This Way Back: An Interview with Joanna Eleftheriou

CAMERON FINCH interviews JOANNA ELEFTHERIOU

Headshot of Janna Eleftheriou

This Way Back (West Virginia University Press, 2020) is Joanna Eleftheriou’s first book. She is currently an assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University and a faculty member of the Writing Workshops in Greece. Dividing her time between Greece and New York, Eleftheriou’s work can also be found in Apalachee Review and Arts and Letters. 

Most artists struggle with the role of responsibility and their art. Does art have a responsibility? In this insightful interview with Cameron Finch, Joanna Eleftheriou provides readers with a mini-manual on how to engage in the dialectic of identity, confront the privilege of choosing an identity, and how writers prioritize discovery. If you’re looking for advice on how to begin an essay, or a way to honor your wounds, this interview is an excellent starting point. Eleftheriou’s focus on freedom and all of its incarnations is a valuable canvas for artists who might find themselves at an impasse. “We deserve to see ourselves in art,” says Eleftheriou. Indeed, says The Common.


Cameron Finch (CF): In a recent podcast with Assay, you speak about your deliberate choice to write essays, not a memoir. You say: “I don’t prioritize what happened. I prioritize what I can discover.” This echoes a quote from your essay, “Shopping for Story,” in which we find you in conversation with a lefkaratika (UNESCO-protected lace) maker. She reveals to you that she could work all day as long as she was needling something that excites and challenges her. I loved your response: “That’s exactly how I feel about writing. If I know what I’m going to say before I start, I feel bored, or like I’m faking it.” As this essay collection was coming together, I’m wondering about the role that surprise or epiphany played in that process. What did you discover that you hadn’t expected to find?

Joanna Eleftheriou (JE): Every essay starts out with a puzzle. Sometimes, I have a discrete set of events that seem worth dramatizing, and the puzzle is what meaning will emerge from the telling. Conversely, there’s the “why am I obsessed with this?” essays, about carobs and Melina Mercouri, for example. I just start with my obsession, and with this compulsion to tell other people about a little-known person and pod. In both cases, the energy of the written essay comes entirely from the search for what meaning I’ll stumble upon. I remain open to an unflattering answer to the reason for my obsession.

Sometimes the external insight comes from a person involved in the narrative. For instance, a key insight in “Without Goodbyes” also came from a friend. Neri compared my experience of homophobia to the pressure my great-great-grandparents may have felt to convert to Islam as Christians in the Ottoman Empire. So I come to realize, thanks to her, that there are ways to both honor my own wounds while also understanding how much bigger the story is than me, and how enormous webs of sociopolitical forces conspired against my mother to prevent her from giving me what I need. The drama of every essay is driven by this search for a solution to such a puzzle. The solution always exceeds in complexity anything I could have imagined at the outset.

The most unexpected discovery in writing the book, though, has been the dialectic between my Greek and lesbian identities. Going into my dissertation defense in 2015, I believed I had composed half of a book about Greekness and half a book about coming out. My committee contended that the combination produced the greatest insights of all. Once they’d pointed that out, I traveled to the island of Lesbos and wrote about it in order to further entrench in the book those connections between Greekness and a lesbian identity. As a result, I think, readers can reflect productively on how we develop a sense of who we are—specifically, how relentlessly the gaze of others and the rhetoric around us determines who it is possible for us to be.

I bristle violently when people insist that we can “be whoever we want.” This, I think, is an error that is possible for the privileged, whose sense of themselves never goes contested. When we are told that we are someone we are not, and repeatedly—as I continue to be told that the way I look, and the attraction men feel for me, have more meaning than my own sense of my orientation—we lose the luxury of ignorance and know that what others decide about us based on our appearance, accent, etc. determines much about how we feel. Usually, discussions of ethnicity and sexuality happen in different spaces. I write about being told what I am in both senses, and what sorts of resources, internal and external, I employed in my struggle to wrestle the world’s perception of me into alignment with what I feel.

Just as each essay builds toward a key insight of which I was not aware at the outset, so the book, too, arrives at this insight essay by essay. The confluence of the two questions, what does it mean to be Greek and what does it mean to be gay, comes in the essay “Cyprus Pride,” when I finally happen upon a satisfying answer to the for me fraught question “Where are you from?”

