Eleanor Ross Taylor

Disappearing Act, Eleanor Ross Taylor’s poem can be read in The Guardian by clicking http://bit.ly/c98Rhi

It is a brilliant self-reflective poem, based on experiencing the human body as a thinking as well as a feeling person.

Winner of the 2010 Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly award, she made the news at a time when she was almost forgotten.  Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman, commented on her “sober and clear-eyed serenity,”  and her strong reserve. “We live in a time when poetic styles seem to become more antic and frantic by the day, and Taylor’s voice has been muted from the start,” The Guardian reported.  Others, commenting on her award, made strong references to her age.

Her poetry, though, speaks for her talent and originality; her making us see the world anew – in this case, our own body.

Hope in a Changing Climate

Two lakes inside old volcano, Africa. on Twitpic

Creative Climate is a media and research project about climate and the environment run jointly by the OU and the BBC.

The Creative Climate website is full of interesting information from experts around the world: videos and articles to take your breath away – though not literally! On the contrary, there is a lot of hope in the contributions.

The documentary Hope in a Changing Climate drawing on success stories from China, Ethiopia and Rwanda, demonstrates how barren and decimated land that was thought to be beyond redemption could be brought back to life by local residents. Planting trees and selected vegetation in patterns that encourage the soil to retain water, they managed to transform within five years the arid plateaus to lush, fertile and life-sustaining land. The film of the work carried out by the locals in the Loess  Plateau in China, is both beautiful and inspiring.

Restoration of the environment is possible; the process of decimation is not irreversible. As if proof were needed that it is a matter of belief, determination, and dissemination of knowledge… all to do with the climate of opinion influencing the climate!

For lack of pictures of these areas to show what has been achieved, I include the photograph of Two Lakes in a Volcano taken from space and tweeted live from the international Space Station by Soichi Noguchi http://twitpic.com/1exv5i Thank you Soichi Noguchi for this gem of a picture! It also attests to what can be achieved through co-operation, ingenuity and determination.

Circumnavigation: Searching for home?

Iris Law’s poem Circumnavigation

chosen to be included in the 2009 Best of the Net Anthology is a beautiful poem. Read it here:

http://www.asiancha.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=367&Itemid=176

It works on many levels, as Tammy Ho’s critical analysis, and the responses to it (including mine) demonstrate.

http://finecha.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/a-cup-of-fine-tea-iris-law/#comments

The level that hooked me was the one hinting at the hunger for home and the wish to return to it.  Real or imagined, a literal home or a metaphorical one, the womb or country of origin, it is always there, calling. Going round the world, we carry that hunger, that need, hear the siren’s call, knowing at the same time, the impossibility of returning…

Iris Law speaks of the pain of this recognition, the moment “the spear hit home.”

Kavafis knew this problem and wrote about it in his Ithaca.

Odysseus had to find out for himself. Tellingly, he set out again, soon after he returned home.

Looking and Seeing

The Observer’s John Vidal, in his article ‘How food and water are driving a 21st century African land-grab,’ 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/07/food-water-africa-land-grab

wrote about what is now often referred to as ‘the 21st century new colonialism.’ Bigger/richer countries, companies, pension funds, individuals and others acquire or lease land in Africa cheaply on which they grow food and export it back to their home markets.

In Ethiopia, for instance, farm land twice the size of the UK is being used to grow food, flowers, as well as crops for biofuels. At the same time, millions of Ethiopians threatened by hunger and malnutrition, displaced, are not even being told of the existence of the farms or the plans to extend them. There is a similar situation in over 20 other African countries, and more and more projects are given the go-ahead, profiting the richer countries, companies and individuals at the expense of the indigenous population and local farmers.

Lorenzo Cotula, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, in his ‘Deals can be good news when not made behind closed doors,’

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/07/africa-land-grab-food-water

argues that this need not be the only outcome. Rather, some of the development can be good news for the people involved, if there is proper consultation and negotiation of terms that are mutually advantageous. This is a good point – and something to aim towards. At present, unfortunately, not enough support is forthcoming for those affected, neither from their governments nor from abroad, that would enable them to become involved in such negotiations.

Turning a blind eye to the practice of using poorer countries as farms for the richer ones, while their people are starving, is becoming an urgent, practical as well as moral concern. And the implications and consequences of this practice are snowballing. Survival International is campaigning for the tribes of the Omo Valley, in south-west Ethiopia,

http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/omovalley/novoice#main

where a massive hydroelectric Dam is being built which will end the Omo River’s natural flood cycle. The tribes along its banks cultivate the fertile silt it leaves behind. Their fragile livelihoods are threatened as their farming is dependent on the river and its floods. However, these tribes have high illiteracy levels and lack the resources and infrastructure needed to employ the legal teams to negotiate terms on their behalf. Their government has so far ignored their plight.

