Charmian Clift’s Kalymnos: A new workshop for readers and writers

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It was standing room only at Gleebooks on Sunday, May 12 when Charmian Clift fans and Kalymnian Australians gathered to hear biographer Nadia Wheatley talk about the connections between the Dodecanese island and Australian author Charmian Clift, who wrote her first solo book, Mermaid Singing, while living on Kalymnos in 1955.

In recent years, Kalymnians have been given back Clift’s account of their island and their culture through the book’s Greek translation — To Tragoudi tis Gorgonas (published by Metaichmio).

Crowd at Charmian Clift's Kalymnos. Gleebooks, (Effy Alexakis)
Crowd at Charmian Clift’s Kalymnos, Gleebooks. Photo: Effy Alexakis.

The title comes from the answer Clift gave to the islanders when they asked her why she and her family had come to Kalymnos. She told them that she was ‘looking for a mermaid.’  

“We were civilisation sick, asphalt and television sick,” she wrote in Mermaid Singing. “We had lost our beginnings and felt a sort of hollow that we had not been able to fill with material success. We had come to Kalymnos to seek a source, or a wonder, or a sign, to be reassured in our humanity.”

Kalymnos in 1955 was certainly a place to escape from the pressures of city life.

In that era, the island was still dependent on the sponge industry. Traditionally, the men went to sea in the week after Easter and were away for nine months, engaged in the perilous task of gathering sponges from the sea bed. Meanwhile the Kalymnian women ran the households.

Nadia Wheatley speaks at Charmian Clift's Kalymnos.Gleebooks, (Yannis Dramitinos)
Nadia Wheatley speaks at Charmian Clift’s Kalymnos, Gleebooks. Photo: Yannis Dramitinos.

Wheatley explained how Clift’s experience of the powerful matriarchal culture of the island gave her a model for her individual philosophy of feminism.

Clift’s mentor and friend on the island was an indomitable woman named Sevasti Taktikou.

Charmian Clift, George Johnston and Sevasti Taktikou, on Kalymnos, 1955. (Cedric Flower)
Charmian Clift, George Johnston and Sevasti Taktikou, on Kalymnos, 1955. Photo: Cedric Flower.

“As well as being what Charmian called “the household prop and stay,” the older Kalymnian woman taught the younger Australian woman to shop and cook and keep house in the local manner,” Nadia said. “And most importantly, Sevasti was the author’s cultural adviser.”

Fans of Clift are very keen to make cultural connections with Greece, so audience members were thrilled that the Consul General for Greece in Sydney, Yannis Mallikourtis, attended the event, and were deeply moved to hear him pay tribute to the significance of Charmian Clift’s story of Kalymnos as a way of connecting younger Greek Australians with their heritage. The Consul General spoke too of the role that Clift had played after her return to Australia, championing Greek democracy during the years of the Junta.

The Consul General for Greece, Yannis Mallikourtis, speaks at Charmian Clift's Kalymnos.Gleebooks, (Effy Alexakis)
The Consul General for Greece, Yannis Mallikourtis, speaks at Charmian Clift’s Kalymnos, Gleebooks. Photo: Effy Alexakis.

The event concluded with the launch of the program for Charmian Clift’s Kalymnos — A Workshop for Readers and Writers, which Wheatley will be conducting on the island of Kalymnos in April 2025. Over the course of a week, a small group of Clift readers will be visiting the places that inspired Charmian Clift’s travel memoir Mermaid Singing, and will be writing and publishing their own responses as a communal blog.

“I hope that this workshop will further the conversation between Kalymnos and the wider Australian community that Charmian Clift started so many years ago, with Mermaid Singing,” Wheatley said.

For more information contact: charmiancliftauthor@gmail.com

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