Questions about Appropriation – My Greek Novel (The right to write fiction)

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It wasn’t until days before the final print run of my Greek novel that any sense of audacity crept in. Up until that moment, I’d been so focussed on the story, certain of it in the way that only an author can be when in the grip of writing fiction. My novel took seven years to be ready and to find the right publisher. The writing of it, the revising of it and finding a publisher, consumed me as a writer. I believed in the story. But now my book is out and about, it’s not doubt that grips me, but the realisation of what I’ve done. You see, I don’t speak Greek. Yes, I travelled to Greece for three months in 2007 to do my research. I was fortunate. There I was, a woman of a certain age, alone in a foreign city, seeking stories from the locals about the Greek Civil War. It’s only now in hindsight that I can see with clarity, the audacity of this venture. I met with resistance as you can imagine and then too through circumstance and happenstance, I stumbled on opportunities, including an extraordinary invitation to the home of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Mani, to celebrate his Name Day, in November that year.

Why did a Kiwi author want to write about the Greek Civil War? It started with my father. He was a lad from Kaikoura who ended up on Crete with the 22nd Battalion during the Second World War. I’ve written an essay about this in Landfall. In the 1980’s the Greek Government offered a Greek Medal to Kiwi veterans still living. My Dad was still alive and with the help of my Greek friend Maria I applied for his medal. At that stage I had a young family and we’d just moved next door to Maria. I had no idea of her own amazing journey from Kalamata to Wellington during the 60’s but I was eventually to find out.I’m a writer, so what did I do? I realised very few people knew about the journey of the young Greek girls (most of them from Crete), to New Zealand in the sixties, as part of a special scheme between the two Governments. The girls had to be under 30, unmarried and work in the hospitality industry. The established local Greek community were less than impressed with this sudden influx – the thought of any scandal.And so, using my imagination, I began to weave a fictional account of a young woman who leaves Greece to live on the other side of the world. I’m a baby boomer, born in 1950, only five years after the end of the Second World War. It’s only now that I recognise the very proximity of that war to my own parents’ lives at the time I was born. Back then, ‘the war’ seemed like a very distant affair. I began to imagine what impact not just the Second World War, but the ongoing Greek Civil War might have had on the lives of some of these young women. My story is purely and simply imagined. It is not any one girl’s particular story. Through research and reading, I’ve woven a story which at the heart is a mother and daughter story. It is a story of immigration. It is a story of war and its aftermath.

My local Greek friends have embraced my story and I am grateful. I’ve had generous feedback. The novel has had very good reviews so far. While writing this novel, I had so much help from the Greek community. My intention was to bring the story of these brave young women to the fore, to honour them and to re-imagine the possible circumstances that might have propelled them to travel so far from home. And yes, it is only now, that my novel is out and about, that any sense of doubt has arisen, that a writer who doesn’t speak Greek, has dared to write a Greek-Kiwi novel. Did I have the right? Have I got it right? Who has the right to write a story? During the editing process, one of the super smart young editors working at Whitireia made the observation that I needed to be careful with the use of the Greek language, the insertion of Greek phrases, lest I strayed into the territory of ‘exoticising’, and thus undermining the integrity of the story.

I recall my book group, reading Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’, a story I loved. Two of my book club friends were unhappy that within the story, two male characters had appropriated the story of the main character, a woman from Tunisia. Not that the author had written about a woman from Tunisia, but that he’d allowed two male characters to tell her story.

My second novel ‘Turbulence’ was about a middle-aged man from the suburb of Lower Hutt. He worked in manufacturing. He was a stepfather in a new relationship, with a broken marriage, the result of his child who had died in a tragic accident in his driveway with him at the wheel. Did I know this man? I knew aspects of him, but he is a fictional character. I had worked in recruitment for many years in the Hutt Valley and so I felt I knew this man, an ordinary man, the sort of man who doesn’t always make it into fiction – not an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, but something rather more ordinary – a man running a factory.Did I have the right to write with the voice of a man? It never occurred to me that I didn’t. And I was heartened by the first review on Radio NZ by John McCrystal who felt I’d nailed it. Unfortunately, the ensuing reviews from two younger, academic women, did not concur. We bring to our reading our own experiences. Many of my women friends didn’t enjoy ‘Turbulence’, but almost all my men friends did.

My first novel ‘ About turns’ was about book clubs and marching girls. This is territory that I know well. It was about a sixties working-class childhood. Yes, I mined my own experiences and many people who’d known me during my childhood claimed to recognise characters. But the book was also about a transgender character, female to male. Did I have the right? This book is fiction with experiences rendered to represent truths, both my own and other peoples.

I won’t have got everything right in my Greek novel in spite of all the support from native Greek speakers and spouses of native Greek speakers. But I’m hopeful that being an outsider, has enabled me to write with a different sort of clarity, that of the observer. But this begs the question. Did I have the right to appropriate a foreign language, to use it and many of its sayings, without being a speaker of that language? All the mistakes (if there are any and there must be) of history, time, place, language and ideas of what it is to be Greek, and how to express this, are entirely mine.