If we don’t ‘see,’ who will?

http://www.stopgibe3.org

On the Omo Valley: Survival International is working jointly with International Rivers, Friends of Lake Turkana, Counterbalance and Campaign for the Reform of the World Bank on the Omo Valley.

Survival International has a number of articles on these issues and various options available for those wishing to help with their campaigns.

www.survival-international.org

What is Creative Climate?

Photo: Constantina Pierides

Creative Climate is an online diary project set up jointly by the OU and the BBC to chart the ways in which people see and respond to environmental change over the next decade. Through the diary, people from all over the world, will be able to share their views on the changing environment, as well as their ideas on how to meet the coming challenges. In this sense, the Creative Climate diary, will become “a huge living archive of our experiences and ideas in one of the most important decades in human history.”

For a sustainable future, we will need all the creativity, determination, will-power and strength we can master – and as many perspectives as there are. I will be reading the entries and following the diaries.

http://www.open2.net/creativeclimate/about.html

Szirtes defends Poetry

George Szirtes defends poetry: Poetry conjures the presence of things, their physicality… it is experienced through the body as much as the mind. “…but the chief use of poetry to sense the presence of the toad in language, without which sense nothing happens, without which the language enterprise is all imaginary gardens in which only ghosts can live.” Read it by clicking here: George Szirtes blog Then, go find that toad, say, by reading one of his poems: “Say

Song of the Aegean

I wrote this poem thinking of the Aegean, the stories attached to it, from the Trojan war, to Odysseus’ crisscrossing the sea to return to Ithaca, to the sponge divers risking their lives to earn a living…


This poem appeared in Poetry Monthly, issue 150, October 2008. (This was the last edition of the magazine; afterwards, it came back as the online journal Poetry Monthly International)

Song of the Aegean

Sea, azure, shoal, white sails,
Pines, sponges, diving tales

Winds, caique, bitter waves,
Oars, wreckage, soulful prayer

Odyssey, memory, dolphin leaps,
Marble, Kalymnos, Ariadne sings.

Arshile Gorky, great painter (and Armenian refugee)

In this touring exhibition, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, the Tate (10 February – 3 May 2010) celebrates the extraordinary work of Arshile Gorky and traces the development of his unique creative achievement. It firmly positions him amongst the greatest 20th-century American painters. Room after room, his astounding development is shown through his paintings. The interested viewer is given ample guidance through the exhibition catalogue’s well-written essays, to explore and see for herself the painter’s progress, as well as link it imaginatively to his life as a survivor of the Armenian genocide.

From his repainting of a 1912 photograph of himself and his mother, to the obsessional scraping of layers of paint in his canvasses, the viewer is provided with material to reflect upon not only the work of a genius, but also on the effects of trauma and the possible survival mechanisms at work. Best of all, Gorky’s paintings of himself with his mother serve as a pointer, a witness to the horrifying experiences and provide a background to that history and relationship.

For this blog – which focuses on cultural and historical factors impacting on themes of identity expressed in the visual arts, literature and society – the relevance of Gorky being an Armenian refugee from the Ottoman Empire, his life experiences and their influence on his subsequent development and work is self-evident. Born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, in the surroundings of lake Van in the Armenian part of the Empire, he was said to be first traumatised by the emigration of his father to America; then by the persecution and expulsion suffered by the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman empire rebuilding its identity as the Turkish nation. Gorky, together with his family, was forced on an eight day ‘death march’ during which many perished, suffered extremes of danger and famine and indeed lost his mother to starvation. He travelled via Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Athens some time in 1920 on his way to America.

Upon arrival, he took a new name: Arshile, as his first name, possibly from the Russian version of the Greek hero Achilles; and Gorky, from the great Russian writer, whose nephew he claimed to be. The question why Gorky changed his name, is one of the most discussed in the first newspaper reviews of the Tate exhibition, and has been prominent in the writings about him.

In The Times, Rachel Campbell-Johnston mentions the version of Gorky’s nephew, Karlen Mooradian (the same one who forged the letters from Gorky to his sister). He believed that Gorky was so overwhelmed by the weight of Armenian culture, history and language (passed on to him by his mother) that he felt he would never be able to live up to it. Changing his name, Mooradian is purported to have suggested, meant that Gorky could rid himself of this heavy burden.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston herself does not sound convinced that this is the main reason. Emphasizing the traumatic aspect of the wiping out of a whole community and subsequently this genocide being denied, she wonders whether the excessive trauma of this experience may have led Gorky to deny his true identity.

