Greek author Alki Zei has helped countless generations of Greek children understand some aspects of life that are difficult to comprehend — neglect, drug addiction, war, poverty, fascism, and racism — preparing them for the realities of the world with tenderness and great optimism.
Her works, particularly “Wildcat Under Glass” and “Petros’ War,” have been long been a part of the Greek curriculum and are beloved works of Greek children’s fiction.
She is considered one of the best modern Greek authors, especially of children’s literature, and her works have been translated into over 30 languages.
Alki Zei’s life on Samos and under Nazi Occupation
She was born Angeliki Zei in Samos, an island located in the eastern Aegean Sea, in 1923.
Her father worked in a bank and was raised on Crete, although his family’s roots were from the island of Andros. Zei’s mother was from Samos, but spent much of her life in Smyrna, now Izmir, in Asia Minor.
Zei spent her childhood years on the island of Samos with her older sister while her mother spent many years recovering from a recurrent bout of tuberculosis in a sanatorium on Mount Parnitha, in Attica.
The entire family moved to Athens in 1937, and the writer began to attend the Ionios School, where she met and befriended Georges Sari, who would also go on to become a beloved writer of children’s books.
Throughout her youth, Zei was drawn to writing and storytelling. She wrote may plays and stories that were put on in her school and at home.
Zei’s connections to the literary world deepened when her uncle married Dido Sotiriou, Greek journalist and author, who went to guide the young author toward a writing career.
As her passion for writing blossomed, the threat of the Nazi occupation loomed over Greece.
When the Nazi’s invaded and occupied part of the country in 1941, an 18-year-old Zei joined the Youth Wing of the National Liberation Front, or the Greek resistance group against the Nazis.
At the same time, the writer studied the philosophy of theater at the University of Athens and acting at the drama school of the Athens Conservatoire.
She met her future husband Giorgos Sevastikoglou, a playwright, around the time that she graduated from the Athens Conservatoire in 1943.
Escape to the Soviet Union
Both leftists, the couple tried to escape Greece after the Communist forces lost the Greek Civil War in 1949. Zei’s husband fled to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, then part of the Soviet Union, and the author tried to follow him afterward.
Before her escape, Zei was arrested and exiled to the Greek island of Chios for her political beliefs.
After six years apart, the author finally joined her husband in Tashkent in 1954. One year after the birth of their first child Eirini in 1956, the couple moved to Moscow, where they had a son Petros two years later.
At the time, Moscow had become a center for Greek artists and intellectuals fleeing the country.
While in Russia, Zei studied script writing at the Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, the oldest film school in the world.
Longing to return to Greece after the political turmoil following the Civil War ended, Zei and her family moved back to Greece in 1964.
Yet their time in the country was short-lived, as they fled to Paris just three years later when the Junta, or right-wing military dictatorship, took power in Greece.
Under the Junta, artists, writers, musicians, and leftists were all targeted and often tortured, imprisoned, and exiled.
Zei waited until the dictatorship fell in 1974 to return to Greece, where she remained for the rest of her life. She passed away in 2020 at the age of 94.
Alki Zei revolutionized genre of children’s literature in Greece
“The Wildcat Under Glass,” which tells the story of two young girls living on a Greek island, was Zei’s first novel. Written in 1963, the story is semi-autobiographical and is based on Zei’s childhood with her sister on Samos.
The book is considered a classic of children’s literature, and is widely read across the country. Many consider it to be one of the first Greek children’s books with references to political events, as the story takes place under the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas.
The story is beloved for its ability to handle difficult, more mature subjects in a way that children can understand. It was later made into a television show.
“Petros’ War,” which tells the story of Greece under the Nazi occupation and the country’s liberation, was written in 1971 while Zei was still exiled in Paris.
The book tells not only the story of Greece under the Nazis, but also narrates the life of the protagonist Petros, who is a young boy, with stunning authenticity.
Zei revolutionized the genre of children’s books in Greece, which previously did not include social and political themes such as war and life under a dictator.
The Greek author wrote works that did not try to hide the difficult and unpleasant aspects of life from children, but prepared them for the world with kindness and compassion.
After publishing many books for young children and teenagers, Zei wrote her first book for adults, “Achilles’ Fiancee,” in 1987.
Her book “Tina’s Web,” which tells the story of a teen girl struggling and falling into the world of drugs, won an award for the best book for teenagers from the Greek department of the International Board on Books for Young People in 2003.
The following year, Zei was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Literature.
For her great contribution to the genre of children’s literature in Greece, Zei was honored by the Academy of Athens in 2010, and she received an honorary doctorate from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki four years later.