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Antigone Kefala (1931 – 2022)

Antigone Kefala was a writer of poetry, fiction and memoir. Over the last fifty years from 1973, she published five poetry collections, including The Alien, Thirsty Weather, European Notebook, Absence and Fragments, the last won the 2017 Judith Wright Calanthe Award. She also published three works of fiction – The First Journey, The Island and Summer Visit and two memoir collections – Sydney Journals and Late Journals. Just a month before her death she won the 2022 Patrick White Literary Award. In addition, she published two works for children – Max: the Confessions of a Cat and Alexia. Her work appeared in many Australian literary magazines and anthologies.

There have been two significant publications about her work: Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey, an anthology of reviews, essays and analytical writing edited by Vrasidas Karalis and Helen Nickas and Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities, edited by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas. The latter is a collection of papers from a mini-conference on her work and took place in 2020. Her friends, Sneja Gunew and Ivor Indyk have written extensively about her work and her place in Australian literary culture.

As well as being highly respected and widely recognised as an important Australian writer, Antigone was also a significant figure in Australia’s literary culture, being one of the few non-Anglo women of her generation to have a literary career. In addition, as the first Multicultural Arts Officer at the Australia Council during the 1980’s, she was pivotal in breaking the ground for artists and writers and personally promoted and encouraged a diverse group of practitioners. She was part of a group of intellectuals her own age – artists and writers, some of whom initially gathered around the publication of the magazine Aspect: Art and Literature produced by Rudi and Lorraine Krausman, and who were part of her social world for decades. They included academics, painters, ceramicists, writers and musicians from various European backgrounds. Antigone was known to but not really absorbed into Greek Australian culture.

Antigone Kefala. Photograph by Anna Couani. All rights reserved.

Antigone was born in the Greek area of Braïla in Romania into a family of musicians and aspired to be an actor as a child. She was literate in Romanian, French, Greek and English and completed an MA in French in New Zealand after arriving there as an adolescent. Her family were refugees from Romania following the occupation of Romania by the Soviet Union, first escaping to Greece and living in refugee camps there. She came to Australia in 1959 and lived in inner city Sydney until her death. She started writing seriously in Sydney, being excited by the cosmopolitan urban environment and the geography of the place. She only wrote in English but her extensive reading in French and of the Modernist European writers had a significant influence on her work. She has been described as a surrealist writer but the consciousness of European modernist writing and art has been uneven amongst writers and critics in Australia, so she was often considered unique rather than occupying a place within modernist literature. She certainly saw herself in an international literary context.

Many of us, of varying ages, regarded Antigone as a friend and mentor over many decades. She had a conviction that artistic endeavours were wholly valid and worthwhile. Her personal vivaciousness, willingness to discuss and enthusiasm for cultural work were inspiring to many of us. She was keenly aware of the difficulties faced by people outside the mainstream in Australia.


In dreams begins the journey, they would say
moving the candle in the darkened room
that smelt of cherry jam and basil.
I watched their shadows moving on the walls
straining to hear the corners creaking in the dark
afraid of the black night that fell outside
in silent, feathered sheets, of the abandoned
courtyard, save for the big dogs,
and far away the well.

When darkness came they talked of Katka,
of the well, in secret voices.
Put your ear to the ground, virgin,
and hear the walls groaning out of dumb mouths.
The way down cast in mica flames,
burning unheard like eyes; wild men’s eyes,
dead men’s eyes, glazed now in veils
upon veils of stone water.

The jump, Katka has said, would bring you
to the other shore.  A land where hills and trees
are of the purest gold, where glass birds sing,
and where the air, fine powdered crystal curtains

hanging from a still blue sky, chimes in an unfelt
breeze.  And you are light, shadowless, falling
upon these fields forever petrified in silence.

Absence, Hale & Iremonger 1992

Article written by Anna Couani.