Georgia Kolias, The Feasting Virgin. Ann Arbor, MI: Bywater Books, 2020. Pp. 354.
Georgia Kolias’ The Feasting Virgin takes the reader through a complicated tale of family obligation, religious devotion, and romance. At times almost farcical in its romantic complications, and at times skirting a family secret of serious darkness, the novel follows three characters connected by what is essentially a need for belonging. As Kolias writes early in the novel, “Could someone become Greek?” Kolias’ characters are specifically caught up in what it means to be Greek in America. The novel offers the reader a range of Greek identity through which to explore this question. In the character of Gus Horiatis, we see Greekness conferred by birth but then tempered by life in America; in Xeni, we see Greekness known only through its American iteration; and in Gus’ American partner Callie, we see Greekness as the foreign world an American tries to enter into. Though the novel concludes with a more expansive vision of Greek American traditions, the attributes of that world border on stereotype. Kolias’ characters inhabit a Greek America defined by subservient women, blue-and-white decorated restaurants, belly-dancing, and strict belief in the Orthodox church.
Kolias peppers the novel with keen observations about Greek American culture, and, in fact, about the distinctions between Greek culture and Greek American culture. In one of the first-person-narrated chapters that make up the novel, Xeni points out that “Greek-Americans live in a time capsule, following the customs in place when their parents left the homeland thirty, forty, or fifty years ago” (122). She writes this culture with a loving and at times chastising eye. There is a gentle mockery in the depiction of a grown man whose mother smothers him with control and manipulation, and gentle mockery, too, in certain aspects of cultural rigidity, as when a man dares say his mother’s pastitsio can’t be any different from anybody else’s. On more substantive aspects of Greek American culture—such as its social conservatism—Kolias is silent, interestingly so for a novel in which a romance between two women plays a central part.
Kolias writes with insight on the behavior of non-Greeks around Greekness. As Gus watches dancers at a Greek festival, Kolias describes the “comfortable unawareness” of the “folk dance enthusiasts” as they “[dance] in too-wide circles, leading their pack into all corners of the dance floor, crowding into the Greeks” (296). She writes with wit, too, about human behavior at large. On families: “They are loyal to each other even when they are fighting or unhappy” (283). On love: “Love is Sisyphean. You have to love your boulder to push it every day” (308).
Kolias writes beautifully about food and passion—and about the passion for food. Describing the cooking performed by the two women at the heart of the novel, she creates vivid scenes of originality and precision. She weaves an intricate and effective imagery throughout the novel around love and consumption, how we “eat up” those we love most, citing the Greek phrase θα σε φάω as her example.
As with any novel about another culture, Kolias has the task of rendering another language within her English text. She studs the novel with numerous Greek phrases rendered in English transcriptions that occasionally defy pronunciation, as with tha se faw (θα σε φάω) which inexplicably uses a w in place of the omega in the Greek for a completely different sound. Other phrases are included without explanation, and raise the question of how the non-Greek speaker can interpret them. Further, non-Greek-speaking readers will read “ ayori mou” (αγόρι μου) with a y sound (just as they will read tha se faw with that awkward w). It is a shame that, in a few places, the Greek that Kolias produces in the text is not correct. The grammatically incorrect “Yiassou koritsia” suggests we read it as nothing more than a marker of Greekness, like the cry of Opa which Greek America uses in a way largely unique to itself.
If we take The Feasting Virgin as a novel about Greek American culture not Greek culture, these linguistic details hardly matter, though they do suggest the author herself regards Greek American culture without the attention that might have produced a more nuanced portrait. But the question of the novel’s intended and expected audience is important. On the one hand, the novel seems to be written for an audience that already knows the world it describes, an audience that will be able to understand the English transliterations of dialogue lines like “Ella na horepsoume” (210). But The Feasting Virgin is published by Bywater Books, which identifies itself as a publisher of “contemporary lesbian writing.” That audience, of course, expands beyond readers with Greek heritage and knowledge of Greek language. What is the non-Greek-speaking reader to make of the text that remains in places incomprehensible?