Whatever the reason – and several alternatives have been suggested and explored in the exhibition catalogue – there have been several charges levelled at Gorky and his art that are implicitly linked to his name change: imposture, mimicry, derivative, copying. William Feaver’s recent contribution in The Guardian is replete with references to boasting, or “an art of deception and concealment.” However, Michael R. Taylor in his article “Rethinking Arshile Gorky” (see exhibition catalogue) points out that what the critics saw as efforts by Gorky to copy the masters (Cézanne, Picasso and others) were misconstrued. These charges “fail[…] to grasp the radical nature of his self-imposed discipleship to these artists … Rather, Gorky emerges in this exhibition … as a quintessential self-taught artist in the interwar years whose steadfast allegiance to other artists’ visions was a means of self-creation” (p. 27).

Perhaps this is the point to remind ourselves how common it has become to write or paint under ‘pen names,’ ‘nom de guerre,’ or ‘nom de plume’. Would that mean that in relation to Gorky, different standards have been applied regarding his changing his name and not speaking about his own origins and trauma? If so, it would be interesting to consider why this might be the case.

However, there is a different point to consider. Without wishing to belittle the impact of the Armenian genocide or other explanations of Gorky assuming a new name, it may be useful to refer to the substantial amount of thinking and research carried out on the effects of colonial, imperial and post-colonial subjects. This work describes a clear pattern in the behaviour of those who aim to start a new life in another country, whether as refugees from war, persecution, hardship or for other reasons. In modern English literature, for instance, Indian and Pakistani authors, fleeing the aftermath of the Indian and Pakistan declarations of independence, have described the experience of such upheavals. Writing in English, these authors provide a culturally rich and imaginative perspective on displacement, exile, losses suffered and ways of coping/surviving them. They also explore, through their characters, a number of survival mechanisms being adopted in the new countries. Change of name, or slightly shortened/modified/Anglicized versions, as a sort of baptism, are among them.

Gorky’s change of name, his refusal to speak about the family trauma, may well be seen as expression of survival mechanisms which served him well in his work and life. The fact that he faced apocalyptic losses in his forties – lost paintings and books due to a fire in his studio; rectal cancer; wife’s affair with friend and supporter; subsequent abandonment by his wife, who took their children with her; breaking his neck in a car accident – meant that he was faced once again with a repetition of the original trauma he had suffered. Losing the life he had struggled so hard to build in America, Gorky may have lost the survival structures and the life energy that had propelled him forward to his becoming a new man, and a great artist.

See:

http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue18/mygorky.htm

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/7190303/Arshile-Gorky-A-Retrospective-at-Tate-Modern-review.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/feb/06/arshile-gorky-painting-william-feaver

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article7019487.ece

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article6977836.ece?token=null&offset=12&page=2

Video on the Tate Channel about Arshile Gorky by fellow Armenian Nouritza Matossian, writer of Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky. Her family, like Gorky’s, survived the Armenian genocide.

http://channel.tate.org.uk/media/26093514001

Michael R. Taylor (ed) Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009)

Nouritza Matossian, Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky (London: Chatto and Windus, 1998)

Black Angel – A Life of Arshile Gorky, video

Interesting video on the Tate Channel about Arshile Gorky by fellow Armenian Nouritza Matossian, writer of Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky. Her family, like Gorky’s, survived the Armenian genocide. http://channel.tate.org.uk/media/26093514001

Please feel free to add your comments, impressions, views about the film in the comments box below.

For more Reading Room Blog entries click here http://www.stellapierides.com/blog

How do languages die out? And why?

How do languages die out?The last member of a tribe that survived for over 65,000 years has died, taking a unique language with her. Bo had been one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Andaman Islands when the British colonised the islands. Initially the islands were used as penal colonies to accommodate survivors of the Indian War of Independence. The tribes were moved, forced to occupy a different, smaller island and subjected to so-called ‘civilising’ policies. Several were forced to live in the ‘Andaman Home.’ Interestingly, though not surprisingly, out of 150 Bo babies born in the Home, none survived beyond the age of 2. Food for thought. Read the article:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article7015540.ece

Or this one in The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/04/ancient-language-extinct-speaker-dies

Which diseases do languages die of? Colonisation, present and past, ‘civilising,’ paternalistic policies may be the most virulent and aggressive ones. How many people speak the indigenous languages of the American natives? How many languages are threatened by blind prejudice?