Links to reviews of ‘Daughters of Messene’
http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/75331829/Sizzling-summer-reads http://www.listener.co.nz/culture/books/my-big-fat-greek-family-reunion/ http://www.odt.co.nz/entertainment/books/365679/story-greek-womens-voyage-nz-informs-book

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Right and Left

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Right and Left

I recently attended the launch of ‘Anzac Day, The New Zealand Story – What it is and why it matters’ written by Philippa Werry. Inside this lovely publication, I found this brief but potent quote from Bertrand Russell.

War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

Extraordinarily profound and yet how simply stated. How I admire that. The best writers of course, are able to do this. Meanwhile, I blog and find myself making extra long sentences to explain myself. But of course, the very best writing cuts to the heart of things without a great deal of noise.

Right now, I’m working with an editor on my Greek manuscript. It’s been a long time coming. In fact, I started my research back in 2007. Six years on, I am beginning to believe that my novel is ready. Working with an editor is the most amazing thing. Recently Craig Cliff blogged on this very topic.

I see pages of my manuscript with the word ‘tighten’ down the left-hand column, or even more specifically, the words “Do we need this?” Indeed, we frequently do not! Removing the debris I call it. A good editor enables a writer to look better than they really are. It’s fascinating to see where you have gone off piste often to indulge something, to show off, to weave in some vignette that is really irrelevant, but you just can’t help yourself (and often this vignette is not fiction, and frequently it fails).

Oh what bliss, removing the debris. Actually, I’ve just removed one whole character. Just like that. He’s gone. He was a sub-plot that was never working. My readers had already told me this, but no one had suggested killing him off… that is, until my editor came along. Murder your darlings. He was someone else’s fictitious darling actually and I’d rather liked him and I’d invested far too much time in him – and now he’s gone. Perhaps he’s going to have another life some day in another novel. But right now I am so relieved he has gone.

Who is right and who is left? My Dad was on Crete during the Second World War and in Poland as a POW for four years. I am part of who is left. My novel is about the Greek girls (well one fictitious girl actually) who came out to New Zealand in the sixties as part of a Government scheme. This close relationship between the two Governments developed as a result of the New Zealand support for the Greek campaign. My novel explores aspects of the Greek Civil War. It is about who is left.

Today, there have been two bombs in Boston. We’re all shocked. I notice on facebook the many posts and the outpouring of concern. We feel united in the horror. But too, I was reminded by my son, a peace activist living in Seoul, that today, not just in Boston, but in Iraq, many people have been killed in a series of bomb blasts in the past few days. It shouldn’t matter where the bomb blast happens, the horror should be equal. But the human condition is such, that we identify with what we know and who we know. It’s impossible to feel constant outrage and compassion for every act of violence – we would despair each day, and so we choose our sorrows and our outrage.

I’m looking forward to Anzac Day. How odd that I do. But it is now a part of my history. It is my father, it is my childhood. It is full of autumnal memories. A greyish shift frock newly made, my new cinnamon stockings, the parade. My Dolly heels caught in the cracks of the pavement outside the war memorial which was also the cinema and the library. Dad in his shiny brown shoes, wearing his war medals hand-sewn to his suit by Mum.

Yes, he would get pickled. We learned to dread Anzac Day. Dad would disappear to the RSA. He was a flagon man, but on Anzac Day, he drank whisky. Looking back, perhaps he had a right to get pickled. And now he’s gone, and I love Anzac Day, because of him. I share it with my granddaughter who loves to wear the red poppy. I’ve purchased the Book on Anzac Day for her with a dedication from the author – but it will be some time before she truly knows what the red poppy signifies.

From Maleme to Mapua

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I was inspired to think about this seemingly random link after reading a poem. The poem is called “Alive together” and it is by Lisel Mueller. The poem begins thus:
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
The poet goes on to imagine being a woman in a different time, married to different men, the idea of who we are being both random and minutely specific to a multitude of histories. I like this poem and I have recently been reading ‘Crete – The Battle and the Resistance”’ by Anthony Beevor. It is a very good account of a fearsome battle for control of the island in Greece during the Second World War, told from many sides of the story, the Germans, the New Zealanders, the British and the Cretans. My Dad was in the 5th field Regiment, a gunner, in the New Zealand 22nd Battalion defending the airport at Maleme, the point at which strategically the battle was lost, when it should have been won.

