Insiders and outsiders: Beverley Farmer, Maria Strani-Potts and other expatriate or “displaced” writers
Gillian Bouras, Aphrodite and the Others, 2010.
Linda Fagioli-Katsiotas, The Nifi, A True Story, 2015.
Beverley Farmer, A Body of Water, A Year’s Notebook, 1990.
Beverley Farmer, Collected Stories, 1996.
Beverley Farmer, The Bone House, Essays, 2005.
Beverley Farmer, The House in the Light, 1995.
Theresa Nicholas, Suntouched, A Dark Comedy on a Greek Island, 2011.
Maria Strani-Potts, The Cat of Portovecchio: Corfu Tales, 2007.
Maria Strani-Potts, When the Sun Goes Down, Island Stories, 2013.
Maria Strani-Potts, To Poulima tis Panoraias,2007.
Anna Weale, Passage to Paxos, 1981.
How did diverse writers about Greece approach interpersonal relationships, the tensions of family and community life, whilst preserving their individual sense of identity and belonging?
I will centre my discussion primarily on two writers, Beverley Farmer and Maria Strani-Potts; I will also make reference to books by Gillian Bouras, Linda Fagioli-Katsiotas and Theresa Nicholas.
What were the joys and resentments which preoccupied these very different women, two of them Australian, one American, one British and one Greek?
The poet Dimitris Tsaloumas, who died in 2016, wrote to me (letter of 10/2/1998), ‘The microcosm of a small island furnished the seeds of all future development, has remained a central and vital point of reference. There I find both the particular and the universal – people and their condition, situations and rhythms that govern their lives….’
I find that particularly relevant to the work of my wife, Maria Strani-Potts.
In the same letter he emphasised the need to avoid ‘the strictly personal… the trivial detail or behavioural peculiarities of character so dear to many of my fellow poets in this country – the drab reality of the quotidian, the tyranny of the domestic, the fascination with the vulgar and the squalid.’ By ‘this country’, he meant Australia, where he lived.
However fully and wholeheartedly a foreigner may feel that he or she belongs, or has been accepted, in Greece, it’s hard to escape from a lingering awareness of being perceived as a xénos or xéni.
Michael Cacoyannis, the Greek-Cypriot film-director, once told me during an interview, ‘Whatever passport you carry, it all comes down to a sense of belonging’.1 . That may be especially true for a Greek-Cypriot, an expatriate Greek, or, for instance, a Greek-American. The playwright-philosopher Demetrius Toteras, my koumbaros, wrote to me from California, in letters between 1997 and 1999, as part of our 42-year-long conversation about the nature and essence of Greekness, which he saw from an anachronistic perspectives, as a ‘mythical distillation’ of many elements and the souls of all his fathers before him:
“I’m a prisoner of my own culture, physically, mentally, morally…I am Greek with a thin coating of Americanism – like mustard on a ball-park frank…I look like a Greek…I think like a Greek…I live in the collective time-frame of history….I am related to all the Greeks that came before me…A Greek knows who he is…he is a knot on a fisherman’s net…anything more than that and he is accused of hubris…My grand-father fought at the walls of Troy, my father’s father in the Peloponnesian war…I’ve walked the streets of Corfu with Epictetus, I lived in a gene pool that has been Greek since the beginning of time. If I tell this to another Greek he understands because his father was there also…if I tell this to an Anglo he will accuse me of being totally mad.”2
In their stories, both Beverley Farmer and Maria Strani-Potts successfully put interpersonal behaviour and domestic detail under a microscope. Both writers convey a strong sense of belonging, regardless of nationality or place of birth.
Beverley Farmer (7 February 1941 – 16 April 2018).
