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Generation G

This is an initiative of the C.P. Cavafy Professorship to create a video series of interviews with creative people who self identify as Greek, and who are working to make a difference in the world. Conversations will center on their work and broader thinking about their work and place in society today. The project is a joint venture of Professor Artemis Leontis and journalist Giota Tachtara, and it incorporates audience questions in anticipation of the video interviews. Please join in the conversation with Generation G!

Phoebe Giannisi, Poet and Artist

Born in Athens, Phoebe Giannisi is a poet and professor of Architecture at the University of Thessaly and the author of 8 books of poetry and a book on architecture. She holds degrees in Architecture, Philosophy, and a PhD in Classics. Her poetry moves between word, performance, and installation and investigates the connections of poetics with body and place. Giannisi has published 2 books in English, both translated by Brian Sneeden: Homerica (World Poetry Books: 2017) and recently, Cicada (New Directions: 2022).

 

1. What is the smallest, or the biggest, or the quietest, or the loudest thing that has inspired you?

The smallest thing is not a thing, it is a tiny insect with a big voice: the cicada. The biggest: the sea and the sky.

 

2. Is it hard to give voice to animals and plants?

I am trying to create a voice of mediation through what we share with animals and plants, meaning life and its music. Alcman was proud of knowing the melodies and songs (nomoi) of all the birds. And nomoi as a word keeps inside the meaning of the song together with its primal meaning of sharing (nemein). Gregory Nagy interprets Penelope’s song of the nightingale in the Odyssey as a variation in imitation of the previous poet/performer’s song, that was imitating on its turn the bird’s song. So perhaps I am simply in a lineage of poets that try to find a way to give voice to the others by also responding to the ones that were singing before. 

The other way to write on animals and plants is to try to follow biology and science, to approach them by looking at them, by description, by the scientific knowledge and observation, by out-lining them. We could name these two approaches, in case we admit to simplify, as the internal and the external one, the one from the inside, the visceral and musical one, and the one from the outside, the visual one, the horizontal and the perpendicular. Whether this second approach incorporates questions of sovereignty, to the extent that it implies categorizations and hierarchies, is under discussion. That’s why I am trying to follow the chimeric path of freedom, the one that oscillates between different ways and voices by constantly borrowing and inventing.

 

3. Name a piece of music in your poetry. 

From Markos Vamvakaris’ song “Atakti” to Archive’s “Sense of Blood” and from Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” to Vlach or demotic (folk) songs of Greece, I always incorporate music in the form of songs within my poetry, in the same way I also incorporate other kinds of bits and pieces. The aim is to put inside what moves me, the unspoken music of the land and weather, animal voices, bells and wind and the roaring of the sea.

 

4. What about Rebetika, a major genre of Greek music that you were asked to comment on in the “Rebetika” exhibit organized by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports https://www.lifo.gr/culture/eikastika/rempetiko-mia-xenagisi-stin-proti-megali-ekthesi-toy-2022. Where are Rebetika songs on your literary-musical-cultural horizon?

Rebetika songs have influenced many Greek composers of the 20th century and are a pure poetry form that dwells inside my tongue. I am singing them day and night. They were made by a minority of very poor but free people, often chased by the authorities for non-legal activities, outcasts of the society. In their music and songs, Rebetes expressed their own feelings about their specific way of life, such as their experience with hashish smoking, or being arrested by the police, as also feelings and experiences shared by everybody such as love or poverty. Their words and rhythms and melodies are part of my sentimental memory.

For the exhibition on Rebetika I created an installation (“To Hasapaki,” “The Butcher Boy”: a sound-work, an embroidered apron, and an archive of photos) on Markos Vamvakaris, perhaps the most influential rembetika composer and singer ever. Markos, who wrote his most important songs from the 1930s to the 1940s, had been working for several years as a butcher (hasapis) in order to survive, and quit the job after an incident of an animal killing upset him radically. Markos was fond of animals of every kind, and this contradiction is very crucial for me. Because the songs Markos created on the subject of the butcher are songs of love, the implied aspect of my installation is the connection of the hasapis profession to poetics: there is a whole class of songs (hasapika) related to one of the two important dances of rebetika, hasapikos, a collective dance initially performed by the guild of the butchers in Istanbul.

Love and death are constantly tied in poetry.

 

5. What does it take, how does it feel as you move from simply reading to performing your poetry?

My poetry tends to be rhythmic from the moment I write it, but without a strict system of metric and rhyming. Even if one reads it silently, the rhythm exists inside, and this is the most important part of the performance. 

During the performance I tend to use some props of mine, items that I have introduced through the years, reading objects that I have constructed for that purpose, or others that help to change my status to a performing one, but always through very simple gestures. The whole approach has to do either with the invention and the shape of the reading object, or with the history of the media of poetic performance, or with the subject of the poems. Thus I can use a wearable inscribed parchment made out of leather, a woven basket or a bell. To this I can also add sound and visual material, such as sound or video recordings or manuscripts that I have made.

