Julia Gkanasou was born in Athens. She studied Computer Science in Athens and Information Security in London, Literature in Paris and Edinburgh and European Civilization in Hellenic Open University. She has published the following books: On Black Keys (novel, Govostis, 2006) – parts of the book were included in the collective edition “Universal Cities” (University of Edinburgh); Umbilical cord (novel, Govostis, 2011) – participation in: 4th Dasein International Literary Festival, 1st Young Writers’ Festival in Athens and 9th Young Artists’ Festival in Glasgow; Till the end (novella, Govostis, 2013) – shortlisted for the Young Writers’ Award 2013 of the literary magazine “Klepsydra” and the National Literary Award 2014; Down on my knees (novella, Govostis, 2017) – honorary distinction at the Mediterranean Short Stories Contest 2017, University of Exeter.
Julia Gkanasou spoke to Reading Greece* about her most recent book Down on my knees, noting that “the realization and management of our mortality, of our limits, and the impact on human existence” are some of her writing obsessions, while a recurrent theme in all her books is “the anguish for the passing of time, for decay, for the body as a vehicle for uttermost pleasure and supreme pain”.
She comments on “the extrovert character of the new generation of Greek writers, novelists and poets”, whose writing “incorporates influences of not just world literature but global artistic trends as a whole”, and concludes that in her case the bet was to depict something Greek and unique in a global way.
Your most recent novel, Down on my knees, was recently published. Tell us a few things about the book.
In Down on my knees, a woman on her knees starts her ascent in order to fulfill a promise, a vow. She envisions the miracle. She has no options left. And the same goes for all those on their knees alongside her. However, she is not out there for the usual reasons; not even for the reasons she cites in the beginning. What she remembers, what she experiences along the way and what she admits change things completely. ‘On their knees’ are all those with no options left to them. ‘On their knees’ are the mortals who are fervently faithful. ‘On their knees’ are those who believe that the unfeasible could be made feasible. ‘On their knees’ are those who continue to fight despite and beyond all odds, against the forces of degradation, loneliness and deprivation. ‘On our knees’ are all of us when we tread back anew to our beginning.
In her review of the book, Irene Stamatopoulou comments that “the primary question permeating your writing is what binds us to the world and how the awareness or even ‘negotiation’ of our limits, at every level, can transform our earthly experience”. What would you say are your ‘writing obsessions’?
The realization and management of our mortality, of our limits, and the impact on human existence, are some of my primary writing obsessions. This is the reason why a recurrent theme in all my books, expressed intensely and variably, is the anguish for the passing of time, for decay, for the body as a vehicle for uttermostpleasure and supreme pain.
At the same time, I am particularly interested in change, in how living organisms are transforming over time, as well as during historical and narrative conjunctures. My attention is usually turned not to the distant past, but to the potentially gloomy yet mostly promising future. This fact is connected in my books with the presence of science as a means of restructuring human reality, and quite often, as a means of controlling humanity’s course. The role of memory is added to this, which, along with the effects of the most ardent desire, acts as a point of self-reference or as a path to alteration, mobilization, catharsis and faith.
From On Black Keys in 2006 to Down on my knees in 2017 what has changed and what has remained the same in your writing?
I think that my writing has become more abstract, Spartan, unadorned and void of unnecessary embellishment, while it has gradually turned to shorter forms, towards a condensed multi-dimensional universe which starts from a specific juncture and then spreads to cover everything.
Even so, I believe that my literary style remains personal and particular, full of intense cinematic images and a narration open to multiple versions of being. Although narrative modes are incessantly enriched, I consider myself part of the immense tradition of European modernism, in terms of themes as well as on structural and functional levels, with however a touch of Greekness, which converses equally with the global and the universal. I still relish the poetic approach of intimate moments as well as the delirious which has the power to connect the realistic with the surrealistic, the grotesque with the cruelly objective and the idealistically imaginary.
In recent years, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of both poetry and prose in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines and readings in public squares, to mention just a few. How is this trend to be explained?
I believe that this phenomenon is explained by the fact that literature is like milk: it makes strong bones.
It has been argued that the new generation of Greek writers is multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational. What is it that makes a national literature appealing to a foreign audience? And, in turn, to what extent do Greek writers incorporate foreign influences in their work?
I believe that current, and chiefly the younger generation of Greek writers, given that they have travelled more as well as lived abroad, have learned to view, read and write in a more “open” way that incorporates influences of not just world literature but global artistic trends as a whole. Taking also into account the fact that many of them read “major” literary works in the original, it’s easy to see the extrovert character of the new generation of Greek writers, novelists and poets.
Within this framework, Greek literature is changing. When I wrote On Black Keys, I lived in London. Literary circles there showed interest in the book, as it took place in a city, a so-called global city, and referred to the insecurity of our deepest secrets, the defeat of what is private, personal, and undisclosed. Thus the book was distinguished and excerpts were included in an edition on modern global cities published by the University of Edinburgh. It was then that I first realized that foreign readers were completely indifferent to the ‘greekness’ of the book, although the main female character bore distinct Greek traits. With the exception of our great Nobel laureates, classical writers and ancient Greek texts – and maybe some works on the subject of the crisis – neither folklore nor the contemporary version of Greece, as depicted in literature, actually interest foreign readers.
While participating in a European literature festival with my second book Umbilical cord, I realized that the challenge was huge. In Sorbonne, for instance, the book was distinguished for its originality: it referred to the sheer contrast between the reality of multinational companies trading the body and a circus of people with physical particularities glorifying the body in all its forms. At the festival, what attracted interest was not the “greekness” of the book but its atopic and timeless – with futuristic elements – global character. My concern about what could differentiate me as a Greek literary voice, so that my birthplace would be a point of reference, distinction and involvement, had reached its zenith.
Nonetheless, when I wrote Down on my knees, which refers to an exceptional happening that takes place exclusively on the Greek island of Tinos, I decided to submit the first part to a literary competition organized by the Department of Mediterranean Studies of the University of Exeter just to see what the reactions would be. The book is among the four shortlisted to receive an honorary scholarship funding their translation into English. The note accompanying the distinction wrote: “We would like to thank you for depicting something so Greek, Mediterranean and unique in such a ‘global’ way”.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Johanna Hanink is Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University, US. Her work focuses on ancient theater and performance, the cultural life of classical Athens, and the idea of the "Greek miracle." She is a regular columnist for the online magazine Eidolon: a modern way to write about the ancient world.
In her latest book "The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity", recently published with Harvard University Press, she "investigates our abiding desire to view Greece through the lens of the ancient past" and “explores how Western fantasies of classical antiquity have created a particularly fraught relationship between the European West and the country of Greece, especially in the context of Greece's recent "tale of two crises."
Professor Hanink spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the notion of cultural indebtedness and its political character, classicists and their responsibility to dissuade people from “dwelling too much on Greek antiquity”, the imagined concept of the “original” Athenian democracy and the long history of recorded disappointment in “modern” Greeks.
She stresses that “fantasies of antiquity exerted such a strong influence on the formation and even the “branding” of the modern Greek state that Western media almost has no other way of understanding Greece at all,” concluding that she would like to see work on “narrative economics” to expain how has the narrative of Greek cultural/civilizational decline affected policy, and how has that narrative affected how the world has perceived Greece and its economy, and what further narratives (about the Greeks’ work ethic, spending habits and so on) about the economy have taken root:
You have noted that references in the international media to the classical Greek past are often deployed in a way that is misinformed, paternalistic, and condescending. Can classicists say anything meaningful about modern Greece and its economy?