It is not my purpose to give a detailed analysis of Beverley Farmer’s Greek stories. Lyn Jacobs has already done a thorough, invaluable job in Against the Grain, Beverley Farmer’s Writing (2001).Jacobs3 cites a 1985 Canberra Times review of Farmer’s work by Marion Halligan, who commented that ‘some years ago Beverley Farmer found a Greek mine, and has worked it with excellent results ever since’. 4
It was rather unfair to put it this way. Beverley Farmer was writing from lived experience, whether or not her stories are autobiographical or fictional. She wrote seventeen short stories that feature Greece to a lesser or greater extent, and said that in her earlier stories ‘it was enough to aim at creating a fictional structure to dramatise private experiences’.5
After her marriage in 1965, Beverley Farmer lived in Greece for three years (from 1969 to 1972) with her Greek-Australian husband Chris Talihmanides, who had migrated to Australia in 1960. They’d met working in the kitchen of the Mount Buffalo (ski-resort) Chalet. He was a cook, she a waitress (a summer job).
Chris’s home village in Greece was the village of Polýpetro(n), north-west of Thessaloniki, near Giannitsá, less than an hour from the northern Greek border, which accommodated refugees from Anatolia after the population exchange of 1922-23. Their base was with Chris’s family in Polýpetron, but they also spent time in Thessaloniki. In an interview with Ray Willbanks in late 1989, she spoke about the village, which had a population of nine hundred.6
“It’s not like Greek island life – The village where I lived is in a comparatively rich farming part of Greece…My husband’s family were refugees in 1922 from the massacres in Smyrna and Constantinople. So they had been settled there in an exchange of populations… My husband and I were there three years straight and then went back for some summers after that, after we’d come back to live here [Australia]. The last summer I went back was 1983…I was welcomed with open arms and made much of and tolerated and all that from the very beginning. I’m sure it was because I had some of the language.”
In Greece, Chris would find work at restaurants in Volos and Litóchoro, beside the sea below Mt. Olympus. They both ran the psárotaverna (fish restaurant) called O Kapetánios. Beverley returned to Australia in 1972, to give birth to their son, Takis. ‘Having a child was the single most important thing that ever happened to me’.7
After thirteen years of marriage they divorced. Beverley maintained relatively friendly links with her matriarchal Greek family and her petherá/mother-in-law, whom she had loved and admired, and addressed as Mamma. Takis lives in Australia.
Beverley never really explains the reasons for her divorce, although she provides some hints in her fiction and in her interview with Ray Willbanks. She told him that, when she was working with Chris at the restaurant on the coast of Australia, for four years:
“No one to help me with the baby – I had two miscarriages in that time. We wanted another child, I think that contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. I couldn’t get over losing the babies. I felt that everything I’d lived for was thrown away for the sake of making money. I couldn’t bear it. I wanted out and I got out. We split up in 1976. It was difficult to maintain ties for a long time, there was so much bitterness. But we’re very good friends now.”8
Her novel The House in the Light is about the return of the female character ‘Bell’ to the village, during Easter week; it’s also about family attitudes and relationships, long after the divorce. Bell had been there for Easter, as a married woman, twenty years before. This time she is spending Easter in the village as a divorcedwoman on her own. Eight years earlier she had also returned as a divorced woman, but not at Easter, to face the family and to stay in the house, that still held so many memories for her. ‘What is it about the house that draws the past out of her like the bitter juices out of a salted eggplant?’ (House 115).
Amends seem to have been made; reconciliation with her Greek family, for Bell and for Beverley, came in time, even though Bell’s/Beverley’s mother-in-law never fully forgave her for leaving her son. At the end, when Bell is leaving (for the last time), her mother-in-law asks for forgiveness for having a sharp tongue – ‘You did well to come, Bella, come again’.
