By Joanna Eleftheriou
Like anyone who speaks Greek, I can “throw a black stone behind me” when I decide to leave a place for good. Such a stone offers a figure for our separation from a place marked with bitterness or loss. That stone marks a decision that is final. The metaphor originates in the Homeric-era practice of anathema. Evildoers were exiled from the Greek city-state, and passersby would throw stones onto the site of an evil deed.
I moved to Cyprus when I was ten because my father was born there, and he wanted to go home. His effort to transplant his American-born wife and children into his Cypriot homeland failed, though. We weren't happy there, and neither was he. Admitting defeat, he said, Ρίχνω μαύρη πέτρα πίσω μου. Or, I’m throwing a black stone behind me.
This happened three times. High school teachers by trade, my parents could switch countries in June and have a new job by August. Three times, my father convinced his American-born wife and children to move with him to Cyprus. Some time after we would all move to Cyprus, something would happen to prove the childhood paradise he remembered wasn’t real, and he would throw a black stone behind him and return to New York. But after a year in America, my father would look back. He’d pick up the stone again, undoing the curse.
My father’s teenage years in Cyprus were marked by a national uprising. He graduated high school in 1959, and that same year the island gained its independence from the British Empire. The fifties were a heady time in Cyprus, with a few hundred thousand Greek Cypriots fighting a guerilla war whose goal was union with Greece. My father never took to the mountains to join the fighters or even held a gun, but he carried messages and distributed pamphlets that fueled people’s will to take on the Empire. He stood in protests and suffered beatings from British soldiers and from the Turkish Cypriots whom the British employed as their police force.
With his stories, my father, Andreas, painted a picture of the idyllic Cyprus of his youth, the place he had been fighting to free. He described the beautiful Troodos mountain range, which he had visited every year with his Boy Scout troop. Cool when the sea-level cities baked, leafy and lush when his own village’s fields yellowed in the drought, Troodos became the Ithaca to which he would return after his years away.
My father used to recite lines of poetry by Seferis, the diplomat whose poems predict the Cypriot tragedy. He especially recited from the poem “Eleni,” which refers to a Troodos village. “‘The nightingales won’t let you sleep in Platres.’ / Platres: where is Platres? And this island: who knows it?”1 I don’t know if my father studied Modern Greek poetry in school, or whether he learned the lines on his own, out of love. Of school, he only mentioned studying the writers of long ago, the difficulty of their Attic and Aeolian sentences. And so I never learned whether his curriculum included the major nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets I studied (a string of men—Karyotakis, Sikelianos, Solomos, Cavafy, Elytis, Seferis), or whether he studied only the ancients—Homer, Euripides, Plato. He was in the ground (his ground, the ground of Cyprus) before I thought to ask him if he’d ever read Cavafy’s “Ithaca.”
“Always keep Ithaca in your mind,” Cavafy writes; “to reach her is your destiny.”
By nineteen, my father had become an American immigrant, a busboy at a restaurant and part-time college student. By twenty-four, he was a husband and a father. By twenty-seven, he had a bachelor’s degree. By forty, he had an appointment as a vice principal in a New York parochial school and two daughters, including me. I don’t know when exactly he started aching to leave.
Almost every time I asked my father why his family left Cyprus in 1959, he gave me a different answer. The Cyprus teacher’s college accepted only those of high society; Greece was politically unstable; each of my three aunts needed a dowry and the family didn’t own enough land to marry them all off; my grandfather’s income from his grocery store declined when a nearby copper mine closed down, emptying the village of work.
It’s not clear if he’d always planned to return to Cyprus after earning his American history degree, or if the yearning came later. I do know that before marrying her, my father told my mother of his plans to return to Cyprus. With the enthusiasm of new love, my mother agreed to move to the island when the time was right. We will live in a place too beautiful to describe, my father promised. My mother said that would be fine. Her parents had taught her Greek at home, and taken her to visit their country when she was a teenager. With that agreement made clear, my parents were married in February 1974, planning to go on honeymoon to Cyprus in August. But in July that year, a coup d’ état ousted the elected Cypriot president, and two weeks later the Turkish military invaded the island. After a four-day war, two hundred thousand people had fled their homes and were living in refugee camps, never to see their houses again.
Cyprus saw no real peace, no political solution, during the following years, but my father didn’t give up his plan to return. My parents made a few trips together with my older sister before I was born, but for many years, actually moving to Cyprus remained an abstract idea. My sister married and had a daughter, then a son, thus deepening her own roots in her (our) New York birthplace. For a few years, it seemed that for the grandchildren, my father would stay there, in New York, and his beloved Cyprus would remain a vacation spot and a dream. Eventually, though, my father began to send money to his boyhood best friend, who’d studied architecture in England while my father studied history in New York. This friend would design and oversee the construction of our idyllic mountain home.
When we got to Cyprus, we traveled to the mountain building site. There was no house. The money had been gambled away. My father wore this betrayal like a badge, a betrayal he felt Cyprus had committed by not being perfect. Once again, he cast a black stone behind him.
When we packed up for New York, our Cyprus family asked what we could possibly see in xenitia, the foreign land that Greek folk songs describe as a land of abject misery. In one song, all the foreign bread is bitter. In another, an immigrant’s handkerchief is soiled by this xenitia, and five rivers wash it, and still, it is soiled. In a third, a dirge, a parent curses a personified xenitia for taking away her child.
