This Way Back dramatizes a childhood split between Queens, New York, and Cyprus, an island nation with a long colonial history and a culture to which Joanna Eleftheriou could never quite adjust. The book avows a Greek-Cypriot-American lesbian’s existence by documenting its scenes: reenacting an 1829 mass suicide by jumping off a school stage onto gym mats at St. Nicholas, harvesting carobs on ancestral land, purchasing UNESCO-protected lace, marching in the island’s first gay pride parade, visiting Cyprus’s occupied north against a dying father’s wish, and pruning geraniums, cypress trees, and jasmine after her father grew too weak to lift the shears. While the author’s life binds the essays in This Way Back into what reads like a memoir, the book questions memoir’s conventional boundaries between the individual and her community, and between political and personal loss, the human and the environment, and the living and the dead. It is spellbinding! https://www.joannaeleftheriou.com
Joanna Eleftheriou is author of the essay collection This Way Back. Her essays appear in Crab Orchard Review, Arts and Letters, The Common, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America. A contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Joanna holds a PhD in English from the University of Missouri and teaches at Christopher Newport University and the Writing Workshops in Greece. Drop In with us as Joanna talks about identity — personal, political, and sexual — and reconciling who she really is with generations of tradition, religious codes of honour, the desire to please, be loved and approved, and all within time-bound family, if patriarchal, bonds. Will she liberate herself to be more than just the perfect, accomplished adult and loving daughter? And how does she do it with sensitivity and insight? How does she communicate to family & resonate authentically with readers? Find out from the author as she recounts the beautiful yet painful saga.Leave a comment for radio show guests
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers, conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table, diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically, stories reveal the common threads that link us experienced the joys, the fist pumps, the detours, and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same. And now, here’s your host, Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In, everyone. We all seek connection. For those of us who have been uprooted, or have moved around a lot, or who can’t get past the sense of COVID isolation, our guest today, Joanna Eleftheriou, will address feeling displaced, seeking affinity, learning newness, and finding a sense of home as it relates to who we are. Her book, This Way Back chronicles her own awareness from Queens, New York, where she spent her childhood to Cyprus, the homeland of her father and Turkish Greek mother, where she moved at age 10. It’s also an allergy to her late father, whose journals she traced. If the question, “Where are you from” is difficult for you, Joanna’s message will resonate. Welcome, Joanna.
Joanna: Thank you, Diane. Thank you for having me.
Diane: We’re delighted to have you. I hope I got those facts correct. I’m going to ask you to describe yourself in your own words. I’ll introduce you to the official biography. Joanna Eleftheriou is the author of the essay collection, This Way Back. Her essays appear in Crab Orchard Review, Arts and Letters, The Common, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America. A contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Joanna holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri and teaches at Christopher Newport University and the Writing Workshops in Greece. There you have your biography. I wanted to share that with our listeners. I also wanted to ask you. Who are you? How would you describe yourself now, Joanna?
Joanna: One of the reasons I needed to write the book was because I needed to answer that question. One of the wonders of publishing it and holding it as an object in my hands has been the ability to sense that it’s here. It’s all in here. I was able to assert who I am. I wonder if your listeners will feel that they’ve had to do this asserting of who they are rather than simply stating. It is because some of the identities that came up just in the official biography that you read are contradictory. I chart through the book in my coming of age.
I intentionally brushstroke at essays that occur in my early adolescence, how much my Greek Orthodox Christian faith mattered to me. I felt that I was able to experience transcendence and connection through prayer. As I came into a sense of sexuality, I realized that those two were contradictory. The answer to your question is, I am a group of contradictory identities such as Greek and American, lesbian and religious that I needed to write my way into a sense of owning all of those contradictions.
Diane: Right. The assertion is such an apt word that you use because it is contradictory to the way these entities exist now. There’s pushback from orthodox religions on lesbians and gays. Whether that remains the eternal truth or whether that’s a temporary truth, we can only guess, the thing is that you’ve embraced both sides of these contradictions and you didn’t go. You went in a nonbinary direction. You decided not to have to choose between being lesbian, being religious, and spiritual to the point where you just said, “I can’t love a God that doesn’t basically love me.” That journey that arc is quite long in your life. I wonder if it continues with this same urgency or vibrancy today or is it evolving?