Writing as Beverley, Farmer says that she and her petherá had usually managed to deflect quarrels and ‘it didn’t become the sort of tooth-and-nail stuff that it often does with daughters-in-law in Greek households’.9 They both had a saving sense of humour. ‘It is the women’s side that I give, and the male is almost a drone or a parasite … The nub of my life in Greece was the household, and its head was the matriarch, the mother, the strong woman figure … I feel the Greek family is a web of duties and obligations; it is a hierarchy’.10
In A Body of Water Beverley writes ‘Mostly the men in my stories have nothing to give the women: they are cold, selfish, vindictive. They have turned to ice at my touch’ (153). In The Bone House she comments, ‘The bond of the body wears out and that only leaves the bond of the child’.
In the story ‘At the Airport’ Beverley writes of her divorced characters, ‘They both cringe under their son’s accusing gaze’( Collected Stories 154). The concept of gaze is important in the work of Farmer (who was also an accomplished photographer), whether writer or reader is using it in a literal or theoretical sense.
Apart from The House in the Light, a multifaceted novel which builds deep bonds with the reader and invites empathy for Bell, I am drawn back again and again to her short stories set in Greece, especially those stories about Bell and another character, Barbara.
In the July 1984 edition of The Australian Book Review , Beverley reviewed a collection of short stories by George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Strong-man from Piraeus and other stories. She was quite harsh: ‘Most of the stories by Johnston are both slight and overwritten, their characters wooden.’ She criticised some for their ‘bathos and melodrama’, others for being ‘magazine pap, thin and laborious.11 At times, she herself admitted the temptation to make money by writing Mills and Boon romances, as in A Body of Water .12
“Another restless night of doing sums. Unless I find another source of income soon, I won’t have a cent left. Maybe I should try my hand at Mills & Boon, make my living that way? …I had a solid grounding in romantic fiction all through my adolescence… Exotic backgrounds are obligatory, or they used to be. I’d need to travel, and the costs could be written off for tax…The more I think, the better it looks! …
“I’ll make a living some other way. I’ll wash dishes again before I’ll ever write for Mills & Boon (if any kitchen will have me)…I can’t bear to read the romantic novels I got from the library, let alone write any like them. I believed in them when I was growing up: for me it could never be a matter of tossing off a light-hearted money-spinner, as it could for a writer who was never hooked. I’d know I was peddling poison. It’s ludicrous and corrupt, “romance” is, and (I fear) contaminating. Not only my real, other writing would be at risk: I’d have to fear its contaminating effect on the honesty of my love. Do I mean honesty? Or sincerity? Integrity? All these.”
I have only ever read one Mills & Boon romance, Passage to Paxos, by Anne Weale (1981). I thought it was well written, given the constraints of the publisher’s frame of reference and formulaic advice, as set out online in the Mills & Boon author-guidance page, ‘How to write True Love, All About Mills & Boon True Love’. :
Glamorous, international settings are encouraged and work well to add the aspirational element to our romances’…’Low-sensuality: These stories are high on emotional and sensual tension, but have no explicit sexual detail’. The romance series is ‘all about the heroine, she is the key. 13
Passage to Paxos is also about “the gaze” of the writer and the characters. Anne Weale provides a good example at the beginning of her story. Anna is the Greek apartment-cleaner, Valissa the heroine, on holiday on Paxos on her own: consider the gaze of the tourist, the reverse/ reciprocal gaze of the local Greek:
“Language was not the only barrier between them. Their backgrounds were as different as if they belonged to different planets. For Valissa, a lifetime spent on a tiny Greek island, however idyllic, was unthinkable. For Anna a life without a husband and children would be equally unthinkable. She would never be able to understand that, in the wide world beyond Paxos, women now had a number of choices as to which way they wanted to live and Valissa had chosen to have a career which left her neither the time nor energy for anything or anyone else.” 14
In Suntouched, A Dark Comedy on a Greek Island, which is certainly not a Mills and Boon-type romance, Theresa Nicholas writes:
“Even after five years, the peasants around the house perceive me, a foreign girl, as a superficial creature, born on another planet where all women do is play; never grow up or grow old on the realities which coarsen their skin and hands. They stroke me indulgently as if I were a child, call me koukla, meaning doll, and ask him if I can cook. Of course I can cook!” (156)
Beverley Farmer was a painterly perfectionist, she also wrote poetry. She worked hard at her prose-style, her word-craft and her ‘real’ writing. In A Body of Water, she notes, ‘I want to expand and be looser. I want what I write to be ample, rich and generous, full of vigour. No more stripped and dry, clamped-down sentence-by-sentence stories – giving so little, so slowly, in such a low voice, painfully, is hardly giving at all’ (Body 154).