I find a satisfactory answer to this basic question only after I see my sexuality made visible in the place where I grew up. The answer I find is simple—from New York and Asgata—but was not available to me until this momentous episode had occurred.

CF: I noticed that the word “freedom” (elefthería) appears repeatedly throughout the book, at least 40 times. I, of course, can’t help but see a resemblance there to your last name! You write on Greek Cypriot freedom fighters, confession and ascetism as pathways to freedom, freedoms of movement and speech, the freedom to love who you love, and your own longing to need nothing but your own body and the earth. In your essay, “The Actress Who Isn’t Acting,” you write that when asked what was most important to her, the actress and activist Melina Mercouri responded with one word: elefthería. What is it about elefthería and its many versions that fascinates you, drives you, and compels you to study and question its role in our humanity?

JE: Wow! I’m thrilled you noticed that! I’m very proud to have a last name that’s so close to the word freedom. Fairly often, Greek people forget my first name and call me Eleftheria, which is both freedom and the girl’s version of Eleftherios (my great-grandfather), and I never ever correct them.

First, freedom elefthería is the beginning and end of what we seek, I think. Most religions I know of promise freedom. Sometimes from sin, sometimes from the burden of sin, sometimes from a political oppressor. Those same religions often imagine a time before some kind of fall when humans used to be free, and the work of the faithful is to find a way back to that period of freedom. Often, freedom is imagined as a freedom from wanting anything, which I examine in “Wild Honey, Locust Beans.” Christianity tends to portray desire itself as the opposite of freedom, and I guess I’m driven by this puzzle. How can that be true if desire also energizes us, drives us, makes us feel alive? That’s the spiritual dimension of freedom that I’m compelled to examine (without expecting to solve the puzzle).

Here’s the psychosocial dimension. I’m puzzled by the ideal of not depending on anyone. I have always tried to prove I can do things on my own, but that conflicts terribly with my philosophy of life! I believe in connection and interdependence. When Lyft used as an advertising plug “don’t owe your friends a ride!” I thought that was a terrible idea. Feeling beholden can feel uncomfortable (un-free), but connections empower us socially, psychologically, and financially. I would go so far as to suspect that perhaps the spiritual freedom above also comes from a willingness to connect broadly, to many people and landscapes. So there’s the paradox: freedom comes from relationships which are structured by those very systems of exchange that can also feel like restrictions on our autonomy.

Freedom, also, is what happens when what’s inside me is received, via language, in the heart of another.

CF: In your essay, “The Other Side,” you describe the “I Don’t Forget” campaigna movement in Cyprus to preserve the memory of the Greek/Turkish hostility and division. But of course, facts, happenings, sufferings, triumphs, tragedies are forgotten every dayour elders are dying, oppressors censor and lie, our minds fill in the blanks with imagined memories and uneducated prejudices. How do you see your writing, and the work of your contemporaries, working in opposition to a politicized collective forgetting or erasing?

JE: Your question of course conjures Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. An opposition to politicized forgetting is precisely the task of art. We are responsible, as artists, for documenting, witnessing, and remembering even those truths that are not in our political interest to recall. My research required reading the books I wasn’t assigned in school. I join the campaign, asking American readers to remember the wounds incurred by an island smaller than Connecticut, but I also seek out the memory of those injuries my own people perpetrated: oppression of the Turkish-Cypriot minority in the 1960s, Muslims while the Greek Christian army retreated through Anatolia.

I believe we are called to recover whatever truths we have the knowledge and the desire to hunt down, those are the truths we are required (by some sacred unwritten universal law) to write down and preserve.

CF: In your Assay interview, you also speak about the word nostalgia (from the Greek nostos meaning “homecoming” and álgos, meaning “pain” or “ache”) and this longing for not only a land of the past, but a time when things were simpler. You mention that you are continuing to question your own ethnic nostalgia and asking yourself why you enjoy imagining a past that was better than the time you’re living presently. Could you speak more about this obligation to question one’s self, and how are you going about this self-evaluation?

JE: It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it’s necessary in order to write a good book. Perhaps it connects back to freedom—comfortable untruths imprison us. Facing the truth about ourselves, about the people and places we love, and our history, is the only way to become free.

Now, difficult truths must be communally seen. One reason I begin [the book] with a funeral is because the ritual communalizes the grief and makes the death knowable and bearable. I intended the funeral to work as a contrast to my experience of terror due to homophobia, which I bore alone. For a long time I had no support, no compassion, and no community to make my reality and danger possible to bear. Similarly, my mother had no community to make her suspicions about my desire bearable. Eventually, we both accept the truth through community, although for my mother that community emerged after she had read the book.

