, and my thoughts were drifting through a sea of disparate memories. I reminisced about the literally hundreds of book launches that I had attended over the last 40 years and how very much Australia’s Greek Diaspora had taken the basic premise of such an event and made it its own. Our book launches are celebrations, with long trestle tables laden with delectable sweet and savory treats, music is often incorporated in some way, there are presentations by dignitaries and large audience numbers. I knew that this launch would be enjoyable, but my every instinct told me that it would also be memorable – and I was right.
What immediately struck me, as I walked into the venue, was the intergenerational nature of those in attendance. There were many of our first-generation elders, many of us middle-aged second-generation sons and daughters, and many third-and fourth-generation grandchildren. I had not seen such a generational mix since the late, great Ekaterini Mpaloukas’ book launch of her children’s book, Zorro – and that was 16 years ago! I hope that this trend continues as including our littlest members in our community’s events is surely an important way to ensure that they actually get to hear our stories in all their variation and complexity.
The official launch was preceded by a number of fine introductory comments. Cathy Alexopoulos, the President of the Greek-Australian Cultural League, once again proved her dexterity in leadership by extending a warm, inclusive greeting to everyone, but most particularly to the children in the audience. Well-versed in the organisation of such events, she pointed out the undeniably crucial role the League has played in the promotion of writers and artists. Because of her prominent community role in steering the Cultural League for over two decades, it is easy to forget that she was a highly successful educator in another life.
The President of the Greek Community, Bill Papastergiadis, spoke – in fluent Greek – of issues ranging from the relevance of the book being launched in terms of his own family’s experience, through to the trauma of intergenerational conflict and its enduring impact. The Consul General of Greece in Melbourne, Emmanuel Kakavelakis, echoed these sentiments. Bishop Evmenios spoke beautifully about the imperative of our focussing on third- and fourth-generation offspring and the efforts that the church is going to in terms of adaptability. It bears pointing here that it was St Andrews Orthodox Press that edited and published the book, and for that they merit singular praise.
Soumela and the Magic Kemenche was launched by Panagiota Stavridou, a current teacher within the Greek Community’s language schools. Her address was heartfelt and interactive. She invited participation from the audience at certain points and included readings by children, by Jana Horn and Dean Kalimniou’s daughter, Helene, who inspired her father to put pen to paper in the first place. There was also a moving rendition of the text by 3XY radio’s Rena Frangioudakis, that reminded us all as to why she has ruled the Greek language airways for over 40 years. Ms Stavridou had visual representations in terms of adolescents standing next to her in traditional Pontian dress, while a young man – Kostas Kostidis – played the kamenche intermittently to haunting effect.
The book itself is a retelling of the Genocide of the Greeks of Pontus through a story centred on the experiences of a young girl called Soumela. It is infused with elements of magical realism, the essence of which is well-captured by the delightful illustrations of Stephanos Eleftheriadis. The faces of the children recall manga images thereby denoting a universality that such intercultural influences facilitate.
From the opening sentence it is clear that Kalimniou is an accomplished narrator, well-versed in the subtleties of stories that are passed down from one generation to the next: “a long, long time ago, long before the stories that we all know were first told, there was a little girl.” When war breaks out, the mother implores her beloved daughter to seek safety in the darkness of the forest. From there the little girl’s odyssey continues on to the Monastery ‘at the top of the mountain’ where she meets the old man with the magic komenche and its hypnotic sounds.
This is a publication that would be an asset to anyone teaching Modern Greek, particularly in the primary levels, although the bilingual text lends itself to fruitful analyses at higher levels as well. There are explanatory notes at the end where the historical details that inform the story are outlined. The focus on young protagonists and their fate in times of war, shines a spotlight on the heartbreaking reality of child refugees throughout the ages. The author gives voice to this in his dedication, “to all the mulberry stained children all over the world.” May Soumela and the Magic Kemenche travel well and widely – it richly deserves to do so!
Dr Konstandina Dounis teaches within the Faculty of Education at Monash University and facilitates academic educational programmes as part of the Monash Education Academy. Her latest publication is the translation into English of Litsa Nikolopoulou-Gogas’ memoir, Moments of Truth published by Australian Scholarly Publishing (2022).