My family stayed in New York only two years. I’d spent fifth grade in Cyprus, sixth and seventh in New York, and eighth back in Cyprus. Our New York family and friends asked us why, why won’t you stay put—here, where we are happy together? Why must you go? I asked my mother the same thing, and I don’t remember what she answered. Did my father recognize the strangeness of his decisions, or was he wholly consumed by the urgency of the moment—the simple imperative to leave?
When I graduated high school, we’d been in Cyprus for six years straight, and my mother, father, brother, and I were settled in a house that was beautiful and large. But after a failed business, a cancer and mastectomy, and a diagnosis of heart disease, my parents became determined, once again, to leave. My father felt the island had dealt him blows. The land that had nurtured him as a child had become cruel. My mother was ready to go home.
I was not at all ready to leave Cyprus. I shared none of my parents’ frustration with Cyprus, and I didn’t blame the place for the illnesses that had threatened to take my parents from me. They had survived, and I had survived their illnesses by walking for hours in the brush among the pines and olive trees, thinking about freedom and poetry. Seferis’s line, “οι ελιές με τις ρυτίδες των γονιών μας”—the olives with the wrinkles of our parents—promised that my parents, too, would live to become old. Like Papadiamantis’s murderess, I walked in the mountains without aim, but I didn’t drown like she did. I was more like Smaragdi, the virginal changeling in Stratis Myrivilis’s Mermaid Madonna, who needed no one but her boat, no one but Skala Sykamia’s island earth.
Walking those Cypriot hills alone, I let America go. My New York life receded into the insignificance that shrouds most teenagers’ memories of their childhoods. It didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was staying alive here, in the quiet hills, where I could forget about my parents’ heart disease and cancer. I formed a bond with the land.
Of course, falling in love with Cyprus had taken time. As a child, I had already begun to embrace my father’s yearning to live in a beautiful, mountainous country. I’d been reading Little House on the Prairie and Heidi, and imagined I would live like Heidi and Laura. Before I’d even visited Cyprus, I learned from my father and from these books to imagine this out-of-reach Eden as a source of happiness. A short trip to Cyprus when I was in the fourth grade left me bursting with excitement about fields without fences, and hillsides full of olive and almond trees, short enough to climb. My childhood friend still remembers my conviction that I would belong there, in that other, freer, world. As I grew older, I would identify ever more closely with my father and his narrative of return. I’m not sure if I formed a bond with books through my love for the land, or if I bonded with the land by reading, but both things—books and land—helped shaped the imagined Cyprus that existed in my mind.
Our joint fantasy of Cyprus, I would later realize, satisfied imaginative needs that would only after many years be revealed. I developed a passion for the music of the Greek Left. My interest in Greek language and history, too, deepened until I identified fully with the poems I heard on the radio and the books I read in school.
At sixteen, I attended my first concert, with the rock icon Vasilis Papakonstantinou. His early work was very much full of the battle cries of the proletariat, and I’d spent my early teenage years singing his 1975 “I refuse, I refuse, to allow you to have authority over my fate with my land and my water.”
Αρνιέμαι, αρνιέμαι, αρνιέμαι
να είσαι συ και να μην είμαι ’γω
που τη δική μου μοίρα διαφεντεύεις
με τη δική μου γη και το νερό.
The repeated verb in this song, αρνιέμαι, can be translated many different ways. A variety of Greek-English dictionaries offer refuse, deny, decline, reject, veto, renounce, gainsay, repudiate, abjure, and resist. To my native-English-speaker’s mind, it translated to every one of these at once, and I loved it.
Another one of my favorite songs was the 1989 “Ελλάς,” which addresses Greece “herself,” and urges “her” to speak to “us,” the neglected beloveds, “even if you don’t love us.” “Ελλάς, Ελλάς, μίλα μας και μη μας αγαπάς.” The song gave voice to a growing, urgent sense that the grand nationalisms I’d learned in elementary school were problematic or fake, but that my yearning for a greatness to identify with might still be met through the nation somehow: you seek the ideal that they taught about in school.
Ψάχνεις για το μεγαλείο
που σου μάθαν στο σχολείο.
Although in most countries nowadays, nationalism is typically associated with the conservative right, the Greek Left has long embraced a kind of fervent nationalism that satisfied my youthful desire for a cause. Adolescent that I was, I coped by digging into the place, investing deeply in my Greek literature class at school. I wrote long poems that were replete with rhyming couplets, derivative of Solomos and Shelley, and vocal about a sentimental passion for Lady Hellas. I plastered my bedroom walls with favorite lines from Greek songs in the way that another teenage girl might hang up posters of famous boys that she found erotic.
But whether I was ready or not to leave, my parents had set their sights on a child in the Ivy League, and I had little choice but to go along with their plan. I bade my Cypriot friends farewell, and was off to college in upstate New York. My parents packed up the house and returned to New York along with me, deciding once again to cast the black stone.
Fifteen years after I left for college, I’d gone on to graduate school in the American Midwest when my father died in a new house he’d only just bought in Cyprus. His illness had taken a turn for the worse, and he had asked my mother to go back with him once again. He had picked up the black stone just in time, taken back the curse, and at last entered the very earth that had given rise to his infant body seventy-two years before.