Not particularly. As a classicist who’s just written a book mostly about modern Greece—and who can write about modern Greece these days without writing about the economy?—I realize that probably sounds hypocritical.
Let me clarify: I don’t think that classicists can say much that’s meaningful, or "expert", about the technicalities of the modern Greek economy. In Greece these days they say that everyone’s become an amateur economist. Given the delicate politics involved, though, I think classicists should not pretend that patchy knowledge about ancient Greece translates into real understanding of what’s happening in Greece today.
On the other hand, classicists who are aware of the history of their discipline—a history very much intertwined with the history of colonialism and of the modern Greek state—have useful second-order interventions to make. What I mean is that those classicists might have something to say about why the story of the Greek economy is so often portrayed as it is in Western media, as, say, a tragic (or even comic) plot from an ancient Athenian play. Classicists should be the ones who cry foul when calls are issued for Greeks to read up on Stoicism. If we are complicit in this kind of media coverage, it will only prove that the discipline is (still) out of touch and colonialist.
Ruins of the Jupiter Temple in Athens, 1904, by Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary
So when it comes to the Greek debt crisis classicists have a counter-intuitive responsibility: they should be dissuading people from dwelling too much on Greek antiquity. Ancient Greece in this context is a distraction that ranges from counter-productive to harmful.
In a recent “Europe Holidays “article in the FT (A short break in ancient Athens May 11, 2017) the author notes that “There is something epic about recent events that seems to encourage reflection on the classical past…” Would you like to comment?
A few months ago, Neville Morley wrote a great blog post called “Welcome to the Toga Party,” about all the media think pieces that have lately brought ancient Rome to bear on British and American politics. He made a very good point: these ancient analogies serve to “present our current historical predicament in more elevated terms”. By comparing Trump to Nero, or citing the course of Roman history as proof that the end of the American Republic is nigh, we make our own era seem more “epic” and momentous (or as Morley puts it, we imply that “We are living in a time of Great Men and Terrible Villainy and Heroic Deeds and Grand Gestures!”).
There’s certainly an element of that kind of thinking on view in the FT article (which I actually found very irritating). But there’s something more to the case of the Greek crisis and all the ancient analogies it’s inspired. Fantasies of antiquity exerted such a strong influence on the formation and even the “branding” of the modern Greek state that Western media almost has no other way of understanding Greece at all. Ancient Greece has been baked into the national cake. George Zarkadakis took an extreme view when he wrote, in a Washington Post op-ed, that “Modern Greece was thus invented as a backdrop to contemporary European art and imagination, a historical precursor of many Disneylands to come.” But I think there’s something to that observation, something that means that, in Greece, “recent events” will always seem “to encourage reflection on the classical past.”
In The Classical Debt, you note that the Greek crisis / Grexit discourse put forward key questions: “Can Europe claim the legacy of ancient Greece if the country of Greece is not part of Europe? To what extent do Greeks get to claim that legacy as their own? How much does the Western world continue to owe the Greek people for things their ancestors did thousands of years ago?” Can you give us brief answers to these questions?
These questions are the bread and butter of the book. I don’t think there’s any real answer to them, and I’ve been criticized for not showing my hand on issues such as the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles currently held in the British Museum. Everyone’s got an opinion about that kind of thing (and I do too), but very few people have a new opinion. What’s new about this book, I think, is its examination of how, when, and why all of these questions and controversies came to be formulated.
Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, 1868, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
I do nevertheless suggest that this notion of cultural indebtedness—a notion that is very prominent in the Anglo-American world— is unproductive. If we are especially indebted to Greece, are there then cultures to which we owe nothing—or worse, are there cultures who owe “us”?
To me, what’s most interesting about these questions is how political and polarizing they have been. They underpin even bigger questions about the nature and even the very existence of the West. When the West wants to talk about itself, after all, it often starts with Greece.
You also note that admiration of ancient Greece is a stronger bond among Western nations than “fragile political coalitions such as the EU and NATO.” Classics were once the foundation of a “gentleman’s education,” what is their relevance today? What brought you to the study of the Greek world?
The story of how I came to study classics is only interesting because it’s so typical. I started Latin when I was eleven, then took two semesters of university Greek in high school. When I got college, at the University of Michigan, I couldn’t decide between majoring in classics and economics. I remember sitting in the office of an extraordinary professor there—H.D. Cameron—who told me that classics departments (compared to economics ones) are small and close knit, and if I chose classics I’d always have an academic home.
I was lucky because at Michigan, Modern Greek Studies is a really integral part of the Department of Classics. During my last year, I took Modern Greek History course with Artemis Leontis. That was the course that first introduced me to, among other people and things, George Seferis and Melina Mercouri. I was completely gripped by concepts like Romaiosini and the Megali Idea. Professor Leontis was the one who inspired me to become curious about Hellenism in the longue durée. The first time I ever visited Athens, she was the one who took me to the top of the Acropolis—and she even helped me to get a SIM Card and a metro map!
In your book on Lycurgan Athens you underline that the 4th century BC city invented itself as the “cultural capital of Greece” promoting its theatre industry and heritage together with its imperialist past of the 5th century BC. In what way do you think there are parallels between ancient and modern cultural politics? And “what makes people think that classical Athens is so unique?”
There’s a long history behind the question “what makes people think that classical Athens is so unique,” and much of The Classical Debt is dedicated to tracing that story. But I’ll give two versions of short answers here. First, people think Athens was so unique because the Athenians said that they were unique (Pericles’ funeral oration, as reported by Thucydides, is a critical document here). But today we think Athens is unique also for the simple reasons that we’ve thought that for a long time.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration, 1877, by Philipp Foltz
Here I find a snippet of something written by museologist Peter Walsh very useful. Walsh has argued that the reproduction is what “confers status and importance on the original. The more reproduced an artwork is—and the more mechanical and impersonal the reproductions—the more important the original becomes.” Walsh here is talking about reproductions of material artifacts, but I’m very interested in extending these kinds of critical heritage debates—debates centered largely in materiality—to the world and history of ideas. The more that, say, Athenian democracy gets invoked as a model—gets, in a sense, “reproduced,”—the more prestige accrues to the imagined concept of the “original” Athenian democracy.
“The Classical Debt” traces the ongoing “negotiation” of the Hellenic nation in the present day world arena together with Greece’s attempts to remind the west of its ‘debt’ to the ancient Hellas. How does this translate into practical policy decisions?
To answer that question in this space, I want to consider the negative side of the coin: how is the idea that Greeks today are unworthy descendants of illustrious ancestors—or not really descendants at all—translate into practical policy decisions? This is hard to measure, of course, but I think it’s a very interesting question because it stands at a real intersection between humanities (intellectual history, media studies, even classics) and social sciences (economics, political science, policy).
Mark Blyth, a wonderful colleague of mine at Brown, has repeatedly emphasized that austerity policies do not solve economic crises such as the one in Greece, but turn them into “a morality tale of saints and sinners.” The place where the humanities can shed light here is in unpacking how the Greeks are so easily cast as sinners—while the Icelanders have emerged from their own tale of financial ruin seeming all the more virtuous.
There is a long history of recorded disappointment in “modern” Greeks, and that disappointment—and disdain—has had material effects. The historian Mark Mazower writes of how, during the brutal German occupation of Greece, a “sort of vague classicism was accompanied by considerable ambivalence towards Pericles’ modern descendants.”