Kolias’ other linguistic choices have to do with her naming of characters, and they are curious choices, in a variety of ways. Callie, who lacks any Greek heritage, calls herself Calliope—a name bestowed upon her by an audience member who has watched her belly-dance performance. She tells Xeni “it means ‘the muse of epic poetry’” (71). Of course, knowledgeable readers will know that the word doesn’t mean the muse of epic poetry; it is the name of the Muse of epic poetry. Nonetheless, when Xeni hears Callie’s explanation, she has no reaction except to ask what her friend’s real name is. “It’s something boring,” Callie tells her. Here, we see a general carelessness around Greek language and culture, and an exoticism of certain of its elements. The Muse’s name is inherently more exciting than whatever name Callie was given by her mother. On top of this, she has been given this very Greek name apparently because of her grace in a dance idiom that has little to do with Greek culture but is typically performed as “Greek” outside of Greece. Despite its cultural inaccuracy, belly-dancing becomes a signifier of Greekness here, just as incorrect in its application as opa! and yassou!
In general, Kolias’ naming system seems to vacillate between what is culturally accurate and what is possibly symbolic. The reader learns that there are English-language equivalents for Greek given names—that Constantinos becomes Gus, Penelope becomes Penny, and Emmanouil or Manolis becomes Manny. But then what does Kolias intend the reader to glean from Xeni’s name, which means “foreign woman” or could be the Americanization of Polyxeni or Xenia? What are we to make of Gus’ last name, Horiatis, which identifies him as a “peasant” and would be highly unlikely to be a surname in Greece itself? If Kolias intends allegorical readings of the two most Greek women in the novel, Xeni the Greek American, and Mrs. Horiatis, Gus’ Athens-living mother, she does nothing to develop this. Mrs. Horiatis is depicted as fully within the mainstream of the Greek American world, with her emphasis on cooking and taking care of her son. Xeni’s naming is perhaps more successful since she is in many ways a stranger to herself—to her sexuality, to her sexual identity, to love, but here, too, the possibilities go unexplored.
Into this mix of Greek Americans and Greek language, Kolias thrusts Xeni, a Greek American woman who makes a living in Oakland doing odd jobs that include teaching cooking classes and babysitting. What Xeni wants most in the world is a baby of her own—but through a virgin birth. She is convinced that her devotion to God will grant her the pregnancy she wants. Xeni meets Callie, an American woman desperate to learn how to cook Greek food properly, so that she can impress her partner Gus’ mother when the old woman comes from Athens for the christening of their baby. As Xeni guides Callie through meal after meal—all lusciously described, and with recipes included between chapters—the two women become close, and without quite realizing it, Xeni begins to fall for Callie. Xeni’s sexuality has been off the table until this point in the novel, given her desire for a virgin birth. But it now becomes a major element of the story and drives one of the novel’s important questions: should Xeni follow her love of God or her love for Callie? Should she acknowledge a passion that her God deems a sin?
Once Gus’ mother, Mrs. Horiatis, arrives, Kolias allows the love story to become almost comical—and there is plenty of wit and humor in Kolias’ writing throughout. Mrs. Horiatis is convinced that Xeni is the true woman for Gus. She wants him to be with the Greek who knows how to cook, rather than with the red-headed American who is only now learning her way around a roast lamb. Mrs. Horiatis pushes Xeni on her son as Xeni and Callie seem to become clearer in their attraction for each other. The old woman even resorts to a magic spell (rendered in the text as maya, presumably for μαγεία) (179) to make her son fall in love with the woman who is not his son’s mother. Here, the novel has the charm of something Shakespearean, a sort of Midsummer Night’s Dream in which everyone is in love with the wrong person.
But there is a dark underside to the story that Kolias hints at once or twice and that emerges finally three-quarters of the way through the story. We learn that Xeni has endured sexual abuse as a young girl at the hands of her godfather, her mother’s lover, and that this is, presumably, the reason she wants nothing to do with sex with a man. There is a problematic question here, in that the novel seems to suggest that this character’s sexual identity is the result of trauma. It’s not clear whether Kolias intends this meaning or whether Xeni’s sexuality has been utterly unknown to her until she meets the woman she will fall in love with.