Six months later, my mother bought a grave for herself in New York, and did not return to Cyprus.
I have documented my parents’ choices in part as a means of figuring out how best to make my own, and in part because the truth of what we lived, or what we think we lived, is worthwhile as an end in itself. The Greek word αυτοσκοπός captures the way I think about this effort to bear witness to what I have lived: itself-a-purpose. The way I choose to tell my family’s story necessarily bears the mark of how I grew up, of what I had and what I wanted, and what I didn’t know I could want.
I began writing the history of my family’s moves at a time when I had fallen into silent, secret love with a woman, but couldn’t bear to think about what it meant. I have become a little bit less silent over the years, but there is little that courage and education can really do to make up for the years I spent in the absence of language.
To suffer and have no language to tell the story: that is agony.
During the years when my sexuality and identity were forming, I had no evidence that I would not be cast out and left alone, like the Spartan infants exposed on Mount Taygetus, if the so-called anomaly of my inclinations were exposed. And so my mind never permitted what was happening to take on language. I never recognized, in words, what was happening within me. I wrote erotic stories about women with first-person narrators who were boys, and I wrote long poems of desire to Lady Hellas. But I never made the connection between my writing and my own eroticism. I bought into a narrative that cast girls as lacking in sexual agency, and so I ignored my own. I imagined myself as Smaragdi, who refused the advances of all men because she was otherworldly, απόκοσμη, αλαφροΐσκιωτη. By the time I had money of my own and the means to keep myself safe, the window of adolescent development had closed.
I cannot change the adolescence I had, and that unchangeable experience continues to influence my ability to write about desire. I cannot go back and change my own life, so I have no solution but to continue to excavate as I write, to interrogate all that I have written. I have begun to employ theory—specifically feminist and gender theory—in my effort to produce a text that can both represent and reveal truths about my place in the world.
Now, I have what is called a permanent job in the United States, and I return to Cyprus each summer. I visit the graves of my father and my great-grandparents when I go to the village cemetery. I’m trying to sell my parents’ house. As I spend more winters in America and more summers in Greece and Cyprus, my intense longing for the place has begun to cool. Thus, I have begun to ask myself where twenty years of strong feelings about the Cypriot landscape really come from. Years after I stopped climbing olive trees, what is it that keeps me in love with that particular place? Why do I feel moved by a dry, sparsely forested mountain in Cyprus while beautiful places in America—the Grand Canyon, the red autumn foliage of the northeast—evoke a recognition of beauty but none of all this feeling, none of this desire, this compulsion to be there?
Having read Joan W. Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience,” I learned to recognize the work of ideology within my own heart. I learned that what I feel to be my personal experience depends on naturalized categories, which Scott lists as “man, woman, black, white, heterosexual, and homosexual.”2 The categories of Greek and of gay have each been so naturalized for me that as a writer, it feels strange to critique the ideological forces that produce my very experience of ethnicity and sexuality. Some have argued that it is inauthentic to let scholarship interfere with my spontaneous experience of ethnicity and sexuality, and that corrections based on feedback from scholars amount to self-censorship. However, I think it is my artistic responsibility to educate myself about the social production and the implications of what comes to me spontaneously—if anything is really spontaneous—to write. Whereas I once wrote uncritically about my absolute identification with the (mostly male) voices of Greek poets and songwriters, I have learned to stand at a critical distance even though I experience feelings of euphoria and belonging while dancing to sexist, Orientalist songs. This learning and this critical distance from my own emotions permits me to question and edit what I write, and thus slowly train the mysterious faculties that usher art through me, from an unknown place into the world. It’s my job as a writer to be receptive to critique, even of my very emotions. For those emotions have a political past. And they are rife with contradictions that as a writer, I must confront.
I recognize that when I sang αρνιέμαι, αρνιέμαι, αρνιέμαι along with laborers, I had no business entertaining a fantasy of myself as a worker breaking my back for a salary. I may not own the means of production, but I’m not a farmer or a miner or a factory worker. My jobs have often been low paid, but they have never been dangerous or physically demanding. I run to burn the energy that my jobs do not demand. Nevertheless, when I was uniting my voice with those of the workers’ unions, I was giving voice to what Marx calls alienation, which is theorized in late capitalism as “universal alienation.” I am intuitively averse to the commodification of property and labor, even as I sell that labor and take pleasure in knowing that somewhere near my village, there is a plot of land that belongs to the late Eleftherios Panayi, and I am among his heirs.
In addition to contradictions about my desire to own land that I don’t even believe should be commodified, contradictions about my sense of national belonging also demand my attention.
As a young writer in my teens and twenties, though, I constantly wrote about my ethnic identity. Much of the urgency in my early writing arises from my intense longing for a Greek homeland, and from the extreme frustration I faced when fellow undergraduates would question my self-introduction as being “from Cyprus.” When they learned that I had been born in New York, and that my parents now lived in Queens, they dismissed as irrelevant the two factors that, for me, defined my identity: (a) my most formative, adolescent years were spent in Cyprus, and (b) the Greek leftist subcultures that had given me a sense of identity and purpose as I grew up were replete with anti-Americanism. Students from Greece didn’t question that I was “from Cyprus,” since it is more common in Greek culture for, say, an Athens-born child of Cretan heritage to say she is “from Crete.” Still, they teased my English-inflected Greek or laughed when I was clueless about facts or idioms that are obvious to native Greeks. This made me feel like I wasn’t as Greek as they were.
