Author: (Ed) Helen Nickas
When Published: 2006
Publisher: Owl Publishing
Available: Owl Publishing
Description: Prose fiction.
ISBN 0 9775433 0 7
Mothers from the Edge is an antipodean anthology about mothers and daughters, consisting of (auto)biographical fiction, fictionalised (auto)biography, memoirs, short stories, plays. These are all new works by twenty-eight women writers in Australia, with a Greek background, or connection. These writers have contributed 28 original pieces with their own literary perspective on the mother-daughter relationship, interwoven with the common thread of migration. What emerges in all of their writings is that the pleasure and pain associated with having two (or more) cultures in their life is profoundly challenging and enriching.
The 28 writers are:
Dina Amanatides, Gillian Bouras, Sophia Catharios, Katerina Cosgrove, Angela Costi, Anna Couani, Konstandina Dounis, Vicky Fifis, Zeny Giles, Litsa Gogas, Anastasia Gonis, Efi Hatzimanolis, Vasso Kalamaras, Antigone Kefala, Yota Krili, Tes Lyssiotis, Haitho Massala, Joy McDonald, Despina Michael, Martha Mylona, Vasiliki Nihas, Helen Nickas, Toula Nicolaou, Melissa Petrakis, Chrisoula Simos, Vicky Tsaconas, Eugenia Tsoulis and Anna Zervos.
From the editor’s introduction:
“The reader of Mothers from the Edge may visualise twenty-eight writers sitting down in a circle telling stories and, in the process, laughing, crying, reminiscing, eulogising, mourning, celebrating, exulting, reflecting or intellectualising. The topic: mothers and daughters...
Many of the mothers portrayed in this anthology owe their place in literature to the daughters who have written about them. That is, these literary daughters are writing the history of immigrant women, giving voice to the voiceless mothers, most of whom would not have been able to write their story.”
About the editor:
Helen Nickas is editor and publisher of the series Writing the Greek Diaspora. She has published a number of other anthologies by Greek-Australian writers, including Re-telling the Tale (Owl 1994). She is an Honorary Associate at La Trobe University and is also working on her own literary writings.
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Reviewed by Jena Woodhouse
Australian Women's Book Review, Volume 18, Number 2 2006 p.5
Mothers from the Edge is the latest title in the series Writing the Greek Diaspora, whose general editor, Helen Nickas, teaches Greek Studies at La Trobe University. In compiling this collection of prose writings across several genres, Nickas invited contributions on the theme of mother-daughter/ daughter-mother relationships from 28 Australian women of Greek ancestry, or, in the case of one contributor, having married into Greek culture.
As she confides in the introduction, Nickas visualised her story-tellers sitting in a circle, 'laughing, crying, reminiscing, eulogising, mourning, celebrating, exulting, reflecting or intellectualising' (7) in response to their assigned topic. Noting that her 'professional interest in women as mothers and daughters coincides with, and is triggered by, Feminism and Multiculturalism - the two most significant social phenomena since the seventies' (9), Nickas observes that, 'not just in Greece but around the world . . . patriarchy interfered in the most elemental relationship, whereby one gave life to the other, and distanced the daughter from the mother', adding that 'A daughter may be cherished in our world, and in our times, but hated and wished dead if she were born as the fifth daughter to a poor family in a Greek village in the [nineteen] thirties' (9).
Simultaneously widening the focus to the mythological while particularising it in cultural terms, Nickas indicates the concrete significance of the myth of Demeter and Persephone for women of the Greek diaspora. Several of the narratives in the collection focus on the impact geographical and cultural separation can have on the mother-daughter, grandmother granddaughter relationship: The windows of the bus were covered with mist. Anna rubbed the window and looked outside. There was Yiayia, standing pale, alone in front of the gate with the two large oak trees. Everything she had in her life was on that bus, leaving her. Everything she had struggled for as a widow, all the hardship and pain, all came to this. Years later, a telegram arrived addressed to my mother: 'Your mother gravely ill in hospital. Burned. Come as soon as possible.' It was sent by the village priest. The cold, impersonal voice of the hospital nurse on the phone a little later, still rang in Anna's ears: Send money for morphine, she is in unbearable pain, she won't last long. It's best if she goes.' (Martha Mylona, Early in December, 191)
Apart from several harrowing accounts of separations brought about by the migration of sons and daughters (the diaspora), an experience familiar to people of many cultures over the millennia, but accelerated and intensified by the major demographic shifts occurring throughout the twentieth century, this collection contains tales of childless women who nurture daughters not their own biologically (Vasiliki Nihas, Atalante Battles the Harpies); women who become mothers later in life than most Konstandina Dounis, Sophia); women whose children perish (Vasso Kalamaras, Kyra Kalli's Daughter); women who write letters to a future grandchild (Gillian Bouras, Letter to my Granddaughter). In her introduction to this cycle of stories, Nickas comments: 'In many cases, I have no way of knowing—nor am I concerned—whether the contributions represent fact or fiction. I treat them all as fiction. Even those which appear to be autobiographical (employing real names and places), I treat as fictionalised autobiographies. What interests me rather more is that they ring true in their own literary reality.'
Ring true they do. The impression for this reader is of a collection of secular icons, some damaged or partly effaced, others precariously intact. Portraits, glimpses, scenes, histories, fragments, vignettes. Crystallised, compressed narratives. Language (in many cases not the first language, but the second) as a vehicle and a vessel for experience, remembered and relived as immediate; words sharpened and intensified by their work as witnesses to anguish, regret, resignation, luminosity, frustration, separation, longing, melancholy, passion, sorrow, remorse, anger, alienation, empathy, catharsis, joy, forgiveness, unconditional love: multiple perspectives and perceptions of women's odysseys; haunting memories. While far from being exclusively Greek phenomena, the words diaspora (dispersion), xenitia (foreign lands, and by extension, life in exile) and nostalgia (yia tin patrida) (homesickness), denote a peculiarly Greek understanding and interpretation of these conditions, and, in a culture that has seen more than its share of emigration brought about, particularly in the twentieth century, by political contingency and economic exigency, there is a considerable body of literature and a wide-ranging genre of songs devoted to this theme.
In refocusing on the matrilineal element of the diaspora experience in the Greekantipodean context, a relatively neglected aspect of the social and cultural effects and personal impact of deracination and mass migration has been brought to the reader's attention. This is all the more significant for the fact that the daughters and granddaughters who tell these tales are in a position to do so that their mothers and grandmothers in many cases were not; literacy being a (frequently exclusively) male preserve in rural Greece, even as recently as the mid-twentieth century in some parts of the country. As Nickas notes in the introduction, 'No two pieces recount a similar experience. So even if one may question how many variations to the mother-daughter experience theme there can be in a collection of twenty eight pieces, the answer is: twenty eight' (12).
Whether because I am both daughter and mother; whether because I have spent ten years of my life in Greece and can therefore relate on an experiential level to these stories, I registered their impact in a visceral way, and found myself reading some of them with tears on my cheeks. There is no pretence about these tales. They narrate their emotional journeys through difficult terrain with integrity and an intensity that comes from the mother culture, and cannot be compromised by the language in which they are told, which, for many, is not the mother tongue. These stories, individually and collectively, are told in voices that ring true, going to the heart of their matter in evocative and unforgettable ways.
Jena Woodhouse's latest publication is Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing, compiled and co-edited with project initiator Christina Houen.
Other publications include poetry collections, a children's novella, and fiction. Her work has received awards in all three genres. She is working on a Ph.D in Creative Writing.