How many great poems, stories were lost when the Bo language became extinct ? How much knowledge about history, ancient perspectives, animals, plants was lost, we will never know. In our arrogance, we are comfortable in the belief that our knowledge is the best, that we know better – and thus lose our connection with our roots, history and common humanity.

From another perspective, globalisation, time, culture, technologies are great equalisers, disseminators of information to the great Social Darwinian battlefield of humanity. The stronger language, community, culture wins. In an article in The New York Times, this process is seen at work in China:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/18/world/asia/18manchu.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

On the other hand, many languages have also been saved. The Hebrew language was actively revived as a spoken, everyday language in the late nineteenth century, when Classical Hebrew and its later developments, together with other spoken Hebrew became the Modern Hebrew used today. Latin was saved from extinction through its use in the Holy See (but not the Vatican City State), apart from being preserved in classical education. Barely recognisable variations of Ancient Greek might (!) still be spoken by small pockets of descendents of Alexander the Great’s army in remote parts of Asia; Doric Greek is often uncovered in dialects spoken in the Peloponnese and other Western areas of present-day Greece. Welsh (in the United Kingdom), Maori (in New Zealand), and other languages came back from the brink.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8311000/8311069.stm

Though the work of digital archives is commendable in preserving dying and/or dead languages in digital museums, such as “Open Language Archives Community” (OLAC) – it is, sadly, helpless in keeping them alive out there in the world.

Luckily, there are are other means of helping: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/5509 and
http://www.survivalinternational.org/weareone

Carry a Poem

Responding to the “Carry a Poem”, Edinburgh’s city of literature reading campaign 

question: “How do you carry yours?” I sent in the piece below. I also enjoyed reading
other people’s poem stories. Have a look, you might find something to your heart’s
liking: http://carryapoem.com/category/stories/

Blue NightSTELLA’S STORY: BLUE NIGHT Thursday, 28 January 2010
I have different poems to suit different occasions. Poems,
fragments, even lines of poems I keep in my books, notice-board, notebook, iPod,
in my heart and head. And I keep renewing them, thanks to the wonderful output of our poets.
Last Christmas, I loved Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’;
last year, for rainy days, I carried Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’; the last few years,
Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’, hearing their ‘harsh and exciting’ cries as a wake
up call to the world. For decades, I pondered over Giorgos Seferis’ ‘In the Manner of G.S.’. So many others… Whenever I need reminding of my place in nature, in the order of things, whenever my expectations become too great, I reach for Sean O’Brien’s
‘Blue Night’. Downloaded from the Guardian, it lights up my computer screen. Therefore. Therefore, I become small, or tall. I draw strength and inspiration. Thank you Sean O’Brien. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jan/14/tseliotprizeforpoetry.awardsandprizes1
from Blue Night by Sean O’Brien Therefore. Therefore. Do not be weak. They have no time for pity or belief,

Who are the real Greeks? in The Guardian

Reading Room Blog

Reading Room Blog

To suggest something for my Reading Room Blog, please email me and I will try my best to follow it up. Otherwise, pick an entry, sit back, and read!

Matina Stevis, in The Guardian, asks: Who are the real Greeks? Sparking a thought provoking debate, she discusses the proposed legislation offering citizenship to the children of immigrants:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/20/greece-citizenship-immigrants-debate

I copy below my comment on Matina’s article from the Guardian website:

20 Jan 2010, 9:14PM

Greece is not an island. Unlike the UK, it is a country at the crossroads of the East with the West, at the intersection of three continents. It has a long history of wars of occupation and independence; of expansion, contraction, populations mixing, fleeing, persecution and exchange. In such an environment, the question ‘Who are the real Greeks?’ becomes either irrelevant or plays into the hands of those who try to manipulate history and race.

History helps us understand, though by no means justify or excuse, the state of a country and its people. Today, history is alive in Greece, and knowledge of the country’s past – the four hundred year Ottoman occupation, the Balkan wars, two World Wars, the war with Turkey and the resulting ‘Catastrophe’ of 1922, the treaty of Lausanne, the Civil War, the Junta –  helps us trace the roots of the divisions in modern Greek society. Unfortunately, large chunks of this history are kept in different places because they are being disputed, not accepted as true by the still warring parties in this country, as well as Greece’s neighbours. A quick read through the responses to this blog will illustrate the diversity of histories, ethnic woes and, really, the whole problem.

