Monday musings on Australian literature: Greek-Australian literature

In a Sydney Writers Festival conversation with Michelle de Kretser, Andrew Pippos, winner of the 2021 Readings Prize for his debut novel, Lucky’s, said “the fact that we can talk about a Greek-Australian literary tradition is a sign that Australian literature is developing”. It made me think about Greek-Australian literature and what I know about it, which is not a lot, really.

First, though, what does he mean by his statement? I’m assuming he means that Australian literature is enriched by encompassing significant, identifiable bodies of work from Australia’s constituent cultures, that when there are such bodies of work they reflect on, feed into and, therefore, change and expand the majority culture?

When I think about my own reading of Greek-Australian literature, it is, of course, Christos Tsiolkas who comes to mind. Before him was Beverley Farmer. She is not Greek, but she married a Greek man and lived for some time in Greece, which experience fed into her early writing. I loved her insight into village life and relationships – but that was more about an Australian experiencing Greek culture in Greece.

Greek-Australian literature “proper” goes way back and, in my superficial Internet search I uncovered rather a lot about it, most, though, behind paywalls. Some of those had useful abstracts, and some I could access via my membership of the National Library. I skim-read a couple. But, I also found a blog, From the plastic pen, containing a post that had also been published in Meanjin in 2017. The post is titled “Living in a hyphe-nation: Exploring the Greek-Australian identity through literature”, and the author is Peter Papathanasiou. Papathanasiou is Greek-born and Australian-raised, and has just published a debut crime novel, The stoning, featuring a Greek-Australian detective.

Concerned about the next generation, the Greek-Australian-Australians, Papathanasiou posed the question:

How had Greek writers in Australia explored their hyphenated identity, and what could future generations—including other ethnic minorities—learn from their writings?

And then, he shares some literary history that I had found in those pay-walled academic articles. The earliest example of Greek-Australian literature, he says, was oral poetry at the start of the 1900s, which was shared “at events such as family celebrations, social gatherings, and entertainment in smoke-filled coffee houses (kafeneia)”. Poetry, Papathanasiou, says “has traditionally played a central role in Greek literature” and it continues here “although all types of Greek-Australian literature (poetry, prose, drama, theatre) have been represented, poetry collections have predominated”. Not reading a lot of poetry, I wasn’t aware of this, though I have read Komninos (1991), by Greek-Australian performance poet, Komninos Zervos.

Anyhow, Papathanasiou says that the first Greek-Australian literary work to be published was George Nicolaides’ short story “To gramma tis manas (Letter to mother)”, in 1913  Afstralia. From the beginning, he says, “family was a central theme, along with social issues, community activities, and migrant experiences”. He discusses the various waves of migration. In the 1920s, Orthodox Christians driven out of Asia Minor following the Turkish War of Independence brought well-educated immigrants who “introduced new subjects to the local literary scene because of the atrocities, poverty, and political upheavals they witnessed”. Then World War 2 and post-war migration brought stories of “the Greek army’s heroic fight against the Axis powers, and the united struggle of Greek and Australian soldiers against a common enemy”.

However, he said these waves did not result in much exploration of the Greek-Australian identity. These first-generation migrants wrote mainly in Greek and were “largely preoccupied with exile and dislocation, and haunted by trauma”. They wrote about “the fear of ageing and dying far from the homeland, patriotism (to Greece, not Australia), communication difficulties, and problems adapting and assimilating”. A change in theme came when second-generation migrants started writing in English, and their “connection to the fatherland” grew increasingly distant. They were were interested in “ethnicity and hybridity”, and their writing changed “from loss and yearning to identity and self” and

the rigid identity of the alienated migrant fell away, replaced by a new entity: the hyphenated Australian, whose conflict was more internal than external. These writers explored the dilemma of living between two worlds and with dual identities, the use and maintenance of Greek language and traditions, and surviving in a modern Australia while still bound by conservative parents. It was tense writing, fraught with internal conflict and doubt.

With third generation Greek-Australians now on the scene, Papathanasiou suggests that the subject-matter is changing again. There are still explorations of migration and identity, but these are no longer exclusive. Contemporary “Greek-Australian writers deal with a broad range of subjects including class, culture, gender, sexuality, faith, politics, economics, and sport, and blend various genres including memoir, autobiography, travelogue, and magic realism”.