“Hanink helps us see modern Greece through the eyes of a classicist, and ancient Greece through the eyes of a keen observer of modern Greece—a wonderful and winning combination. The Classical Debt is a clever meditation on if, and why, antiquity still matters.”—Professor Mary Beard, Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge
In my answer to your first question I said classicists should stay out of it when it comes to the finer points of economic analysis of the Greek crisis. So let me say what I wish an economist or political scientist would do: I’d be very interested to see work on Greece in light of economist Robert Shiller’s recent drive toward “Narrative Economics.” Shiller debuted some of that work in January, in his Presidential Address to the American Economics Association, a few months after my own book was “put to bed” (as they say in the newspaper business). He calls for economists to pay more attention to popular narratives—to stories and storytelling—and the influence they have in driving economic events and trends. One example, an example that suggests this kind of analysis might be fruitful in the case of Greece, is the narrative that came to see the stock market crash of 1929 as retribution for the decade’s loose morals. Sermons preached the Sunday after the crash cast it as “a narrative of a sort of day-of-judgment on the “Roaring Twenties.”
In the case of Greece, I’d like to see work on “narrative economics” from two interrelated angles: 1) how has the narrative of Greek cultural/civilizational decline affected policy, and 2) how has that narrative affected how the world has perceived Greece and its economy, and what further narratives (about, e.g., the Greeks’ work ethic, spending habits and so on) about the economy have taken root.
The connection between ideas about Greek antiquity and modern economic policy might seem a bit tenuous. But I have heard that the cultural importance of ancient Greece has been raised by economics ministers at Eurogroup meetings!
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
Read also: On Not Knowing (Modern) Greek
art by Mali Skotheim
Aris Fioretos is a Swedish writer. He was born in 1960 in Göteborg to Greek and Austrian parents - Fioretos’ father left Greece in the early 1950s, married an Austrian while in exile in Vienna and then moved to Sweden with her. He studied in Stockholm, Paris and at Yale University. Since 2010, he is a professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University in Stockholm.
@Photo Credit: Heike Bogenberger
In 1991 he published his first book, a volume of lyrical prose entitled Delandets bok [The Book of Imparting], which has been followed by a series of novels, essays, and scholarly studies. His latest book in English is the illustrated biography Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis, which appeared in 2012. The main character in his novel The Last Greek (2009) is a Greek emigré in Sweden - the book came out in Germany in 2011 under the title Der letzte Grieche. His latest novel Mary (2015) has received prizes both in Sweden and Germany, and has been sold to several countries. In the spring of 2016, it was followed by a booklength essay on the art of the novel, entitled Vatten, gåshud [Water, Gooseflesh). His works have been translated into a dozen languages.
Between work on his own texts, Fioretos translates those of others — for example, the late poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, English-language novels by Vladimir Nabokov, and aphorisms by Walter Serner. He regurlarly writes for the culture section of Sweden’s largest daily, Dagens Nyheter, and has received numerous prizes and awards, most recently the Big Prize of the Swedish De Nio Foundation (2013) and Swedish Radio’s Novel Prize (2016). One of the vice presidents of the German Academy for Language and Literature, Fioretos lives and works in Berlin and Stockholm.
Aris Fioretos spoke to Reading Greece* about his novel Mary, which tells the story of a woman arrested during Greece’s military dictatorship, though the country is actually never mentioned by name, noting that as a writer, he was “not interested in the grand ideological schemes or heroic accounts” but rather in “what had happened to women on a social micro level”, “the small gestures, the confidences, the haptic evidentiality of life on a prison island”.
He comments on how the notions of identity, memory, loss and longing are imprinted on his work, pinpointing his interest in “how individual identities are formed and deformed by the experience of exile”, in the “ways collective experiences contain hidden fractures and complexities at odds with one another”.
Your novel Mary tells the story of a woman arrested in Greece in November 1973, the time of Greece’s military dictatorship, and her experiences with hunger, cold and torture in the secret police’s prisons. Tell us a few things about the book.
Actually, the country in which the main protagonist is living is never mentioned by name. But of course readers familiar with recent history will recognize the colonels’ Greece during those black three, four years on either side of 1970.
Mary is a 23-year old student of architecture. She has short hair, is considered “reserved” because she rarely smiles (the truth is she has poor teeth), and limps a little due to childhood polio. The novel begins in the afternoon of November 16, 1973, when Mary is waking up from her siesta. She is not with her boyfriend Dimos, who has built the radio with which the students are broadcasting their protests, because she had to see her doctor earlier in the day. Now, having had coffee and a cigarette, she wants to join her friend as quickly as possible in order to share the nervy but joyous news that she is six weeks pregnant. Before that happens, however, Mary is picked up by one of the false taxis that circulate in the area and brought to the headquarters of the secret police. What ensues are interrogations and torment. The police wants to know the names of her “comrades,” what affiliations she has and so forth.
Mary, who comes from a rightwing family she has managed to turn her back on, soon realizes there is only one way to survive under these dire circumstances: she must keep mum. Being pregnant, she cannot fight back physically: violence will only be met with worse violence, which may endanger “the tiny sun” she is carrying in her womb. Yet silence poses a problem. The longer she is in custody, the more obvious it will become that she is pregnant. If the police find out, they may use the pregnancy against her by threatening to let her give birth to the child while incarcerated and then have a childless couple faithful to the regime adopt it, as happened in so many dictatorships, in Argentina, Spain, Portugal … In short: the clock is ticking.
Eventually, together with five other women and a little boy, Mary is sent to one of the country’ infamous prison islands which had been closed following protests by the Red Cross and Amnesty International but which are now, with a new regime and worse repression, about to open again. She will spend several months on the island, partly in solitary confinement. On the very last pages of the book, Mary is forced to make a decision no person should be coerced into making: she must chose between boyfriend and unborn child. I do not wish to reveal her decision; suffice it to say that the last sentence of the book is “Slowly her body will learn its sad, new strength.”
Why, then, not mention Greece by name?
For readers such as you — much better versed in Greek history than I can ever hope to be — it is not difficult to recognize the lay of the land. Or the seven black years of dictatorship. Or the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic that ended so tragically on the night of November 17, 1973. Clearly your question has merit. Indeed, why not mention the streets, the city, the country in which all this happened? There are several reasons, but none so vital to me as the importance the student uprising has had for an entire generation. I am thinking of the Greek 68 generation which was born, with jetlag, in 1973. The three heroic days and nights that the students held out at the Polytechnic, before a tank smashed the gates and the military stormed the buildings, has become the core DNA of this generation.
No matter whether your sympathies are on the left or right of the political spectrum — and I know how ideologically motivated historiography can be in Greece, still to this day — the uprising signalled the beginning of the end of the Junta. Yet, although the story usually told about is one of resistance and protest, it has also become a rather virile narrative, just as compatible with standard Hollywood narratives as with the ancient myths of heroic males. Even when you speak with women who participated, there is this masculine narrative.
I have nothing against it in principle. Who could? The revolt was, indeed, heroic. But as I began to gather my thoughts on the matter some seven or eight years ago, I suspected the standard account did not tell the whole story. I sensed there was more to it — a story untold, as it were, a narrative hidden within or beyond the one usually provided. This narrative had to be that of the many women during the uprising, but also during the dictatorship in general. Speaking with friends and acquaintances, people who had participated in the revolt and in some instances had also been sent to the islands, I realized that many crucial experiences were missing from the standard narrative. As a writer, I was not interested in the grand ideological schemes or heroic accounts, I was interested in what had happened to women on a social micro level. How did you survive on an island where there was no drinking water, only the salty sea? What did you do when you had your period? How did you keep warm during the malevolent winter months, in a place with barely any heating and only humid blankets? How did you build trust with people you had never met before and who might even be informers, when this was necessary in order to survive? Sadly there is also the sexualized violence that many women experienced, an aggression part and parcel of any patriarchal society and quite indifferent to political color.