The Greek fault line may nowadays be seen in the reactions of some Greeks to foreign workers; in a feature shown on Greek TV some time ago, one could see footage of Greek migrants to America in the early twentieth century and the negative reactions to them by Americans that paralleled Greeks’ reactions to Albanian immigrants. The schism is also expressed in Greece’s policies towards some neighbouring countries  and now in the opposition of Greeks, thankfully not a majority, to the legislative proposal to allow citizenship to children born to immigrants.

Let us hope that those interested in Greece will feel encouraged by Matina’s article to trace the threads of this regrettable reaction to Greece’s history and the countless conflicts and migrations that made it a country and constructed its identity, and its fears of losing its recognizable format. At the same time, let us applaud the Greeks who, by proposing and supporting this progressive law, demonstrate their affinity with ideas of shared humanity and acceptance of the other.

2 Writers, many years later:

Reading Room Blog

Two writers writing about the refugees:

Renee Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)

Hirschon draws on her research as an anthropologist in one of the refugee areas of Piraeus, Kokkinia, in 1972. Living within the refugee community, Hirschon was able to observe people’s customs and traditions, listen to their stories, and witness their lives. The fact that they referred to themselves as refugees and they were addressed as such in 1972, fifty years from the 1922 catastrophic events in Asia Minor, becomes the pivot of the book, and underpins the facts she discusses.

Hirschon was able to follow the grievances, alienation, marginalisation and suffering of this group of people living in Piraeus, and their attempts to cope with their situation by forging a separate identity within the Greek nation. While later years brought prosperity and the option to move out of the area, large numbers decided to stay in overcrowded properties for economic, socio-political, and to some degree, psychological reasons. Hirschon’s work focuses on a moment in time in the lives of this group of Mikrasiates, which tells a story of their continuing need for an identity and a way of coming to terms with their situation.

From the iconostasi (icon corner/alcove) to the proxenio (the procedure of arranging the marriage), to the dowry, to the seeming contradiction of religious practice with left-wing commitment, and to the surprising ratio of chairs per head, the book presents and explores a society both alive and struggling to maintain its identity. Hirschon relates a woman refugee saying that while the catastrophic events in Asia Minor and their consequences were traumatic experiences to the older generation, they are heard only as fairy tales by their offspring.

This book paints an alive picture of the people and the society it describes.

————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Leyla Neyzi, ‘Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma’ in History and Memory, Bloomington: 2008, 20:2

Gülfem Kaatcilar Iren, a woman from Smyrna/Izmir, born in 1915, talks to Leyla Neyzi about her experiences of war, and the destruction of Smyrna and Manisa in  particular, events central to the history of Greece and Turkey. These events are referred to in Greece as the Smyrna ‘disaster’, while in Turkey as the ‘liberation’ of Izmir. This paper provides a unique account of the co-existence of two contradictory discourses framing the identity of the witness interviewed, as well as a wonderful illustration of shared humanity between people on the opposite sides of the political divide of the Aegean.

In a sensitive manner and with an ability to hold conflicting approaches in balance, Neyzi identifies two separate discourses in this narrative: a nationalist discourse which rationalises the events in Izmir and the ‘silence’ that followed them, and a discourse based on personal experience, which empathizes with those who lost the war and were forced to emigrate to another country (in this case, Greece) for safety.

Neyzi explores the coexistence and intersection between the two discourses while placing them within the wider socio-political context of the discussion about identity and history in modern-day Turkey.

Girl

Girl

I wrote this poem in response to the painting titled Woman by Robert Campin. The painting can be found in the National Gallery, London. Here is the link: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/robert-campin-a-woman

My poem, Girl, can be found in the print Journal Off the Coast, International/Translation Issue, Spring 2009.

Girl

after ‘Woman’ by Robert Campin, 1378-1444, National Gallery

She rarely smiles. A thick, white veil
frames her face, stops her innocence
from straying too far;
remembering the world outside.

Here she lives, here she is
and here she stays: four walls,
bench, Bible, rosary, Cross,
pair of clogs, glass, pebble,
compass, chair, table.

She would be lost, but
for her little pleasure:
a bowl of coconut ice
refectory Sister leaves
on her windowsill.

'Girl,' in Off the Coast

Of Love and Fish

IMG_0762.jpgIt might be true to say that Lakis, the seventeen year old new arrival to Athens, was born with an innate distrust of women. That, or it was his mother who influenced him. Without indulging in cheap psychology, let us give the idea a try. His history provides more than enough evidence. Lakis often goes over it, again and again. Do not be deceived by his job, and its meagre demands on his intellect. Crying daily “Sardines. Lovely sardines!” at the fish market may be simple enough, but it is what hides behind it that informs his character.

