Fathers and Daughters: Joanna Eleftheríou’s This Way Back
Eleftheriou, Joanna. This Way Back. Morgantown. West Virginia University Press. 2020. Pp. vii + 257. Paperback $23.99.
by George Kouvaros
Near the end of Joanna Eleftheríou’s collection of autobiographical essays, the author recalls her ailing father’s habit of rising from his bed at one in the morning. From her bedroom, she would listen to the sounds made by his nocturnal labors: the striking of the match used to light the stove, the bang of the kettle as it is placed on the metal burner and the clinking of the items of china retrieved from the shelf. Nursing his cup of tea, he would then make his way out to his beloved garden where he would spend the long hours until dawn looking at the moonlit gray poplars and array of flowers that he had so carefully cultivated, despite the harshness of the climate in his home village of Asgáta, located at the eastern tip of Cyprus. The figure that emerges in these concluding reflections is someone isolated from the other members of his family, yet intimately connected to the place that he has chosen as his final destination. The sadness that accompanies the author’s portrait is the result of everything we have come to know about her father’s life and never-finished migrations as well as the deep bond that connects father and daughter.
In 1988, after having studied and made a life for himself as a teacher of history in New York, Andréas Eleftheríou made the decision to return to Cyprus, the place where he was born and where he had spent his childhood and high school years. Cyprus was also where generations of his family had established businesses and acquired sizeable parcels of land. Returning to the island was about using this inheritance to build a home that would allow his children to “know who they are” (125). This meant uprooting his American-born wife and children from a comfortable life in the New York neighborhood of Flushing. For the ten-year-old author, the experience of arriving in Cyprus had been prepared for her by her father’s yearnings: “I felt I was arriving home to a place I had never seen—as if my father’s home had lurked in some inherited recess of my imagination. This place was in my dreams and in my blood; it held my father’s story and the story of his father before him” (26).
The story told in Eleftheriou’s book is how the return to Cyprus marked not the culmination of her father’s plans, but the commencement of a series of back-and-forth journeys. These journeys set the scene for the author’s reflections on the conflicting impulses that characterize her father’s history as well as her own delayed awakening as a gay Greek Orthodox woman. “He longed for a life on a mountaintop,” she observes about her father, “and when he got it, he left for proximity to schools. He longed for the spoils of modernity: the city, sweatless intellectual work, emancipation from the backbreaking demands of livestock and crops. And when he got that, becoming a teacher in a New York City school, he longed for gardens … He wanted his children to be independent, joyful adults, but he begged me, too, to pick up where he left off, embody his own desires, and make my life a realization of his abandoned dreams” (13). In the author’s account of her own history, she is both her father’s daughter—inheriting his love of history and belief in the importance of education—and someone whose deepest desires place her at an irrevocable distance from the culture and values that he sought to pass on. “Here is the paradox,” she explains. “I still feel my faith holds the keys to spiritual liberation, total connection, and absolute peace, but by rejecting homosexuality, it becomes, for me, also a cage” (181). The book’s strength lies in the way in which this tension is something other than simply the driver for conflicts and moments of pain. More enduringly, it is the very basis of who she is: the bedrock of her thinking.
The essay that exemplifies this dimension takes the form of an unsent letter to her father. “My father, I did everything you asked,” it begins. And what follows is a list of the academic prizes and sporting accomplishments that came her way. But the purpose of the letter is not to remind her father of her accomplishments or dutifulness to him. It is to clarify the terms on which their relationship might continue. “I want to know two things,” she tells him. “First, I want to know if you will love me even if I fail to give you grandchild, and second, I want to know how hard I should try to turn what I am into what you want me to be” (136). The answer that the author proposes involves forgiveness and humility as well as an acceptance of what she calls their mutual smallness. Both father and daughter have been diminished by their circumstances: him, through the physical deteriorations caused by his drastically weakened heart; her, through the cruel words of her relatives. Near the end of the letter, she ponders “How to take this humiliation and make out of it the stuff of love—that is the question, the daughter’s work, our work. And though we have been rich inside, and though we have been strong, today we are only ourselves, by the family’s pity humiliated, and by our own failures made small” (142-143). She concludes by urging her father: “Grow smaller and smaller with me, whatever the price—whatever the reward. Nothing comes without a fight, not even love” (143).
