Vale Antigone Kefala

Antigone Kefala with her Patrick White award which was awarded on 24 November 2022. Photo: Konstantinos Kalymnios. Source: Facebook

Rochford Street Review was saddened to learn of the death of Antigone Kefala a week after winning the 2022 Patrick White Award. We were looking to publish an account of her award win, instead we are now honouring her life.

Writing in The Conversation, Elizabeth McMahon, Professor of English literary studies at the University of NSW, said:

Patrick White established the award with funds from his 1973 Nobel prize. It is awarded without application “to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition”.

This well describes Kefala, who has been writing extraordinary poetry and prose for over half a century and who, though immensely admired and respected, is far too little known and celebrated in Australia.

Kefala was born in Brăila, Romania, part of the Greek diaspora settled there since the mid-19th century. Her family became refugees, fleeing to Greece then to New Zealand, after World War II, when Romania was occupied by the Soviets. She arrived in Australia on her own in December 1959. Her account of sailing into Sydney must be one of the most joyous acclamations of arrival in Australian literature:

AUSTRALIA … AUSTRALIA … we entered Sydney Harbour a summer morning. The colours of the rock wall at the gap were warm apricot, the sun was coming down on the waters, the whole landscape shimmering, overflowing with light, with heat, with movement.

I was suddenly released from the greenness, from the rain, the wind, released, at least for the moment, from my inner problems. My past in Romania, in Greece came back as meaningful experience in a landscape that had similar resonances. Sydney seemed alive with people, activity and intellectual excitement.

Kefala’s jubilation comes from her recognition that she might be able to forge a way of living in this new place that resonates with the landscape and culture of her past. Sydney is both new and old, simultaneously evocative and original.

The passage shows the profound interconnection between the outer world and Kefala’s inner self, something that is characteristic of her writing. It also demonstrates her awareness of the necessity of community and a milieu. Inevitably perhaps, those initial hopes met with some disappointments, but her three volumes of memoir – Summer Visit (2003), Sydney Journals (2008) and Late Journals (2022) – provide a record of her daily constitution of this community, and of a creative life.

Antigone was born in the Greek diaspora settlement Brăila, Romania in 1935. She moved to Greece and then New Zealand after World War II with her family. Having studied French Literature at Victoria University and obtaining an MA, she relocated to Sydney in 1960. There she has taught English as a second language and worked as a university and arts administrator – including serving as a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She started writing poetry and prose in both Greek and English 50 years ago,  She also wrote in French and Romanian. Her first collection The Alien was published by Makar Press in 1973, her last book, Late Journals was published by Giramondo in April 2022.

Rochford Street Review offers its condolences to Antigone’s friends, family and her many readers.

  • I am very sad to hear about Antigone. We swapped letters and books for a while and then life got in the way. She was a real writer, dedicated to her work without chasing accolades. And she finally received them because they were her due. – Mark Mahemoff
  • I did exchange a message once with Antigone about writing. A loss with her going to literature and her strong spirit about most things. – Phyllis Perlstone
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