 

6. Among your inspirations you name Matzi Hatzilazarou. Who are the obscure or undiscovered Greek women poets that we must absolutely pay attention to? 

Matsi Hatzilazarou is one of the more erotic world female voices that needs to be discovered, she has been a major inspiration for me. Also Melpo Axioti as well, a communist prose writer and a poet exiled from Greece almost for her whole life, a modernist voice that speaks about the self, memory, but also her native land, Mykonos island, and its inhabitants, when it was the land of sailors and the extremely poor, reminiscent of Bunuel’s “Land without Bread''—before it became what we know today. 

To these I would add Mando Aravantinou, a very sophisticated modernist poet who was also a James Joyce scholar. And of course Eleni Vakalo. Recently in the English language, the koine of our times, we have more and more translations of the work of such poets and other female writers: I want to mention here the translation of Vakalo’s work by Karen Emmerich, or the translation of Karen van Dyck of Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, another poet who died recently, or of Margarita Lymperaki. The work of translation is very important but the critical work on the translations is important as well, in order to make the voice heard.

Greeks live and publish in a country of the Global South. Even if Greek poetry has always been contemporary and in the avant-garde position, producing works of great quality, equal to the others of the dominant languages, it has not found the place it merits in its complexity, except the two Nobel prizes of George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. Inside Greece, female poets are the South of the South. Even poets such as the ones mentioned above, or the poets of my generation, have never had the position of their male colleagues. We are in need of an urgent change of the situation.  

 

7. You have written 8 books of poetry, a book on architecture, and much work on other forms. Every project requires a deep dive into a new subject, place, language, and form of creative expression. How do you move from one project to the next? What carries over and what do you leave behind?

I see all my work as a continuum from one project to the other, because the projects form part of my life. I am moved by my research questions followed by my personal experiences and feelings. And as I move through life I am inspired and renewed by the voices of others, the real others that I encounter, humans and non-humans.

My projects are partly bibliographical research but also ethnographic in situ research that I transform into poetry because it transforms me. The subjects are relative always to a twisted and oblique ancient Greek world and to the way we can understand today questions that have to do with land, place and voice and we find inside ancient Greek poetry.

I started my approach to the land and its poetics by my PhD (published as Récits des voies. Chants et cheminement en Grèce archaïque, Éditions Jérôme Millon: 2006). I approach the projects by delving into the words and their past, having as background one of the big presents of my life, my doctoral studies in the Centre Louis Gernet in Paris, meeting the wisest and most inspiring persons such as Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, Jesper Svenbro, and getting in touch with their work and their way of thinking,.

So my work has to do with life and questions originated from that period which evolved therefore in my own way: Homerica has to do with the myths about the Thessalian landscape that surrounds me where I live, Tettix and Cicada with the music of the cicadas and their ancient Greek reception as poets, Chimera with goats as musical animals related to tragic poetry, but also questions regarding nomadism as way of perceiving the land or issues of power regarding gender, ethnic groups, and the species.

 

8. You are a founding member of the marvelous literary journal [φρμκν], an important gathering point of writers and performers in Greece today. Why is the cooperative formation of groups and collectivities important for writers and artists?

Writers and artists have an absolute need to address and to discuss dialogically. We need to be free in our work, but also we need others that are close to us possessing at the same time that difference that can inspire us. We need their eye and heart following what we are doing, their deep understanding of our aims and steps and their critical eye and ear. We need an environment of dialogic encounters, and friendship, it is our breath. We also need the collective work and effort in order to achieve bigger things: the journal [φρμκ] is the product of the collective intellect of some of the most important poets of today in Greece (let’s mention the names of Orfeas Apergis, Iana Bukova, Theodoris Chiotis, Panagiotis Ioannidis, and the numerous others that are contributing in each volume) .

The specific amount and quality of the work could never be the outcome of one person, and it is constitutionally polyphonic—even if it is also a fact that without the devotion and enthusiasm of the poet Katerina Iliopoulou who runs it, the journal [φρμκ] may have ceased to exist. To complete the picture: in Greece there is a complete lack of resources for contemporary artistic work coming from public institutions—the journal [fmk] is produced without any financial aid. We are alone and only collectivities that we create contribute to our survival. Not to mention the years of financial crisis, followed by the Covid crisis years, that urged people to come together also as a kind of reaction to the social situation. 