All these details — the small gestures, the confidences, the haptic evidentiality of life on a prison island — was what I wished to get at. I feared that, if I were to mention Greece by name, the official narrative – or at any rate the usual story that the 68 generation tells in order to affirm its sense of self –, I was afraid that this account would conceal and possibly even suppress the particularity of what many women had experienced. In a sense, it would deprive them of their dignity.
Less important but not negligible: by not mentioning the geography or culture of the country in which the novel is set, I could depart from established facts and circumstances whenever the story seemed to require it — no small advantage for a half-Greek writer born and raised abroad.
This is not the first time you have written about Greek matters. In her review of the novel The Last Greek, which appeared in Swedish in 2009 and in Greek translation two years later, the English critic and translator Sarah Death comments: “All those Greeks who find their way abroad have to reinvent themselves to fit new circumstances.” Where is the meeting point between history and fiction in your writing? How are the notions of identity, memory, loss and longing imprinted on your work?
Your question is so wide and important I fear I can only address a small aspect of it. In my experience as a writer, certain themes and topics are of such a sensitive nature that you need time to find a way to articulate them which does justice to your particular sensibilities. I am the child of a Greek father and an Austrian mother who found themselves in a third country, Sweden, in the mid-1950s. My father had had to flee from his home country after the civil war; as a girl, my mother had experienced the Third Reich and its horrors at close hand. In such a family, how could memory, loss and longing not be vital? And how could the question of identity not be crucial to a boy born and raised in a third country, in a culture which had not formed his parents’ sense of self?
Still it took me many — perhaps too many — years to approach these issues. For a long time, I lacked the proper instruments, the adequate language. There were energies I could not tame, affects too volatile to touch upon. The German literary critic and television illuminatus Roger Willemsen, who died too early a few years ago, once coined the term der Knacks. This “crack” or “rupture,” he said, tends to occur in every person’s life, usually when we are between forty and fifty years old, after which we no longer look upon or lead our life in quite the same manner as before. It may be a case of illness, or a child being born, or you divorcing. Whatever the immediate reason, you realize, in the deeper parts of yourself, that you can no longer live in the way you used to. Indeed, your feeling of self, your view on life, your sense of what is just, proper or desirable, has changed elementally.
This phenomenon occurs in the lives of writers, too. If scrutinized closely, there is usually a book in an oeuvre after which the writer in question no longer writes in quite the same manner as earlier. With me, this Knacks, this fissure, began to show itself in The Last Greek. It widened with Half the Sun, the portrait of a Greek father that I published in 2012. And by the time it reached Mary in 2015, the rupture was complete. I had the strong physical sensation that I could no longer write the way I used to. My instincts were different, my interests, too. Gone was the desire to create mini miracles in every second sentence; gone was the delight I used to take in hiding Easter eggs in my texts. Today there is a sort of lyrical barrenness to what I manage to put on paper. I use fewer words, I am more attached to what remains unspoken.
Although I am unable to tell you in what ways this change may be related to the phenomena you mention — to memory, loss and longing, but also to ardor and affection — I am convinced it is.
You have moved from studying German romanticism and French deconstruction to writing novels about human beings as they circulated in Europe a hundred years ago (Stockholm Noir and The Truth about Sascha Knisch from 2000 and 2002 respectively, with Greek editions in 2002 and 2006) and more recently novels about Greece. Is there a binding thread to this itinerary?
An author is probably the last person one should ask to reflect upon his endeavors or artistic trajectory. Most likely, you will receive replies more akin to wishful thinking than sober assessment. So many of us are guided not by thought-out plans but by curiosity, not by visions but by affects and even irritations.
The two novels you mention belong to a “biological trilogy” which has, at its core, the ideas and phantasies surrounding what was termed, around the penultimate turn of the century, the “new man.” I wanted to understand how disciplines such as neurology, physiology and sexual research influenced peoples’ understanding of human agency at the time. I got the perhaps fanciful idea of telling the volatile stories of three young persons, independent but interconnected, in Dresden, Berlin and Stockholm during the years before the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933. Using the trinity of freedom, equality and fraternity as my template, I wished to investigate how these principles could be related to three central forms of human agency: reflection, instinct and emotion. Since all the books related to the discipline of medicine in one way or another, I decided to put human organs at the respective center of the stories, which by and large all are stories of love, friendship and deceit. The first book is about freedom, then, especially of thought; hence it deals with the brain (which, evidently, stands for reflection). Investigating what instinct might mean, the second novel treats fraternity — or brotherhood, if you will. Hence the attention paid to the male sexual organ, especially the testicles, which have a tendency to appear in pairs — or as twin brothers, as it were. The last volume is a straightforward love story, and thus about emotive equality, so it has a particular interest in the affairs of the heart, with its two balancing chambers.
Then that Knacks occurred which I mentioned, and I began to write about the diaspora and how individual identities are formed and deformed by the experience of exile. I found myself asking what role memories play in families who change country and culture and often also language. Is there a sense of continuity? May rupture be its own form of existence? I wished to discern in what ways collective experiences contain hidden fractures and complexities at odds with one another. Topics such as trust, weakness, pain and perseverance began to matter to me. In short: I found myself knee deep in things Greek …
It seems that Greek and Swedish society differ in terms of their experience of modernity, their conception of family values and personal mentality. Yet a critic would argue that values are liquid and unsettled in both societies. Would you like to comment?
I am certain values are, to some extent, fluid in every society. Still, there are core beliefs that, if not laid down properly in laws, nonetheless tend to be more peculiar to one culture than another. Usually, and somewhat comically, it is often argued that these values or norms or principles are impossible to translate properly into another language. For example, there are the central notions of kléos and xenophilía in ancient Greece. But are they really, really untranslatable? Surely “glory” and “hospitality” covers much of the same ground? Or take the Swedish word lagom. It is the dative case of lag, meaning “team” or “group,” and describes a particular sentiment best instanced by a scene. In earlier times, there was only one mug of beer for a whole group of men. Each one of them was allowed a sip or two, but already the first person to drink knew that he could not take as much as his thirst wanted him to, because then there would be no beer left for the last person in the line. This is the principle of lagom: neither too much nor too little, just enough. I wonder if modern Sweden, built by farmers and engineers, would be possible without a strong sense of this lagom. Or without beer, for that matter.
You are right, there are differences of social and historical nature between our two societies. Sweden has had a strong central state for almost 400 years, ever since Axel Oxenstierna was appointed chancellor in 1612. He created the state’s administrative body, replete with the precursors of today’s ruling bodies and quasi-governmental organizations. He also divided the kingdom into counties. Furthermore, our country has not been involved in war since the campaign against Norway in 1814. Four hundred-plus years of a centralized state, and half that many years of peace and neutrality, have a significant effect on a society. For example, as a citizen you develop a faith in the state and tend to consider it not harmful but helpful, especially when this state, as happened in the 1930s through the 1960s, modernizes the country and brings prosperity to a large majority regardless of creed and class. This grand undertaking can only succeed, I suspect, if lagom remains a guiding principle. In a country with limited means, as was the case with Sweden, which lost more inhabitants than it gained well into the 1880s, you must always think of your other; there has to be something left for the last person in line. What clearer proof is there of such relative solidarity than that, as a citizen, you pay your taxes?