In her book of re-worked ‘essays’, The Bone House, I feel she may sometimes have been trying too hard with her flourishes, word-pictures, quotations and references, but there are beautiful passages, real gems of observation and insight which can also be disturbing. It is easy to lose one’s way as she explores perceived associations of words, cultures and ideas.
I remain somewhat less enthusiastic about her haiku and poetry, although I admire her powerful poem about a miscarriage, ‘Epitaphios’,and the poem ‘Crossing to Zakynthos’, about the dread she felt, two months pregnant, seeing a coffin being carried off the ferry. At times she seems to have a morbid preoccupation with death and bereavement. Some readers may also detect an underlying yearning for a lost mother-figure.
Her frequent inclusion of Greek words and phrases works for me, but perhaps not for every reader. It adds to the colour and authenticity of the stories. She has a deep fascination with the etymology of words, especially Greek words.
It’s ironical that David Coad, in his overview of the Australian short story, could dismiss Beverley Farmer’s short stories as ‘rather dead-pan, realistic, women’s magazine stories full of banal dialogues and sprinkling of Greek words’.15
Both Beverley Farmer and Maria Strani-Potts can at times be cruelly honest, ironic, caustic, unsparing (cf. David Malouf’s comment below on Maria’s novel, ‘an eye that can be savage as well as loving’), but the motivation is a deep and abiding love of people and place – in spite of what Farmer says about men and the wounds she experienced. Beverley once said that she ‘was interested in recording the abrasiveness in someone, people not hitting it off…’.16
Farmer’s story ‘Snake’is set on the island of Lesvos. Whilst she always captures the spirit of place, as a good landscape painter does, and her ‘still life’ portrayals of houses and kitchens, whether in wintry Macedonian villages or on sunny Aegean islands, are full of domestic detail, thisstory is a miniature Greek tragedy about Manya, a painter, who is jilted by her unfaithful fiancé, Loukas, who is also a drinker and a ‘kamáki’ (a predatory ‘spear-gunner’ or gigolo) who entertains female tourists and chases other women. Manya and Loukas make love only once, and a child is born, only to die of leukemia ‘before she had all her baby teeth’ (Collected Stories 166).
Loukas marries Manya’s cousin and seems unaware of Manya’s pregnancy until he sees his former fiancée’s swelling belly, but he does not want to acknowledge the baby as his. Manya is driven to madness as a result of the child’s death, but she still paints, manically – interiors with figures, nude self-portraits, her dead daughter naked in her coffin. Unmarried at forty, with only her mother and cat for company, she is compared by her mother to the fallen angel, the snake in the Garden of Eden, sour and bitter like the lemon and olive trees in their island Paradise. ‘We make a good couple, she and I, whatever she says. We get on’, admits Manya. (Collected Stories 160).
Bell, a student of Buddhism, like Beverley herself, feels unable to make the sign of the cross in church. It was Bell’s decision to spend Holy Week in the village. She is told to make the sign on Good Friday. Her mother-in-law spits out, ‘I wonder what you came for’ (House 143). ‘What do you mean?’ asks Bell. To which her mother-in-law responds, ‘You wanted to follow the whole of our Easter week, you said. But you are missing the heart of it!… It’s your egoism…Here you are not a foreigner. What you do here reflects on us. The world has expectations’ (165).
These exchanges and incidents may seem petty and trivial, but they are immensely significant in terms of interpersonal relationships.
