Acceptance Remarks and Thanks
Athens, November 26, 2014
Mr. President, Madame Vice president, Distinguished Colleagues, Dearest Family, and Ladies and Gentlemen:
I thank you very much for your kindness in being here this evening to honor with your presence the acknowledgment and recognition of my life’s work as an author. Such an honor was my dream as an emigrant and a writer in the Greek Diaspora. I knew it would take much effort and persistence to achieve it, and the continuing inspiration of our great culture and the many figures who have so richly and immortally contributed to it. Today, this dream has taken flesh. I humbly thank you.
Years ago, I embarked on an unknown adventure with a single bag packed mostly with those dreams. At the same time, I carried the heavy burden of my departure from all that I had known and loved, and, to bear it, only the determination to make my life worthy of my family, my island, and my country.
You will ask, why did I undertake this journey, so far from the land that had generously endowed me with the glory of its heritage? Why did I choose to leave its blue sea, its mountains, and the ever-renewed fountain of joy and ecstasy for which we Greeks alone have a word, plandaxo? Why to leave this land of Eros and light that was the dowry given to me from the moment of my birth?
For all this, dear colleagues and friends, I was and am eternally grateful. But, at the same time, I was also weighed down by a tradition that also imposed limitation on those of my sex and in many ways threatened to stifle in me the very gifts it had given. I was surrounded by a forest of prohibitions, and at the same time by stern and unyielding commandments:
Girls from good families never cross their legs.
. . . never appear at windows.
. . . are never unchaperoned.
. . . never speak to men.
. . . never permit a man to touch them.
. . . neither think nor speak bad words.
. . . have no secrets from their parents.
. . . never read anything but their schoolbooks and the Holy Bible.
. . . are always first in their class.
Above all, girls from good families keep house.
These were the Ten Commandments of our lives, which I recorded and recite to you from Sister of Darkness, the story of my journey. The long chain of laws continued after that. I thought of the peasant women who had come each dawn from their villages, bent double by the sacks of vegetables pulled from the wet earth and strapped to their backs, leaving behind them in their huts hunger, despair, and sick children. I thought of the silence imposed on those women by their hardship and labor, and the no less suffocating code of respectability summed up in the dictum that “Silence brings women decency,” a rebuke to the spirit and a demand for submission which I felt slowly crushing me as surely as a boa constrictor would.
So it was that I decided to leave. To go beyond the horizon, and to speak for my fellow Greek women and for all the oppressed of this earth whose poverty was only the outward sign of their souls’ enslavement. I have tried to do so, and I am grateful and humbled to have been heard in my native land. Ladies and gentleman, dearest friends, I thank you deeply for the honor you bestow on me this evening and for the warmth of your reception. I promise to remain with you in the continuing struggle for the freedom and human dignity that Greece above all has promised its children. Let us not put down our pens and our effort in this struggle until the last woman and man among us is truly free.
I especially acknowledge here this evening my dear friend and sister, Phaedra Zambatha-Pagoulatou, who has done so much to make it possible, and, again, all the members of the Hellenic Authors Society whose ranks I am now privileged to join. Thank you all, and now: Onward!
Remarks by Kostas Karousos
President, Hellenic Authors Society
November 26, 2014
Distinguished Colleagues and Guests:
Reading the poetry of our native daughter, Lili Bita, I felt a distress tinged with melancholy as I tried to fathom the depths of feeling they stirred in me. Through these depths I sought to clarify many feelings long hidden or blocked in myself across the journey of time. The direct way Lili Bita presents her verses suggests a priestess discarding her veils and standing forth nakedly before her hierophants in all the struggle and pain of her life’s effort. The result is not to be measured by any scale, but taken whole. The profound impression left by the musicality and dramatic force of her lines suggests a great throng in the throes of passion, of figures now lit and now obscured on a flickering stage. For poetry is the deed of an entire life, a restless city created by music, emotion, and the diction of the soul. It is a perfect offering which compels acceptance.
Such a poetry is Lili Bita’s, in which a hardy spiritual fortitude is expressed now by a triumphant cry and now by a half-choked sob, a compound of memory and mortality but also of abiding joy. It spreads before us a vast panorama which contains everything and rejects nothing, flooding us with its elemental emotions, with the passion of its creator, leaving us with the sense of an expression that has passed through an entire body and flows from the fingertips outward, charging us with its energy. She writes for us, thanking us:
Because you heard my hands,
because you heard their silence
because you heard their cry.
It is we who thank her for her gifts.