As you know much better than I, Greece has not experienced the same societal development since the 1600s. Instead, the history of the country is also the history of occupation. There have been Ottomans, Germans and even home-grown colonels ruling and leaving their mark on the culture. In such a society, the state is not trusted. Put unfairly harshly, you either resist and fight it — or, as has also happened, you exploit its resources for your own benefit. Whatever you do, you do not necessarily pay your taxes.
Obviously I am making the contrast between our countries starker than reality merits. Also, would it not be possible to translate the Swedish lagom into the ancient notion of métron? There are differences nonetheless, because of a social and political history that forms and deforms every nation’s sense of national or cultural identity. Among many other things, the fraught undertaking known as the European Union is an attempt to bring such differences — this host of nations, with their varying histories and experiences — together under the same umbrella. How could there not be skirmishes and fights for the best place, to avoid getting unduly wet on the fringes? And who should hold the umbrella? Can there really be 28 – or, after the pending Brexit, 27 – hands keeping it up?
What’s the current crisis’ impact on individuality and self-consciousness? Are new narratives underway?
I keep my fingers crossed.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou and Nikolas Nenedakis
Thomas Symeonidis (Thessaloniki, 1977) is a Greek writer living in Paris. He studied architecture, political sciences and philosophy. He works as a lecturer and researcher in the domains of literature theory, aesthetics and philosophy of art. He is the author of a novel (Be my hero!, 2015) and a theatrical play (There also exists, 2017). He translated in Greek Samuel Beckett’s Last Trilogy (2016).
Thomas Symeonidis spoke to Reading Greece* about his most recent book There also exist, a play based on the contradictory relationship between poet Paul Celan and the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, noting that he wanted to “approach the boundaries and differences that exist between poetry and philosophy, between the Poet and the Philosopher”. He explains that, as a writer, he tries to “investigate on a first level, the question of survival in terms of personal integrity and sanity of thought, on a second level, the question regarding the basis for a meaningful life”, and adds that what is of great interest to him is “a pathology of thought, that is, all these forms with which thought can be derailed when it fails to manage reality”.
Your new book There also exists is a theatrical play based on the life and work of poet Paul Celan. Tell us a few things about the book.
The play There also exists is based on the contradictory relationship between Paul Celan and the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, to whom belongs one of the most famous aphorisms of the 20th century: "Every poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." The dramatic idea of the play is an arranged meeting between them, which never took place due to Celan. Writing this play, I wanted to approach the boundaries and differences that exist between poetry and philosophy, between the Poet and the Philosopher. I also wanted to end up with a voice that would be informed by Celan's life and work: a life marked by the worst moments of history, but also a work on poetry that can be seen as an attempt to confront this specific historical experience. The depth at which Celan dives is unprecedented. The things that haunted him and led him to commit suicide continue to exist as a threat and danger, continue to feed on the most negative aspects of everyday life, thought, action. That's why, beyond my great interest in Celan's life and my admiration for his work, I think that today, especially today, Celan's voice, the voice of the Poet, is a vital vehicle of communication and self-understanding.
“If there is something common in my main characters that they are constantly in a state of confrontation, struggling not to be crashed by life itself”. What are the themes your writings touch upon?
What I understand as a basic condition of everyday life is a merciless flow of events, information, requests, thoughts, a flow that we are confronted with, every day. And at the same time, we are specified by relations, belongings, origins, in other words, we are defined by a multitude of people and frameworks of reference. Against all these, I try, as a writer, to investigate on a first level, the question of survival in terms of personal integrity and sanity of thought, on a second level, the question regarding the basis for a meaningful life. In my first project, Be My Hero!, through the plot and a highly idiosyncratic narrative, I tried to explore the formulation of new references and by extension the articulation of a rule of life, but more specifically, a rule that would be open and self-conscious In terms of its ideological and subjective origins.
“The pathology of thought in all its various forms, what precedes a foolish action, is precisely where I focus when I write”. Tell us more.
I can see in a daily and interpersonal level how easy the misunderstandings are, how mistaken may be what one believes, how easily we can be guided by the wrong thoughts toward actions, how can we ultimately cause pain, get to the point of depriving one’s life, without even realizing that this is the case. We are witnessing every day that political and social demands continue to be supported through violence, we see the ease with which a multifaceted radicalism is cultivated and channeled into action. In my case, I could say that in my first novel, Be My Hero!, I confronted the questions of illusion, self-deception, as well as, the conflict of different voices and different ways of interpreting thoughts and situations. But more generally, what I see to be of great interest, is what I understand as a pathology of thought, that is, all these forms with which thought can be derailed when it fails to manage reality.
Literary critic Yiorgos Perantonakis argues that during the last few years, novels and short stories written especially by young writers are characterized by a Kafkaesque atmosphere of mystery and danger that edges on dystopia. How do you comment on that?
I believe that the view of Yorgos Perantonakis is correct, given that, in the case of Kafka, we have a particular condition defined by the interrelation of structure, responsibility and guilt. In today's conjuncture, what we can testify, is the failure to define responsibility, both individually and collectively, the feeling of a suffocating subordination, the existence of a debt that is not only defined in economic terms, the inability to integrate oneself and contribute according to her own specific features and abilities. But also, we can testify a situation of permanent fear, as well as, of anxiety. We are confronted with a problematic context of communication (too many technicalities, too many simplifications, too many channels of information), with a generalized insecurity and loss of confidence. Apparently, all these, tied together, contribute to the formation of an atmosphere of mystery and danger. The point at which I feel that I could differentiate myself from Mr. Perantonakis, is the extent to which all these works to which he refers, uphold the view that this situation is permanent, without any positive openings regarding the future.
You have mentioned Samuel Becket and Theodore Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory as a source of inspiration. What’s the relevance of these readings with Greek modernity? And to what extent does the new generation of Greek poets and writers incorporate foreign influences in their work?
I was led to Adorno's Aesthetic Theory and the work of Samuel Beckett, after a long journey. As a writer, I consider literature more in relation to philosophy and thought, than language. I perceive myself as a Greek writer, and this is not only defined by my distinct reference to a particular tradition, but first and foremost, by the fact that I am Greek, the fact that I am defined by a certain history, specific places and people, the fact that I am perceived as a Greek abroad. More generally, my point is that we should not be concerned whether there are Greek or foreign influences on modern prose and poetic production, but rather with the following questions: do we have works that can sustain over time? Do we have works with a reason of existence today?
What about the role of literature, and art in general, in times of crisis? Can art offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
I consider literature and art in general, as privileged domains for reflection. From this point of view, and if we are to define crisis as a general situation of loss of references and orientation, art and literature can in particular direct our gaze and senses to what is spiritually important today. But obviously this is not enough and any connection between imagination and practical politics has its limits. Having said that, I just want to emphasize that there is a lot of work to be done in many different fields, a work that literature and art cannot under any circumstances substitute, but, indeed, can support, and is vital to do so, with their own ways.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Being part of the EU’s "Projects of Common Interest", the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas pipeline project relates to an offshore/onshore natural gas pipeline, directly connecting East Mediterranean resources to Greece and Italy via Cyprus and Crete that could: enhance Europe’s gas security of supply via diversification of counterparts, routes and sources; develop EU indigenous resources such as the offshore gas reserves around Cyprus and Greece; and promote the development of a South Mediterranean Gas Hub. It constitutes an important element in Greece’s endeavors to take advantage of its geostrategic position, as PM Alexis Tsipras has recently underlined. A noteworthy step towards the promotion of the construction of East Med was recorded on April 3rd, following a joint Greece-Italy-Cyprus-Israel declaration.