In her stories, one aspect of village and domestic life concerns food (Tsaloumas’s ‘the tyranny of the domestic’). Beverley Farmer’s emphasis on food and its preparation rituals (and her frequent mention of Greek dishes in A Body of Water), suggests that she might have had much in common with Maria Strani-Potts, whose novel, The Cat of Portovecchio, Corfu Tales (2007) alsodescribes the preparation of food, as noted by Cathy Peake in The Weekend Australian: ‘A heady and beguiling combination of aroma, texture and colour…vivid and mesmerising’.17
Maria’s novel, The Cat of Portovecchio, Corfu Tales, was launched in Sydney by David Malouf in November. Malouf said:
“She takes us inside a whole world, lovingly created, that is like no other we have been invited into, but with an eye that can be savage as well as loving. Just when we think we know some of these characters, and feel comfortable with them—too comfortable in fact—she catches them for us in a new and altogether less easy light…She has the writer’s eye for detail: for the small, unnoticed aspect of a thing that makes it immediately alive to us; the writer’s sense of pace, that makes time, and room in the writing, so that everything finds its place; and the writer’s unsparingness that makes truth more important to her than any desire to please.”18
Maria has written other stories about islands which she knows well, Corfu, Bermuda, Ile de Ré – but, although her father came from Zakynthos and her mother from Paxos, she does not suffer from the affliction of islomania, as discussed by Lawrence Durrell in Reflections on a Marine Venus.
In many ways, Maria had become disenchanted with the novels, memoirs and stories written by foreigners (including the Durrells) about their colourful lives on Greek islands, with their picturesque descriptions and ambivalent, humorous portrayals of quaint customs and ‘peasant’ behaviour, their hyperbolic enthusiasm orLevantinist distaste for manifestations of Mediterranean Otherness – a “Love/Hate” phenomenon, which can also be found in the poetry and letters of Lord Byron.19 If not an expression of the ‘empire’ striking back, the novel may suggest to some that its author has not entirely forgotten the enduring influence of those fifty years in the nineteenth century when the Ionian Islands had the status of a ‘British Protectorate’, and that she is asserting her right to fictionalise and to give priority to her own perceptions, from a very local Greek perspective.
It is possible that, subconsciously, Maria set out, in The Cat of Portovecchio, to re-occupy the territory dominated for so long by foreign novelists, travel- and residence-writers; to regain possession of a (frequently overlooked or internationally-sidelined) native writer’s platform and literary input to key parts of the Corfiot narrative, to write a book in English that would present life as it had been for an insider, a Greek growing up on a Greek island in a small community where gossip played an important part in everyday life and some of its trivial interactions, where ‘the café armchairs in the squares are the best and most effective psychiatrists’ couches the world had to offer, where houses were merely places to sleep in’ (40).20
Maria Strani-Potts wrote her novel about life in a fishing village/ suburban district of an unnamed Greek island (Corfu) in the 1950s, but much is still true of life today. In recent years it seems that sipping coffee in the square is not enough; ‘circumstances have turned Greeks almost en masse to the regular use of anti-depressants’, Maria says.
Gerald Durrell, author of My Family and Other Animals, wrote a little-known article on Corfu for a series (‘Impressions in the Sand’) on different Mediterranean resorts, by six well-known writers. It was published in The Sunday Times on 14 February, 1988. He had revisited Corfu/Kerkyra in late July 1987:
“Going back to her recently was like paying a visit to the most beautiful woman in the world suffering from an acute and probably terminal case of leprosy – commonly called tourism…The people of Corfu were blessed with a magnificent, magical inheritance, an island of staggering beauty, probably one of the most beautiful islands in the whole of the Mediterranean. What they have done with it is vandalism beyond belief .”
Even then, over thirty years ago, Gerald Durrell was writing about the island’s state of saturation, about the rubbish problem and the urgent need to organise proper garbage disposal ‘of all the awful detritus that tourism brings, ranging from plastic containers to hypodermic syringes’.
