A Consummate Story-Teller: Dael Allison launches ‘Her Mother Tongue’ by Zeny Giles

Her Mother Tongue by Zeny Giles was launched by Dael Allison at The Press Book House on 6 April as part of the 2019 Newcastle Writers Festival.

First of all I would like to pay my respects and acknowledge country. I want to  recognise and thank  the Awabakal and Worimi people who have nurtured the lands on which we are standing and whose guardianship and spirit remains strong in this place.

Thank you attendees, and thank you Ivy, Murri and the staff at the The Press Book House for hosting this launch as part of the 2019 Newcastle Writers Festival.

This beautiful book, Her Mother Tongue by Zeny Giles, is published by Koel Koel, the publishing arm of Catchfire Press, a massive advocate for local writers and writing in many forms for over 20 years. In fact, Koel Koel has published all the books in Zeny’s trilogy examining the Greek/Australian experience.

Migration is one of the great stories of Australia, from the land-bridge and sea crossings of our First Nations people over 65,000 years ago – some scientists suggest a far longer time – to our present population of 24 million people, more than 28% born overseas. Over a quarter of Australians, today, were born overseas, and unless we have aboriginal heritage, all of our forebears have come from other countries in the last 8 or 9 generations.

That puts the reality of Australia’s multiculturalism well into perspective. Yet the immigrant experience remained shadowy in Australian literature, until recent decades. Zeny Giles, a significant Australian writer – a Novocastrian to boot –has brought the trials, tribulations and sheer richness of her Greek heritage, into the spotlight.

Her Mother Tongue is the 3rd book in Zeny’s trilogy of Castellorizo-related stories. Wedding Dance, first published in 2009, was followed by the prequel, Daughters of Castellorizo, 2013. Now, in 2019, we have the third and last novel, Her Mother Tongue, fresh off the press. Each novel stands alone, so you don’t have to read all three in the trilogy to appreciate Zeny’s superbly evocative and insightful story a Greek family’s relocation to Australia, but I suggest you should.

Zeny never boasts about her achievements, today that is my job, but before I tell you more about this book I’d like to briefly outline Zeny’s publishing achievements.

Her Mother Tongue adds to an impressive output. The AustLit website cites around 80 publications for Zeny, including her books of poetry, Blackbutt Honey, A Little More Honey, and the chapbook launched here last year, Parables.

There are also many works of memoir and fiction including Between Two Worlds, Miracle of the Waters (highly commended in the 1989 National Human Rights Awards), and her tribute to Newcastle, Caught in the Light. For the last two and Wedding Dance, Zeny received a special mention in the Manning Clark House National Cultural Awards, 2009. She has written a play performed in local schools, collaborated in a text and photography exhibition on migration to the Hunter, and was commissioned to write a libretto for a short opera, which has twice been performed by the Hunter Singers.

This is a major contribution to both our national and regional literary voice.

After beginning n Australia with Wedding Dance, then moving back in time to examine in Daughters of Castellorizo what prompts individuals to leave their island homes and families, Her Mother Tongue returns us to present-day Australia, following characters from the previous novels into unexpected developments as they age.

In the 1920s, Sophie Cyprianis’s Cypriot father Yianni, and her mother, Katina, who grew up in the tiny island of Castellorizo, migrated to vast and unknown Australia. In making that challenging move their shared hope of a better life created a tight-rope for their offspring who, like many first-generation Australians, experienced life with different perspectives to their parents.

Sophie, forever balancing different customs and values, family loyalties and expectations, reaches middle age to find herself confronted with the problem of what to do when her parents, Yianni and Katina, become alien to each other after their fifty-two year partnership in a still-alien land. Whatever the outcome, Sophie is determined to tell their story. That her first language differs from her parents is a disadvantage, but understanding their separation and confusion presents an even bigger challenge.

Her Mother Tongue is written in four parts.

The Prologue takes the form of a short play. The grandmother, Evangelia, mother, Katina and daughter, Sophie discusses the difficulty of finding appropriate words. Katina mocks Sophie for thinking a few words on a page will capture their lives. 

Part One deals with Sophies marriage break up. Realising she hasnt given enough thought to her past, she delves into memories of her Greek upbringing and the close knit Greek Community.

In Part Two Katinas life seems to collapse after she leaves her husband, Yianni. Sophie and her sister have to face their mothers dementia. Through it all, Katina manages to maintain the vital marrow, as Sophie writes in a poem for her mother. 

The Epilogue evaluates Katinas life, with an assertion of her capacity to maintain the vital marrow. The book ends with the sons relationship to his mothers language and music. 

Her Mother Tongue depicts ongoing nostalgia for the old ways and the uncertainties that change inevitably brings, considering issues like displacement and living with our choices. The novel raises many questions, including whether the tradition-based marriage of Yianni and Katina was ill fated, or instead failed due to new and confronting perspectives raised by the womens movement. 

These three novels essentially chronicle the lives and experiences of Zenys family. They are both biography and fiction because Zeny is, above all, a writer, and the way she approaches these stories is not only a well-honed craft, but also a balancing act. For how can you really tell a family story without treading on toes, and when some of those toes have sizeable bunions? Zeny does this by creating fictions of the facts.

The relationships in this book are examined through the lenses of love, vulnerability and protection. Zenys parents migrated to Australia before Zeny was born, but being born here doesnt make her 100% Australian. Her spirituality is Greek, her cooking is Greek, her inherited language is Greek. She is acutely aware of how compromised people feel when their intrinsic culture is, through migration to a new land, slowly eroded. Being a migrant is hard. Moving to a culture with a new set of social mores and a landscape which is alien visually, aurally, even in its smell and feel, creates a compromised experience. The people who are bastions and keepers of the faith in the old ways and culture are inevitably changed. And they die. The erosion of their tides of meaning represents loss, while offering growth for those who follow.

Katina, increasingly drifting away from the world she has half chosen, half been propelled into, chastises Sophie: After all I did for you so that your life would be different from mine.

Her Mother Tongue shows, with great compassion and insight, how our choices can never guarantee the endings we anticipate.

Zeny Giles makes every word count. Her spare, unsentimental prose goes straight to the heart of loyalty and yearning, the abandoned and misplaced, opportunities missed and chances taken. In this novel she continues her mapping of the complex, proud and sometimes bewildering experiences of Greek migrants to Australia. A consummate story-teller, she offers a window onto her own familys experience with humour, pathos, tenderness and insight hallmarks of great Greek literature.

Zeny continues to be a keystone for Catchfire Press, as well as for her extensive family and wide-ranging friends, and a ruthless, and greatly valued mentor for my own writing.

I feel honoured to launch this superb book. Do yourself a favour and buy a copy. Buy another for a gift. Because you will find this book, like all of Zenys writing, endlessly rewarding.

 – Dael Allison


Dael Allison is a Doctoral candidate in creative writing, University of Newcastle. Her volume of poetry Fairweather’s Raft (Walleah Press, 2012) featured on Poetica, ABC radio, and Picaro Press published her two chapbooks. She edits and publishes poetry, most recently co-editing To End All Wars, Puncher & Wattmann, 2018.

For information on how to purchase Her Mother Tongue  contact Catchfire Press at http://www.catchfirepress.com.au/contact-us/


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