Joanna: That’s a great question. The urgency is so much less. I feel like there were moments, specifically in my early 30s, where the meditation and the confrontation of my church’s unwillingness to see me or even acknowledge that I exist. In contradiction, it is different from many Western churches which say, “We don’t accept lesbian and gay people.” The Orthodox church doesn’t acknowledge that there are people who fundamentally experience their attraction as one to the same sex. They say, “We all experience temptation to do something wrong. We all are jealous. We all want to maybe steal something.” And we don’t do it.
You happen to often experience a desire to be intimate with someone of the same gender. And so, you just like somebody who wants to steal. You must also resist that temptation. I was confronting in my early 30s, a church that didn’t believe I had the experience of the world that I did. I wasn’t mirrored by my surrounding culture. My culture told me that what I felt wasn’t real wasn’t as true as I felt it to be. During my 20s, I lived in Virginia where I managed to come back to ironically, doing a master’s in fine arts in creative writing at the University of Old Dominion.
I was stereotyped as a religious Greek girl who doesn’t talk about boys because she is so religious. I couldn’t burst that facade that had been created. Without my intention, I just didn’t talk about sexuality because I didn’t really have a language for it after having grown up in this culture that didn’t believe there was such a thing as a person who predominantly or exclusively in my case only is attracted to people of the same gender expression. The language that I’m using is a language that is not available at all to people within my own church culture. When I moved to Missouri to do my Ph.D., I said that I can’t let that happen again.
I can’t let myself get enclosed by an unintentionally produced image of myself as prudish, prissy, so religious that I don’t talk about sex. I’m thinking about sex all the time. I’m attracted to all of these women but I can’t see it because they don’t have a language for it. It just started saying that I was gay. It was in my introduction to people in Missouri, that I started to believe it myself. I had a class in ethnographic writing in the second semester of my Ph.D. with a professor of ethnography and folklore whose primary research interests were women pastors and interest in anyone else.
This professor, Elaine Lawless, is not religious and spiritual but doesn’t have a religious affiliation. However, she was the first person in my life outside of my own church that told me, “I believe you that your church is such an integral part of your life.” Everybody who said that I had this contradiction or this conundrum, they say, “Just become protestant, become utilitarian.” You can get up that part, right? It seems so simple. I think in western churches, sometimes it does feel sort of alternate like you can exchange.
It’s a part of one’s identity that one can exchange or one shops around for religion much more. But Orthodox Christianity is a little more on the Jewish faith. It was so much a part of my identity. This was the first person that believed me. There came a reckoning that was extremely profound. I started hearing in spring break that year the word “never”. I imagined that if I stayed within this church, I would never be intimate or have sex or sexual encounters with anyone. I would live my whole life and I would die that way.
That was a choice I was making rather than ignoring it. It was an excruciating sort of I thought it only happened in the movies. There’s a really profound encounter with a truth that was too hard to face. I made a dating profile and I started. I came up with this really simplistic, syllogism that I have in the book, who at the end of my life will be more likely to forgive? Will I forgive my church for having deprived me of all erotic experience? Or will God forgive me for having chosen to live in my body as the body that I believe he gave me? I decided, “Well, God’s the one who’s more likely to forgive.”
Diane: It gives you a more authentic life. It is a tortured process. Obviously, eloquently put. You also held yourself in a band in a certain way. You kind of protect yourself for a long while until you could get those two words, “orthodox and lesbian” into your same sentence about yourself. I think it’s one of the miracles of the way our minds and psyches actually work. I’m a big believer in waiting. In your book, you trace the markers of where you got certain signals. It wasn’t just your church. This is your immediate living room. Your immediate mother and father are also implicating this sinning, that homosexuality, in their mind’s eye.
It was lovely towards the end of the book where you start to just realize that your mother just really doesn’t want you to burn in hell. She’s actually trying to help you avoid that fate. That’s a remarkable way of coming around to her perspective and a kind of forgiveness for the ostracization that you must have felt, the alienation, that you must have felt in that tension that must have been in your relationship for such a long time. Did it also occur with your father? In his life with him, was there that sense of acceptance that dawning acknowledgment more so? I wasn’t quite sure if he really understood you better.