The German graveyard at Maleme

The German graveyard at Maleme

Stone crosses on the hillside among the graves at Maleme

Stone crosses on the hillside among the graves at Maleme

The graveyard at Maleme of German paratroopers killed in the battle of Crete

The graveyard at Maleme of German paratroopers killed in the battle of Crete

If, they say, General Freyberg had not been so hell-bent on the idea of a seaborne invasion… if Colonel Andrew (according to Beevor), “had gone forward before nightfall to observe the coastal trip and the western slopes of Hill 107…” … so many ifs. I imagine too, if they’d all had I phones, perhaps a few texts to and fro with some pictures attached… but then too, it seems Freyberg was very concerned about revealing to the Germans that the Brits had cracked their code, and so I guess I phones can easily be hacked . And too, imagine instead of young men dropping from the sky (like Icarus) in their parachutes, if instead, the Germans had used drones. The account of hand to hand combat between the Germans, local Cretans and the Kiwis is fierce and brutal. It seems that the Geneva convention did not apply as far as the Cretans were concerned. They were civilians defending their own patch. Oddly, the Germans imagined that the Kiwi soldiers would not fire upon them as they descended in their multi-coloured parachutes. But of course they did. And I have it first hand from my Dad, how extraordinary it was, to be firing at such easy targets, but too, how sickening. I read in Beevor’s account, how the gunners were told to aim low at the falling body because of the rapid descent, thus ensuring an accurate hit.

New Zealand graves at Suda Bay

New Zealand graves at Suda Bay

Suda Bay cemetery where the Kiwi soldiers lie

Suda Bay cemetery where the Kiwi soldiers lie

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But in spite of this, the battle was won by the Germans, although they suffered extraordinary casualties. The paratroopers were young men (the German elite), some as young as sixteen and thousands were slaughtered in the first two days of the battle. So, what brings me to me Mapua? What is my connection? It is really rather random as I mention at the start (but then you see, don’t you, how random all of our histories really are).

Mapua wharf with the ferry that crosses to my favourite childhood beach, Rabbit Island

Mapua wharf with the ferry that crosses to my favourite childhood beach, Rabbit Island

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

I was reading about the Battle of Crete, perched on the seafront at Ruby Bay (a hop skip and a jump from Mapua where I drank my morning coffee and had these thoughts) and I realised that if the 5th Field Regiment had held the airfield, I may not have existed. The defence of Maleme would have required a further battle – my Dad instead of retreating might have died in the ensuing violence – or so I told myself under the hot Tasman sun. That he survived to be taken POW and then shipped on cattle trains to Poland to spend four years as a POW – not to mention the subsequent 600 mile march in snow at the end of the war … well, that is neither here nor there, because this is what happened and so I know he survived all of this. But too, at each step along the way, there are a multitude of ifs to consider.

And as a result of my father’s war experience, I am fascinated with Greece, with the Battle of Crete, and too, I am ‘alive together with you, and you, and you (my family, my friends, my readers)… and there’s something both thrilling and fateful about this very being alive. If the chance came, would you change your life, be an entirely different person? As a child I used to look at people and try to imagine what it might be like to be them and then be terrified that I had wished too hard and what if I did become them and I didn’t like it and then I couldn’t get me back. Whatever befalls us, we may wish it had not, but do we ever really want not to be ourselves? Perhaps some people do (and here one can imagine a child in the slums of Mumbai). I am currently reading ‘Behind the beautiful forevers’ by Katherine Boo. Yes, perhaps if I was atop a rubbish dump, scavenging for a living, I may well be happy for my wish to be granted… but thankfully in my own fortunate life … it is enough to be ‘alive and together’ …
the poem ends thus:

alive with our lively children
who — but for endless ifs —
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.

Isn’t it just a grand poem? I have Diana Gilliland Wright of Firesteel to thank for her blog which alerted me to this beautiful poem and of course, if you wish to read the entire poem, click this link to Firesteel.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

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This morning, I opened my computer to eleven emails alerting me to the news that Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor has died.

In 2007, I had the great good fortune to catch a bus to The Mani, seeking inspiration for my third novel, a Greek New Zealand story for which I am currently seeking a publisher.   Believe it or not, back then, I had not heard of Sir Patrick (call me Paddy) Leigh Fermor.   I was living in Kalamata in the Southern Peloponnese for two months, searching for the muse, and one day I caught the bus to the Mani and stopped in Kardamyli and ended up staying there for ten days, and discovering not only Paddy’s book on the Mani, but the man himself.

The article I wrote about this encounter was published in the Herald on Sunday

At Paddy’s house, I took several photographs both inside and out, but felt afterwards that perhaps I had naively overstepped the mark taking such liberties.  I was so excited and had no thoughts of writing an article or publishing photographs, just in thrall to the man, his writing and his beautiful home.  Today it feels like the right time for me to share my amazing morning with the man himself, his generous hospitality and indeed, his bookshelves.    I hear that his home has been purchased by the Benaki museum, and so hopefully this will mean that many devoted fans, travellers, and writers will get the opportunity to pay homage and visit this beautiful sanctuary, of a much loved Englishman, war hero, practically a Greek Saint, the man from the Mani.

and this is the inscription (which I have never quite been able to decipher, even with the help of Greek friends

My photos, taken on Paddy’s Name Day in November 2007 include a few movie clips of the local women singing and at one stage Paddy pretending to fire a pistol.  I have hesitated in the past to post any of this intimate and personal images, but because Paddy has died, I am hopeful that the locals featured in these clips won’t mind being part of history.

And, here is a link to an obituary by Artemis Cooper