 

9. What does the name Vakalo mean to you?

I love and I am inspired by Eleni Vakalo’s poetry. Eleni Vakalo was part of the artistic intelligentsia of her time, an art critic and a founder of a private Art School that still exists and has an important role in educating young artists of various disciplines. Adding to that she was one of the most important poets of the Greek 20th century, starting her career in the midst of the 20th century till the end of it. Her Plants Upbringing, or her Genealogy were poems that were putting in contact the human with the non-human with absolute priority to the second, and they were thus totally avant-garde, in a way that only today we can understand them in their full spectrum. She had a very sophisticated but also delicate and tender way to expose the mystic aspect of a life other than ours. Fortunately her work has gained the attention it merited through Karen Emmerich’s translation and publication by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2018.

 

10. What would you like your American audience to know about you?

That I am a Chimera, an hybrid being, artist, poet, female, mother, and what I create is also chimeric, incorporating other texts and materialities, other voices, various species and various kinds of research and language and feelings, through various kinds of media. But Chimera was a terrifying monster—and I am not sure whether I want to be like this or whether I simply want to be loved.

Christos Ikonomou, Writer

Christos Ikonomou

Realistic Stories and Surreal Tales of Crisis, Nostalgia, and the Sea

March 5, 2021

Writer Christos Ikonomou talks with Giota Tachtara and Artemis Leontis about why Greek writers need to communicate beyond Greek borders, what Greek books everyone should read, how he writes, how he reads, stereotypes, new trends in writing, his support system—and everything in between. A deep reader and careful observer, he’s funny when he’s most serious and honest when giving advice to aspiring writers. He’s also working on something exciting right now. The taped interview is in Greek—uncut and untouched—with the translated text of Christos Ikonomou’s own words below.

Christos Ikonomou is an internationally known short story writer and playwright whose work is integrally connected with people’s need to tell stories to confirm their existence. The work aspires to go beyond the walls of language and ethnicity: “I don’t want to write just about Greeks and Greece. I am trying to write about human beings, what it means to be human, what it means to try to be human in an inhuman environment.” Κάτι θα γίνει, θα δεις (Something Will Happen, You’ll See, 2010), a collection of 16 interconnected stories translated into many languages, conveys the plight of people living through waves of an ongoing crisis. It was awarded the National Prize of Literature in Greece and the Prix Littéraire des jeunes Européens. Το καλό θα ‘ρθει απ’ τη θάλασσα (Good Will Come from the Sea, 2014), was awarded the Le Point magazine’s Coup de Coeur Award for the French translation. His first book is Η γυναίκα στα κάγκελα (Woman on the Rails, 2003), and his most recent is Οι κόρες του Ηφαιστείου (The Daughters of the Volcano) in 2017. His play “The Siege of Elusia” was staged in 2020 as part of the Creative Europe program of the European Union. Translated into twelve languages, his work has appeared in Greek and international anthologies such as the Best European Fiction 2019 and adapted into several feature films and plays.

Giota Tachtara has been writing for women’s magazines, newspapers and websites since 2002. She was trained in Greece and in the US and has a MA in Print and Broadcast Journalism from UCLA. Fluent in Greek and English she has also studied Turkish and lived for a year in Istanbul. Her monthly column in VOGUE Greece explores feminism, style, inspiration and women’s everyday lives through her generation's nostalgic optimism for the future that is still yet to come.

Click here for full interview

Christos Ikonomou - Interview in English Translation

The new PEN Greece*

(*PEN is an international association of writers founded in 1921 in London and working worldwide to promote cooperation among writers everywhere, to celebrate literature, defend free expression, protect writers at risk, support writers in exile. The association has autonomous International PEN centers in over 100 countries. PEN Greece was created just this year.)

—We started the initiative to create PEN Greece almost two years ago. We did this because, first of all, Greece was one of the few countries in the world and one of the two or three countries in Europe that didn’t have a local PEN. And I thought (as did others in a small group who took the initiative) that this huge gap had to be filled. There was no local branch of this very important international organization in the field of literature and the protection of freedom of expression and exchange of ideas. That was almost two years ago. We were seven or eight people who took on the whole initiative as a team. It took effort. The pandemic hit in the meantime, and we had to communicate with PEN International in London, but, thank God, everything went well. There has been lots of interest in Greece from many writers, publishers, poets, literary critics. Three months ago, we got the final approval from the international conference of PEN International and now we are basically in the stage of working out a few crucial ideas and important things we want to do in three levels. Our first goal is to become extraverted: to promote Greek literature outside Greece. This is an area that is lacking, a big gap. We want to open communication channels between Greek writers and their counterparts all over the world. This is one of the most important matters. Second we want to work inside Greece to reinforce book distribution not just of literature but generally of book reading on a national level. And third, we want to take initiatives and actions regarding the second basic pillar of PEN: the protection and promotion of freedom of expression, free speech and ideas. These are the three spearheads so to speak, that we want to work on. There’s already interest from many people and fields. We hope to manage in a short time—if the circumstances allow—to open it up to lots of people. One of PEN’s strongest assets is that it doesn’t just appeal to professionals in the industry but to everyone who loves books, who is interested in all this, so we have a big field to work on.