Interestingly, alongside his discussion of subject matter, Papathanasiou also tracks changes in the publishing of Greek-Australian writing from self-publishing, at the start, through small independent publishers, like UQP and Fremantle Press, to the bigger publishers like Allen and Unwin, who have not only published some Greek Vogel award-winners but also publish Christos Tsiolkas. Pippos’ Lucky’s was published by Pan Macmillan.

Papathanasiou’s perspective, written in 2017, is similar to that written in 2014 by Penni Pappas on the Neo Kosmos website. She describes a similar trajectory in publishing and subject-matter, drawing in particular on the work of Helen Nickas who established Owl Publishing in 1992, to publish writing by Greek-Australian writers. George Kanarakis, writing in The Cud, provides another, and similar, but more detailed survey of Greek writing in Australia. All are worth reading if you are interested in the subject.

The cafes

Meanwhile, I thought I’d conclude on a quick reference to cafes, because most Australians of a certain age will remember at least one Greek cafe in their neighbourhood or on roadtrips. Pippos’ publisher, Pan Macmillan writes that, as a child, he regularly visited the family’s café in Brewarrina, NSW. These early experiences “laid the foundation of his work as a writer”:

The compelling role of the Greek-Australian café within modern Australian identity is increasingly documented in popular culture and history books alike. While sadly few exist now, for much of the second half of the twentieth century these cafés could be found on urban shopping streets and in rural country towns. They represented a new Australian zeitgeist and symbolised every-day multiculturalism. The Greek-Australian cafe milieu gave Andrew his earliest sense of community.

Lucky’s is set around a restaurant chain. You can read Lisa’s thoughts in her review.

A few years ago, I reviewed a little (literally) memoir – from the FL smalls collection – Growing up cafe (my review) by Greek-Australian, Phillip Stamatellis. I enjoyed his evocation of a cafe-based childhood.

The aforementioned Komninos also has cafe heritage. On his website we are told that “his maternal grandfather came to Australia in 1908 to work in a café”, and he, himself, born in Melbourne in 1950, grew up living above his family’s cafe-fish shop. There are poems about cafes in his collections.

It’s pretty clear that the Greeks enjoyed cafe culture long before we Anglo-origin Australians ever did (and in so doing they enriched our culture). But, for many second generation Greeks, as Stamatellis shares, the cafe which provided a living for the parents also brought challenges for the children

my nostalgia is burdened by an unseen weight, a sense of entrapment.

Anyhow, I enjoyed my brief foray into Greek-Australian literature, partly because its trajectory seems similar to those of other diaspora literatures here, albeit they may be on different points on the continuum. It brought to mind my recent post on Diversity and memoir and the idea that writers from culturally diverse backgrounds do not want to be tied to writing about that background. In the Greek-Australian case it seems like there’s been a progression from a close focus on their heritage to broader concerns. Is this is the trajectory that most immigrant literatures will naturally take – or is it forced upon them for lack of support and opportunity?


60 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Greek-Australian literature

  1. I have one Greek-Australian novel that no-one else seems to have – Fotini Epanomitis, The Mule’s Foal, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993. It’s a novella, a fable set in a Greek community in or near Turkey. From memory, the author was born in Perth, and this story won a Vogel – hence the publication by Allen & Unwin. Sadly, Epanomitis then faded into academia.

  2. I am sitting looking at my copy of Greek Voices in Australia (A Tradition of Prose, Poetry and Drama) edited by George KANARAKIS and published in 1987 ANU Press (endorsed by the Bicentennial Authority for 1988) in which he has 82 writers represented, I bought it from George at a public presentation. There is a Preface and a long Introductory section. Two Periods are covered – those who wrote first – in Greek (in this English version – translated mostly by Philip Grundy) and presented in various Periods 1900-1921, 1922-1939, 1940-1951, 1952-1983 and the next Period – writing in English by writers of Greek immigrant and Australian-born backgrounds, Let me name just some: (1) Nikos Kallinikos, Constantine Kyriazopoulos, George Payzis; (2) Nicholas Kolios, Elias Bizannes, Alex Doucas; (3) James Galanis, Stathis Raftopoulos; (4) Vasso Kalamaras, Lambis Paschalidis, Nikos Piperis, Christina Kourmouli, Christos Pamias Dimitris Tsaloumas, Lola Kalemi, John Vasilikakos, Con Kassimatis, Peter Lyssiotis, Dimitris Tzoumacas, Ioanna Liakakos, Yota Krili(-Kevans); (2nd) ) Antigone Kefala, Aristides Paradissis, Angelo Loukakis, George Papaellinas, Chris Papachristos, Zeny Giles, Komninos Zervos, Spiro Zavos, (Others outside this volume) Pi O, thalia, and non-Greek Australian writers setting their writing in Greece – George Johnston, Charmian Clift, Morris Lurie, Nance Donkin, Gillian Bouras (resident in Greece over 40 years now), Nadia Wheatley…it was a rich literary participation in this nation’s narrative in the 1980s when I knew it best – but goodness knows how it must have grown since – a strong current within our own seas of writing… Thanks WG for this lovely essay! Lots of memories associated with most of those I have named. Jim