The weak muscle of his eye was the first thing his mother disliked. Born of a good family, her father a sea captain, she had always lusted after his men. She admired strong muscles in every form. She fell pregnant by one of them. Her father beat her with a chair and then locked her in a room overlooking the sea.

“He is an old-fashioned, hard-headed Greek,” her mother told her. “What can we do? You should have kept your skirts down, my girl.”

Out she pressed her tongue, in defiance. But there was no defying the will of her father. “I will show him, I will,” she repeated day and night, greeting her teeth, biting the insides of her cheeks. “I will show him.” And when her “muscle” man did not show up, when she heard he had sailed to Africa, the saying changed to, “I will show them!” Which she did. She “showed” everyone, including her son Lakis, of the weak eye muscle, by depriving them of her presence. By hiding away in her head.

The boy was starved of love. His mother was bent on revenge, his grandmother on mourning her absent captain of a husband. The boy played on his own and spoke to himself. All day, every day, in that lonely room, on top of the sad house overlooking the sea, overlooking the abode of his father. Sometimes he drew lines on the wooden floorboards. With his little finger. Invisible lines, like the lines ships draw on the surface of the sea. Sometimes he hummed songs he never heard in reality, rubbing with his index finger his favourite nail on the window frame. Sometimes he looked out of the window, like his own mother had looked at the sea, when she was longing for love herself and lost her mind to revenge. A ship passed every now and then. Clouds passed often. Boats passed every day. Boats with solitary men, escaping their pregnant wives. He tried to see if one of them was his father. But no one looked up at his window. No one seemed to look for him. Some boats were laden with catch. Fish that shone and trembled. Lakis felt sorry for the fish. Each one outside the water it loved. Each one like him, lonely, frightened, not knowing where it would end up. His grandmother, who never knew the names of fish, told him they were sardines. She brought him the food that someone from downstairs cooked. She stayed with him for a few minutes, by the window, looking out to sea.

“You have the best view, you lucky one!” she told him. “What do I need a view of the sea. My husband sees it in his travels all day.” His mother never came. Not once after she was allowed out of that room. She scoured the four corners of their house, she haunted its creaky staircases, its corridors, speaking to the walls and their ceilings. But she never spoke to Lakis or anybody else.

When it was time for him to go to school, he simply did not go. He did not know anything about schools. How was he to know? Nobody told him. Nobody saw him. Nobody knew of him. Except a few close family members and they pretended not to know. They turned a blind eye to his existence, because it meant shame. So he grew up on his own, unschooled. With the sea, the silence and the sad, dying fish for company. Until, just around ten, he ran away.

It was so simple. He could have done it years ago had he known how simple it was! He just did not let his grandmother go out and lock the door behind her. He pushed past her and ran and ran till he could no longer breath. There he stopped and stood. He looked around him. It was a big opening of the sea with many boats standing still. Men were sitting on the ground, like he sat in his room, mending their nets. He went and sat next to one of them. The quietest one, the one sitting furthest apart from the others. Neither of them spoke. Much later, the man turned to him:

“You are a quiet boy. What is your name?”

“Lakis.” And that was the beginning of the love story that kept the boy alive. He answered the questions well enough for Kyrios Nikos, a refugee himself, to understand the tragedy of the situation.

“My name is Nikos,” he said and shook hands with the boy. “You can stay with me.”

Lakis stayed with Kyrios Nikos for a few years, helping with the fishing and the mending. Helping with the loneliness and the desolation of an uprooted life. It was during those years that he learnt about the world.

“Another capital, Kyrie Niko? How many capitals has the world got?”

“Many, Laki mou. Many. The world is a big place.”

“How do you remember them all?”

“I remember the important ones. Smyrni, the Paris of Anatolia.”

However, despite the best intentions, Kyrios Nikos was not that good a teacher for Laki. The problem was he kept mixing metaphors with facts.

“So, was Smyrni a capital? Your Smyrni?” Lakis tried to clarify things in his mind.

“Yes!” Kyrios Nikos exclaimed. “The capital of my heart!”

Eventually, Kyrios Nikos, with the extra pair of hands that Lakis provided, managed to get enough savings together for both of them to travel to the undisputed capital of hearts and Greece, Athens. There, they opened shop, or stall – it is a matter of perspective – and sold their wares. How proud Lakis was of their achievement. “Sardines, lovely Sardines!” he could shout for days, if it had not been for the limitations of his throat.