If you are looking to connect with PEN Greece, there are already some communication channels through social media. We’re on Facebook, Twitter and we’re in the process of creating a website, so all this material is available, but we can be in touch to give you all the info.

 

Writing after a pandemic: How will it leave it’s mark? How will we reach out again?

—One thing that we should take into consideration. History has shown that while a crisis is a bad thing, equally serious, unpleasant, and difficult things happen afterwards—“in the aftermath” as you say, right? The results of the crisis in most cases are equally determining as the crisis itself. So, one of the things we’ll have to see is the results of the crisis when—we all hope—things start to get better. I’m not a prophet or a fortune-teller, but what I see is that there will be a huge impact especially on younger people. Lots of people, young people, teenagers have missed out on very important things that for us, the older ones, were given. We took it as granted that you could go outside with your friends to hang out, fall in love, and come in contact with people. Now these things don’t exist, or they happen under very unusual conditions. I don’t think these circumstances will pass without leaving their mark—on young people and on all of us.

But, concerning me personally, since I started writing, I never thought of writing in any other way except to try and talk to someone else. Thus I was never focused on the self-referential piece. When I write, I imagine in my head that there’s someone else in front of me and they’re listening to a story. I don’t know who they are, but there’s somebody. So, the “echo” never interested me: the echo of my voice only in my head. I never struggled with it before, and I think I don’t have a problem communicating now. This is how it is. Art, not just literature, art is all about extroversion. This is how I see it. You’re always trying to communicate with someone else, to get outside of yourself, become something else, go somewhere else, do something else. If you don’t reach out, if you don’t extend your hand, to build a communication bridge, I don’t see why anyone would go to the trouble to follow what you are doing.

 

Advice for young writers

—The first thing you have to do is read. And I’m saying this because it happens that the last few years I’ve taken up the teaching part of writing, creative writing classes and all, and one thing that is very discouraging is that I keep running into many young people who say that they want to write, but they haven’t read enough. This is not how it works. It’s not possible to say that you want to start writing in earnest, if the results of reading haven’t settled inside you. If reading hasn’t become second nature. It’s not possible. No matter how talented you are. Talent is the spark. To turn this spark into fire needs work. And the work, apart from writing, is reading. Often in young people I see the ambition and maybe the talent; but this won’t take you very far if you haven’t read—no matter how talented you are. This is my personal opinion. So the first thing that someone who wants to get into writing seriously has to do—especially young people who have more time—is to build the strongest possible foundations in reading. This is number one.

Number two is hard work. I don’t get people who think that writing is a conversation with the muse and suddenly you get the inspiration. To me, for better or worse, this never happened. It takes work, it takes calluses on your fingers and elsewhere, it takes dedication, devotion, it takes pouring your soul into the paper. I’m talking simply now so we can communicate. The rest are practical matters: how you start showing your work, and the rest. There are no general rules there, everyone goes about it differently. Some people love sharing their work before it’s published. Others don’t—among them myself. The most crucial thing is to read, work hard, and, what I said before, try to communicate. I don’t know if it’s possible to acquire this or not, or if you need to have it inside you to begin with. But to want to talk to other people, not just to give your opinion on the world. I hope what I’m saying is clear.

 

What he gives his students to read

—I give (to my students) lots of things to read. Some are bothered because they think that they’re here to write and when I explain again that in order to write you have to read some basic things. For example, Papadiamantis. I don’t care about personal preference. When you want to work seriously on these things, the subjective is always important, the “taste” as we call it, but there’s no way, kids, to write a short story in Greek without having read Papadiamantis. It can’t be done. It’s like an American trying to write a short story without having read Ray Carver, without having read Flannery O’Connor, without having read James Faulkner. It can’t be done. Whether you actually like Carver or O’Connor, or Hemingway, that’s another story. You still just have to read them, period. Would it be possible to learn how to play electric guitar without listening to Jimi Hendrix? Whether you like Hendrix or not is a side issue. You have to do it. You have to listen to him. You can’t work on Greek poetry if you have never read Cavafy. It just can’t happen. Right? Whether I like Cavafy or not is a different issue.

Imagine that you’re telling a story to someone. You have to give that person a face. You want them to be a presence in the room. Think that you’re in a dark room and there’s someone whose face you can’t make out, but they can hear you. It’s important to understand that there’s a different way to talk when someone is listening than when no one is.

 

Five Greek books that everyone should read

First, if someone wants to get an idea of Greek literature, you have to read Papadiamantis. I always assign my students to read Papadiamantis, most of them go into it with this idea, you know (that his archaizing, purist “katharevousa” will be hard to understand); but if you sit down and read his books, Papadiamantis is actually a very easy writer to follow, as far as the language is concerned. If you pay some attention, right? His language is not prohibitive. Unless you go into the text biased. Then you’ve already convinced yourself that you won’t like it because it’s old, purist Greek. But if you make the effort, it might be a little strange at first; but reading is not always an easy endeavor, sometimes it takes some hard work. Let’s not expect everything on a silver platter. The reader has to work too. So I think Papadiamantis is one of the thresholds you have to cross when you want to enter Greek literature.