Remarks by Phaedra Zambatha-Pagoulatou for Lili Bita
November 26, 2014
Tonight we present a Greek writer who has lived and worked in America for more than forty years. Her books, plays, and performances cover the gamut of the lives of Greek women from ancient times through Byzantium and up to our present day. As the student of the great Karolos Kuhn, she has been the interpreter of her own work on many stages, bringing Greek culture to more than fifty American universities as well as a variety of other venues. In addition, she has been a cultural commentator in numerous magazines and newspapers, most notably the Hellenic News of America, to which she has contributed for more than twenty-five years. She holds a master’s degree in drama from the University of Miami, and a degree in music from the Greek Conservatory of Music in Athens. She is among the most distinguished authors of the Diaspora, with more than twenty books of verse, fiction, memoir, and translation to her credit.
What I wish to emphasize most strongly is that Lili has always remained faithful to her roots, to the sun-bathed Greece of her birth and to the Greek language itself. She retains the idiom of her native Zakynthos, with all its distinctively poetic expressions. Her home in Athens was next door to the founding president of our society, Grigoris Xenopoulos, who with his sister was a close friend of her childhood. Indeed, Lili’s first ventures in literature were at the feet of that master, who encouraged her career.
In Athens, Lili published her first book, Steps on the Earth, to much critical praise. From then on, her life was principally dedicated to writing and bringing to life heritage of our beloved country. Her verse, sensuous and robust, probes the most sensitive and exalted moments of our lives. She is deep but always clear. Sometimes she caresses the reader with a velvet breath; sometimes she speaks in the accents of protest against what is false and wrong. Her prose is lushly descriptive yet precise, painting her characters and their world with a deft hand and sure intuition, and with compassion for their conflicts and sufferings. She draws you into her art, and holds you spellbound as if with a magic wand.
A lyric voice, then, but also one acquainted with the world. Lili Bita has written splendid verses with a strong feminist sensibility, but also with appreciation for the male. Her father, who held high military rank, was a formative influence, as was her mother, who inspired her love for culture and the arts. Her multiple talents, for writing, acting, and music, were evident early. At the same time, they brought her into conflict with the discipline and constraint expected of a young girl of her time and place. In Athens, she found at last the opportunity for advanced study and for the career she began to pursue. Here, too, however, she found her horizons limited. She emigrated to America, but an unhappy marriage to a Greek academic brought her up once more against the restrictions and demands for conformity she’d hoped to escape. Two beautiful children resulted as well, but she was soon left to care for them alone and virtually penniless. Lili’s spirit demanded freedom, whatever the price. And while she fought for that freedom and the dignity that it demanded, she began her struggle on behalf of all women. With persistence and dedication, she won the respect and admiration both of her Diaspora colleagues and of major American writers for her emerging body of work.
Lili also met her future mate and close collaborator, Robert Zaller, then a graduate student and now Distinguished University Professor of History at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. Robert’s own love for Greece and its people gained expression in his own beautiful poems, collected in his verse collection, Islands. In addition to translating Lili’s work into English, he worked with her to produce versions of major contemporary Greek authors, most notably Nikiforos Vrettakos. He also followed the struggle of our people for liberation from dictatorship, commenting on it in articles for the New York Times, the Miami Herald, and other leading publications. He has remained an engaged observer of the Greek scene to the present day, and serves as a contributing editor to the Hellenic News of America. Today, he has some twenty-six books to his credit, including works of history, criticism, verse, and translation, but it is still Greece that inspires him most of all.
Lili suffered the unimaginable tragedy of losing her eldest son, Philip, for whom she wrote a deeply moving memoir, The Storm Rider, that gives voice as few books have to the profound experience of motherhood and loss. It is also a book about the triumph of love even in the face of death, one that leaves us awed by the strength and courage of its author.
In her earlier memoir, Sister of Darkness, Lili vividly describes her own early journey, from her childhood on Zakynthos to the beginnings of her career in Athens and her acquaintance with such figures as Menelaos Loudemis and Tasos Athanassiades. She takes us with her through her first, difficult years in America to her dramatic self-liberation and the beginning of her new life. This would include her close relationship with Anais Nin, whose work she was the first to translate into Greek.
It is as a poet, however, that Lili is most renowned. In her verse she celebrates an essential Eros, whose meaning for her is both sensuality and struggle, the embrace of life in all its dimensions. At the same time, she exhibits great tenderness and compassion, the virtues of agape. Her work continues, and her message spreads. Her family surrounds her, her husband Robert, her son Kimon, her daughter-in-law Theresa, and his granddaughter, Athena.
It is perhaps the figure of Antigone who is closest to the values Lili represents: conviction, ardor, and a refusal to yield on any level to injustice and oppression. She is a figure of inspiration to men and women alike, and she lends strength to all of us.