A Poignant Yearning: Anna Couani reviews ‘Daughters of Castellorizo’ by Zeny Giles

Daughters of Castellorizo by Zeny Giles 2013 Koel Koel Dangar

DaughtersThe Australian population is made up of people from many countries and many of their stories have currency in our history. The colonisation by England and the subsequent English migrations are well-known and the big waves of post-war migration are quite familiar. We’re all now aware of the collapse of the White Australia Policy and the arrival of Vietnamese and other Asian peoples along with people from the Middle East. However the story of the people from the tiny Greek Dodecanese island of Castellorizo (also known as Megisti, Chateau Rouge, Castello Rosso etc) is virtually unheard of. There are possibly as many as 30,000 descendants in Australia from this island that had a population of about 6,000 in its heyday. The island is now reduced to about  300 due to various wartime evacuations during several wars, and the isolation and statelessness endured by the island as successive waves of colonists swept across the region. Many families were forced to leave before WWI because of starvation, as did Zeny Giles’ family and also my own Couanis and Haramis families.

It might seem strange to think of the Castellorizian migration as significant but, along with the people from Kythera, these were the first Greeks to come to Australia carrying with them an intriguing and tragic history. They were like First Fleeters. By the time the majority of Greek migrants came here in the 50’s and 60’s, the Cassies were established, regarded by the newcomers as ‘millionaires’. They had set up community infrastructure and established businesses across the countryside. This fait accompli belied the torment the early Greeks went through. Cassies are not so similar to mainland Greeks, or even to the Asia Minor Greeks. Whilst this is considered a sacrilegious thing to say in some circles, Cassies were something like Christian Turks. Often bilingual and even today, very reliant on the adjacent Turkish mainland town of Kås. And when the Cassies left at the beginning of the 20th century, they mostly went first to Egypt to work on the Suez Canal and then to Australia, picking up another couple of languages on the way.

These people are the characters in Daughters of Castellorizo which tells the story of one extended family, of three sisters, through the “tumultuous years” when many were leaving the island for Australia. Zeny Giles draws on her own family stories and on the historical work of Nicholas Pappas and this lends authenticity to the work. Daughters is the prequel to a previous novel, Wedding Dance which tells the story of the sisters after they have settled in Sydney from the 1930’s onwards. Both books are obviously written for an English speaking audience, providing some historical data and glossaries.

Huge historical events provide the background to the novel, Daughters but the focus on the family affairs and the localised interaction demonstrates the truism that people never willingly leave their homeland. They become migrants and refugees unwillingly. The people of Castellorizo carry a poignant yearning for a place that was and still is utterly beautiful – the “heart-shaped” island. A palimpsest written on by many peoples. Whilst the novel deals with family matters, specifically the dilemma of having a multitude of daughters to marry off, and the pain of leaving loved ones, the loss of that place is incommensurable, inexpressible. Similarly, in the living memory of my own family, the loss of “The City”, meaning Istanbul, and the scattering of Greeks around the Greek diaspora, is a plight we (Australians) don‘t often think applies to Greeks in the way it applies to Jews for example. We see Australian Greeks as they see themselves, localised and torn from one particular city, one particular village, rather than as a people without a centre. Little is known also about ‘The Catastrophe’ of 1923 that involved a population exchange of Greek and Turkish peoples based on their religion, tearing people from their ancestral homelands. The peoples of the Dodecanese were exempted from this because the area was under Italian control at the time.

In a way, Daughters resembles a Jane Austen novel where the drama and processes of match-making figure prominently. Analogous to that are the many observations and comments by characters about the worth of the men as husbands and the desperation of women who become shackled to a man who is a gambler or wastrel. A daughter’s future depends on her parents’ ability to provide a dowry that is large enough to attract a desirable husband. The book is written from a feminist perspective and chronicles the stoicism of the island women, at the mercy of the whims of their fathers and husbands, even though Castellorizian custom dictates that property is inherited through the female line, from eldest daughter to eldest daughter.