The second book I would recommend is the Mission Box (Kivotio) by Aris Alexandrou. I think it is one of the three or four truly universal novels written in the Greek language. It’s been translated in English (it may be hard to find). I would add Kazantzakis to the list. He’s a whole world of his own. Along with Papadiamantis, he is one of the most misread Greek writers. To me, Kazantzakis was a great novelist, and a great master of the word, and very good at telling a story —beyond everything else that he has been accused of at different times. Captain Michalis (Freedom and Death) is for me one of the books that deeply affected me—since I read it at a very young age—I have it right here, and once a year I’ll sit down and start reading it again as a whole or in excerpts. To me, Kazantzakis is a big part of modern Greek literature. Whether you like him or not, you just can’t overlook him.

Let’s see, who else? From the younger writers, Sophia Nikolaidou. Her short stories are closer to me. She is a contemporary Greek writer, very restless, who does a great job with both the research and the fiction, she handles it very well. Her work has lots of variety. I really value and follow her work.

Who else? I can think of lots of women writers, among younger ages we have lots of prominent short story writers, novelists too. Can I say two or three names? Ioanna Bourazopoulou; I also suggest Sotiris Dimitriou is a very interesting writer—both his short stories and his novels. And one of my favorite books is Zyrrana Zateli’s Last Year’s Fiancé.

And I don’t do well with lists; but I understand that they have their practical usefulness, especially when you address people who don’t have a close connection to Greek literature—especially contemporary Greek literature.

 

How does an American audience read his books?

—From what I can understand—since I’ve done two book tours in the United States quite recently, and I came in touch with readers in bookstores, which is so lively—I think that my books present (at least to the American audience, although it’s something I’ve seen in Europe as well), they paint a picture of Greece that is unknown to them. Because of the usual stereotypes of Greece. So, I think this interests them. And the second thing that I’ve heard many times during the visits and discussions in America is that lots of people told me that they find in my work a directness, an intimate, direct feeling, that seems to resonate with them. It speaks to them. It says something. It might be the way I write but also—if I may speak as the reader now—it’s one of the things that define my work: this directness, the fact that you read things that really talk to you. So, this is something that’s close to the American reading mentality. Because one of the things I really appreciate about the part of American literature that I’ve been following (there are other parts that I’m not following), one of the things that is very appealing is this exactly, that you go straight to the essence of the story. You don’t go round, you don’t beat around the bush. You dive into the essence of things. And I’m very interested in this, and—I’ll say it again—it’s one of the things that can attract an American reader.

To try to create, to show the threads, the fibers that can connect either a whole literary tradition or specific books and writers with people who are outside their cultural environment. This is very important. But I think this is peculiar to, it’s a characteristic of literature worth reading, of quality literature wherever it’s being written, by whomever it’s being written, whenever it has been written. Personally, to speak for myself, I do have a certain inclination to American writers. A big part of my reading comes from American writers, men and women, older and contemporary. This is something that, to me, is the best example of how literature can act as a bridge between different cultural spaces. I’ve been to America, I speak English, I follow American current affairs, but of course I’m not American: I haven’t spent big parts of my life there and all the experiences I have are mostly second-hand. But this doesn’t block me, on the contrary it enriches my own glance at the world: the fact that I discover things that are universal. Things that you don’t have to be an American man or woman, to live in Michigan or Florida or Seattle to experience and feel. I know that this might have been said thousands of times before, but this is the essence. And now we circle back to the issue of extroversion. We write without thinking that we are addressing only Greek men or women, or only Canadians, only Americans. And those books that I mentioned earlier, and more that I could have listed, are books that have this kind of extroversion. Aris Alexandrou’s Mission Box is a book that you can understand whether you’re American or Russian or Chinese or you’ve actually lived through the events of that time or you know something about the events of the Greek civil war. These are just additional things; the essence of the book, the struggle of a human being and the agony, the devastation, the pain this human being feels when everything they have believed in is betrayed in the end—this is a universal human thing. The pain of betrayal, of disillusionment is not Greek or American. It’s human. It’s in human nature. So, to me this is literature that’s worth writing and reading.

