By Robert Zaller
Author, actress, and longtime Hellenic News Cultural Affairs Correspondent Lili Bita was honored at a ceremony in Athens on November 26 in anticipation of her induction into the prestigious Hellenic Writers Association. An audience of a hundred heard the Association’s President, Kostas Karousos, its Vice President, Margarita Fronimahdi-Mataci, its former Secretary, Phaedra Zambatha-Pagoulatou, and publisher Evangelos Andreou offer addresses of welcome and appreciation. Each read as well from Lili’s works. Her contributions as a theatrical performer and an ambassador of Greek culture were also noted, and, upon request, she performed musical selections at the end of the program, which lasted approximately an hour and a half.
The Hellenic Authors Society, founded by Grigoris Xenopoulos, is the oldest literary organization in Greece, and its past presidents have included Nikos Kazantzakis, the most widely read of modern Greek authors, and Angelos Sikelianos, the first Greek nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Busts of these eminent personalities, as well as those of Kostas Palamas, Yannis Ritsos, and Nikiforos Vrettakos adorned the stage of the Society’s auditorium, where Lili and her sponsors were seated. She responded to their remarks with her own, which were received with great warmth and enthusiasm. Lili spoke particularly of her status as a writer of the Diaspora community, with its many contributions to Greek culture and its role as the bearer of Hellenism abroad. Her remarks, and excerpts from those of other speakers, are printed below.
Lili has won praise and recognition from her native country before. Nikos Kazantzakis praised the “power and compassion” of her earliest work, and Tasos Athanassiadis, late director of the Greek National Theater, hailed her as “among the most talented women of her generation.” The author and translator of some twenty-two books of verse, fiction, and memoir, she was a leading performer on the Greek stage before her emigration to America, where she continued her dramatic and musical as well as her literary career. That career has included, in addition to teaching appointments, residencies, and master classes in the art of Greek drama at more than fifty American universities, notable productions of such classics of the Greek theater as Medea, Lysistrata, and The Bacchae, as well as of her own dramatic works and the Greek-themed one-woman shows with which she has toured widely, The latter include The Greek Woman Through the Ages, and Freedom or Death, which traces the idea of Greek freedom from ancient times to the present.
Lili and her work have been frequently honored in the United States by grants, awards, and tributes. As the moving force behind the first anthology of Diaspora poetry published in the United States, Pomegranate Seeds, her own poetry was read at a ceremony hosted by the Greek Legation to the United Nations in New York. She has worked closely with Dean Papademetriou of Boston’s Somerset Hall Press, the only publishing house in America dedicated exclusively to works about Greece and its culture, to promote awareness of the Greek heritage in America. Somerset Hall has also been the publisher of Lili’s own works since 2005, including her translations of the work of Nikiforos Vrettakos, Thirty Years in the Rain, a finalist for the Elizabeth Konstantinides Prize of the Modern Greek Language Association, and the forthcoming edition of her much-acclaimed love poetry, Fleshfire, which will appear in 2015.
Lili has won praise from distinguished American authors as well, including the celebrated novelist and diarist Anais Nin, whose work Lili was the first to translate into Greek. Of Lili herself, Nin wrote, “Lili Bita transcends the individual woman . . . Life and myth are lived simultaneously.” Similarly, poet and scholar Jane Augustine states that “Lili Bita has more power to tell the truth than even the Greek classics of drama and poetry . . . She is Electra herself.”
With both pen and voice, Lili has represented the best of Hellenism in America for many years, while maintaining her unshakable ties to Greece itself. She has truly been a bridge between continents and across ages, and in recognizing the significance of her life and work, the Hellenic Authors Society has honored the Greek Diaspora itself.