    • Thanks Jim. Yes, I read those periods but conflated then a little in my post. I thought about adding Bouras, and Clift / Johnson to my mention of Farmer but decided to give a flavour, rather than be comprehensive. I must say that I’d heard of almost none of the Greek writers. Loukakis, yes. BTW, one of the articles I read also mentioned Patrick while because of his partner Mandy Lascaris!

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. What an interesting post, Sue!

    Where do Charmaine Clift and George Johnston fit into this? They’re obviously not Greek but they lived there for a long time etc and helped put certain islands on the literary map, as it were.

    • Darn it! Sometimes when I reply on my Ipad it doesn’t stick. I could have included add them when I referenced Beverly Farmer, but I just used her as an example of an Aussie who had lived in and wrote about her Greek experience. I guess she has the edge because she married a Greek. But Clift and Johnson are clearly important in this area. So perhaps I should have mentioned them along with Gillian Boouras.

      (And apologies for the nonsensical version of this comment you may have received. I used voice recognition and while editing it one of the words was under the send button! So much for trying to be clever!)

    • Charmian Clift – she and her husband George lived on Kalymnos then for most of their time in Greece on the island south from Piraeus called Hydra (pronounced with voiced “th” as Eethra, btw). Where they befriended a young Leonard Cohen. Nance Donkin spent a full spring to autumn season on Lesbos/Mytilene. My wife and I had three weeks in the spring of 1988 on Samos – day side trips to the Ephesus excavations and to Patmos… Gillian Bouras, by the way. I read her classic book A Foreign Wife with one of my senior classes at NBHS and an immigrant of Greek origin many years in Australia in one of mid-1980s so relished Gillian Bouras’ Australian Women’s Weekly article of 1983 chronicling her first three years and the seasonal cycles of life in the small Peloponnese village where she snd her family were then living that she worked on a translation from the English into Greek. Angelo Loukakis around that time (1983?) was given a full literary spread editorship in The Bulletin which fitted precisely with a thesis of my own which I was then pursuing in my Education Officer role – teaching of Australian literature illuminating the cultural diversity of the society. He came and addressed a seminar day I organised for which I have ever afterwards been most grateful. A friend gave me the novel Man of Letters by Glen Tomasetti who has a character teaching English via Australian literature to Greek immigrants. It made my day! My year! I wrote to her – of course. Spiro Zavos, from NZ, and a noted football journalist with the SMH (author of a political sketch of NZ PM Muldoon also wrote a short story of the subtle discrimination fostered by a teacher of a lad of Greek immigrant origin – the same story told by the boy, the teacher and as observed by another boy in the class. Brilliant.

      • Thanks Jim. I read Clift’s memoirs recently and adored them. (I’ve read the Johnston trilogy several times and watched Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, which is worth hunting out.) I have recently purchased “Half the Perfect World” about that bohemian Hydra set and look forward to reading it over my Christmas holiday break. I have been to various Greek islands in my time (Kefalonia, Rhodes, Kos) and kicking myself I never explored Hydra.

        • This couple is so rich for so many reasons kimbofo, aren’t they – their story, and their work, their individual selves and their couple-dom. I’d like to read Half the perfect world.

  4. The man who directed the Publishing unit in my postgraduate Cert on Editing and Publishing 1,000 years ago was Angelo Loukakis (I suppose he was asked to run that unit on account of the volume of his published works, athough I would’ve expected that to result in his directing the Fiction Writing unit). I felt it incumbent on me to read some of his writings, but wasn’t thrilled to bits by whichever one it was I chose. It was indeed a case of an Australian writing of his heritage in a fictional setting; but my lack of enthusiasm for his writing style meant that I have no idea if all his long list of published works is the same.