Joanna: Thanks, Diane. You’re such a perceptive reader. I know that it’s unclear about my father because it is unclear to me. I sense that my father apprehended my sexuality but didn’t want me to say it because my father was one of those people. It’s clear in the book. Some other readers have mentioned that they did get the sense that he was one of those people who says he doesn’t care what people think but was very invested in his image in the world. I have this sort of disappointed connection with my father knowing that if he had lived to see me coming out, he would not have liked it or perhaps wouldn’t have borne it. I’m transgressively grateful that our relationship on earth ended when it did.
Obviously, I’m not glad that he died at 72 but I’m at peace with that. Whereas, my mother is still alive. I’m so glad you picked up on that way in which both of them continually implicated me in this idea of sin. The experience of making art is something I’d like to bring up here and have our listeners think about how making art can change our relationships with people because I didn’t want to think about my mother’s point of view ever. I had no interest in doing that. I just told my students this story of writing that penultimate essay. I had tried before to ask students last year to write about an experience of injustice.
I expected them to buy themselves into it in order to gain the reader’s sympathy as a writer who has experienced some injustice or unfairness, they’ll suggest or think about the other person’s point of view but my students here at Christopher Newport are traditionally aged. They’re 18, 19, 20. They have no interest in thinking outside. They’re sort of a self-righteous experience of outrage at their parents which is developmentally a natural stage to be at. I got to tell them about this. I told them I didn’t want to think about my mother’s perspective.
There is this incident that I dramatized actually happened. The woman from Turkey who had put me up during Hurricane Harvey said to me, “The reason why Islamic countries try and incentivize through taxation of other means to get Christians to convert to Islam is that they believe that everybody will be better off.” There are political reasons, too but she says, “People want to convert others because they believe that it’s the way the world will be better. Those people themselves will be saved. Your mother earnestly believes that she’s willing to sacrifice her relationship with you in order to save your soul.”
That moment together with an understanding of how art works, where artists being isolated in our own point of view and our own outrage doesn’t make art that works. I forced myself really. That’s not something that I wanted to write. But I knew I couldn’t publish this book without considering and offering some sense of my mother’s point of view to the reader. It’s been really effective, both as an important cornerstone of the book and in turn a pedagogical tool.
Diane: The making of art, it’s not just statement-making. It’s communication right from both sides. It’s a dialogue. It’s not just about the woman’s fuzziness of compassion. It’s about comprehension, understanding, and contextualizing so that we can go forward. We already have to take a commercial break. When we come back, I’d love to talk with you about a certain paradox that is classical Greek literature, not so far from Cyprus, is rich with homosexual relationships. The island of Lesbos is thought to be very much a part of the texture and the fabric of lesbianism as a history.
These kinds of contradictions are temporary. We’re all on a continuum. This is the way it is now. It wasn’t always that way. Maybe it won’t be again. So, all the more reason to urge this art-making. We’re going to take a commercial break. I’m sorry to leave it in the air but we’ll give ourselves a moment to collect our thoughts. When we come back with Joanna Eleftheriou, who wrote the book this way back, we’ll take on some of these questions. And even whether this way back to me, sounded like I was born this way. Anyway, don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
To become our friend on Facebook, post your thoughts about our shows and network on our timeline. Visit facebook.comforward/voiceamerica.
She Writes Press is an independent publishing company founded for women writers everywhere, together with Sister Company Spark Press, serving men and women. It is both mission-driven and community-oriented. The aim is to serve writers who wish to maintain greater ownership and control of their projects while getting the highest quality editorial, help with possible traditional distribution, and an in-house marketing and publicity team. In 2019, She Writes Press was named the publisher of the year. You can find out more on shewritespress.com.