And I wasn’t—I’d spent the first nine years of my life in New York—but in order to satisfy my longing to belong, I pretended that wasn’t true. What does one call an American who had spent her formative years with an ear pressed against the radio, tuned to leftist music and political programs and a heart in the resistance to American-sponsored political forces? Many Greek Americans lived in Ithaca and attended Cornell, but culturally, they felt to me almost as foreign as the Long Island Protestants that populated my Cornell English courses.
When fellow students said to me, “You’re not from Cyprus, you’re from New York,” what I perceived as real was being denied. I had no American friends, and I couldn’t follow the conversations of my American peers because their references to American television and music were lost on me. I chose courses that focused on the British literature I’d studied in high school, and wouldn’t learn much about American literature until I was asked to teach it a decade later.
The collective American trauma of 9/11 was still years in the future, and so my American peers had no direct experience that could help them understand how my life had been marked by the invasion if my own house wasn’t occupied by Turkish soldiers. Americans told me they thought it was weird that I kept bringing up global politics. With my Greek friends, history and politics made up our small talk. I remember where I was, in the foyer of a grad student apartment, when I learned for the first time about the 1963 atrocities committed by Greeks against Turkish Cypriots. Someone carrying a six-pack of beer and a guitar said they won’t put the massacre of Kofinou into public school history books. This made sense to me, this concern about where we came from and what had been done to and by our country.
As a college student, I had not yet acquired a means for thinking about how my sense of identity, or need for belonging, was socially produced. I just felt intensely that I was out of place in leafy, hippie Ithaca, and that the world around me made no sense. I didn’t understand how belonging worked, but I knew that when I explained what I felt, no one would believe me.
I recognize now, two decades after I started college, that in rejecting my claim to a Greek identity, in depriving me of agency over how I identified, my peers were hitting more than just a cultural nerve. When my fellow Cornellians argued with my feelings and said “you’re not from Cyprus, you’re from New York,” they unnerved me because they were duplicating and deepening my anguish at another disparity, which at the time I could not name. I believe that at a level below consciousness, I felt distress because people talked to me as if I was a straight girl, and I was not straight.
On top of my distress at not being recognized as “from Cyprus,” I felt an unnamed and unnameable anguish about the disparity between the masculine abstraction I was supposed to desire, and the actual women who appeared desirable to me. And in response to this distress, I doubled down on rhetoric and emotions that now seem drenched in a nationalistic chauvinism. My group of Greek friends at Cornell were almost all men, and by joining their voices of longing for Greek lands, I not only clung to a familiar place, but also aligned myself with the masculine voices that had agency and power—and the right to desire women. The ideal Greece they pined for, like the place that drove my father to drag his family back and forth across the Atlantic, was a space that was inaccessible, impossible, and feminine. By coding desire as a longing for the Greek nation rather than a female body, I conformed to the nation’s values, and gained access to praise. Identifying with the longing of my father and of these men gave legitimacy and language to my silenced sexual desire.
I can recall the moment when I became aware of this link between sexual and national affections. It was one of those epiphanies that we suspect happen only in fiction. I was looking at the beautiful hills and the pink glow of a setting Cypriot sun upon them, thinking about their curves—it was a few days after my father’s funeral—and about the way I had learned to see the land through my father’s eyes. My mother, on the other hand, never fell in love with Cyprus. She had been happy in New York, and Cyprus was the sacrifice she made because she loved my father. She used to repeat the story of her trip to Egypt in the early sixties with her own father—when the ship passed Cyprus, her father had told her that they spoke Greek there, but not Greek she would be able to understand—as if it were an early oracle that predicted her eventual decision to leave my father’s island, and my father’s buried body, behind. But I, I had identified fully with my father’s longing. I had fought against leaving Cyprus way back in my teens because my whole self felt devoted to the place. I remembered my poems to Greece’s personified glory. And I knew, all at once, at the age of thirty-three, that the Lady of Hellas had been a stand-in for the female form which was for me forbidden because I was a girl.
After that epiphany, I proceeded with a new phase of writing. I wrote with new understanding about my attraction to a Greek landscape that was feminine and always deferred. I started to become aware of other ways in which my creative writing betrayed unconscious anxieties and biases. I had only just begun to emerge from the closet, and what is more, I continued to doggedly seek a way to remain part of the Greek Orthodox Church. The official church position classifies same-sex desire as deviant and demonically inspired. I worried the tangled knot of religion and sexuality in my writing, both in conscious ways and at levels below consciousness.
I still harbor a yearning to be seen as an unmarked, perfectly integrated Greek subject—one whose sexuality is not noticeable, not different. I identify with my father, and write very little about my mother, possibly because at an early age I recognized the agency of the patriarch, and I wanted what he had. And if wanting the agency and status my father had in the family results from oppressive forces, is the wanting therefore wrong? Is it my responsibility as a writer to change what I feel before I write? Must a writer modify her own feelings before she writes so that what she writes can effect change that aligns with her activist principles?
