2. ENGAGEMENT POURQUOI FAIRE ?
Commitment to which end?
I started reading as a kid for pleasure and that later led me to express my feelings and thoughts in keeping diaries. Those diaries were of course very personal and were kept hidden in school notebooks but I never thought it included some elements of literature. I had never heard the word literature before. Later on during the secondary school it was deployed while reading texts by mainly Greek authors.
It seemed to me that literature contained both a personal expression of the world seen through my eyes as well as an explanation through other people’s similar interpretations. I also realized that literature which is defined as a nice and well written activity, is not used strictly to communicate in one’s daily life but also as a tool to define one’s position within the community. Literature had always to do with literacy so growing up in a village, reading and writing more than others gave me a strength to face reality or avoid it.
Having finished my six -years- secondary education during the military dictatorship in Greece (1967-74) I wondered why writers and books were censored. Poets such as Constantine Cavafy were adapted according to the constitutional morals, while others were never taught (Seferis, the Nobelist) and famous Greek writers were on exile. I got my first lesson of exclusion during my school years, a lesson not taught in class that literature, texts and books are always a threat to the power and weak democracies.
When the seven years military dictatorship collapsed in 1974, I rediscovered those forbidden texts and I dived on them. I somehow became a writer by reading them and trying to imitate them. It took me fifteen years to publish my first book. I never heard the word «commitment» before but it already defined my author’s attitude.
I continued writing for my own pleasure but now I knew that someone else was out there whom I could not ignore: the reader and furthermore the society. There was a constant dialogue between me and the unknown reader. Since my books tended towards him, towards an unknown audience, I also felt some sort of commitment. My words were not kept in drawers, they were put onto the shelves of the bookshops. I do not mean that I was censoring my thinking but I missed those careless moments when I was writing alone in my room, unsuspicious of the role those texts might play into a social context.
As a result I felt committed to my work and also committed to my role as flourished through my world of writing. I was producing texts not only for a personal escape but having in mind that those texts were something like a bridge to a larger crowd. That fascinated me: this exchange of ideas, the exposure of one’s self and the possibility of transforming ideas. This second commitment finally establishes the writer’s image in the public. But one had to be careful. An author should never preach. Even in a tale with a moral or philosophical purpose an author should never be seen to preach. Otherwise the narrators or characters are used as doctrinal mouthpieces.
At the beginning the topic of our meeting puzzled me. There has always been a slight difference between the words «commitment» and «engagement» especially when the word comes to be a noun in both languages, («committed» or «engagé») , and then, ascribing them in Greek it also means a writer on the front, working for idealistic reasons, trying to attract and conceal ideology at the same moment, not to add its worst appliance as that of a propagandist.
My first novel, in 1990, was a story about a village in the north. This was the first and last time I wrote an allegorical story. I was influenced by the small religious minority on the borders where I was teaching but I avoided naming them. I was not trying to impeach anything, I was trying to involve readers in an adventurous expedition while pointing to our co-existence with other ethnic or religious minorities. This tendency would form the basis for my later novels and was easily depicted by some critics and readers as «identity politics».
I wrote stories and novels by describing things I used to know or heard from my parents and grandparents, especially from my grandfather Theodoros who was a refugee from Turkey after the 1919-1922 war between Greece and Turkey. My stories took place in the areas I was residing, in northern Greece and nearby places, next to the borders with Turkey and other Balkan countries. Greece seems to be surrounded by an open sea, especially when you live in Athens or in the islands, but when you travel north you realize that you are fenced in by borders with four other countries. I narrated those stories not to challenge any ethnicity conflicts but for speculating on the importance of crossing ethnic, linguistic and cultural boundaries.
Hence northern Greece became my familiar territory in the following novels as well. Family stories, agricultural communities in decadence, the reformation of our country while entering the European Community. Truly I had always a plan in my mind, to be on the point, to catch the changes of a new area but I was trying to follow the literary rules to reshape it. I placed my stories in that context, paying attention to the language and other literary and narrative elements. I meant to be political on a general democratic scale, on that of the freedom of expression, the rights of citizens, the social exclusiveness.
It turned out that, whenever I was invited to literature meetings I had already the stigma or characterization of a northern Greek writer especially while attending conferences in other Balkan countries. In the early nineties neighboring territories like Serbia and Kosovo experienced the flames of war. We were asked to intervene with our writing, with declarations, to become the bridges between the nations, to explain and propose peaceful solutions. In the beginning I felt perplexed by what they asked from me. But –at the same time– it calmed me down since my intervention was based on the readings of my work. Those ideas were textually embodied.
In 1998 I wrote a historical novel, The waters of the peninsula. It took place during the last years of the collapsing Ottoman Empire in 1906. The story followed the route of three travelers of different ethnicity and religion. They travelled through (Ottoman, at that time) Greece and Bulgaria towards Istanbul. Though it did not ignore war and violence, the novel highlights the deep bonds among the people in the Balkan Peninsula, which could be seen as a metaphor for the present situation.
This novel was highly welcomed in conferences abroad. It is still read in Universities abroad as a piece of work might be as a paradigm of a cultural reading of the past and of the reassessment of it. My deeper intention was to travel into the past, in the same areas I still lived then, but I never meant to write an epic reconstruction of history. History and literature are discourses which construct rather than reflect, invent rather than discover, the past. But at the time political turmoil in the Balkans somehow had affected me.
Since 2000 my work is focused on issues of sexual identities, immigration and finally the Greek economic crisis.
Let me display them one by one very briefly. Partali, my only novel translated into French, described the parallel lives of a post junta generation in 1974 and of a middle aged cross dresser condemned by the society. The novel showed how both micro histories coexist intending or prophesying the years to come since that generation has now grown up and governs in my country.
The novel Alouza, one thousand plus one lovers, in 2005, tells the story of an Arab Greek woman and her travels in real present time and history. Through her I looked for the ancient bonds between Greece and the Middle East, provocatively highlighting the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern side of Athens.
Back in that day immigrants and political refugees from the Middle East were crowding the city and the Neo Nazi party was trying to strengthen its position. The novel contained ideology but the novel was also fun, never losing its narrative colorfulness. One of my heroes in the novel was a Tunisian historian who later gets married to a Greek woman and brings her back to his country. I suppose they are still happy… (It’s only fiction). The book was sold to Egypt four years ago but it has not been published yet.
When the Greek economic crisis erupted in 2009 I had already been thinking of writing a novel about a middle aged woman facing her loneliness and sexual isolation. That was an older idea which unavoidably was adjusted to the new political and social data. Critics declared it –The secret of Elli– as the best novel ever written on the economic crisis years.
I was always afraid of committed/engaged literature but the novel was considered as a low profile narration, with a social context but without slogans or propaganda. I think crisis and narration, fiction and literature coincided into something I dare say might be called my commitment to literature. An author can never be neutral or disinterested aiming to a balance between artistic intentions and fictionalization of social issues.