“Boss?” he had started calling Kyrios Nikos. “Boss? Another coffee? Water, Boss?”

Kyrios Nikos adored him. The son he never had. The family he had missed out on having. This is why he kept asking the boy about his lodgings at Alexandrias 40.

“They treat you well, my son? The women respect you? They lower their eyes?” he asked Laki a few days after he started lodging there. Worried that his boy would be mistreated once again. Kyrios Nikos had lost trust himself in the world, especially in its women, who seemed to respect money more than they respected a soul. “We are both refugees, my son. You from your family, I from the greed of Greeks and Turks. We have to support one another. At least your  landlords are refugees themselves, they know all about pain.”

“They treat me well, Boss. I don’t need anything.” Kyrios Nikos, unable to run a shop and pay an employee at the same time, not to mention paying the refugee mafia that plagues the market, sleeps in the shop. Which means he sleeps rough. But he does not mind. After all these years he is used to it. In addition, he has made some very good friends there. Poor, but honest and hard-working, and above all with hearts like his. Big.

So when it comes to questions of love, of trust, of loyalty, Lakis turns to Kyrios Nikos. He has not met his mother since he left home, anyway. He has only a confused sense of her presence, a craving for love fused with violent repulsion. Poor Lakis. Hard as he may try, he cannot see her in his mind’ eye, he cannot feel her on his skin. “Mother,” he tries speaking to her, at night, in his small room, his candle flickering from his rocking on the floor. “Mother,” he says louder. She never answers him. He never gives up.

Is it mistrust he suffers from? Is it withheld love? And if so, is it his mother’s or his father’s withholding? or is it him born mistrustful, his squinting eye not letting him get hold of the depth of the complexity of this world? We may never find out. Though we do know he has known love and, by now, he knows fish too.

A version of this story was published in Spiked, issue 15. It is an extract from the novel Alexandrias 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree.

Other Writers

Here I collect notes, poems, articles, pictures, news I find interesting, exciting, thought-provoking – without necessarily agreeing with them.

New Poetry Book, Hyphen, by Tania van Schalkwyk

A wonderful meditation on origins, place and the spaces in between. Tania has the gift of writing poems that refresh the soul. Here is a link to her book:

http://www.uctwriters.co.za/hyphen

Gabriel Josipovici, ‘Borges and the Plain Sense of Things’  in readysteadyblog. A great read:

http://www.readysteadybook.com/Article.aspx?page=josipovicionborges

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem 12 Days of Christmas makes my day, everyday. What an alive, current, all-encompassing ode to reality! Thank you Carol Ann Duffy!

http://www.radiotimes.com/content/features/carol-ann-duffy-the-twelve-days-of-christmas/ and article

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/dec/06/poet-laureate-duffy-christmas-poem

News

Novel Alexandrias 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree

to be published in 2010 by Vox Humana Books http://www.voxhumana-books.com

“In these tales of love, loss, and survival, Pierides embroiders a tableau detailing the lives of a refugee family in Athens, circa 1957. The novel is set in the house of the family on Alexandrias Street, where they came to settle years after their flight from Smyrni, now Izmir, Turkey. Framed by this house — a concoction of tin, cement, wood and mud, a paradise, a refuge and a prison to those who nestle in it — they struggle to come to terms with their predicament, attempting to establish themselves in Greece. Without idealising its characters, the novel unfolds — a tragicomic story, full of ethnic colour, warm sensuality and psychological insight. The book encompasses the “Catastrophe” of Asia Minor, the Greek Civil War, accusations and blackmail, adoption and betrayal, as well as the refugees’ love and bitterness towards their country. The characters’ traumatic past and struggle for survival, in a country that is both home and hostile to them, requires their ability to tap into psychological resources of generosity, masochism, denial and ruthlessness — and above all — humour and forgiveness. In a quick-paced narrative straddling both the genres of novel and short story, Stella Pierides recreates a world within a world, miles apart from the well-trodden tourist trail to Greece.”

