By Melissa Hekkers
On the occasion of her work being selected to be included in an anthology published by the Commonwealth Foundation, local author, Erato Ioannou, spoke to the Cyprus Weekly about her short story, the challenges of contemporary writers and the fresh voices of the local writing scene.
Cyprus Weekly: Your short story “Something Tiny” is to be included in the anthology, So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans, after a call for submissions by the Commonwealth Foundation. What urged you to submit your work?
Erato Ioannou: The Commonwealth Foundation, through its cultural initiative, Commonwealth Writers, is running projects committed to tackling the challenges faced by writers in different regions and aims to inspire and connect storytellers from across the world. For these reasons, I decided to submit my short story “Something Tiny” and I am happy it was selected to be included in this anthology, which brings together diverse voices from around the globe.
CW: In a few lines, could you describe what the story is about?
EI: I can’t get used to this question. It makes me uneasy. A story, either in short or in long form, is to be experienced. She is to pull the reader – violently almost – into her imaginary world. Merely stating, in a couple of sentences, what the story is about would be like plucking her heart out of her chest – warm and still pulsating in my palm. So, please allow me to answer with a teaser: to what extremes can a mother go to protect her child from the trauma of her missing father? And what does Elizabeth Taylor have to do with any of it?
CW: You wrote your short piece in English. Do you ever write in your native language?
EI: “Something Tiny” was written in English, yes. I write in both Greek and English. It is not, of course, a matter of making a conscious decision – to choose one language over the other, when I embark on writing a story. Stories come knocking on my door, all dressed up in their own words and they demand that they are written in the language they themselves have chosen.
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CW: The story is one of 17 stories to be published in the anthology that was selected out of over 500 submissions. What do you think connects you to all the contributing writers and how do you feel about your selection?
EI: The call for submissions was addressed to writers from the Commonwealth islands, listing over 30 countries, amongst them being, besides Cyprus: Jamaica, Maldives, Mauritius, Singapore, the Bahamas, Malta and Papua New Guinea, just to name a few. Featuring the work of 17 writers, So Many Islands explores the many aspects of small island living – highlighting the variations and connections between islands and islanders who are literally and figuratively worlds apart.
Contemporary writers face many challenges. Everything has been written about. Themes have been exhausted. Readers are demanding. What do you write about? How do you write about it? How does one touch upon subjects like trauma…loss, without falling into the trap of being melodramatic? How does one deal with history, identity and locality, managing, at the same time, to address a wider international audience? How does one write from a perspective that is fresh? What do I bring new to literature… new to the world? All these questions tap my shoulder when I write. And I am convinced that my fellow writers in the anthology deal with the same issues when they write.
So Many Islands, will include writing as diverse as the islands themselves, and I am convinced that readers everywhere will find universal connections with the words and worlds they represent. What connects writers from different regions is the constant wondering; the “what if?” And that becomes literature… art – the quest for answers, not answers themselves; a quest that articulates issues in a manner truer than statistics and reports.
CW: The introduction will be by Marlon James, a Jamaican writer and winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. What does being introduced by such a persona mean to you?
EI: Please…if I may, now I will scream with joy! Marlon James’ most recent novel, 2014’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, having been the first book by a Jamaican author ever to be shortlisted. The New York Times wrote about the book: “It’s epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting – a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent.” And now, this writer will be introducing, amongst others, my story? I am immensely honoured.
CW: Have you entered other competitions, what is your published work so far and what are your aspirations as a writer?
EI: My first collection of short stories, Cats Have it All, was published in 2004 and, since then, my stories have appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies in Cyprus and abroad. My “Madwoman Story” won an international short story contest and was included in the anthology, Tell Me a Tale, in 2012. Recently, “From One to the Other Horizon” was selected to be included in the anthology, Stories in Colours, which was published last November in Greece.
I cannot imagine myself not writing. My mind would be too crowded.
CW: Generally, what do you write about and where do you get your inspiration from?
EI: My stories investigate relationships in terms of loss. My heroes, usually women, test the boundaries, if there are any, of the extremes human nature can possibly reach. One of them will get into a washing machine to get rid of the stains of her crumbling marriage, another will exhume her beloved’s corpse just to be near him one last time, another will battle with the madwoman inside her head who wants to kill her child. Another secretly enters the buffer zone in search of answers to her mysterious dreams and supernatural visitations.
Inspiration is either lurking in the shadowy corners of our everyday lives or it is basking in the sunlight. For me, inspiration is in History and histories. A photograph can be inspiring; a pair of shoes by the side of the asphalt, a drop of water hanging in agony from the faucet, a dying crow in an empty lot, water oozing from a broken washing machine. Landscapes resonating with fairy tales, fables and myths. My kids. A word.
Inspiration is all around us, but she will not be visible unless our receptors are open. She comes hand in hand with discipline, during the young hours of the day.
CW: Locally, the writing scene has been expanding over the years. What is your take on the scene and what would you say could be done to enhance it?
EI: The local writing scene is vibrating with fresh voices. Some have made it outside geographical boundaries. Cypriot literatures are being translated into various European languages. The Anglophone literature of Cyprus speak to audiences outside Cyprus. Now, with regards to what could be done to enhance Cypriot writing… I will not speak of what the state could do. I would be merely repeating what has been said over and over again. We need to support Cypriot writers. Go to their readings and presentations. Read their books. We need to cultivate in our children the love of books; immerse them into the world of fairytales, fables and stories, introduce them to the magical worlds of the written word.