Reflecting on Life as a Publisher of Greek-Australian Literature

Helen Nickas
(also known as Eleni-Frangouli-Nickas)

… my ultimate hope is that this memoir will be added to the myriad other migrant stories told, and serve as one more document of the social, political, cultural and historical upheavals that Greek women went through during the last century. With war and migration as the pivotal events, their lives were inexorably marked.

Eleni Frangouli-Nickas

The paths we take in our lives are often serendipitous, leading us hopefully into rewarding and joyous results. In my case, my path was becoming a lecturer in Greek Studies and then a publisher of Greek-Australian literature in Melbourne. Reflecting on this “journey,” here is the path I took and where it led me. It is a very personal account, in which readers with a migrant background may find common threads.

At a conference at Sydney University, 2014. From right, Prof. Vrasidas Karalis, writer Antigone Kefala, Publisher Helen Nickas.

After finishing my high school studies in Larissa, I left Greece to join my sister in Melbourne in 1964: the time of mass emigration to Australia. She had promised to help me study at university. To my dismay, I found my knowledge of English inadequate for tertiary study. Eating humble pie, I worked for a while and soon after I fell in love: in love with the English language, and with an Australian-born Greek, with whom I began in earnest to practise speaking more fluently. He liked my Greek; I liked his English. Reason enough to marry? Why not, if you are twenty and thinking through your heart. In quick succession we had two children, and my dream of university studies was derailed for many years.

When in 1978 I finally enrolled at the University of Melbourne for an Arts degree, I was a mature-aged student, taking advantage of the abolition of university fees by a Labor Government in the seventies. Encouraged further by the Feminist Movement and Australia’s multicultural policies (which helped raise our status as migrants from a non-Anglo-Celtic background), I studied English literature and Greek Studies and completed a bachelor’s degree with Honours in 1984. With a third child been born during my studies, life was getting rather frantic, but a determination not to waste this unique opportunity grew even stronger.

At Antigone Kefala’s home in Sydney, 2008. From right: Antigone Kefala, Prof. Vrasidas Karalis, writer Yota Krili, Visiting Professor Gail Holst from the United States, Helen Nickas.

From the eighties onwards, Greek Studies were thriving in most Australian universities, and I was appointed part-time tutor at the University of Melbourne (1985-91). The catalysts for the direction I subsequently took were, first, Dimitris Tsaloumas, a Melbourne poet from Leros who won an award in 1983, as an Australian poet, with a bilingual collection aptly titled The Observatory. It was a sign of Australia accepting, even celebrating its multiculturalism. The second catalyst was Dr. George Kanarakis, whose research on Greek-Australian writers was published first in Greek (Γιώργος Καναράκης, Η λογοτεχνική παρουσία των Ελλήνων στην Αυστραλία. Μελετήματα, Νο. 1., Αθήνα. Ίδρυμα Νεοελληνικών Σπουδών, 1985) and subsequently in English translation (George Kanarakis, A Tradition of Prose, Poetry and Drama. Canberra, ANU Press, 1988). His pioneering research included mostly male writers with a small number of women (understandable, considering the times up to the seventies when women were less visible in general).

I had now found my area of interest in academia. For my master’s degree I chose Greek-Australian women writers, concentrating specifically on four of them: Dina Amanatides and Vasso Kalamaras (writing in Greek) and Antigone Kefala and Zeny [Doratis] Giles (writing in English).

In 1991 I was appointed lecturer at La Trobe University. Now full time in academia, I was faced with another decision. Would I pursue a PhD in Greek studies and cement my academic position further? Being in my forties, I agonized about how best to use my knowledge and my position as a lecturer. I was strongly connected to the outside community and decided that I wanted my studies and teaching to make a difference and create bridges between academia and society. And furthermore, bridges between our Greek paroikia and the Anglo mainstream literary community.

Some book covers from Owl’s publications.

1992 was the year I became a publisher, founding my venture, Owl Publishing, named after Athina’s wise owl. This was not what I had initially set out to do, but a rejection by La Trobe University Press (LUP) when I submitted my manuscript of my thesis led me to this. I will always be grateful to the then editor of LUP who, though rejecting my manuscript on financial grounds, she encouraged me to be bold and publish it myself. Without much hesitation, I took her advice. Even though the question arose in my head: how could I now manage to lecture and publish, and still fulfill my family duties? It is said that if you need to get things done, ask a busy person.
I edited my thesis and included interviews with the four women writers. Migrant Daughters: The Female Voice in Greek-Australian Prose Fiction was published in that same year. La Trobe University Press changed their mind and offered to at least distribute the book. This meant that copies of it went to a great number of Libraries and many Bookshops. Migrant Daughters also made it to a weekly Book Show on Australian television, which was presented by a newly-retired Irish-Australian academic and a great lover of books and multicultural literature.

