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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Essential New Zealand Poems and doggerel

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Essential New Zealand Poems and doggerel

Essential New Zealand Poems book cover

I had the interesting honour recently of speaking to a group of writers completing a memoir course. It was a thrill for me to be invited and in particular, because they had been given my recent Landfall essay ‘Who is Left’ to read and compare with an article by Rosemary McLeod, one of my absolute favourite journalists.

My essay is a personal interrogation of my motivation for not just attending, but actually liking Anzac Day commemorations. Rosemary McLeod had written about stolen war medals and her distaste for the proposed new and very large local war memorial in the old Buckle Street Museum building.

I did not disagree with Rosemary’s piece. I rarely do. She usually nails it for me. I react privately to something in the news and then find that Rosemary can articulate it eloquently and intelligently and I mostly find myself nodding in agreement. I remember returning from my ‘OE’ in the mid seventies and opening up the Listener to read Rosemary McLeod – it was the first time I had read such smart, funny and insightful local journalism. I became a fan and have remained one.

So, there I was on a wet Saturday, talking to other aspiring writers about my journey as a writer, feeling somewhat amazed (flattered) that these students had read both my essay and Rosemary’s article. I’ve been one of those students many times in my journey as a writer. We hope that by listening to others we will unlock a secret door to our own creativity – a short-cut even, or a road-map.

And so, I told the students about what I now call my epiphany. That I was driven to writing passionate rhyming verse about my teenagers, one with dreadlocks and the other a green Mohawk. The epiphany came as I stood in a local mall with both lads and a letter from the local high school principal demanding that the green Mohawk be modified. We found some hair dye and he went from an emerald-green to Gothic black but I must say green suited him a lot better. Out of this, came the doggerel. And out of that, I gained a place on one of the first under-graduate poetry writing courses (now de rigueur) up at Victoria University in the late 1990’s – one of the 12 disciples with Greg O’Brien (not the Last Supper, but my first).

I had no idea that my rhyming verse, was in fact, doggerel. I had no idea what doggerel was, as I’d not heard the word before. I grew up with my mother reciting lines from ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ by C.J. Dennis, and we always called it poetry. So, here I was in Greg’s class with real poets (people who’d actually been published), and my own rather amateurish doggerel, as I discovered. But too, it can’t have been all bad, as there must have been an essence of something for the university to have taken the chance on me and invited me on to the course.

How proud am I, a decade or so later that one of the poems that I started to write during that course, is included in the newly published anthology ‘Essential New Zealand Poems – facing the empty page’… to be between the superb suede-like orange-flavoured covers with so many poets that I admire – too many to mention, many of them now friends.

Siem Reap – where I left a part of my heart

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Recently, I spent three months as a volunteer ESOL teacher in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve left a part of my heart behind. Some people said, before I left, what a grubby little tourist town Siem Reap was and that I wouldn’t like it. How wrong could they be? I loved it. I love the red dusty roads that erupt whenever the rain falls; the smell of the Monsoon and dust, the sound of motos, the choreography of traffic, tuk-tuks, motos, cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional big black Lexus.

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I love the resilient spirit of the people of Siem Reap, their optimism, in the face of endless rejection – from the girls on massage lane to the tuk-tuk drivers – always hopeful, up for a chat, and the cries of ‘teacher-teacher’. Where else could I possibly find so much (possibly undeserved) affirmation and respect? I can’t imagine being embraced so affectionately at my local coffee bar back home, nor having my eyes wiped by an attentive waitress (who just happens also to be my student), when I choke on a chilli over dinner. Or to go out alone, and find each time I enter a café, that one of my students is waiting tables there and I’m suddenly the most important customer.

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I loved the one dollar out-door foot massage where I watched endless reruns of the story of Angkor Wat on a large open-air screen… the foot scrub for two dollars, the pedicure that ended up a brighter pink than I chose, and the nail polish that was very poor quality, so the finish was less than smooth, but the effort and focus gone into painting my toes far outweighed the less than perfect outcome.

The people of Siem Reap put their hearts on the line for the tourists. They offer up a piece of themselves for a small price. They work long hours for little return and the tuk-tuk drivers spend more time waiting for customers than they do actually driving anywhere. In the heat of the mid afternoon they sling their hammocks and rest. They are waiting for the balmy evening when the tourists will begin swarming down to Pub Street and maybe they can nab a newcomer and sell them a trip to the temples tomorrow… always tomorrow … the locals here believe in tomorrow in a way that is heart-warming and admirable.