Stimulating talk gets those synapses in the brain. All the time, the number one internet talk station where your opinion counts, voiceamerica.com
You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you. If you have a question or comment about the show, send us an email to email@example.com. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with Joanna Eleftheriou, author of This Way Back. It’s a collection of essays that’s become, for me, an instant classic, and will go on my shelf of classics. We were talking before the break about classical Greek literature and the illusions to cultures that were predominantly homosexual accepting of it. I stumbled across a quote from Toni Morrison this morning. She said, “As writers, we do what we do is remember, and to remember this world is to create it.” I wonder about this relationship of past and present and what might be the future as it relates to these classical literary illusions.
Joanna: Wow, that’s a beautiful quote. I’ll look it up and put it in my own treasury of quotations from Morrison and others. Yes, I’d use the very concrete image and tried it twice. I hope that some will actually google how ancient Greek statues looked before they were actually quite garish. The archaeological evidence suggests that the colors were quite bright and most flamboyant to current tastes. I insist that the reason is that we remember the statues as white even though we have the technology to present them in museums and textbooks.
The way they looked originally is because of the cultural implications that the whiteness of the faded marble has for a culture that currently is built upon a certain aspect or stance towards the world of this sense of poise of the white statue. I dramatize this moment that obviously really happened. I was this precocious, middle schooler saying that I’m a very smart kid. I’ve already finished all of Anna Green Gables and all of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’m so smart. I’m going to read my parents’ books. And so, I picked up Plato and said, “Yes, I’m so smart.”
I’m going to read Plato. I came upon Lesis on friendship, where the philosophers are having a symposium and arguing about what it means to be a lover of boys. It was unavoidable to me as a young person who was just starting to feel the erotic pole, to have arousal and thinking about other girls’ bodies, and find that this was something that really happened. It was terrifying. In the last 2000 years, West Northwestern European culture appropriated ancient Greek culture for its own purposes and then actually gave it back to modern Greece as deep-colored.
By the Germanic, French, and English sensibility, they have totally gotten rid of most of what really happened. I actually hoped to not only show this principle in action in my own life. I was also hoping that the experience of Greek and Greek Cypriot culture could also be a mirror for Americans. It’s often easier for us to reflect on our own country, in our own experience, in our own prejudices through the mirroring of another country that we have no stake in or no investment in either way. So, I tell these stories.
I also tell them about when the Greek Cypriots were in the majority in Cyprus, they horrifically oppressed the Turkish Cypriot minority. That was totally erased from all of the textbooks of the period of the 1960s. I found out about it later as an adult researching this book. I hope that American readers can reflect on their own learning about the Native Americans, the exploration. The Revolutionary War has come up and a lot of tensions currently in America come from different remembering and misremembering of what constituted the rebellion against the British Empire and how we should continue to live in that tradition of rebellion against the Empire and constituting the United States.
Diane: Whitewashing and Puritanism certainly go hand in hand. I love that you mentioned other indigenous cultures. When I think about the title of this way back, I feel like we need to go back to understand, to remember, to create this new world that we’re going to need to have than acknowledging, more inclusive, and more sensitive to our environment which indigenous cultures tended to be much more in tune with. Not to mention the sensuality, the whole dynamic, and the wholeness of sexuality which is now fragmented and splintered off. This reintegration process really reminded me of the title of your book, This Way Back.
In the book, you mentioned that you’re not sure of what you’re going back to, back to your homeland or you say, “Whether it just meant that I had been saddled with a restless sense that the home I have to get back is always somewhere else.” I wonder about this poignant universal to set homecoming. It might always be somewhere else, something elusive. Can it be internal at the same time as going back to ourselves and to some set of values that will save us? What do you think about all this?
Joanna: I do think that I had the good fortune and the privilege to meditate on this type, to talk to different people about it. I don’t think I’m going to suffer the fate of my father which was to help a tragically and blindly keep changing countries and going back and forth, back and forth thinking that if I only find the right physical location where I can fit in and belong, I’ll get rid of all quiet or calm or even quench this sort of fire of feeling like I’m not at home. It’s at home in my body. It’s at home in my place and in my connection to other people.
In my journey, I found that I felt most out of place and most in distress when the person I felt myself to be was at odds with what other people told me I was. One of the times I actually started feeling a little more at home was when I came back to the US for my master’s and connected to people overwriting. That was a way in which it was something that I could talk about openly. When I found other writers in my MFA program, I felt like we understood each other.