I had now embarked on a challenging venture as a publisher of Greek-Australian literature. I believed that publishing writers whom I could teach in my course would be of benefit to my students. But I was determined that I would only publish books which were connected to my research and teaching interests. That I would not accept for publication unsolicited manuscripts, nor would I accept payment by any of my authors. Earning a respectable salary from academia would help with the costs.

Gradually, it became desirable that I could collaborate on future publications with fellow academics who were researching Greek-Australian literature. I must mention that from the seventies onwards a multitude of books was being published in Greek by the first generation of Greek migrants, while the second generation was writing in English and published by Anglo-Australian publishers. There was, indeed, rich material for study, research, and publishing.

The next book after Migrant Daughters was a bilingual anthology titled Re-telling the Tale: Poetry and Prose by Greek-Australian Women Writers (1994), which I co-edited with my academic colleague, and friend, Konstandina Dounis. We included over forty women writers, wrote an introduction, and did most of the translations into either Greek or English, depending on the language of the original. We also asked other writers to translate some pieces. It was a great collaboration, an enjoyable and most gratifying effort, while also realizing that the anthology was providing a great source of Greek-Australian migrant history. A grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council helped with the printing costs which were enormous. Multiculturalism was reaching its zenith in the nineties and our anthology was reviewed by mainstream Australian critics.

Many years later, my own commission and collection of prose pieces by Greek-Australian women writers was published in 2006 under the title Mothers from the Edge, which included 28 women. As the title indicates, mothers were the focus, and all contributors wrote about their experience as daughters of migration and their relationship with their mothers. Working with all these women as they recounted their stories was an unforgettable experience.

At Dimitris Tsaloumas’ home in Melbourne, 2012. From right, Antigone Kefala, Dimitris Tsaloumas, Helen Nickas.

From 1992 until 2006 when Mothers from the Edge was published, I had already produced poetry and prose books by the best Greek-Australian writers (who were all subjects of my research and teaching as a lecturer). I worked closely with the writers themselves and translated some of their works. This was the best part of publishing. With some I became close friends and learned much from them. Dimitris Tsaloumas and Antigone Kefala, among several others, became life-long friends. The two literary studies books which I edited (Dimitris Tsaloumas: A Voluntary Exile and Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey) comprise a significant contribution, not only to Greek-Australian, but to Australian literature and, importantly, to the wider Greek diaspora.

Deciding to retire from academia in 2006 was hard, but my ever-expanding family and my desire to enjoy them made it easier. Besides, I was not “abandoning” the field where I had spent many decades (both as a student and teacher). The kind of books I kept on publishing were connected to research and teaching at a tertiary level.

Another endeavour which I greatly enjoyed in recent years, when the energy was not there to undertake large publishing projects, was to co-edit a series of small poetry books—chapbooks—with artist-poet Peter Lyssiotis and poet and philosophy lecturer Nick Trakakis. Between 2013 and 2019 we published 16 books, some in English and some in bilingual form. Appropriately, this chapbook series started with Dimitris Tsaloumas and finished with Antigone Kefala—the two poets who had been in my life since the eighties.

I started this personal narrative from the sixties onwards when I came to Australia and the path which led me to academia and publishing. The key feeling in recounting my story has to be GRATITUDE. Such a feeling may come later in life when we have the opportunity to reflect on our lives. In my case, this reflection also led me to write my own memoir titled Athina and her Daughters: A Memoir of Two Worlds, published in 2009. In this book, I use the hyphenated version of my full name, Eleni Frangouli-Nickas, in part to honour my origins. The book is a family account of my mother Athina and her daughters, including a large chunk of my own life as a war child, migrant, academic and publisher.

My gratitude is even more so for the chance to have a life at all. As a war child, I might not have survived. In a totally random, and tragic incident, my eight-year-old brother was killed by the explosion of a mine, while I, barely three years old, was injured but survived. Standing in front of me, his body saved me. That happened in 1948 during the Civil War. Perhaps, being saved from death then, was an omen of good fortune in my later life. Some of this good fortune I have recounted in my memoir and, briefly, in this narrative. I am sure that experiences, good and bad, abound among Greeks of the diaspora. In the very large corpus of Greek-Australian writings, I have been astounded by stories of great suffering but also forbearance and hope. My wish is that such stories must not remain in personal collections but that they can live on through archives established in the wider Greek diaspora.

December 10, 2023

Helen Nickas is a former academic who taught Greek at the Universities of Melbourne and La Trobe from 1985 until retiring in 2006. Having developed a keen interest in the literary writings of Greek-Australians, she founded Owl Publishing in 1992 aiming to nurture, study, translate and disseminate their writings. This venture has lasted close to 30 years and while she is not publishing new books, her list of publications provides a significant document of the literary production of Greek-Australians. Her website lists all its publications with a separate entry for each book, giving adequate information for researchers and book lovers of stories from the Greek diaspora.

Editor’s Note: For the list of OWL publications see here. For a tribute by Dr. Konstandina Dounis see, Chronicling the diaspora’s stories: a tribute to Helen Nickas and Owl Publishing.