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Madame, you want tuk-tuk, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the temples, not today Madame, but tomorrow maybe, you call me, you have my card, tomorrow, tomorrow, I take you to the temples, Madame, Madame…

It’s one sentence, because they anticipate your rejection and already they’re moving with a smile to the next potential customer.

I loved the Old Market, the Night Market (there are several Night Markets) and the food – the food loved me too. I ate the juiciest mangoes I’ve ever tasted, sweet pineapple, longans, dragon fruit, and I never tired of the Khmer vegetable curries and the chilled 50 cent Angkor beers, not to mention the one dollar Margaritas on Soksan Road.

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I found French pastries at the Blue Pumpkin, a designer cupcake café and the New Leaf Book Café where they make the most delicious banana blossom salad while selling second-hand books. And too, minus the food, D’s bookshop (both second-hand and new).

D's Bookshop, Siem Reap

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I admired the ‘flower girl’ as I christened her. The same girl every night, plying her flowers along Pub Street, her witty patter, her sassy street-smarts and who knows, she looked fifteen, but perhaps she was older. I admired too, the young man (whom I decided ran away from the circus), who ran his own one-man-band sort of circus, swallowing fire, and juggling outside the cafés in the balmy evenings, his shiny naked skinny torso and the young boy who made the chocolate banana pancakes with such flair, one hand wiping, the other hand swiping, cooking and cleaning at the same time.

And yes, I stood with all the hundreds of other tourists at dawn, waiting for the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

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But it wasn’t so much about the temples for me, as the local people. I enjoyed a cycling alone to the temples on the school bicycle. The first time I’ve ever cycled close to an elephant or a monkey for that matter. I tried to imagine a quieter time, when the temples were abandoned and overgrown but not with tourists, the eerie mix of nature and man-made stone grandeur, uninhabited.

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One of the highlights for me wasn’t the temples, but the evening I rode pillion on a student’s moto into the balmy late afternoon-straight-into-evening – along the canal to Road 60 for a Khmer-style picnic with one of my classes (barbecued chicken with yummy seasonings from the local roadside stalls) and being one of only a handful of barangs.

As for the circus. If you never do anything else in Siem Reap, go to the Phare Cambodian Circus which describes itself as uniquely Cambodian, daringly modern. Be startled and astonished by the amazing acrobatics, the sheer energy, talent and something else… delight at its best, in its best form – delight from the performers and delight from the audience. This is what I found in Cambodia – you think you’re giving when mostly you are receiving.

But most of all I loved waking at 5.00 am to chase the frogs from the kitchen after the Monsoon and once too, a cheeky rat ran out from behind the portable gas hob. I would make porridge and drink black tea in the make-shift outside dining room. I’d feed the school cat in the hopes she would keep the rat at bay. And then, after gathering my lesson plans, at around 5.50 am each morning, I would pull the shiny yellow curtains in my bedroom open and see my always-early student Phanna, on his moto heading towards the school gates. He never failed me. And soon after, the rest of the class. At 6.00 am the Elementary One class would begin, with the fans going and the doors wide open. I would watch the dawn break as I taught. That moment between dawn and morning, the shifts in colour. Magic. But more than that, the amazing energy and affection that my students rewarded me with. There was no ‘class management’ required, I had rapt attention from hard-working, motivated, interesting and hugely admirable young adults. What more could a teacher ask for?

What I most admired is the extraordinary spirit of my students and all their golden hopes for tomorrow. I felt humbled by their resilience, their hard work, their generosity and their humour. It is hard to imagine a country with such a recent tragic history, where there is such a spirit of optimism.

I’m not forgetting though, there is much more to Cambodia than Siem Reap and my students. I saw the poverty between Siem Reap and Phnom Phen when I took the Giant Ibis bus journey between the two cities the weekend of the water festival. The way people live with their rice crops drying at the side of the road, no fresh running water or electricity, relying on oxen and water buffalo instead of modern-day farming methods. I was reminded of Cuba. I know the Government is corrupt, the recent elections weren’t fair and that people live in abject poverty. I read Joel Brinkley’s ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ before I left for Siem Reap and while I was there. It is without doubt a very sobering account of Cambodia’s history. I know it’s time for Hun Sen to go and democracy to have a fair chance. But somewhere in my heart, I have great hope, if the young people I taught, are an example of what lies ahead.

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.