I became more articulate, more able to say, and more aware of the hidden crevices of my own psyche as I went through. Almost inflicted on me by facing my fault, my fear, the more I became aware and brought some of the things I was afraid of, or I believed and didn’t want to admit I believed, or felt into awareness and became bolder in my assertion of that identity to the theme of your show. I found that other people would respond and that gave me the sense of being at home in a way that a concrete home never can. I think it’s the relationships that make us feel at home.
Diane: Absolutely. The relationship to yourself, and the naming. I think you’ve touched on the power of the words, that the naming and getting that out creates this satisfaction. You talk about in your book the naming of trees, plants, Jasmine, all of Carrum that instantly transport you to a place or an identity. If these words are banished, then our sense of self is forever ostracized and is always in exile. And that sense of exile, in the sense of home, is interactive internally, externally. It is really the gift of this book. I think it’s also one that can help us while we’re in pandemic isolation. Is this isolation a gift? People have questioned this.
There is a lot of reflection going on. If you want to kind of add to that, read this book, This Way Back. It’s such a glorious kind of revelation. There’s definitely the journey of the mind. There are real journeys. You bring us the sense of place from the naming of things and from a sense of smells, the old cigarettes in this Cypriot hotel room. These sensory observations keep your body very close and alive. I wonder if it was difficult for you to be so alive, so vibrant at a time when you needed to be suppressing other parts of yourself. There’s almost a sense of bursting out that comes through in this language.
Joanna: Relatively perceptive question, Diane. I’m really floored by that. This book took me 15 years. The Other Side is the first essay I wrote and a Vacation Maple was written which you alluded to just now. It is the very last piece that I sort of tucked into the book at the very end of its composition. After the workshop that you and I did in Florida together, I went to Provincetown in Massachusetts. I was given an exercise to think about a tree. Somehow, that meditation on trees gave me the last little nugget that I was able to sew the book up together after writing at a very consistent pace for 15 years.
So, it’s 270 pages. It’s about 20 pages a year. That’s not a lot because it was through seeding. I did get some pushback because even teachers of mine were like, “Writing is hard for everybody. Stop making such a big deal out of how hard this is for you.” So, it feels very validating for you to recognize that I felt compelled. I could not write anything else that was easier but I was wrestling with an internal or existential problem. I’m very grateful to have gone through but it was more difficult. I felt I was able to convey but you as a writer and as a perceptive reader really nailed it. It’s that embodiment.
I just worked out the new essay that I’ve written recently about teaching in a prison. One of the problems of being incarcerated is the men that I was teaching have their own bodily needs that are weaponized against them. It’s really painful to see the way to the bathroom, and needing to eat, and needing to have your body safe. All these ways are in which the power of the state and the power of others is leveraged against people. One critique that my peers in my writers’ group mentioned was, “You’re disembodied in this. We don’t see anything like you.” Meanwhile, my own embodiment as a woman in a men’s presence was an excruciating fact and a real danger.
Actually, I just realized one of the problems was, we were told to leave all cash, our weapon, and your cell phone in the car locked because they could be stolen from you and used or you could be harassed to get your things. It was pointed out that the problem was you couldn’t leave your body behind even though women’s bodies were just as much currency and importance. We were supposed to leave ballpoint pens because they could become tattoo guns. This way of forcing our bodies into our own consciousness was really painful for me.
I tried not to medicalize or use the language of psychology but a lot of the moments that I wrote about occurred during periods of clinically diagnosable dissociation. I went back and it was therapeutic. It’s excruciatingly therapeutic to have to imagine myself in a physical sense in the physical place of those painful and terrifying moments. I’m glad that they came alive for the reader. I’m glad I wrote it. I think that integration of my psyche came about because I undid some of the problems of dissociation by placing my physicality into the writing along with my mind and spirit.