 

How Something Will Happen, You’ll See “discovered” the Greek crisis, and what he’s writing next

— I’m always working on something, I’m always writing something, even now that we’re talking I’m

writing in my head. Well…  I’ve had this conversation many times, it sounds a little strange to me when people present me like someone who discovered something that existed and the rest didn’t notice. I think that this is what all the writers who are serious about their work are trying to do: to talk not only about things that are unknown but also about things known to all of us that we avoid talking about. So it’s not like I’m doing this on purpose, like I have an agenda; but when I’m writing, I want to discover something along with the reader through my writing. Because if I don’t discover anything when I’m writing, most probably the reader won’t discover anything new while reading the book. I always have this in mind, and this is what I’ve tried to do in all of my books. I’m not interested in repeating myself. When the book Something Will Happen, You’ll See came out, lots of people expected the next book to be, “Something will happen, you’ll see, part 2,” and the next one, “Something will happen you’ll see, part 3.” This is not how I work. I try to broaden my horizons. I try to enter new territory. And of course I try to take risks. Writing, making art, working on creative things involves great risk. You have to take your chances and move on, avoid repeating yourself, try to step into new places. So, yes, right now I’m trying myself to step into new territory, but it’s still early and I’ll have to see where this takes me. Let’s not forget that everything that’s going on around us, for a writer, you know, you can’t just approach it as a journalist, you can’t approach it with a sense of the ephemeral, you have to try and see beyond it. These things take time, at least they take time in my case.

See here, I have promised that Good Will Come from the Sea is the first part of a trilogy. So I’ve promised now that I’ll do the second part of the trilogy, and this is one of the things I have on my mind. I always work with three or four books at the same time in my head. The books that I publish are books that I’ve written in my head years ago. And this is why the book Something Will Happen, You’ll See that came out with the crisis, I said, guys, I was writing it several years ago in my head. Of course every time I make the necessary adjustments. The next three or four books I have already in my mind. So, I have this loose end, the second part of the trilogy, and it will take me some time. And I’m also tied up with everything else now, PEN, and writing classes, teaching and everything, and they’re all time-consuming. Especially for someone like me who writes slowly, I write very slowly because I have to believe in what I’m writing, since if I don’t believe in it myself, nobody will, so you know, I’m trying to see what I’m going to do with my time. But in general I write slowly.

 

On humor and serious literature

—If is one of the biggest compliments that anyone can give me, to tell me that they read something I wrote and it made them laugh. Here in Greece, unfortunately, we have been suffering many years now from trying to appear serious. It’s a different thing trying to appear serious and another being serious. And about humor. You can say many very serious things in a humoristic way. Not belittling them, or compromising, or making fun of then. To me, real, authentic, pure humor incorporates an element of pain. Because humor, in its most authentic form, is the reaction of a person who has realized that life doesn’t give a damn about their opinion. Life goes on no matter what you might be thinking about it yourself. So, humor is a vital element. And one of the things that unfortunately I think everyone who has any contact with contemporary Greek literature would agree on is exactly the absence of humor. You see texts that their only shades of color are black, deep black, absolute black. You can shed some light into all this and it will stay black. And you know, if you have the light, it makes black shine even better. Humor, to me, is an element of light. It’s not just a trick. However, there are many people (not just in Greece, but in Greece it’s the rule) who regard humor as something that doesn’t go well with “serious literature.” I’m the opposite in all dimensions, absolute, completely, all.

 

Keeping up with the changes around him

—I don’t know how others handle it. I always try—and have tried since I started writing—to have my eyes and ears open to what is happening around me. One piece of literature, one leg, so to speak, has to stand firmly in what we call living reality: what’s happening around us. Perhaps it’s my journalism background, but I always try to keep this in mind, to look out of the window and not just at the paper when I’m writing. I need to be in touch with what is happening outside. This is one of the most important things. And the second is to give myself time. Because, as you rightly said, in Greece (and not just Greece, it’s true everywhere, but Greece is a small country where much has been happening the last few years) there are big rearrangements. Things are going on beneath the surface that are not always visible, and they need time to come up. It’s like tectonic plates, they need time to cause (touch wood) an earthquake. It takes all these preparations and then the earthquake happens. So you have to keep your eyes and ears open and to give yourself time to see what will happen. Right now there are many voices, many trends, many dynamics, many counterbalancing things, due to the major crisis we’re experiencing now but also the previous one. We have gone through two crises one after the other. To repeat myself, you have to keep an eye on what’s going on and to give yourself time to absorb everything and then turn them into stories. Because this is our work, right? We give a face to the impersonal. This is what literature does. Literature sheds light into darkness, it gives a face to faceless forces. We’re talking about political conflict, class conflict, poverty—these are faceless situations that pass from view. My job as a writer is to take all of these faceless forces and give them a face. This is what I’m trying to do.