Maria had certainly never read that hard-hitting article, but she too happened to imagine Kerkyra as a beautiful woman who had been ruined, pimped and exploited by visitors and by her own people, her greedy, immoral parents and extended family. Although it’s never stated, her second work, The Pimping of Panoraia (To Poulima tis Panoraias), with the central character Panoraia,represents and personifiesCorfu.21 Maria’s pain and anger are far deeper than any foreign writer’s could be. Gerald Durrell writes, ‘As an outsider, I can only offer advice and most of it unpalatable, both to the tourists and to the Corfiots themselves’. Maria writes as an insider, this time writing in Greek. Let us not forget that it was authors like the Durrells whose writing contributed to the ever-growing popularity and exploitation of the island. They are as complicit as the developers and the successive mayors. Gerald Durrell describes visiting the Mayor (back in 1965), who agreed to form a committee and then promptly disbanded it. ‘That was in 1965 and since then the Corfiots have continued on their merry way to hell in a handcart’.
The Cat of Portovecchio is not a novel about the environment, whereas To Poulima tis Panoraias (The Pimping of Panoraia) is about the accelerating devastation of the island in the course of the last fifty years. The cat, in The Cat of Portovecchio, observes everything, and provides a connecting thread throughout the novel; the cat is fascinated by the love and hatred expressed by the characters. If the novel is not about the environment, it is, above all, about the island’s landscape and seascapes. Maria touches on episodes such as the execution by firing squad of communists on the little island of Lazaretto. As a child she heard the sound of gunfire, but she hadn’t understood the reasons for it; nor did she think to question it at the time. In the novel she does deal with the hypocrisy of the Greek Orthodox Church, through the character of the Priest. In spite of this, food and landscape sweetened the bitter pills of everyday life.
To Poulima tis Panoraias is a prophetic environmental allegory about an island (Corfu is not mentioned, as I have noted). It marks a major change in Maria’s perceptions of her island home, no longer the idyllic natural environment of The Cat of Portovecchio. It is a story written primarily for Greek readers.
The abridged English translation of the story begins: ‘Somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the East joins the West, where Christianity walks in parallel with Islam and the deep blue sea is full of grey froth, oil and sewage, there happened to live a beautiful woman whose real name has been forgotten’ (19). Further on, ‘The rubbish was piled up two metres high on both sides of the road… The smell of raw sewage pouring into the blue sea nauseated her, and rats were chasing passers-by along the broken pavements … The entire landscape had been devastated, because of relentless greed’ (27).
It’s about the fate of many over-exploited islands. Some reviewers called it a manifesto or diatribe, like a blow to the stomach, a call to action, a passionate cry of outrage. If the people of Corfu didn’t want to face up to the truth at the time it was published, they have had to do so over the last three to four years as a result of the ongoing waste disposal and garbage crisis. The author explained at the book’s launch, ‘Panorea is not just the personification of Corfu, but an allegory of the world and what we have done to it’.
Reviewing it in the Greek newspaper Enimerosi, Dimitris Konidaris (of the Society of Corfiot Studies) wrote, ‘I didn’t just read it, I studied it closely. This book should be read by political candidates, and by all those who work in institutions and who hold any kind of power, or who hold the fate of the island in their hands’ (my translation).
Who is the insider, who the outsider? For me, both Beverley Farmer and Maria Strani-Potts can be considered as insiders. Beverley Farmer admitted that she/Bell could be ‘outlandish’ in terms of dress or behaviour.
I’d like to conclude by thinking about the voices, gazes and observations of Gillian Bouras and Linda Fagioli-Katsiotas, who have also focussed on the nífi/petherárelationship (where νύφη/nífi means ‘bride’ or ‘daughter-in-law’).