Diane: Which is the asset that we benefit from the most in this. You talk about one of your idols, Molina McCrory. She was an actress who famously said, “The personal is political. What you eat is a political statement, always it’s becoming ever more true.” I think it’s fascinating what you just said about your body that is also objectified, potentially weaponized. This recalls this whole idea that at one point, you were also dissociated. You talk about trauma in the book and how you can’t encode it.
You write that when you’re going to the border of the Turkish, part of Cyprus, “The buffer zone in the green line was real to my mind, not this. Not the physical presence of my own self on this piece of the country imagined and desired, but never ever touched. I drove on and emotions rose up. Tears welled up.” I just thought that metaphorical allusion to the beauty, the physicality but not being touched like there wasn’t the axis going through connecting. It was just fascinating. There are moments like this throughout the book. We have to pause for a commercial break. There did seem to be a direct metaphor there and seeing the physical as metaphysical, crossing all these boundaries of physical, mental, emotional.
It really just makes this transportive. As Molina McCrory said, “The very personal, intimate detail becomes political.” It’s small to large back again. We’re going to take a commercial break. When we come back, we’re going to talk more with Joanna about harvesting carob in Cyprus. What it was like to go back, whether that was a homecoming? How do all of these things matter? Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
Voice America is on your favorite smart speaker. If you have Alexa or Google Home, go ahead and give us a try. Hey, Alexa, play finding your frequency podcasts on tune in.
Books Forward exemplifies excellence in book marketing and promotion, representing New York Times bestsellers, national award-winning books, and books that catch fire on social media and in the digital realm. Books Forward creates ambitious campaigns with unlimited possibilities for sparking buds while creatively cutting through the noise. Your book deserves to launch with experts who have set the bar in the industry. To learn more, visit booksforward.com or send us an email at email@example.com, a JKS Communications Company.
Streaming live, the leader in internet talk radio, voiceamerica.com.
You are listening to Dropping in with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you. If you have a question or comment about the show, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. Now, back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with Joanna Eleftheriou who is the author of This Way Back. We’ve come back to so many ideas. The climbing of trees, running the hills, sat in the harbors, watch the sea, and harvested carob in Cyprus which you did throughout your life, I really wondered about this closeness with nature and the impact on the love of God whether it impacts your current definition of God. Even idealistically, is there a way of incorporating some more social responsiveness into religion? What’s your current definition of God? I’m sorry to ask you this question.
Joanna: Right now, I’m in a little bit of a crisis I haven’t. There’s an unfortunate moment where my mom really hurts me with something that she said. I actually stopped going to church at that moment. That was 3 months before my 40th birthday. And now, I’m 42. I actually stopped going to church after going to church for 40 years plus my time as a fetus. I feel like something broke then. I’m trying to figure it out in ways like that insistence that I talked about earlier in my early 30s.
I feel somehow disappointed or disenchanted. I’m glad that you asked this question because it’s scary but I want to think about what’s scary. You’re right that profound moments of connection with God and transcendence and real belief in a sense that I could pray, connect, and be seen with God where I would run in the hills. I really felt like they were a place that was mysterious. That’s not uncommon in the world, too. The Desert Fathers in the very early Christian tradition went out into nature and felt that connection and so many other permits and things.
I had the same experience like the trees and all that. I thought that everybody felt that way but apparently not. I’ve realized recently that it was something very profound and very visceral experience that I couldn’t deny that had really happened, the sense of being connected to the whole world when I was out in nature. I’m not a hiker. I don’t like to take the car to go somewhere to hike. I’m more like I’ll find a pocket of nature in whatever city. I was lucky. Columbia, Missouri had lots of trails and things, and Cyprus, obviously, that the population is still fairly small.
It was easy to find these spaces that just didn’t have many people in them. I even have that moment where I hug a tree. Unfortunately, in Houston, I sat on the earth to relieve anxiety and I was covered in fire ants. I think that we need to both not idealize nature. Yes, I love this idea of climate. Something that’s dominating our culture now is instrumentalism or utilitarian thinking of nature and even many climate conversations happen from a point of view of, “Okay, we need to safeguard the planet to safeguard ourselves.”