 

New writing trends in his classes

—There are two or three things that I’ve noticed that are not very encouraging. However, I don’t want to generalize either, because, you know, the way creative writing is being taught in Europe generally and in Greece even moreso, there’s no long tradition of creative writing teaching as is in the USA. So it’s not always easy to filter out. There are lots of people who are involved with it for other reasons. I’m sure it’s not just a Greek phenomenon, it’s very common these last years and it’s very popular now thar writing and especially creative writing has some kind of healing properties. You can use it for self-healing and therapy and all these kinds of things. This trend is not a way to approach literature. It clearly has to do with self-expression and empowering people to talk, or better to write about things they can’t talk about. This is a very important and serious thing, but it has little to do with fiction writing. So one of the things I’ve noticed is this. And a second thing I’ve noticed and it’s also not exactly encouraging is that we only write about ourselves and for ourselves. This is catastrophic. You can’t just write about yourself. We all have to start from somewhere inside us in order to write of course, but it has to go somewhere. When it’s just an introverted thing that starts from inside you and circles back to inside, where is the other person in that? Where is the other person? I think that literature is always a bipolar relationship, it has two poles. Someone tells a story and someone hears the story. If there’s just one, I’m not interested in it.

 

The creative process is like ecstasy

—For me, a big part of the creative process feels like what we call ecstasy. There’s no way to confine or rationalize it. I can’t, at least. I can’t say I wrote this story like I solved an equation; I started here and then went there and then came the result. It doesn’t work this way for me. I know this now, because it was troubling me for years. “Where did you get this idea?” “Where did you get the idea to put five people around a fire pit outside the Social Security Office of Nikaia?” “Where did it come from?” That’s just one example.

A long time ago—I’ve been writing for so long—I used to try to answer this question. And then I stopped. I realized, it’s a lost cause. You don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know. This is the whole mystery of creation that I respect and believe in very much. They are things that come from inside us obviously, but we can’t filter them through reason and analyze them. I know that when I give this kind of answer, interviewers are not satisfied because they’re expecting something more concrete.

Most of the time, let’s say 8 times out of 10, I work with the voice. I hear voices. That is, I hear a voice that tells me a story. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I hear that voice. And if the voice is insistent… In the example that you mention, the story “The Things They Carried,” I heard a phrase, a line, a dialogue that’s now in the text. It was the one about the violin that fell. I had this phrase in my head for a long time. After this phrase followed me—after any phrase follows me—I know that I have to write it down. There are many things that I hear in my mind, right? But when something stays in my mind, I know I have to write it down. And I remember that I wrote this story starting from this phrase. And then I asked myself, who can be saying this to whom and why? And as I described before, the pebble in the lake, to me it was like that. In order to start a story, you have to throw the pebble in the lake: something has to happen, you have to start somehow. So I thought this phrase was the pebble in the lake. And then the circles started opening up, and then I started thinking who said it, to whom, why, where they were at the time, and the story started opening up more and more. That’s not the only way that I work but it’s the usual way. Starting from the voice. Because I’m very invested in what I’m writing to sound good to the one who reads it. We don’t just write with the hand and the eye. We also write by the ear. And I write by the ear. A big part of my writing is by ear.

—I write with pencil on paper. Of course, many young people come to class and bring their short stories written on smartphones. I don’t know how they do this! I understand that younger people are fully fluent in the technology. I am too, with screens and everything; but I think that the physical feeling that you get from paper is irreplaceable. And if what I’m writing is not on paper, I can’t see it. I can’t place it. On screen, it feels like it’s getting lost all the time, and I want it to be somewhere confined so I won’t lose it. Because you know, stories, very often, the stories and the characters and the people take their own path, they don’t go where you want them to go, so you have to try somehow and confine them. And if they sneak in the computer screen you lose them…. It’s easier to keep them all together somewhere so you know where they are and what they’re doing all the time.

—I never listen to music when I write. Because I have to listen to what I’m writing. I have to hear the voices of the people who exist in what I’m writing. And if you have music you can’t hear them… I don’t know how others do this, I know a lot of people who can’t write without music. I don’t know how they do it. I can’t. I’ve tried but my mind goes to what I’m listening to. It’s very strange, because when I started writing at a very young age, one of the things that I tried to write first was song lyrics. I always had a very close connection to music, and I listen to lots of music, so it’s a little strange. But for many years now I can’t listen to music when I write.

 

On stereotypes.

—Stereotypes are not just something you put in a workshop or university to analyze and identify. Stereotypes impact our everyday life, every person’s life, their existence, each day. So these are things worth writing and talking about. Because they’re not just intellectual categories; they’re things that have to do with our lives. We’re all a stereotype. More or less. And lots of people—again, not to generalize and talk about all women—but there are stereotypes that beat down parts of your life. You have to feel these things, but (to come back to the previous conversation) do you have to be a woman yourself (to write about a woman)? In Daughters of the Volcano, as in all my stories, the basic characters are women. Isn’t that what you’re trying to do every time you recognize it in literature and in great art? Trying to find motives to get out of yourself? Otherwise, we would only write about what we are. Right? I know this is a trend in contemporary arts and a lot of it has to deal with cultural appropriation, but to me, one of the most attractive parts of literature and art in general is this: it gives you a chance to go beyond yourself and to become someone else. And this is the only way to communicate with what is called “the other.”