The way to freedom is the facing of uncomfortable truths; that “way” can be traversed only in community. 

CF: Throughout This Way Back, English-speaking readers are invited to learn Greek and Cypriot terms and phrases. I’m curious about the decision to include within the Greek alphabet, the romanized Greek pronunciation, and the English translation. Was this three-part translation always part of the schematics of the book? How did you navigate writing and thinking about both the English and Greek aspects of this book from a linguistic perspective?

JE: I played around with a few possibilities, and I’m grateful to the press for their willingness to include it all. Every time I took one of those three out, I felt a gut-dropping loss, dramatic as that sounds. As a reader of similar books that include languages I don’t know, I admit I don’t always try very hard to hear how the words in that unknown language sound. But I guess I wanted to offer the sounds inside my head to readers if they were willing to hear them.

I’m also eager to give the original to readers who know Greek, since when I do know the language that’s included only in romanized transliteration or translation, I feel like the original is being withheld.

A lot of writers are now resisting the convention of italicizing “foreign” words, but I felt I was already demanding a lot of the reader with all the Greek I’ve included, so I chose not to ask readers to confront that challenge on top of all the others. Finding ways to ensure there’s enough payoff for any challenges is important. I hoped that the payoff for managing all the foreign Greek words would be this sense of fully inhabiting Cyprus while reading the book.

CF: The essay, “Unsent Letter to My Father,” in my opinion, is perhaps the most vulnerable and tender chapter of them all. Broadly speaking, the entire book could perhaps be read as an unsent letter to your father, as his words, his historical memory, and his influence in your life all have a strong presence throughout these essays. I’m thinking about your father in relation to this book’s dedication, “For my teachers,” and I’m wondering if there’s a connection between what is inherited and what is taught, specifically in terms of your relationship to your father and to Cyprus.

JE: I suppose the book does indeed worry or trouble that binary of what’s inherited and taught. For one, both constitute our inheritance, which is another metaphor that shows up repeatedly, with the prodigal son and “Inheritance Law” as well as this idea of inheriting a place. I guess by asking questions about inheritance, I’m asking what it means to be a self. Where is the point where my family ends and I begin? Some questions in the book are unanswerable, but through writing the book I did answer that one. I did come to understand how the taught values, the inherited instincts and abilities, the taught languages, are all part of me,  but there’s still more “me.” That part of myself that’s distinct from my origins is not acceptable to those origins, but my peace requires that I accept it nonetheless.

CF: In your essay “Out,” you talk about the struggle to accept and be accepted for both your love for God and your love for women. The poet, Carolyn Forché, tells you that you’ll have to be the first gay Orthodox person you know. What has that road map to accepting “being the first” looked like, and what advice do you have for people who also are “the first person they know” of intersecting identities?

JE: This June will mark the tenth anniversary of that conversation. And at very long last, I feel very comfortable and confident about being gay. I even have to make an effort to remember just how hard it was.

The advice I have is to trust your instinct about who is a safe person to confide in and ask for help. I was right every time I guessed a person was safe. I was also right about my decision to withhold from my family, and I was right when I disclosed just before I turned forty.

We deserve to see ourselves in art. We deserve to see ourselves on TV. There is no greater anguish than the sense of not-existing that our absence in (popular) culture incurs. If you can’t see yourself, you have been injured, but there’s nothing to do but become the person others like you will see. Again, we deserve all the support and encouragement we can get, and we should ask for it.

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Joanna Eleftheriou is an assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University, a contributing editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and a faculty member at the Writing Workshops in Greece. Her essays, short stories, and translations appear regularly in journals including Apalachee Review, Chautauqua, CutBank, Arts and Letters, and The Common. Based in Hampton Roads, Virginia, she regularly spends time in New York, Cyprus, and Greece. This Way Back is Joanna’s first book. Read more at joannaeleftheriou.com.

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Cameron Finch is a writer and editor based in New York. Finch’s writing and interviews have appeared in various journals including The Adroit Journal, CRAFT, Electric Literature, Entropy, Isele, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and Tiny Molecules. Read more at ccfinch.com.

 

This Way Back: An Interview with Joanna Eleftheriou

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