“…Vox Humana Books…eclectic literature with a human voice”

Soul Song, in Poetry Monthly International, issue 15, January 2010 (p. 18). [Poem] http://www.poetrymonthly.com/15 PMI January 2010.pdf

The Refugee, Winter Picture, and Mystery Train, to appear in  Vox Humana Literary, Spring Issue, 2010. [3 Poems] http://www.voxhumana-lit.com

Girl, in the print Journal  Off the Coast, International/Translation Issue, Spring 2009. [Poem]

Song of the Aegean, in Poetry Monthly, issue 150, 2008. [Poem]

Reading Room

Renee Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)

Hirschon draws on her research as an anthropologist in one of the refugee areas of Piraeus, Kokkinia, in 1972. Living within the refugee community, Hirschon was able to observe people’s customs and traditions, listen to their stories, and witness their lives. The fact that they referred to themselves as refugees and they were addressed as such in 1972, fifty years from the 1922 catastrophic events in Asia Minor, becomes the pivot of the book, and underpins the facts she discusses.

Hirschon was able to follow the grievances, alienation, marginalisation and suffering of this group of people living in Piraeus, and their attempts to cope with their situation by forging a separate identity within the Greek nation. While later years brought prosperity and the possibility to move out of the area, large numbers decided to stay in overcrowded properties for economic, socio-political, and to some degree, psychological reasons. Hirschon’s work focuses on a moment in time in the lives of this group of Mikrasiates, which tells a story of their continuing need for an identity and a way of coming to terms with their situation.

From the iconostasi (icon corner/alcove) to the proxenio (the procedure of arranging the marriage), to the dowry, to the seeming contradiction of religious practice with left-wing commitment, and to the surprising ratio of chairs per head, the book presents and explores a society both alive and struggling to maintain its identity. Hirschon relates a woman refugee saying that while the catastrophic events in Asia Minor and their consequences were traumatic experiences to the older generation, they are heard only as fairy tales by their offspring.

This book paints an alive picture of the people and the society it describes.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Leyla Neyzi, ‘Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma’ in History and Memory, Bloomington: 2008, 20:2

Gülfem Kaatcilar Iren, a woman from Smyrna/Izmir, born in 1915, talks to Leyla Neyzi about her experiences of war, and the destruction of Smyrna and Manisa in  particular, events central to the history of Greece and Turkey. These events are referred to in Greece as the Smyrna ‘disaster’, while in Turkey as the ‘liberation’ of Izmir. This paper provides a unique account of the co-existence of two contradictory discourses framing the identity of the witness interviewed, as well as a wonderful illustration of shared humanity between people on the opposite sides of the political divide of the Aegean.

In a sensitive manner and with an ability to hold conflicting approaches in balance, Neyzi identifies two separate discourses in this narrative: a nationalist discourse which rationalises the events in Izmir and the ‘silence’ that followed them, and a discourse based on personal experience, which empathizes with those who lost the war and were forced to emigrate to another country (in this case, Greece) for safety.

Neyzi explores the coexistence and intersection between the two discourses while placing them within the wider socio-political context of the discussion about identity and history in modern-day Turkey.

Sources and related material to Alexandrias 40 and my Greek Short Stories:

Online

Alice James, 2001, ‘Memories of Anatolia: generating Greek refugee identity’, in

http://balkanologie.revues.org/index720.html

Thalia Pandiri, 2007, ‘Narratives of Loss and Survival: Greek voices from the Asia Minor Catastrophe’, in

http://www.interlitq.org/issue1/thalia_pandiri/job.php

Raymond Bonner, 1996, ‘Tales of Stolen Babies and Lost Identities; A Greek Scandal Echoes in New York’ in

http://www.nytimes.com/1996/04/13/nyregion/tales-of-stolen-babies-and-lost-identities-a-greek-scandal-echoes-in-new-york.html

Print

Bruce Clark, Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (London: Granta Books, 2007)

Dimitra Giannuli, ‘“Strangers at Home” The Experiences of Ottoman Greek Refugees during their Exodus to Greece, 1922-1923,’ in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 13:2 (1995: Oct.)

Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City (New York: Newmark Press, 1988)

Esther P Lovejoy, Certain Samaritans (New York: Macmillan, 1933)

Leyla Neyzi, ‘Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma’ in History and Memory, Bloomington: 2008, 20:2

Arnold J Toynbee The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the contact of civilizations (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922)

Fiction

Louis de Bernieres, Birds without Wings (New York: Random House, 2004)

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (London: Bloomsbury, 2002)

Ernest Hemingway, ‘On the Quai at Smyrna’, in The Short Stories (New York: Scribner, 2003)

Nikos Kazantzakis, Christ Re-crucified,

Dido Sotiriou, Farewell Anatolia

Films

Theo Angelopoulos The Weeping Meadow

Costas Ferris, Rembetiko

Elia Kazan, America America

Literature, Art, Culture, Society, and lots of Haiku