Giving stories new voice

As International Women's Day celebrates its 100 year anniversary, Neos Kosmos looks at one woman's journey to give life to the voices of first generations Greek Australians

It’s a rare thing to say with courage, truth and conviction that we are doing in life something that we believe in but that serves a purpose far greater than our lives. Konstandina Dounis is a woman who can say this, who can say with the utmost certainty that she is doing her life’s work for herself, her daughter and future generations to come. Dounis is giving a voice to the first generation of Greek Australian women, a voice that will carry on forever.

A stalwart of Greek Australian literature, Dounis has had a long academic career that has seen her lecture at a plethora of universities, convene conferences, publish books, articles and chapters, she even won the La Trobe Women’s Research Award for her work on Greek Australian women’s writing which she said “brought Greek Australian literature to prominence at the university.” But it was her role as a translator – for over 20 years – that has come to the forefront again. Brought on by her mother’s passing, Dounis told Neos Kosmos, it “wasn’t just a lament for my mum but it was also a frenzied worry about what’s going to happen to these stories, do they just die out with them? That’s when I really found my life’s calling.”

An inspiration to Greek Australian women, Dounis has breathed new life into poems from first generation migrant women and also highlighted their talents, showcased their struggles and celebrated their strength. “Several years ago,” said Dounis, “an Australian woman academic produced The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poetry and in that book there is not one love poem written by a non-Anglo woman writer. One of the things that is extraordinary when you read these poems [by Greek Australian women] is that most of them are about love, and I mean remarkable, not just gooey romantic stuff, some poems make your hair stand on end, really extraordinary powerful poems.” But it wasn’t just romance, Dounis said that “they were champions of social justice issues, they tackled Aboriginal issues, poverty, war in Afghanistan – they are really socially aware.” She told Neos Kosmos that these first-generation Greek-Australia women “might be working in factories cooking and cleaning but they know what’s going on out there and they’ve responded. Some of their poetry is extraordinary for the way they speak of motherland and there’s a real overlap with mother and mother in land.”

The most extraordinary thing to consider, is these women – who came to Australia in the 50s and 60s and hardly spoke the language – barely finished primary school, and actually continued to school themselves. “It’s incredibly humbling,” said Dounis about translating these works, “and why this resonates with me is because they have really written the story of my mother.” Dounis talks openly about her mother’s influence on her life and her work. “My mother was a remarkable, funny, compassionate, wonderful woman.” To give us a glimpse into the kind of woman she was, Dounis shares this: “My mother perfected her English so she could talk to her grandchildren.

When another grandmother said ‘oh Sophia, that’s silly, talk to them in Greek,’ she said it’s a privilege for me that my grandchildren want to talk to me. I will talk to them in any language they want me to, I will learn Chinese for my grandchildren. She was that sort of woman, she just never had a bad word to say about anybody, ever. My husband always says to me if we only get one chance to have a mother how lucky we were.” With that, Dounis talked about the importance of being a mother herself and the honour that this role has brought her in life. She deliberately took time off academia to concentrate on being a mum. But it’s this work – that Dounis describes as her life passion and life goal – that she is doing to give mothers from generations ago a voice for their daughters and many generations to come and as a mother, there can be no greater gift.

“The upshot of all this is I want my daughter and my daughter’s daughter and sons to read these stories and they will undoubtedly want to read them in English and that’s just life, and how it’s unfolding and we can’t lament that. “I remember people were up in arms when the Neos Kosmos released an English page, and I think that’s ludicrous, this is how our community is unfolding. You either go with it or we lose whatever Hellenic threads we have got. Translating poetry into English is vital for me, there is no question about that. I want to translate as many of the first generation women’s writing because a lot of these women feel their writing is doomed to die in oblivion.”