The novel becomes darker still, however, despite its lighthearted tone. Early on, Xeni gives up on the idea of a virgin birth and decides to go to a sperm bank. This pregnancy fails, and is followed later by what is deemed a hysterical pregnancy. Much later in the novel, Callie takes matters into her own hands. On a night of heavy drinking at the Horiatis house, Callie obtains sperm from Gus through fellatio and, using a syringe from one of her son’s medications, injects the sperm into an unconscious Xeni. Xeni, before passing out, has misconstrued the fellatio she has seen, believing the act to have dashed her hopes of being with Callie. Upon coming to consciousness the next morning, she departs the Horiatis house and remains out of contact for the next eight months.
All this time, Xeni believes herself to be gaining weight from overeating the chocolates she now makes and sells. It’s not until she encounters Callie and Gus at the local Greek festival and her water breaks, in the church of the Virgin Mary, that she realizes she is pregnant. In quick succession, Callie and Xeni reveal their love for each other, a Greek American nurse is on hand to help with the birth, Gus sets his sights on the nurse, and the four of them rush to the hospital. Before they even arrive at the hospital doors, Gus and Penny have made plans for a date.
But there is one final twist to the story. While they wait for Xeni to give birth, Gus reveals to Callie a secret of his own: right after their child was born, he had a vasectomy. In other words, Callie’s DIY insemination of her friend is not the cause of her pregnancy at all. Xeni’s child Marina can indeed be seen here as the product of a virgin birth.
It is hard not to see the news of the vasectomy as a deus ex machina to save the novel from what, it must be said, is a highly unsavory plot point. And I, for one, don’t feel this surprise revelation succeeds in that goal. Whether or not the sperm Callie inserts into her unconscious friend is actually capable of fertilization, the fact remains that the act is a form of violation. It reads like a sexual act performed without consent. Especially in the context of the sexual abuse Xeni has suffered at the hands of her godfather, it is difficult, to say the least, for the reader to accept this path as Xeni’s way to happiness.
The novel’s final pages require the characters to stretch and mold around each successive plot point, and don’t do justice to the often nuanced way in which Kolias has depicted the growing attraction the two women feel for each other. The easy happiness of the novel’s conclusion gives the lie to the serious issues that seem to underlie its plot: childhood sexual abuse, dissociation, embracing one’s sexuality in the face of religious strictures, self-assertion within the demands of faith and family. And the conclusion of the story is a shame. We never get a reckoning of Xeni’s belief in the possibility of a virgin birth. We never get to see if she comes to accept her belief as a delusion or whether she feels betrayed by her God, after her pregnancy is revealed to be a crude form of artificial insemination. We never get to find out if she does learn how she has come to give birth. All the same, it is lovely to see the two women come together in a new family—a family open enough to accept Gus, and his child with Callie, and Xeni’s child, and Penny and her children—and to see their relationship that has been so finely drawn, and their passion so palpable. Kolias leaves us with an expansive and inclusive vision of family, shaped not by biology but by love. For Greek American readers in particular, she has created a story that pushes the normative boundaries of their socially conservative culture. Kolias writes from a place of deep sympathy for and understanding of that world to gesture at a greater tolerance.
Henriette Lazaridis’ debut novel The Clover House was a Boston Globe bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has appeared in publications including ELLE, Forge, Narrative Magazine,The New York Times, New England Review, The Millions, and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. Lazaridis, who holds a PhD. in English Literature, grew up in the Boston area as the only child of Greek expats, speaking Greek as her first language. Devoted to storytelling since her childhood bedtime stories from the Odyssey, Lazaridis earned degrees in English literature from Middlebury College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania. Having taught English at Harvard, she now teaches at GrubStreet in Boston. She is the founding editor of The Drum Literary Magazine and she runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in northern Greece. A competitive rower, Lazaridis trains regularly on the Charles River.