Beverley, Gillian, Linda all write about their often pious Greek village mothers-in-law, Beverley about Kyria Sofia (‘Mamma’), Gillian about Aphrodíte (‘Yiayia’). Gillian emphasises the differences between people of oral and literate cultures, the distances between them. She also places her account of Yiayia’s life within the wider context of twentieth-century Greek history and its major incidents, interspersed with extracts from her own notebooks.
Linda Fagioli-Katsiotas seems to have enjoyed a much more mutually affectionate relationship with her mother-in-law, Paraskevi (Chevi) over a period of thirty years. She says, ‘I think Chevi really liked me’ and Linda really loved Chevi’s son, Nick. She describes Chevi, on the book’s dedication page, as ‘one of the strongest woman I’ve ever met’. I strongly recommend The Nifi, not least for the authentic voices with which she brings to life the experiences of several generations of long-suffering Greek women. Although Linda has also struggled with her Greek, it has not prevented her from writing about Greek village life as a true insider. Linda defines the word “nifi” (transcribed the same way by Bouras, but as ‘nyfi’ by Farmer) as used todescribe the woman who marries into a family. It’s a word with many meanings, from bride to daughter-in-law.
Gillian Bouras, in her introduction to the 1994 edition of Aphrodite and the Others, writes of the tensions between Aphrodite (Yiayia) and Gillian herself, their mutual resentment, their irreconcilable differences: ‘Aphrodite and I are divided by almost every conceivable factor, gap and chasm: country, culture, age, education, language, and finally by the concept of self’ (15). In her essay ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ , she writes that her Greek husband, George, had arrived in Melbourne in 1965. They went to live in Greece in 1980, in his village, Arfara, ‘with a population of 1700 and 18 kilometres north of the southern port of Kalamata in the Peloponnese’. She writes : ‘There was not only a cultural and language barrier, but an educational, class and religious gap, which, at times, after the initial excitement of arrival and settling-in, resembled not just a gap but a yawning chasm’. ‘I feel… that my old self is lost somewhere, drifting, and I cannot reach it. Even my name has gone…Migration, then, is a kind of death, a death of the old self. But it is also a birth, as the new self struggles to adapt’22
Gillian sometimes has her own generalising “gaze”, as we probably all do, wittingly or unwittingly: ‘A Greek village woman sees herself reflected in other women. They all look the same: head scarves, shapeless dresses, black stockings held at the knee by white elastic garters joined together with rough stitching. Black aprons, black cardigans. There is no need for mirrors. What, really, is the point of them?’ (Aphrodite 22).
She continues about her mother-in-law: ‘She has always resented my reading and writing, for they are not work, and she has never had a pang of conscience about interrupting either. But then, why should she? She and I inhabit different countries with different social codes, and I am not, at this point, speaking of geography’ (37). “I did not live up to her expectations of what a wife, mother and housewife should be. I could not make cheese – and still cannot. I did not slave for hours over the stove, in the house, over my embroidery” (137). ‘There is also the whole dynamic of the mother-in-law/daughter-in/law relationship to be considered…Mothers-in-law expect to be dominant’ (104). It was a continuing game of power, ‘never cede an inch’. But in the final balance, they learnt from one another.
Beverley Farmer’s renderings and mimicry of Greek peoples’ English accents and patterns of broken English may come across as mildly offensive to other non-fluent speakers of English. It is a little like that of Theresa Nicholas, in her portrayal of the character Tassos in Suntouched. The prime focus of the narrative is the obsessive love affair between an independently-minded English woman on a Greek island (beginning in the early 1960s), who believes she has blazed a trail for other women and escaped a typical English fate, and a dominating, older Greek man, whose vitality and charisma co-exist alongside his brutal side.Theresa, writing out of love, but with a sense of dark comedy, portrays the English speech and heavy accent of her male protagonist, her heroine’s already-married lover and part-time artist, like this:
“The tourists buy very meny of my pictures … and when I have money of my paintings, I don’t care for anything. I have good time. I spend all, Next morning I broke again …That life I make … Last night I meet some Germans of your same hotel. We finish four o’clock in the morning. Pó! Pó! I singing, I dancing, I drinking much, and I sell all my paintings!”23
Theresa’s heroine stays loyal to him even though he is married, with children, jealously possessive of her, and even when he turns violent and abuses her physically:
“Tasso never lets me go anywhere alone. When I get back to the house…he comes crashing up the steps, grabs me by the throat and flings me through the door. I hit the banister and clutch it to stop falling down the steps. “Where you be, you putana!” He kicks me in the thigh… He comes at me, hitting me round the head… I let myself fall. He kicks me. I get up again. “Please stop hitting me, I’ll go…” I am wishing above all to be reasonable. “You no going anywhere”, he says, dragging me back into the house….” (208).