Now this kind of categorization, of “women’s writing,” for example, or whatever else, is something that confines and blocks you. I understand and have talked about these matters with my female students. If you’re a woman, you have to prove that you don’t “write like a woman,” something that men don’t have to deal with. Nobody tells a man, “What are you writing, men’s writing?” So why do we ask this kind of certification from a woman? These are things that block you and get in your way; they can paralyze you if you’re unable to handle them. Keep you from moving forward.

 

His support system

—I’ve said this many times. I feel blessed to be living with a person, Ioulia, my wife, for many years, and she’s always the first reader of anything I write. Yes, it’s very important. It’s important for any person anyway but even more when you do write. As you said, it’s a very lonesome thing, something that often makes you reach your limits and has lots of practical difficulties. You can’t keep working hours, or days, or holidays, and often when you’re very deeply absorbed in what you’re writing you lose your contact with your surroundings and you have to have someone next to you who keeps you grounded.

[Ioulia took the pictures that became the book covers.] She loves photography, at a non-professional level, of course. But I’m saying it again: I feel very blessed that, apart from anything else, she’s also my first reader and I know that if there’s anything that’s not going well she will notice and tell me. This is a big boost, a big thing, to have a person by your side.

Idra Kayne, Performer

Idra Kayne

Putting Soul into the Greek Music Scene

December 7, 2020

Ms. Kayne, known throughout Greece as a soul-funk-jazz-popp singer-performer, talks about her sources of inspiration, career, relationship with audiences, Black Lives Matter, Greek identity, and what it was like growing up African-Greek.

Idra Kayne has filled the Greek nightscape with her rich voice and inspiring stage presence for nearly 20 years. The daughter of a Ugandan father and Greek mother, she discovered her passion for the performing arts at a young age. Since 2000, her performances at popular venues, music awards ceremonies, and music festivals such as the Meet the Streets Festival in Rotterdam (2007) have been extending her style repertoire and expanding the sound of the Greek music scene. Her first album, Don’t Walk Away (EMI Records, 2011) produced the title hit single, “Don’t Walk Away.” Her second album was Mic Drop (Universal Music, 2017). 

She has performed in the Greek operetta “The Daughter of the Storm”(2011) and musicals Rent (2012), Fame (2012), Annie (2013), Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2014), Sweet Charity (2016), Paw Patrol Live (2018) and Βουτιά στη Βυθούπολη (2019). She has collaborated with many artists, including Giorgos Dalaras, Yannis Kotsiras, Lavrentis Maheritsas, Helena Paparizou, Panos Mouzourakis, Zak Stefanou, Hannah Williams & the Tastemakersm and the British jazz-funk-soul band Incognito. She is preparing a new album of songs in Greek.


Giota Tachtara has been writing for women’s magazines, newspapers and websites since 2002. She was trained in Greece and in the US and has a MA in Print and Broadcast Journalism from UCLA. Fluent in Greek and English she has also studied Turkish and lived for a year in Istanbul. Her monthly column in VOGUE Greece explores feminism, style, inspiration and women’s everyday lives through her generation's nostalgic optimism for the future that is still yet to come.


Margarita Pipinos is a LSA student (Class of 2022, BS expected in Neuroscience, Modern Greek minor) who has published translations of articles from Greek to English in The Press Project and won a Contexts for Classics 2020 Translation Prize.

 

Subtitling by Giota Tachtara, Margarita Pipinos, and Artemis Leontis.

Click here for full interview

Mary Katrantzou, Fashion Designer

Mary Katrantzou

On the Future of Fashion and Creativity Inspired by Her Greek Roots

October 7, 2020

Ms. Katrantzou discusses her work in the fashion industry during the most challenging year of 2020 in an interview by VOGUE Greece editor Giota Tachtara on the basis of questions from students and the broader community.

Mary Katrantzou is a world famous award winning designer of clothing and accessories. She graduated from Central Saint Martins, University of Arts, London. Her designs have appeared everywhere from the halls of Metropolitan Museum in New York to the ancient temple of Poseidon at Sounion in Greece. London-based, she comes from Greece, where her work also has a strong presence. “The queen of print,” she is known for redesigning fashion’s approach to textile shape, texture, and design. One of the most celebrated creators of this generation, she is called on during this very challenging era to find new ways of presenting, producing, distributing, and talking about fashion and design. 

Giota Tachtara has been writing for women’s magazines, newspapers and websites since 2002. She was trained in Greece and in the US and has a MA in Print and Broadcast Journalism from UCLA. Fluent in Greek and English she has also studied Turkish and lived for a year in Istanbul. Her monthly column in VOGUE Greece explores feminism, style, inspiration and women’s everyday lives through her generation's nostalgic optimism for the future that is still yet to come.

Click here for full interview