It’s really a self-centered approach. I think that what I benefited from in a spiritual sense was to get out of the ego and to imagine, to understand my own smallness, and to understand that all our needs are actually met. Unfortunately, American consumer culture and neoliberal understandings of the human psyche think of things like buying stuff and consumerism can make us happy but it doesn’t. We’re ducing our sense of nature as something that we want to keep safe for ourselves but looking at it with other risks back and gratitude heals ourselves, heals our psyches, and also can save the planet in one breath.
Diane: Absolutely. You talk about consumerism as a protection against death. If you have a big house, then nothing can happen to you. That is the illusion. You certainly poked a hole in that balloon. I love the conversation about need and self-reliance in the book. There’s a certain time in which you decide you’d like to be like the carob tree which doesn’t need much water. It doesn’t need much attention and interaction. You experienced a service job when you were in your school days. You were waitressing. I know this idea that I don’t need anything. I’m just going to offer things to people.
I don’t need anything for myself. Those needs actually can’t be filled by superficial realities. They can be filled with moments in nature of rapture, awe, and connection. It’s fascinating to me that surrogates that we tried to put into necessary equations won’t go away. Those questions just won’t be wrestled down. I love that you have this in the book, this idea of dissonance. You’re not quite Greek, Cypriot, American. You’re not quite fitting into any of these rubrics. This dissonance becomes part of your identity, right? It’s not so much this idea that I love, the nostalgic, the romanticism of nostalgia. It harkens back to Toni Morrison’s quote of remembering.
Your father thought, “Okay, we’re going to go back to Cyprus so that you could quote, learn who you were.” It lights of all the expansiveness that when you broke yourself open and became receptive to who you were. Sometimes it was these dialectics that it wasn’t any of those things that you thought. It was with something else and maybe you couldn’t have found it any other way. Your comfort in your skin is very palpable. When you go back to Greece, for example, to teach your writings in the summer, do you feel anything vibrationally from this place?
Joanna: Yes. I talked to a class at Emerson College who’s reading my book. A young man whose parents are from India said that my articulation of this visceral sense that I come from this land happened to him who grew up in Massachusetts. He went to India and he felt that this is where my ancestry is from. I don’t position myself on whether that is real, whether there is some understanding that our body has or it’s an illusion because of the power of suggestions sort of thing. But I did feel I’m from here.
On top of that, one of the ironies I love that you articulated so well, the irony of my father intending to bring us back to Cyprus so that we could see ourselves as entirely Greek Christian, meet a Greek man, and have Greek babies. It broke open so that I not only didn’t see myself that way but say yes. What it means is I actually revolutionized what I understood greatness to be. The other irony is that Greece is a country where I don’t have a passport in the way that I have a Cypriot passport and I have an American passport. Because I have this Cypriot accent that overpowers the English tinge of my Greek accent, I’m identified as Cypriot in ways that I’ll never be identified as Cypriot either in America.
It is because Americans haven’t really heard of Cyprus. And then in Cyprus, people just assume I’m British because they hear the English in my accent and most Cypriots emigrated to England rather than the US. And so, the huge irony is that a place where I’ve never lived and where I do not have a passport. None of my grandparents, either just my great grandparents lived in what is now the Greek nation-state but that’s where I feel like I’m identifying the way I want to be.
Diane: That’s so interesting. You’re right. I think it’s poignant. There are deep, deep roots that are intangible that you write as a sort of an accumulative, creative statement. Actually, I’m wrapping up now. You write, “Telling my family story could also be liberation from this ghost that lives inside me. A sense of exile, a sense of not belonging, a sense of being trapped, and unable to flee.” This is just so resonant at this very moment. To resist going to binary places for answers for the story of ourselves, that’s a takeaway from this book.
As is merrick, the pleasure derived from attentive, caring, and passionate labor which clearly went into this book. Thank you, Joanna, for being with us. For those of you who want to get in touch with Joanna, go to Joanna Essays on Instagram and Twitter. This Way Back is sold wherever books are sold. Thanks to our engineers, Matt Wiegner and Aaron Keller, and tour executive producer, Robert Chileno, most of all, to our listeners. Remember to stay safe. Make the most of this quiet time and try to find a sense of home. Till next week. Thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 am Pacific time and 11 am Eastern time on The Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.