‘Suntouched powerfully evokes a fiercely male-dominated society that lives by its own rules’ (from the publisher’s blurb). Gillian Bouras and Beverley Farmer, for their part, might question whether Greek society is generally male-dominated. When Ray Willbanks asked Beverley Farmer if it was difficult to immerse herself in a patriarchal situation, Farmer replied, ‘Matriarchal – that was the problem. The household was matriarchal. Especially our house. The patriarch kept well away and didn’t infringe upon her territory at all’.24
Although Theresa Nicholas deeply regretted the passing of the Corfu she had first came to know and love, she was able to sustain her creativity and to keep that vision alive (even in her later years when she would often insist that she wanted to die), without a hint of regret or bitterness about her decision to live – and love – there.
I believe that we owe it to several of the writers I have mentioned to try to bring their most relevant and essential works back into print. That applies as much to Beverley Farmer as to Maria Strani-Potts and Theresa Nicholas.
1Jim Potts, Corfu Blues, pp. 150-57.
2 Jim Potts, Corfu Blues, pp. 151-152.
3L Jacobs, Against the Grain: Beverley Farmer’s Writing , p. 228.
4 Gillian Bouras has written online about the death of Beverley Farmer, in ‘Remembering my friend Beverley Farmer’, Eureka Street, 26 April, 2018: ‘Wherever and whenever we met, we talked about Greece, about which country we felt deeply ambivalent, despite our shared love of its landscape, lore, and history. In a letter I have just re-read, Beverley refers to Greece as ‘that bitter place that matters so much’. How accurate such a description is’ .
5Jacobs, pp. 8 and 250, citing Farmer’s article ‘Preoccupations’).
6 R Willbanks, Australian Voices: Writers and their Work, pp. 73-74.
7 Willbanks, p. 40.
8Willbanks. p. 75.
9Willbanks, p. 74.
10Willbanks, p. 76.
11B Farmer, “Intriguing and Disturbing”, Australian Book Review, July 1984, p. 15.
12B Farmer, Body of Water, pp. 1-2, 10-11.
14A Weale, Passage to Paxos, pp. 5-6.
15D Coad, “The Australian Short Story: an Overview”, Etudes anglaises 54/2 (2001), pp. 233-44; https://www.cairn.info/revue-etudes-anglaises-2001-2-page-233.htm Accessed 4/1/2018.
16 Willbanks, p. 76.
17 9 February 2008.
18 David Malouf, 13 November 2007 (transcript).
19See Jim Potts, Corfu Blues, pp.153-162.
20 It was only as recently as 2017, for instance, that the first English translation, by J.M.Q.Davies, of Konstantinos Theotokis’ important collection of short stories, Corfiot Tales, was published. Theotokis died in 1923. The first Greek edition Korfiatikes Istories was published in 1935.
21An abridged version of To Poulima tis Panoraias was published in translation as “The Exploitation of Panorea” in When the Sun Goes Down, Island Stories (2013).
22G Bouras, Changing Places, Australian Writers in Europe, 1960s to 1990s, pp. 31-32, 34.
23T Nicholas, Suntouched, p. 21.
24Willbanks, p. 74.