The first section of Daughters is written in the persona of one sister, Evangelia speaking to her granddaughter, Sophia, and writing letters to her sister Christina, so the reader is positioned as the “you” in the story at first. Evangelia’s life, told mostly through a series of letters to relatives in Australia, is a story of a literate woman who secretly assists and conducts her father’s business, achieving a kind of subjectivity and self-consciousness that enables her to reflect on the traditional mores and the coming modernisation, a continuous theme across the two books, especially after the arrival in Australia. The horrible reality that looms after migration is that some of the Greeks decide to marry Afstraleza (Australians) and this is a thorn in the side of the sister Marigho, a self-appointed matchmaker.

Evangelia’s letters constitute an interesting historical picture of Castellorizo in the 1900’s when it was still a viable community and before the destruction of WWII bombing. They also show the predicament of a woman shackled to a man who is a gambler and about her intellectual connection with a French doctor on the island before he was dispatched back to France when the Italians took over. Some of the letters are those written to the doctor after he returns to France.

The novel is structured so that each group of letters over a 10 year period is prefaced by an introductory piece to her granddaughter about the letters (mostly to her sister Christina) to come, so the Evangelia persona comes to both express her ideas and feelings as well as summarise a particular period in her life. She describes her husband discovering the letters she writes about their marriage and her negative judgement of him. She is fearful, watching him read the letters, even her satirical poem about his drunken fall off a donkey but nothing happens. Fortunately, he is illiterate and has no idea what the letters contain.

The second section of Daughters is told in the 3rd person but from the perspective of the two sisters who migrated to Australia. This starts several months after the letters’ section ends and announces the early death of Evangelia probably from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919. This section sees the traditional vs non-traditional theme emerge again as the families adapt to Australia. Evangelia’s husband arrives with their children and in some ways redeems himself in the Australian setting, transforming from the arrogant gambling former sea captain to a hard-working and devoted father working in kitchens. Then the third sister arrives to continue her matchmaking magic in Australia, attempting in a comical way to uphold outdated and outmoded customs. As a young woman, she was an admired dancer (in the Greek style), then as a middle-aged woman, she sits and watches as the next generation put on a spectacular ballroom dancing demonstration with all the shocking sexual overtones of the rhumba and tango.

This motif of the dance runs through the two books and figures prominently in Wedding Dance that concludes with the granddaughter Sophia attempting to learn and participate in one of the traditional Greek dances.

The prologue to Daughters has Sophie (Sophia) visiting the island of Castellorizo for the first time, reading the words of the Englishman WH Bartlett describing Castellorizo as “a storm-beaten prison”, seeking to discover more about her ancestral homeland and about her grandparents’ lives. She looks for grandfather Manoli but discovers grandmother Evangelia through her dreams, just starting to scratch the surface of their tumultuous story and the history of Megisti.

Zeny Giles books should become mainstream texts; they are as much a part of our Australian history and literature as the work of Angelo Loukakis, Christos Tsiolkas, Vrasidas Karalis (on Manoly Lascaris), Peter Skrzynecki, Alice Pung, Tony Ayres, Benjamin Law and all those others writing the migrant story.

– Anna Counai

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Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and school teacher. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, Small Wonders from Flying Islands Books 2012, with Chinese translations. http://seacruise.ath.cx/annacouani/.

Daughters of Castellorizo can be ordered through The Vault, Greek Bilingual Bookshop & coffee shop )Eleni Elefterias-Kostakidis) 837 New Canterbury Rd, Dulwich Hill NSW 2203 Phone 02 95594424, www.bilingualbookshop.com.au. It can also be ordered directly from the author by emailing Zeny Giles at zenygiles@gmail.com

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2 thoughts on “A Poignant Yearning: Anna Couani reviews ‘Daughters of Castellorizo’ by Zeny Giles

  1. Enjoyed this review and the description of Castellorizo and the contextualising of the migration stories from Aussie/Cassie histories, sounds like a great contribution to diasporic writings but agree should be treated as mainstream. I wonder if there will be a third book, so there is a trilogy? Also good to find out about the bilingual bookstore. Thanks Anna, and also Rochford St Review, for keeping the discussions going!

  2. Pingback: Issue 10: December 2013 – February 2014 | Rochford Street Review

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