I think that ultimately, my duty is to read critically the product of my unconscious, and ask What does my writing do? What do my endings, my symbols, and my omissions say? I engage critical reading and creative writing in a reciprocal relationship. After a reader pointed out that my mother is effaced from most of my narratives, I intentionally wrote an essay focused on her, even though I felt no inspiration or spontaneous impulse to do so.
My efforts to align my activist goals with my writing’s effects can only ever succeed in part. My scholar-mind is, after all, a faculty distinct from the one that produces art. My artistic work eludes intellectual control, and exposes the ways in which my re-education has not entirely canceled out the work of my childhood, nationalist education, which laid down inside me its own blueprint of desire. One reader critiqued my portrayal of the (eventually defeated) Turkish Other in a scene dramatizing a re-enactment of the Souliotisses mass suicide. She suggested that I may have internalized my Greek American culture’s deep anxieties about identity and masculinity at play in the Greek American negotiation of who they are, and on revision I tried to insert into the text language that addresses my own prejudice. Reading Orientalism, I realized that we Greeks are Orientalized by the West, and at the same time, we Orientalize everything east of ourselves, placing ourselves in the position of the Western and the white.
The more I learned of postcolonial theory, the more I noticed how the Greeks define themselves in opposition to a dark, uncultured East. The contemporary Greek songs that depict a dark, deceptive female Other are almost too numerous to choose from, but I’ll cite “Έχεις Κορμί Αράπικο” (“You Have an Arabic Body”) sung by Stelios Kazantzides, which begins “Έχεις κορμί αράπικο / και μαύρα μάτια πλάνα”—you have an Arab’s body and deceptive black eyes.3 Of course, the Turks are depicted as hypermasculine, in a way, but reading books like George Mosse’s Nationalism and Sexuality helped me see that it is the voracious sexual appetite that is Other—and connected with the dangerous feminine. Masculinity is what has power, and control over the sexual appetite. This is why, as explained in Mosse’s Nationalism and Sexuality, nineteenth century nationalism sanitized—whitened—Greek art. They took the white statues (not knowing they had merely lost their paint over time) as models of control over the libido, something the dark Easterners lacked (hence the need to colonize them). Moreover, when Greeks and Greek Americans dramatize the attack on the Souliot women, they are acting out the trauma of failing to protect women from rape by the Other, wherein the vulnerable aspect of the self is projected onto women, and the aggressor onto the dark, foreign Other.4
Anne McClintock opens the first chapter of Imperial Leather with Christopher Columbus’s depiction of the globe as a woman’s breast, himself sailing towards the nipple. One of the most important texts to address the role of gender in the mechanisms illuminated by Said’s Orientalism, Imperial Leather shows how gender and race “exist in intimate, reciprocal and contradictory relations.”5 McClintock explains that “feminizing the land is a compensatory gesture, disavowing male loss of boundary by reinscribing a ritual excess of boundary.”6 I have made many such a “compensatory gesture.” When I experienced the anxiety of not-belonging, the liminal state of not being recognized by any group as entirely native, I found my longing for an ideal Greek landscape sharpened by my sense of rejection.
Similarly, in Postcolonial, Queer, Hema Charis explains that “discursive practices of deferred and displaced homoeroticism dominate the politics of postcoloniality.”7 The gay character in The Moor's Last Sigh, Aires, allows Salman Rushdie to explore how anxieties about masculinity in postcolonial India worked to disavow the feminine identification that colonialism implicated on Indian men. Chari explains that after the experience of being feminized and then colonized—a process imagined as penetration—by the masculine power—holders, after independence India has to prove its masculine prowess, and assert itself as no longer emasculated. The particularly cruel and voyeuristic treatment of homosexuality belies an anxiety about moving from the position of the feminized colonized to the position of (masculine) power. I think in this context about the British colonizers’ reprisals against guerrilla fighters during the 1950s in Cyprus, which frequently darkened my father’s storytelling.
Of course, anxiety about asserting a sufficiently heterosexual masculinity manifests everywhere, including in countries that have never been colonized. Still, the explanations in Postcolonial, Queer resonated with me and helped me to make sense of my own deep fears, and the way my family has treated its own queers. I have not yet figured out how to write about that. I suppose this is a start.
Shortly after my epiphany about the link between my own nation and sexual longing, I began to believe two things. First, that I would be happier if I lived in America for the rest of my life (even if admitting this felt like a betrayal), that I, too, would cast a black stone, and second, that my interest in women was (rather than something to keep quiet about until the right man turned up) in fact something real, something with value, something that could turn into a meaningful relationship one day. In order to believe this, I had to talk about it, and to talk about it, I began to speak about being gay as if it were an essential part of me, a truth—which I suppose it is, but only on account of the historical circumstances Foucault illuminated in books on the history of sexuality.
I followed the rules of my religion and culture and for many years did not speak about love. Now, I have words for my desire. I call myself gay because I’ve been undone, over and over, by the beauty of a woman, years of successive, secret crushes, girl after girl, since the first erotic thrill. I can't tell you who they were.
I feel short-changed by my education, because this knowledge would have been crucial to a healthier adolescence. As I mentioned earlier, I live in the wake of a linguistic absence that, like a trauma, may never cease holding my language hostage. I would not have sublimated so much of my desire into nationalistic passion for the female nation of Ellas if I’d had access to knowledge about my own desire, and if I’d learned how sexism and homophobia drive much of the rhetoric of nationalism. Instead, my high school education presented me with only one image of sexual energy exchanged between women. The women were Winifred and Ursula in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, and I read the chapter again and again, wondering if such an encounter between women were possible in the real world, or only in fiction. The chapter is called “Shame.”
