Daughters of Messene

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Daughters of Messene (now in translation and for sale in Greece)

I’ve talked about this before.  The tricky balance between self-promotion and total modesty. As a writer, total modesty probably no longer does the trick. It’s a shame. It would be amazing if our work stood on its own merit. And indeed, it should. But it also needs a little push/shove along.  The trouble is, if you shout too often, people become averse to your shouting. And if you don’t shout out at all, your writing achievements (however modest in the scheme of things) may not reach all their possible audience.

So, here I am to bask once more in the glow and delight of having my third novel, a story with a strong Greek flavour, that sprang out from a not very well known true story of the migration of young Greek women to New Zealand in the sixties… now translated and on sale in Greece through Kedros Publishers Athens (to whom I am most grateful).

One of the lovely serendipitous moments researching this novel in 2007, I have written about before. It was my lucky encounter with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor at his splendid home in the Mani on his Name Day. To be there, with the ‘local’s and to share this magical moment, was unforgettable.  On that day, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, generously signed my copy of his book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. I had found and read the book while in Greece and was bedazzled by his magical flights of language and historical observations, the marvellous segues.  He signed my copy of his book with his usual motif of a small flock of flying birds.

A reader of my blog, Diana Wright, managed to decipher the inscription as I was unable to. It says ‘with all goodness’.

To my great delight, the cover for the Greek translation of ‘Daughters of Messene’ includes a similar flock of birds.  This is pure coincidence and a lovely one at that. Indeed, my novel includes a moment of migrating birds, so these links are quite perfect.

So, here is the very splendid cover for you to admire and hopefully if you speak and read Greek to tempt you to buy the book.  Plus a picture of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s inscription in my copy of his book.

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

Passing through Nickelsdorf

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In a world where Syrian refugees are bursting through police cordons in Budapest to board trains to Germany, blogging about oneself, and writing, seems oddly trivial and self-centered. But it can also be overwhelming to embrace every tragedy in the world. Somehow to retain a human spirit we have to retain compassion, rage against war and yet still find beauty and courage to live our own individual (albeit by comparison, hugely privileged) lives.

On Facebook, people have been posting pictures of the drowned young boy who has become the poster child for Syria and refugees. And yet as we all know, in recent times the children of Gaza have been dying and left homeless. For decades there have been droughts, and famines in Africa. What is it that makes us in the ‘West’ suddenly galvanized by the sight of the Syrian diaspora? I wonder if it is because we see ourselves for the first time quite clearly.

These refugees are articulate, well educated people, speaking English, sounding like us – maybe for the first time we can image what it might be like to have to abandon hearth and home because of war. In the past, maybe we’ve felt safe, perhaps thinking – well, that’s Africa (and we might have sent money or shed tears) – but perhaps we haven’t truly identified – that’s them, not us. For a short while we were all desperate on behalf of the stolen school girls in Nigeria, but news filtered in that some had been found and that alleviated our concerns. And after all, what could we do, aside from Facebook solidarity postings?

I sense in the recent Syrian influx to Europe, we are confronted with something that disturbs our comfortable lives more tangibly. Europe is our cultural playground, a tourist mecca. Or, as I heard it described today, listening to Emily Perkins talking to Michele de Kretser – a big museum. Michele’s book ‘Questions of Travel’ explores through fiction the idea of travel as something you choose to do, and the travel that refugees undertake to escape war or politics.

Over the years, we’ve watched endless Hitler reruns on the History channel, people on trains fleeing Germany. We identified because our fathers had been in this war. We read about Mao, Pol Pot and Rwanda, but we identify with Europe and the war that has dominated our culture through books, movies and television.

My own father was on a cattle train in Europe heading to Germany in 1941. Four years later he was part of the 600 mile death march across Europe in sub-zero temperatures away from the advancing Russians. Last night on the news, a TVNZ reporter was in Nickelsdorf, Austria where people were handing out food and clothing to the refugees. I’ve never been there but it features large in my childhood memory. In my father’s soldier’s book, is a smutty piece of doggerel that used to amuse us kids, about travelling through Nickelsdorf when all the men were struck with diarrhoea.

I recently railed against Germany’s treatment of the Greeks. But it is Germany now leading the way showing Europe what to do, offering sanctuary, a home to refugees. Instead of trains leaving Germany, once again they are heading towards Germany, but this time it is asylum they are seeking.

My own small world means that I come into contact through my work as a teacher, with local refugees and migrants. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities. As a child of the 50’s and 60’s in small town New Zealand, where life was primarily mono-cultural, I am proud to be part of a more diverse and multi-cultural experience. I know we can easily afford to accommodate more people. But too, it isn’t just as simple as people imagine. We do need an infrastructure to assist people to adjust to a completely different way of life. I imagine many of the refugees now pouring into Europe are looking for a temporary sanctuary and hope one day to return to a peaceful Syria.

And so I began this as the ‘final copy’ believing I would write about the process of writing and working with editors on my third novel. Somehow the triumph of a new novel seems to pale in the face of these much more important issues. But I also believe that it is our responsibility to celebrate our own small lives and cherish our achievements and joys. My third novel is about the Greek Civil War. It is about immigration and the return home. It is about history and now, but a different now from the one I imagined when I began my novel – my story’s ‘now’ is 2007, a time when Greece was full of economic hope and a growing middle-class. How things have changed in a short eight years.

I am posting a copy of the doggerel written by a POW (if you are squeamish about smutty, then do not read on).

Nickelsdorf 002   Nickelsdorf 001

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.