With an estimated length of 1,700 kilometers, East Med pipeline, promoted by IGI Poseidon SA, is expected to become the world’s longest subsea natural-gas pipeline. The proposed pipeline aspires to connect the East Mediterranean gas resources to the European gas system, with a transport capacity of up to 16 billion cubic meters.
In the context of shedding light into the significant geostrategic and geopolitical aspects of this project, Greek News Agenda interviewed* Constantinos Filis, an expert on energy issues, Research Director of the Institute of International Relations and Head of its Russia-Eurasia & SE Europe Centre:
Given the magnitude and the high estimated cost of East-Med, do you believe that the current volumes of natural gas found in Israel and Cyprus suffice for this project?
Certainly yes. Based on current finds, Israel can export up to 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas for a period of 20-25 years. Given that East Med’s capacity does not exceed 10-12 bcm annually, it is obvious that two if not three projects can be supported at the same time. As Israel has expressed its willingness to feed regional markets, we are expecting – despite political difficulties – an attempt to supply the big and thirsty Turkish market. The needs of Southern Turkey, which are estimated at 8 bcm can be met by Israel, leaving ample natural gas to be exported to Europe through Greece. If we include Cyprus in the equation, there is even greater potential.
The East Med project got a boost with the recent support it secured at a European level, but it still has to persuade involved parties that it is worth looking at it as a priority. It is a matter not only of feasibility (a number of studies prove it can be done), but also of whether East Med can be considered a project that offers geopolitical and geoeconomic advantages, putting aside any complications/risks that other alternatives have. Its obvious comparative advantage is that it involves two EU member-states and the most stable and prosperous state in the region, Israel.
In terms of financial viability, can the East-Med pipeline coexist with a natural gas pipeline linking Israeli gas fields to Turkey or are these pipelines mutually exclusive?
As we’ve already said, East Med can definitely coexist with a pipeline linking Israel with the Turkish market. The picture becomes blurred, however, if Tel Aviv decides to transport its natural gas to Europe through Turkey. In that case, East Med will be left out of the game. But, there are given doubts. The creation of a new inland pipeline system entails a significant cost, while rendering Turkey an important link in the EU energy security supply chain would give Ankara a negotiating advantage over Brussels. This would of course not only embed Turkey's uncertainties in the project, but would also be geopolitically one-sided, as it would increase Ankara's strength exclusively and increase its sway with producers (its having the additional role of transit country rather than being merely a customer), multiplying the potential risks deriving from its management of this advantage.
How does Egypt affect the overall natural gas landscape in the Eastern Mediterranean area?
One very likely scenario is the utilization of liquefaction facilities in Egypt. Here, Israel and Cyprus could more economically send a portion of their production to Egypt, where their gas will be liquefied and be exported as LNG, probably to Europe, as competition and distance make the prospect of exporting to Asia unlikely. The riskiness of dealing with Egypt as long as the situation is not fully stabilized is understandably being taken into account by Cyprus and, in particular, Israel. As said, the advantage here is the lower cost, although there are two potential disadvantages: the possibility that the Zohr field will have the necessary quantities to cover both LNG facilities and the de facto downgrading of Israeli and Cypriot natgas – which would, in this case, have only a minor role (in the final mix) in supplying Europe. Egypt can, of course, export from the Zohr field, once it has satisfied its domestic market of 90+ million consumers.
Can Turkey’s policy constitute a threat for East-Med pipeline?
Most of the project concerns the laying of an undersea pipeline in Israeli and/or Cypriot territorial waters initially, and then in international waters before it reaches Greece. Turkey has no legal argument for hindering the construction of this project.
It is significant that, although Ankara disputes Nicosia’s right to carry out tenders for concessions of energy parcels, major companies, including Total, ENI and Exxon-Mobil, have defied Turkey’s threats and obtained the relevant permits.
So the only thing Ankara can do is continue to threaten to use military force, not so much as a real likelihood, but more as a tool for influencing the decisions of involved parties (states and companies) by adding – on top of the technical difficulties and costliness of the project – the issue of the geopolitical complications Ankara can cause, so that the risk involved in the East Med makes the whole endeavour less attractive.
The next move (should the project move ahead) is the harassment, in various ways, of the vessels that lay the pipeline. Although this is not a highly probable eventuality either, even if it does happen, it cannot be carried on for very long, due to the lack of legal grounding.
Thus, diplomatic actions and initiatives are required. Such actions and initiatives are not favored by the domestic state of affairs in Turkey (flare-up of nationalism, close result in the referendum, need for sensationalist posturing to strengthen national morale), but if Ankara fails to seek normalization at some point, it will find itself in a very difficult position.
*Interview by George Kalyvas
George-Icaros Babassakis (April 1960) is a poet, translator, writer and keen student of the avant-garde (Futurism, Dada, Hyperrealism), the Beat Generation, and of the movements for “transcending and realizing art" (CoBrA, Lettristes, Situationistes). He founded and directed the Propaganda Review (1997-2002). He has written books on William Burroughs and Guy Debord. He directs the KOREKT magazine/project (Nefeli editons) and the series Sudden Documentaries (Gavrielides editions).
George-Icaros Babassakis spoke to GrèceHebdo and Reading Greece* about his relationship with Athens and urban wandering, the "sacred" places where friends gather and make plans, the fascination of revisting familiar places and faces, and why "life is both beautiful and easy, as long as you stick to your obsessions, remain determined in your beliefs and honour what you love."
Aesthetics, the art of living, poetry as a daily practice and as a continuous attempt to create Debordian "situations" appear to be constant preoccupations of yours. How do you look for the magic of things in the cracks and niches of Athens?
I am constantly wandering through the urban landscape, with my eyes open, as well as with my eyes and nostrils on alert, like a hound, so as to recognize the small miracle when it appears: in a stranger's gaze, on a beautiful old door at Thiras Street (Kypseli), or for instance, in an unexpected combination of an ashtray, a glass of wine, and a flower on the table of a cafeteria where the regulars are over seventy years old. Also, in encounters with friends, over long discussions at our hangouts, we discover things hidden in the streets and alleys of Athens.
You have written books titled after two of your favorite bars (Enoikos, Au Revoir) and an ouzeri (Ouzomafsoleion Kapetan Michalis). What do hangouts mean to you?
Hangouts are the air that I breathe, and the extension of my lab / office. We meet there, my friends and I, in these holy places, consecrated by time, by the decades and countless hours of encounters in them. At these hangouts we have rested from the daily grind, we’ve made plans for books and films and records and anything you can imagine. At Enoikos, our group of friends included the late Kostis Papaygiorgis, Christos Vakalopoulos and Ilias Lagios, the poet Evgenios Aranitsis and others. We always listened to jazz, and we’ve broken some fine records in whiskey-drinking. At Kapetan Michalis, we still meet today, now, some writers, poets, painters, photographers, and philosophers, under the presidency of Tasos Goudelis.
You have said: "The city is the factory that produces memories." Why is memory possible only in the city and not in nature as well?
Memory is possible everywhere: in the city and in the country as well. Thoreau’s renowned Walden is the memory of nature. Thomas Bernhard's novels are the memory of the city. As Maria Mitsora says, openness to the enigma befits the city, and for decades now I personally enjoy the city's mysteries, the successive surprises, the catalytic meetings.
Although you are a lover of urban wandering and the situtationist dérive, beyond that you do not seem to be interested in travelling. Why?
I used to be interested. Itravelled to Paris frequently, and I used to wander around the city of André Breton, Jacques Prevert and Guy Debord for hours, using, instead of a map, certain beloved literary works, like Hemingway's Moveable Feast and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer - so I got lost many times, but it was welcome. For the past ten years, travelling, over and over, again around Athens fascinates me more, I really feel at home, like Athens is an extension of my living room or my kitchen. It appeals more to me seeing familiar places and familiar, beloved faces, and deepening my relationship with them, discovering other of their aspects.