My education offered no Sappho, and her poems were absent from our house. I read Lysis, On Friendship because my parents owned a lot of Plato, and I put the book back on the shelf in a fright, bewildered by the love they had debated. There was Smaragdi, whose grandmother once touched her breast in The Mermaid Madonna. Again I asked is this possible, dizzy with desire and terrified also of what that possibility might mean.
For these sparks and impulses, for these glimpses of an impossible desire, I had no language. I had language only for desiring Greece, or Cyprus, or a once-Greek land like Asia Minor, even more out of reach. From books, I learned that I could express longing for a her, as long as that her referred to η Ελλάδα, η Κύπρος, η Μικρά Ασία. I have yet to shake from my mind the disturbing, brutal images of war in Τα Ματωμένα Χώματα, which I read when I was thirteen, barely on the cusp of a sexual awakening. I sometimes have flashbacks from the moment I learned the Greek word for nipple, ρώγα, in a scene where a soldier boasts that by mutilating Greek women, he would make himself the world’s first κομπολόι made of nipples. Both Τα Ματωμένα Χώματα and Η Παναγιά η Γοργόνα, which I would read two years later, provided me with a romanticized ideal of a bygone time when Turks and Greeks lived together in a vibrant, multicultural harmony, working the fertile land that is now lost to the Greek nation. I inhabited The Mermaid Madonna as if the settlement of Skala Sykamias were my own home, and I made the refugees’ longing for the “χαμένη πατρίδα” my own longing.
Having chosen that discourse of sexuality as identity, in my life if not yet in my writing, I came to experience more intensely the loss I had so feared. In other words, the adage “it gets better” wasn’t true for me, at least not for a good decade. Everyone should know that “it” gets a lot worse for a lot of gay people for a long time after their so-called deviance is exposed. When I confessed to my Greek American priest that I was gay, he said it was fine as long as I remained celibate for life, adding that it was not something God would blame me for, just as he would not blame me for any other illness or deformity.
I did not grow up thinking myself deformed. I thought every love was real. I thought I was a real human being, and I thought that my love was good love. Perhaps this belief—that my love mattered—was behind my attachment to song lyrics like αρνιέμαι, αρνιέμαι, αρνιέμαι (I resist, I resist, I resist.) All along, I had been resisting effacement. I had been putting my body and love into the space left behind after gay figures were erased.
Repeatedly, high-ranking church and state officials have cast same-sex desire as un-Greek, and as a contagion that can only be acquired from abroad. One hierarch claimed that gay rights in Cyprus were sponsored by foreigners to deplete the military’s masculine fighting power, so that all of Cyprus would fall to “the Turks,” and the Christian nation would be wiped out. When people ask why I don’t just leave the Orthodox Church, I feel they are placing a smooth, black stone into my palm. It feels like an oversized worry bead as I squeeze its darkness tight.
The nation that gave rise to me will not have me; the church that raised me says I am diseased. Yet I want to be tenacious, and so I hang on, hoping that while I weep—but stay—through church service after long church service, while I am holding on, something will change. Of course, Christianity demands that all the faithful crucify their own will. St. Paul said I no longer live, but Christ in me. But I feel that I am being asked to crucify myself more than a straight person. Now, I have nothing left but bitterness—my love has grown bitter—and I have nothing. I have nothing but the bitterness of loss.
Or so the oppressive elements in Greek and Greek American circles would have me believe. For in fact I have much more—as a Greek, a Greek with the gift of an education, I have great riches, and access to a long tradition of Greekness that has a very colorful history of gender dualism and hybridity, one that was eliminated from the tired single story. What I do not have is the right to cede to nationalists, and to essentialist discourses, all power over what it means to be Greek. It is my responsibility to help keep alive the memory of that richness, keep the definition of Greekness wide.
I feel betrayed by my people, just as my father did, for in the name of puritanical, moralistic nationalism, they twist the history they so exalt. The Greeks have not confined themselves to opposite-sex desire. Ancient Cypriots fashioned statues of Aphroditus, a god both male and female at once.
Although it may be anachronistic to embrace Cavafy as a gay role model for myself, nothing can change the meaning his poetry had for me for a long time, when he alone among anyone I’d read dared to insist to the world that queer love does exist. As someone who couldn’t identify with Greek Americans, Americans, Greek Cypriots, or Greeks, I also took refuge in Cavafy’s understanding of Greekness. Cavafy imagines Greekness as necessarily hybrid, and imagines hybridity as a point of pride. Some readers suggest the rhetoric of hiding the “bit of Media,” the Syrian and Egyptian inside, in the poem “Επάνοδος απ’ την Ελλάδα,” can be read as code for the hiding of homosexuality behind a heterosexual façade. In “Gender Dualism in Cavafy’s Erotic Poetry,” Despina Charalambidou-Solomi demonstrates that this connection between ethnic hybridity and sexual diversity is a common trope of Cavafy’s poetry.8 Ethnic hybridity is consistently associated with the beauty of an ambiguously gendered figure. This is the voice that we need to remember as we try to ensure that the definition of what it means to be Greek is not colonized by those who are merely operating on the anxieties incurred by traumas of colonization, by the pressures of nationalism as it arose in the nineteenth century.
