The Greek poet George Seferis wrote in his diary: "Man is always double: he who acts, and he who sees himself acting; he who suffers, and he who sees himself suffering; he who feels, and he who observes himself feeling." This sort of intense self-awareness is rooted in the writer's experience, which Nadine Gordimer says is made from the "tension between standing apart and being fully involved." I always feel this conflict. And, more expressly, I feel it when I go to Greece, a place not only from where my father hails but where my artistic imagination currently resides.
My father was born in Athens and came to the United States in 1966, but his two sisters, Eleni and Vassia, have always lived in Greece. When Eleni died in September 2006, I felt the devastation that comes from not having said goodbye. Because she did not wish me to know of the cancer wreaking havoc on her body—I did, in fact, though I had promised my cousins not to speak of it—our final meeting, only two months before she passed away, was painful for both of us. I pretended not to notice when she, a normally energetic woman who'd wake me far too early in the morning to take me around the city, had to sit down while we perused the art museum. When she tried to mask the layer of pain that had taken over her bright face, I would quickly say I needed a nap. She was living two different lives: around her sister and my cousins, she cursed her doctors and railed at the unfairness of the world. Around me, she also suffered, but chose to observe herself differently. We each wore our masks.
My Greece exists in boxes of random objects, many given to me by Eleni: an owl ring, like so many peddled to tourists in Plaka; a tiny datebook from 1967; a series of postage stamps issued by the dictators, decorated with their appropriated symbol of the Phoenix, sardonically referred to as The Bird. In fact, so much of the Greece I know has come through my aunt, who by profession was, aptly, a tour guide. When I began writing my novel, which is set in Athens during the military dictatorship, she sent me gorgeous letters filled with details of the period: a trip she remembered to Istanbul, a hike on an island, a frightening run-in with the military police. She offered me the past, perhaps as a type of self-preservation. Yet how worried she was I'd get something wrong. And as I wove so many of these stories into my novel, how much I worried the same.
And not just about the stories that she had given me, of course. There is plenty for any writer to get wrong on her own. Though I try to comfort myself with what Nadine Gordimer, in the aforementioned speech, also notes: "[N]othing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction." Fiction, I think, creates its own truths, invents its own history, adds to the infinite possibilities of the universe. To write fiction is to both capture and create a history. But though a novel is an act of the imagination, I still agonize I'll never capture the place, or that I'll inevitably reduce it to clichés. Then again, most writers in one way or another are, or have been, outsiders. In some ways, I belong to so many elements of Greece—as tourist, historian, writer, observer, child; in other ways, I belong to none of them.
Because I do not live there, Greece exists for me in relics of the past: forty years ago, one year ago, twenty minutes earlier. News from the country, now more than ever, washes over me in blips: a text message from a friend in Athens, a cousin announcing her pregnancy, an article in the New York Times. My great-uncle, Mihalis Katsaros, a poet, exists for me in a DVD documentary, in stories I've heard from friends and family, and in the lines of his poems. For me, he is more fully realized in the fictionalized poet who exists in my novel, where I've fashioned my own version of a man like him. To paraphrase Aristotle's Poetics, the role of the poet, after all, is not to tell what actually happened, but to imagine what inevitably could or might have happened.
And my Greece exists in memories of each trip back to the country. Once, on a quiet, not-too-hot day on a wonderfully uncrowded beach on the island of Kythnos, my cousin and I stood with our feet in the water, talking. Further down, someone had dragged a four-post bed out into the sand, and an old yia-yia, dressed in requisite black, took her afternoon rest there, beneath a tree. When she awoke, she made her rounds to see what she might have missed.
"Girls!" she called to us. "You'll catch cold!" And as she got closer, she examined our bodies up and down and then focused solely on our faces. She did not recognize us as locals.
"Tinos eiste?" she asked, her face tilting with curiosity. Whose are you? Or, to whom do you belong?
She hadn't meant the question to be complicated. But I'm still unable to give her an answer.