In the end, «La vie est belle, et facile»?
Everything we’ve said in the past is valid; and yes indeed, life is both beautiful and easy. As long as you stick to your obsessions, remain determined in your beliefs and honour what you love.
Which books (yours or others’) would you suggest to someone who would like to know, to feel what Athens is today?
I would suggest the books of Evgenios Aranitsis and Christos Vakalopoulos, especially the Details about the End of the World (Nefeli Editions) and New Athenian Histories (Hestia). Of my own, I would especially suggest Denigration (Hestia) and Through our Eyelids (Bibliothèque), where one can enjoy an oblique glance at the Athenian landscape.
Which musical piece and images would you suggest best accompany reading this interview?
Musical Piece: San Michele, by Thanassis Papankonstantinou. Images: Marili Zarkou’s photographs from her book Hidden Track/City Niches (Gavielides).
* Interview given to Ioulia Livaditi (Greek News Agenda) and Magdalini Varoucha (GrèceHebdo). Translation from Greek: Ioulia Livaditi
Council of Europe's European Centre for Global Interdependence and Solidarity, more commonly known as the North-South Centre fulfils a dual political role of representing "the voice of the South" within the Council of Europe and of promoting and transmitting the values of democracy and human rights that are central to the Council of Europe's mission in neighbouring regions.
Greek News Agenda* asked North-South Centre's Executive Director Amb. António Gamito to comment on the upcoming Lisbon Forum 2017 (1-2 June, 2017, organized by the North-South Centre in Lisbon with the theme "Interconnecting People - Managing migration, avoiding populism, building inclusive societies and reinforcing North-South dialogue"):
Enhancing intercultural/political dialogue between the North and the South is among Council of Europe’s aims. What is/can be the contribution of the upcoming Lisbon Forum (June 2017) in this direction?
This year´s Lisbon Forum of the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe (NSC) will tackle the challenges to manage migration flows while preventing the growth of anti-immigrant populist movements, promoting inclusive societies that respect cultural diversity and reinforcing the dialogue between the North and the South. The event will bring together experts and representatives from national governments, parliaments, local and regional authorities, civil society and international organizations, based on a geographical and gender balance. The Lisbon Forum offers a space of reflection based on expertise sharing between stakeholders, in particular from both shores of the Mediterranean on issues related to human rights, democracy and rule of law. In debating in a free and open manner relevant basic rights, underlining the fact that we are talking about human beings, the Lisbon Forum is also contributing to call for worldwide attention for the need to uphold them and is also incorporating conclusions and recommendations to be implemented and developed within its future work, together with its member States, like Greece, partners and beneficiaries.
Critics say that Europe’s management of the migration flows has been mainly focused on the security/ state of emergency aspect. What is your view?
The massive migration flows caught by surprise both shores of the Mediterranean and the first reaction was naturally linked to deploy as soon as possible emergency aid structures, especially by Greece and Italy, immediately followed by other´s concerns regarding state security, having in mind the world where we are living in, with radicalization and terrorism on the raising. However, the suffering of the migrants and refugees has a major humanitarian dimension that cannot be ignored. Independently of the complexity of this problem, we should never put in jeopardy an humanitarian-based approach, built on solidarity, partnership and interdependence. Moreover, these crisis should in no way be instrumentalised for political reasons. In this sense Europe should keep vigilant towards the rise of populism and vehemently deconstruct its dialectics.
What kind of impact can institutions, like the North South Center have in the current conjecture? Can you tell us more about what “global democratic citizenship” means in terms of the Center’s agenda?
More than ever it is central to educate citizens about the complex and interconnected nature of global issues and that there is no one dimensional solution to tackle them. Through its global education programme, the NSC promotes among formal and non-formal educators competences to understand, deal with and tackle global issues. Global Education set of competences and methodology promotes intercultural understanding, multi-perspectivity and the deconstruction of stereotypes. It helps learners to deal with cultural variety of languages, identities and codes so that mutual understanding can be achieved. Through an intercultural peer learning approach, Global Education promotes intercultural dialogue, contributing to enhanced cooperation, conflict prevention and peaceful coexistence, in sum the assets for a “global democratic citizenship”.
How do you view the role of countries like Portugal and Greece? How the two countries could contribute to further cooperation among the broader region?
Portugal and Greece are actively engaged in the relocation process of migrants and refugees through a coordinated multistakeholder approach involving European institutions, governments, local authorities and civil society intensively contributing to the setting up of housing, health, educational, social, labour and entrepreneurship integration mechanisms. This collaboration between institutions and field workers is central to the success of Europe’s management of the migration flows. One example is the relevant work between the Greek institution MetaDrasi, headed by Ms Lora Pappa, laureate of the 2015 North-South Prize of the Council of Europe, delivered by the NSC, and important Portuguese institutions. This approach could be replicated in the countries of the broader region.
Greece is an active member of the NSC. It has been actively engaged in the creation of NSC pedagogical tools, in particular the Global Education Guidelines, and is active in promoting Global Education among Greek educators and civil society organizations with the assistance of NSC dissemination mechanisms. The sharing of expertise by Greek stakeholders, in particular civil society organizations, engaged in the management of the migration flows could be an added value in the fruitful cooperation developed between Greece and the NSC. At this stage, the NSC envisages to organise this year in Greece with the relevant Greek authorities a conference on migrant and refugee women from the Southern Mediterranean region.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis. Many thanks to Elias Galanis, Press and Communication Counsellor - Embassy of Greece in Portugal
Giorgos Argitis is Associate Professor of Macroeconomics at the University of Athens and scientific director of the Labour Institute of the Greek General Cofederation of Greek Workers (INE-GSEE). His research interests are Post Keynesian-Minskian macroeconomic/monetary theory and policy and Old-institutionalist/evolutionary theory. He has published four books about the Greek economy and is the author/co-author of academic papers that have appeared in theJournal of Post Keynesian Economics,Cambridge Journal of Economics, Review of Political Economy,Contributions to Political Economy, and theEuropean Journal of Economics and Economic Policies.
INE-GSEE's research attention is paid to the macroeconomic behavior of the Greek economy; the developments in non-standard employment and its implications for labour law and for social security coverage and trade union organizing; the sustainability of the pension system; the challenges of the economic crisis to social policy in Greece; and the way that welfare and labour market institutions impact on economic growth. The INE-GSEE monitors and analyses these changes and make publications on fiscal economic and employment issues that are geared to proposals for action but also of a more academic type.
Professor Argitis is the co-author - together with Nasos Koratzanis and Christos Pierros - of the “The Greek crisis: outlook and an alternative economic policy” chapter - published in March 2017 - of the “2017 independent Annual Growth Survey: The Elusive Recovery” (iAGS)*. The Greek crisis chapter is an evaluation of economic conditions in Greece so far, presenting the main pillars of an alternative policy proposal that has been elaborated by INE-GSEE.
Giorgos Argitis spoke to Rethinking Greece** about the findings of the report regarging the effects of the creditors’ policy agenda of fiscal austerity and internal devaluation on the financial stability of the Greek private sector,on the Greek labour market as well as on poverty and living conditions in Greece.
