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Saturday, 9 June 2018

Gillian Bouras: Remembering Beverley Farmer (1941 - 2018); Beverley Farmer, Australian Writer

From Eureka Street, 25 April, 2018

I have only just this minute read of the sad death of Beverley Farmer on 16 April, 2018.

Writer and essayist Beverley Farmer dies at 77, SMH

This news has been all the more sad and shocking as I have been working on a paper, mainly about her Greek short stories and on the writings of some other 'insiders and outsiders', for a conference to be held on Hydra in September, 2018.

The conference is called "Writers, Dreamers, Drifters and the Aegean", Hydra, 25-26 September, 2018. The conference conveners are Tanya Dalziell (University of Western Australia) and Paul Genoni (Curtin University).

I had sent an email to Beverley Farmer's publishers on 26 December 2017, asking them to forward it to her, which they did. I never received a reply from the author. I didn't realize that she was ill. I submitted the abstract of my paper to the conference organisers in early January, 2018. I heard on 2 March that it had been formally accepted

I didn't settle down to thinking more deeply about the paper until I arrived back in Greece, very recently, largely because I have been working on my own collection of short stories (some of them set in Greece) . I am currently reading her novel "The House in the Light" (1995), but I will soon be re-reading "Place of Birth" (1990), "Collected Stories" (1996) and "A Body of Water" (1990).

It was the Faber collection, "Place of Birth", which inspired me to explore more of her work with a Greek setting or influence.

I had bought the book when living and working in Sydney, Australia, from 1993-1999, but I didn't read it closely and appreciate its true quality until late last year, which I deeply regret. Every book finds its proper time, but it seems ironic that I have come fresh to her writing in the year that she died.

Beverley Farmer's home village in Northern Greece for three years (1969-1972) was Polypetro(n), not far from Giannitsa, NW of Thessaloniki. She writes about it in "A Body of Water". She and her Greek husband also spent a period working at a fish taverna in Litochoro, on the sea-shore below Mt. Olympus.

I lived and worked in Thessaloniki from 1980-1985, so when she writes about the White Tower, Salonica Market or mentions Halkidiki, I feel a special bond of interest, with reawakened images and memories.

"Oh,  the markets in Thessaloniki! Bare lightbulbs burn over squandered spilling silver blood-smeared sardines, and dangling rabbits with their fluffy grey scuts left on and a cuff of fur on each paw, and barrels of smooth and wrinkled black olives and wheels of smoked cheese, dried Kalamata figs in blond wreaths that smell like tobacco, Florina peppers of that luminous deep scarlet,  and the pears, the apples, the grapes..." A Body of Water (1990), p.169.

We might have met in Thessaloniki - she was there in 1983, when I was living there, or in Melbourne or Sydney. We never did. "Mirror cities of the mind", to use her phrase. Dromoi pallioi...

I had first gone to live and work in Greece from 1967-1968, and I was a frequent visitor to the country during the period that she also lived in Greece, so it is hardly surprising that I feel drawn to her Greek stories and observations on the language, vocabulary and etymology of words. I also share her interest in film and photography, Japanese haiku and the Greek moiroloi (or mirologi, a lament).

My own experience of Greek village and family life is very different from Beverley Farmer's, not just for obvious reasons: geographical - Ionian island and Epirot mountains versus Macedonian plains; gender difference and family circumstances (in her case, the complex relationship between foreign nifi/daughter-in-law - or ex-nifi - and pethera/mother-in-law was a dominant theme).

Her insights and stories strike me as profound, original and recognizably authentic (which is quite different from autobiographical).

I hope I will be able to do justice to a very important Australian writer. In my paper, I will attempt a short, selective celebration, not a mirologi.

Bringing her back to Greece 

"When you think of all the work that goes into a book! Mamma, it takes years of work. More than that! A book has a living soul." The House in the Light (page 114).

A Buddhist Wheel -
a symbolic representation of the teachings of the Buddha,
which fascinated the author.

The Buddha contemplates the return of the swallows and house martins.

From The House in the Light:

"The Buddha strove to douse the flame of the self and be lost in the void. If, as I believe, this is what death is, then there is no need to strive". P.190.

"I am one of those born within the realms of desire and form but I can only believe in death". P.224

"Why practise to attain Nirvana and be at one with the void - oblivion, the abyss - when we have it coming in any case (its true name is death)? If there is a cycle of rebirth, though, and I am one of those lost souls who are doomed to it because in ignorance we grasp at life - amen to that". P.227

On the house in Northern Greece:

"She can say goodbye once and for all. There will be nothing to ever bring her back, not in this life". P.232.

From an interview with Ray Willbanks

Wishing her a good place - and a happy form - of rebirth: a higher, happier, incarnation. 


A book by Gillian Bouras, Aphrodite and the Others

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