Cavafy wrote hundreds of poems about desire, but in almost all of them, he employs pronouns with such majestic ambiguity, a reader must choose a queer reading—the text will never choose for us. I still remember the moment when a queer reading seemed to choose me—I was fourteen, and my ninth grade Greek class was reading “27 Iουνίου 1906, 2 μ.μ.” (27 June 1906, 2 p.m.).9 The speaker’s gender isn’t stated, but is assumed to be male since the poet is. And that assumption allows the line “το εφηβικόν ωραία καμωμένο σώμα” (the adolescent beautifully wrought body) to become an expression of a man appreciating masculine beauty. The poem brought the frisson of recognition, of a secret, hidden thing that was as desired as it was forbidden.
I rarely heard homosexuality referred to at all, and when it was named, it was never anything but illness or a threat. I never heard any words about female desire. We never read anything in school with a female sexual subjectivity that I could recognize. When my high school Greek teacher had the boldness to tell our class, “Did you know that even in universities they don’t tell students that Cavafy was homosexual?” I remember hearing the word, ομοφυλόφιλος, and working out what the double “filo” sound actually meant. It’s hard to recall what one felt in a particular moment twenty years ago when one thought in a very different way from today, but I think that at some level I felt comfort, a hint of liberty.10
Like a lot of gay people, I was an adult before I believed I could safely relinquish control over the information about my desire. I permitted friends to have this realization first, and family last. It was a process of twelve years and a month, since my first direct conversation about my exclusive attraction to girls happened in July the year I was twenty-seven, and my mother asked me in August the year I was thirty-nine whether I’d been attracted to women.
The summer before my mother realized I was a lesbian, I had a week with nothing to do between professional responsibilities in Europe. I decided to spend the time visiting the island of Lesbos. I wanted to see the village where The Mermaid Madonna was set, and where Smaragdi had grown up. And I hoped that in the vacation spot marketed to queer women as the birthplace of Sappho, the number of lesbians would reach a critical mass, and I would finally get hit on by a woman. Perhaps because I present as very feminine, with a round jaw, long hair, dresses, narrow shoulders, and a decent set of hips, I’m read as straight both in the United States and abroad. Or perhaps I have received attention from women, and I have always been too afraid to let myself see.
When I deplaned at Odysseus Elytis airport in the island’s capital, Mytilene, and waited for a bus that would take me to the Sapphic mecca, I told the young man waiting with me that as a writer, I wanted to visit the places where favorite writers were born and which they had described. The night before, my cousin-in-law, who had back in New York learned of my trip to Lesbos, urged me to stay in the rooms her grandmother rented out in Eressos. I found the grandmother, handed her the sweets my cousin-in-law had asked me to bring from the city, and settled into my little Lesbian vacation.
On my first full day in Sappho’s birthplace, I walked along the cool seaside, and around the town’s few narrow streets. Many were rubble strewn, but others were tidy, with colorful shutters and trees poking out of the yards, pomegranates with their red flowers still in bloom, date palms and fig. I came upon an abstract piece of art whose bronze arcs seemed to form the shape of woman with upraised arms, and I guessed that was probably the island’s tribute to its famous poet. There was the Sappho Hotel, owned by my cousin-in-law’s aunt, and a Sappho Travel Agency. I kept on walking all day because it was early June and not yet very hot. A man pointed to the kinesiotape on my knees and asked what was up (he had knee trouble too). I explained that the tape kept my patella from sliding out of place and inflaming my knee, and somehow we got to talking about Sappho. They have turned her into a dishrag! he said, which I think was a lament about the commercial uses of the poet’s legacy. I wanted him to say more about respecting Sappho, but instead I asked to buy a bag of the plums he was selling from the bed of his pickup truck.
Later, I ordered a drink at a bar that seemed to have a few couples (all women) already there. A woman about my height but very well dressed, with tall heels and beautiful big curly hair, came over and struck up a conversation. Her name was Ioanna, same as mine, and before I knew it she was urging me to travel back to the island in September for the International Women’s Festival, which she directs, and which had sparked my hopes about finding a lesbian oasis—the effects of a September lesbian festival spilling over into June. I explained that unless I got a sabbatical I couldn’t leave my teaching job for a week, and this seemed to be a silly excuse to her. I enjoyed the argument, because I enjoyed the attention, and I enjoyed thinking here I am, here I am, in Greece, among the lesbians. Here are people just like me.
On my last day, I passed for the dozenth time a small lot near the seaside which was a rectangular heap of rubble with a small blue sign in the middle that said “property of the heirs of K. Kazazi.” I raised my smartphone to capture the image, and as I was doing so, an attractive woman some years older than me appeared in the road and asked why I was taking a photo. I got embarrassed and flustered. I felt like a voyeur, someone looking at pain-porn, because I had guessed that the sign represented a situation like some of the problems my father had run into while settling the estates of his own grandparents.
I told this story to the attractive woman, and apologized for turning her problem into a spectacle, but she said no apologies were needed and then invited me to her house to talk. She told me her name was Andromache, just like the Trojan wife, and I followed Andromache down the street into a shaded courtyard. She disappeared into the kitchen while I waited in the closed, old-style courtyard and looked around at her garden, the acacias and the jasmine, the roses and the grape vine.
