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Eulogy for Antigone Kefala (1931–2022)

Antigone Kefala

The great Australian writer Antigone Kefala died on 3 December 2022, at age 91. The following eulogy was delivered at the funeral of Kefala at St Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church, Kingsford NSW on Wednesday 14 December 2022.

Antigone Kefala was born in Braila in Romania, a small city on the Danube not far from the Black Sea. Her parents were Greek from a community that had been in Romania for some generations. Her father was a teacher and like her brother a musician, her mother an avid reader. The intimacy of their relationship is beautifully portrayed in ‘Conversations with Mother’, the third of the novellas collected in Summer Visit. In 1947, after the Soviet occupation of Romania, when Antigone was sixteen, the family left for Greece. They lived in a displaced persons camp in Greece for three years, until they were accepted as refugees by New Zealand. In 1959, after graduating from Victoria University in Wellington, Antigone and her mother left for Sydney. Her earliest poems and her first prose work The Island, reflect the trauma and estrangement of this double displacement from Romania to Greece to New Zealand, and the family’s life as refugees. Sydney, on the other hand, exercised an immediate spell, from her first sight of the harbour, ‘shimmering, overflowing with light’. Antigone worked to support the family – as an administrator at the University of New South Wales, and then as multicultural literature officer at the recently formed Australia Council. She was there at the beginning, a supporter of the new writing by Australian authors of migrant background, and one of its most important contributors. In her essay ‘Towards a Language’, she describes how she wrote in the Mitchell Library after work. ‘Typed things out at weekends, surprised myself that I had finally found a voice…with a feeling of levitation, of having escaped the constraints of gravity. The climate, the landscape, my own inner release coincided to give me a feeling of euphoria.’ This unique sense of euphoria permeates her writing, alongside the darker notes, born of the experience of death, loss, and the fragmentation of identity. Her early poetry collections The Alien and Thirsty Weather speak to this experience; in her later collections European Notebook and Absence she revisits the past as it survives in the present and in her memory, in understated lyrics of haunting beauty. But it is in her two collections of journals, Sydney Journals and Late Journals, that her love of the city is most apparent. The journals are not only an enduring record of our life and times, but a tribute to the power of friendship, as many of you here will know. It took a long time for Antigone to receive public recognition – her most recent collection Fragments won Australia’s most prestigious poetry prize in 2017, and only a few weeks before her death, she received the distinguished Patrick White Literary Award. But her friends and readers have for a long time cherished Antigone for her vitality and generosity, her wisdom and curiosity, and the inimitable qualities of her voice, as a poet and as a companion, and will long continue to do so.

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