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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The simplest words

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For Christmas, I bought myself a copy of Alex Miller’s memoir ‘The Simplest Words’, a series of sometimes quite short personal essays. I’m only part way into reading them but was struck to the core by his essay about the death of his elderly mother. He begins with a low-key description of a week they spent together when she was 86 years old. Indeed, he points out, that she pointed out, that this was the first time the two of them had ever spent a week alone together. He lives in Australia and left home aged sixteen to follow his Antipodean dream, and then became a writer. This essay-vignette, one week, ends with Alex and his mother walking home arm in arm from a pub after polishing off a bottle of Spanish wine, ‘Bulls Blood’.

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I was reading this sitting at a café overlooking our beautiful local bay. The water unusually calm, one person swimming, a grandmother towelling down her granddaughter, and a motor boat noiselessly edging towards the beach. A woman beside me was talking loudly on her mobile. I frowned first and then decided I would eavesdrop (I’m a writer), but she stopped before anything useful was uttered. I returned to Alex Miller.

Tragically, after spending this memorable week with his mother, a few weeks later when she was dying, he had to choose between returning to the United Kingdom to see her or his commitment to a new job at La Trobe University, Melbourne, teaching creative writing. He explains that he chose to stay with his students who had given him the gift of their unpolished first drafts – and to abandon them would be to betray that trust. He then goes on to say that it took six weeks for his elderly mother to die and when he returned some time later and caught up with his sister, she told him that his mother had been waiting for him to come. It’s quite brutal to read as her death was horrible, her spirit fighting to hang in beyond her physical pain. The sister tells him “It’s all right, you know, Mum understood that writing meant everything to you.”

It revived my own memories of my mother’s death. I was living in Sydney at the time and my aunt phoned to tell me my mother had suffered a heart attack and was in hospital. I’d just moved to a new flat on the North Shore and gone through an emotional romantic break-up. I stayed put. My Aunt phoned again three days later telling me I should come quickly. Reluctantly, I packed up my flat and job in one day and flew home. It took my mother a couple of weeks to die. She wasn’t in a lot of pain as far as I know, but she was very tired. A few years earlier my eldest brother had committed suicide. The last time I saw her, a nurse urged me to stay, but I had a bus to catch and a dinner date, so I said I had to go. I know now that the nurse knew my mother was dying, but she didn’t tell me. I made my dinner date and my mother passed away less than an hour after I said a cheerful goodbye to her. I often revisit this moment and wish the nurse had told me but too, I regret my own callow youth – I was impatient with her – she’d disrupted my adventures, I was anxious to be on my way.

So now there was just my Dad and me. One sibling was dead and the other was missing. As the hearse pulled up outside our modest Jerry-built post war weatherboard house – I was standing in the hallway with a view through the open front door – the phone rang and it was the missing child – not in a position to attend the funeral. I was used to life being askew, and this was just another permutation. We were a small team, my Dad and I and my Aunt and it took me motherhood, teenagers and becoming a grandmother to really know what happened that day. My grief came in unexpected moments over the years, tinged with regrets, and I was grateful, when my father died, that I was encouraged by the hospital to stay close, to sit still, to be there, and I was.