  5. It’s great to see some of the rich history of this literature being explored. And I was so pleased to see Beverly Farmer and Gillian Bouras taking their place in the list.

    • Thanks Carmel … I did enjoy writing this post, and could have written the same again. These posts are just intros really, but I hope they provide others (as well as myself) with some starting points for exploration.

  6. Thanks for the mention:)
    I’ve got three to contribute (see links to reviews on my Diversity page under Greek):
    Aukati (2017) by Michalia Arathimos (a Greek-Kiwi who now lives and works in Melbourne); The Glebe Point Blues (2020) by Vrasidas Karalis, and Skimming Stones (2021) by Maria Papas.
    This is not relevant if we are being purist, but who was that woman who married a Greek and wrote plaintive tales about living there, before she finally gave up and came back here? I can’t remember her name!

  7. Peter Papathanasiou wrote a beautiful memoir called Son of Mine. My book group discussed it a couple of years ago. He was born in Greece but was adopted (by another Greek family) and brought to Australia as a baby. Highly recommended.

    • Thanks Teresa … yes, I’ve heard from Peter. He told me about his memoir, and corrected my misrepresentation of his origins. I will look out for the memoir, as it sounds like he has an interesting story.

  8. I agree with your take on immigrant writers not wanting to be pigeonholed as only writing about the immigrant experience; I don’t think that does anyone any good.

    That’s why I enjoyed Monica Tan’s book Stranger Country so much. It was interesting to read about Australia from a perspective that wasn’t either Anglo-Saxon or Indigenous.

    I’d like to see more writers of migrant backgrounds describing life beyond the suburbs of our two biggest cities; whether it’s based in Tassie, or North Queensland, or Kalgoorlie, or Renmark.

  9. I’ve enjoyed reading this blog, and thank Carmel Bird, who alerted me to it.
    Thank you, too. I see I have been mentioned: I suppose I did write ‘plaintive tales’,
    and have done a lot of running away, but I’m still living in Greece: 41 years since
    immigrating quite unexpectedly. But it’s a divided life: my eldest son lives in Melbourne,
    while my other two are here.
    Gillian Bouras

    • Oh lovely to hear from you Gillian. I have read a couple of your books, one with my reading group. It was before I started blogging (in 2009), but I wrote a “Books I read in 1998” post once, and one of the books I read that year was one of yours. Here is what I wrote “Gillian Bouras’ A stranger here (1996, novel): Also read with my reading group, this novel is an autobiographical story of Bouras’ experience as the wife of a Greek husband, living in Greece. As I recollect, we all enjoyed the exotic nature of her experience within another culture, but we could also relate to the more universal challenges of being mother and wife.” I loved reading yours and Beverley Farmer’s experiences. Anyhow, it’s lovely to have an update on where you are. I guess the pandemic has made it hard for you to see your Melbourne son.

    • Oh Gillian, I want to apologise, I hope I haven’t been hurtful. I found your book refreshing because it was so honest, an antidote to the romanticised ‘Greek Island of eternal sunshine’ narrative that was pervasive then.

        • No, I wasn’t hurt! I’ve always been very ambivalent about Greece, and I suppose I still am in a way.
          Now I’m very ambivalent about Australia: almost inevitably, really, as it is certainly not the place I grew up
          I’ve written nine books: Greece got me started!

          All good wishes


        • Haha Gillian … totally understand your being ambivalent about Australia. I lived in the USA in both the 80s and early 90s, and was pretty proud of Australia. No more, though. Very disappointed at how we are slipping in terms of a vision for an improved world.

  10. Pingback: 2021 Deborah Cass Prize winner | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

    • Oh how interesting that she’s been interviewed on a Canadian radio series Marcie. I’ll try to listen to this one as she’s an interesting writer. That’s an older book of hers they are discussing but maybe it’s just come out in Canada?

  11. A good friend of mine’s sister’s book might be an addition to this conversation. Karen Martin released a book called Dancing the Labyrinth in the middle of the year. Karen and her husband lived in a small village in the south of Crete while researching and writing it. I am yet to read it but her brother has a copy for me once we meet up again.

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