When she appeared with two Greek coffees and glasses of water, Andromache confirmed that there was indeed a dispute about the ownership of the stone-strewn lot, and she’d been arguing with her cousins for decades. Andromache and I talked for a few hours about family and love. I told her I was a lesbian, out to everyone but my mother, and she was encouraging and warm, and told me details of a legal dispute I knew only from the internet. In 2008, a few male Lesbians (in the sense, resident of Lesbos) brought a lawsuit to try to ban the use of the word lesbian to mean homosexual woman (yes, this really happened in 2008). As a means of comedic catharsis, I had played for my American friends the video which depicted a hoarse, baritone, thickly-mustached old Greek waving his cane and yelling in protest: “ I AM A LESBIAN! I AM A REAL LESBIAN! THE UNNATURAL WOMEN HAVE SULLIED MY NAME!”
A 2008 NPR report had given the name of the man as Dimitris Lambrou, and used the headline “Lesbos Resident Wants Name Back from Lesbians.” Andromache told me what the news left out: the shop-owners of Eressos rallied together to shut Lambrou up. Businesspeople, regardless of orientation, cared more about the lesbian tourists’ ability to pay than about their sex lives. I didn’t want to leave Andromache’s house, and secretly I wished that I could stay there and make her my mother.
A year later, when my mother would tell me that being with a girl would be “fornication” and that terrible consequences awaited me if I did not “renounce homosexuality,” I would remember old Andromache, and how safe I felt with her. I didn’t know, as I bid Andromache and Lesbos goodbye, what my mother’s words would be the next year—I exhort you, Joanna, to renounce homosexuality!—but I knew exactly what the message would be, and how much it would hurt.
Andromache held me for a long time when I got up to leave, and slipped a notebook page with her email address into my hand, asking me to send her my writing (“in Greek or French! I can’t read English!”). I didn’t find a connection with Greek women writers on that trip to Greece, and certainly not to gay women writers, but I found Andromache. And that was something.
At the suggestion that I should bow out of my conservative religion and culture because they will not have me as I am, I recall my teenage chant, αρνιέμαι, αρνιέμαι, αρνιέμαι, I refuse, I refuse, I refuse to let someone else determine my fate. Like my father, I do hold black stones in my pocket. I could cast them behind me and renounce a religion and a culture that casts me as deviant and diseased. But I am not my father. I claim all my countries. I renew both my Cypriot and my American passports religiously and on time. Instead of casting black stones, I am reading.
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 includingBellingham Review, CutBank, Arts and Letters, and The Common. Her book manuscript, This Way Back (Πορεία Επαναστροφής), is a collection of essays. For more of her work see here (www.joannaeleftheriou.com).
Cover pictures: The village of Asgata, the author’s ancestral paternal village.
Picture credits for Asgata: Emmanuel Christou
1. George Seferis, “Helen,” Collected Poems. Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
2. Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (Summer 1991): 782.
3. Christos Kolokotronis, “Έχεις κορμί αράπικο,” stixoi.info http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=6761.
4. George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe , 1st ed. (New York: H. Fertig, 1985).
5. Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 5.
6. McClintock, Imperial Leather, 24.
7. Hema Charis, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire,” in Post-colonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersection, SUNY Series, Explorations in Postcolonial Studies (New York: SUNY Press, 2001), 279.
8. Despina Charalambidou-Solomi, “Gender Dualism in Cavafy’s Erotic Poetry,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21, no. 1 (2003): 113–125, doi:10.1353/mgs.2003.0008.
9. Constantine P. Cavafy, “27 Iουνίου 1906, 2 μ.μ.,” The Cavafy Archive. http://www.kavafis.gr/poems/content.asp?id=194&cat=4.
10. George Syrimis, in a private correspondence, contended that there is, in fact, no sexual diversity in Cavafy. He explained to me that in Cavafy’s world, all desire is masculine. There is no room for female desire, let alone female-to-female desire. My recognition of my own queerness in Cavafy’s lines may be a misreading, an illusion, but it’s all this young lesbian had. There was no one else.
Cavafy, Constantine P. n.d. “27 June 1906, 2 p.m.,” The Cavafy Archive. Accessed November 2018. http://www.kavafis.gr/poems/content.asp?id=194&cat=4.
———. 1992. “Hidden Things.” C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 360–361.
———. 1992. “Ithaka.” C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 66–67.
———. 1992. “One of Their Gods.” C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 134–135.
———. 1992. “Returning From Greece.” C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 368–369.
Charalambidou-Solomi, Despina. 2003. “Gender Dualism in Cavafy’s Erotic Poetry.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21, no. 1: 113–25. doi:10.1353/mgs.2003.0008.
Charis, Hema. 2001. “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire.” In Post-colonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections. 277–303. SUNY Series, Explorations in Postcolonial Studies. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.
Kolokotronis, Christos. n.d. “Έχεις κορμί αράπικο” stixoi.info. Accessed November 2018. http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=6761.
McClintock, Anne. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest . New York: Routledge.
Mosse, George L. 1985. Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe. 1st ed. New York: H. Fertig.
Scott, Joan W. 1991. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (Summer): 773–797.