Because the letter remains unsent, her father’s response to these injunctions is something that both the author and reader must imagine. From this, two important conclusions can be deduced: first, the difficulty of attaining the humility that the author advances as a way out of the crisis in their relationship and, second, that the work of understanding the obligations and responsibilities that bind the author to her father must remain unfinished or always still-to-be-determined. In her collection of essays devoted to the crisis of tradition in modern life, Hannah Arendt refers to the attitude characteristic of Roman society to regard the past as a model and source of authority for the present: “To educate, in the words of Polybius, was simply ‘to let you see that you are altogether worthy of your ancestors’’’ (2006, 191). Arendt’s book is fuelled by the question: what happens to tradition, to culture, to thinking when the figure of the ancestor has lost its authority and function as a model, when between the passing of an older generation and the emergence of a new there arises the possibility of an abyss? She acknowledges that there is nothing new in this situation. “Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home” (2006, 189).
“For the decline of the old, the birth of the new, is not necessarily an affair of continuity,” Arendt adds in a different context. “Between the generations, between those who for some reason or other still belong to the old and those who either feel the catastrophe in their very bones or have already grown up with it, the chain is broken and an ‘empty space,’ a kind of historical no man’s land, comes to the surface” (2007, 121). The value of Arendt’s remarks is that they allow us to place the tensions that drive Eleftheriou’s essays in a larger context, one in which the passage of the generations coincides with a crisis in thought. This is most evident, I have suggested, when the author reflects on her father’s legacy—what it asks of her. In the opening essay, she recounts his funeral and the memorial rituals and graveyard duties that the bereaved are required to observe: the making of the kólyva on the ninth day after death, watering the gravesite to speed up the settling process prior to the laying of the stone memorial, the lighting of the oil lamp to guide the soul of the departed toward heaven. Her account of these practices illustrates her ambivalent connection to the belief systems and customs of her father’s homeland; at the same time, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the forces that underpin her position as the one who must take care of her family’s unfinished business: “I’m the daughter whose academic job affords her time to go back to take care of our parents’ unfinished business: renting out the house they bought in spite of us all, tracking down out-of-the-way plots of land that still belong to great-grandparents, and building a memorial on the space that received my father’s body” (16).
By telling the story of Andréas’ migrations and how they shaped the course of her own life, the essays in Eleftheríou’s book are, like the stones used to construct her father’s mnemío, part of this work of memorialization. They are how the author negotiates what she fittingly describes as “the liminal space between speaking to a man and speaking for him” (19). The point we need to stress is the essayistic nature of this endeavor, its commitment to a form of writing that moves between styles: memoir, history, theoretical reflection and, at times, even poetry. This movement allows the author to approach the forces that shaped her relationship to her father from a range of different pathways. Just as important, it evokes the labor of thought as it struggles to make sense of a legacy. Writing is, thus, what the author inherits from the unresolved yearnings of a previous generation and how she endeavors to account for all that was made possible by these yearnings. Near the end of the book, Eleftheríou asks: “When do we begin to mourn for those we love; once we begin, how do we end it?” (252). In This Way Back the logic of clear-cut beginnings and endings is replaced by way of thinking that is always in the middle, always in the process of contemplating how our connection to the people and places that touch us most deeply is forever ending and starting anew.
George Kouvaros is Professor of Film Studies in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW, Sydney. His most recent book is The Old Greeks: Photography, Cinema, Migration (UWAP, 2018).
Arendt, Hannah. “The Crisis in Education.” In Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, introduction by Jerome Kohn (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).
Arendt, Hannah. “No Longer and Not Yet.” In Reflections on Literature and Culture, edited and with an introduction by Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).