According to Argitis, the very architecture of the macroeconomic adjustment programmes implemented in Greece since 2010 is incompatible with the country’s consumption-demand led growth model. Thus, any attempt to address Greece’s sovereign debt crisis and inadequate competitiveness by means of a frontloaded mix of fiscal discipline and internal devaluation is destined to fail and to aggravate the country’s financial instability. In view of that, any real prospect for Greece to escape the crisis depends on the sustainability of its economic growth, a proposal for which rests on three pillars: (a) a new financing architecture in line with the principle ‘sustainable primary surplus – sustainable debt’, (b) an investment-led productive transformation of the Greek economy and (c) stimulating employment by the immediate abolition of the measures taken in the direction of greater labour market flexibility:
How do you evaluate the results of the memoranda applied in Greece since 2010?
Seven years after the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis, the Greek economy continues to be stuck in a debt trap with the near-term fiscal outlook remaining gloomy and uncertain. The main reason for this is twofold: a) creditors’ overemphasis on fiscal austerity that has proven incapable of restoring the country’s solvency, credibility and creditworthiness; and b) the imposition of a pro-cyclical fiscal tightening amid deflationary conditions that has caused negative growth effects, further raising the country’s credit risk. Against this backdrop, the trajectory of the Greek economy over the coming years will primarily depend on its growth performance and thereby its ability to generate a primary budget surplus to service its debt payments.
Since 2010 Greece has engaged in an extremely ambitious fiscal consolidation plan. The government budget deficit has declined from 15.1% of GDP in 2009 to 1.1% in 2016, while in structural terms, the improvement of the fiscal balance in the period 2010-2016 has reached 13.6 percentage points, the largest seen across the EU. This extraordinary fiscal consolidation performance over the past years has been greatly facilitated by the package of harsh austerity measures embarked upon by the Greek authorities since 2010 in the context of the three Memoranda of Understanding (MoU).
This staggering fiscal adjustment had a tremendous negative effect in social services provision, public investment and employment, and furthermore, it has not been successful in reducing the gross debt-to-GDP ratio. More specifically, the ratio has reached a peak over the adjustment period, increasing from around 126.7% in 2009 to 179.7% in 2016, despite the large debt ‘haircut’ agreed in early 2012. According to the latest estimates, the debt burden is set to remain essentially stable in 2017, breaching 177% of GDP. This is a fairly disappointing track record, given creditors’ initial anticipations on the allegedly expansionary results of fiscal consolidation. The fact that the ratio of public debt-to-GDP has remained for too long at unacceptable record high levels poses a direct challenge to the very credibility of the macroeconomic adjustment programmes.
Why do you think fiscal austerity has not managed to improve Greece’s financial credibility?
The main drivers behind the over-indebtedness of the Greek public sector have been the massive bailout loans granted to the country to avoid default and the recessionary effects of the fiscal adjustment programmes implemented thereafter. A closer look at the major factors that have influenced the trajectory of the public debt-to-GDP ratio over the past few years helps explain Greece’s negative debt profile. During the first phase of macroeconomic adjustment (2010-2013) the austerity-led contraction of real GDP along with extraordinary high interest payments and sizeable primary budget deficits have set the tone for the serious debt overhang episode in the country and the ensuing solvency crisis. The year 2014 has been a turning point in the process with the achievement of a positive primary balance especially in 2016 that has yet been insufficient to arrest debt dynamics. In addition the sustainability of these primary surpluses is uncertain in a country that has not yet returned to growth.
All in all, austerity has not succeeded in consolidating sound and sustainable fiscal conditions in Greece and helping public authorities regain access to private bond markets. What it has succeeded in doing instead is to have plunged the Greek economy into a disastrous spiral of debt-deflation and recession that consistently constrains the country’s debt servicing capacity and prolongs excessive macroeconomic and financial instability.
At the epicenter of the creditor’s strategy lies internal devaluation. Has this strategy yielded results?
The ingredients of the creditors’ remedy have proven profoundly mistaken. The major reason for this is that this strategy has failed to consider the Greek economy’s heavy reliance on domestic demand. Labour cost restraint and increased labour market flexibility have failed to spur investment and competitiveness: it has deepened the weakness of the Greek economy and greatly contributed to the declining performance of virtually all branches of economic activity. Specifically, in the period between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the fourth quarter of 2016 all key branches, other than real estate activities and agriculture, forestry and fisheries, have witnessed a pronounced drop in real gross value added. The steepest fall has occurred in construction (35.6%) followed by professional, scientific and technical activities (31%) and information and communication (26.7%).
On top of that, internal devaluation has proven incapable of propping up Greece’s export performance. Greece’s exports of goods and services have on average expanded at a particularly modest rate between 2012 and 2016, hardly outstripping 2.3% per year, despite the strong growth of the country’s tourism industry from 2013 on. The most prominent contributor to the correction of the country’s persistent current account deficits has been the dramatic decline in imports, mainly due to shrinking domestic demand. This sensitivity of Greece’s trade balance to the movements of domestic demand underlines the country’s productive deficiencies and highlights the critical role of public investment as a tool for fostering both macroeconomic stability and structural competitiveness.
Apart from aggravating the economy’s productive problems, internal devaluation and fiscal austerity have also put intense pressures on the financial balance of the private sector, thus feeding back economic stagnation and solvency risk. The creditors’ agenda has also corroded private households’ financial health. The plunge of household savings lies at the heart of the mal-performance of austerity in Greece because it has starkly degraded the financial position of households, preventing any real prospect for a vigorous recovery of consumer spending in the near future. On top of that, it has exposed the Greek banking system to a greater credit risk by undermining the loan portfolio quality.
Could you talk to us about the changes in labour laws that have been requested by the creditors?
Since 2010 industrial relations in Greece have been in the eye of the storm of the crisis, being an integral part of the internal devaluation strategy, via a combination of reducing minimum wage, de-collectivizing wage bargaining and lowering labour costs. So far, a range of regressive labour market reforms has been promoted through active state intervention geared towards promoting flexible and precarious forms of employment and reforming collective bargaining. Such measures inter alia include: the suspension of all branch and occupational collective agreements’ extension as long as Greece’s economic adjustment programme is in full effect; the suspension of the so-called ‘favourability principle’ in collective bargaining; and the prevalence of company level agreements in the case of overlapping with the relevant branch level collective agreement.
Also, far-reaching interventions have been undertaken in the content and universality of the general national collective agreement, including a 22% reduction by decree in the national nominal minimum wage and a further 10% cut for employees aged less than 25 years old; the enactment of legislation providing exclusive competence to the government, rather than to social partners, to set the minimum wage level; the removal of the ‘universal applicability principle’ of the general national collective agreement on wages.
On top of that, from 2012 on, recourse to arbitration is permitted only by the unanimous consent of all parties concerned and arbitrators’ decisions are strictly limited only to issues related to the determination of the basic wage. It is obvious that these deregulation measures undertaken over the last years have radically modified the balance of sociopolitical power towards employers, narrowing dramatically the range of choices and the bargaining power of trade unions.
How has the aforementioned deregulation of the labour law influenced the Greek labour market?
Creditors’ internal devaluation strategy has caused detrimental effects on the labour market. From the fourth quarter of 2008 until the fourth quarter of 2016, unemployment in Greece has recorded an unaccepted surge, climbing from 8% to 23.1% of total labour force.
What is even more upsetting is that the scourge of high unemployment has mostly ravaged the more vulnerable groups within society. Youth unemployment rate has hit a record high during the years of austerity, ascending by over 30 percentage points. Despite the gradual drop in youth unemployment recorded recently, young people in the country find it very difficult to take up a job. Furthermore, the female unemployment rate constantly surpasses the nation-wide average, standing at 27.6%. At the same time, the risk of unemployment threatens all, no matter what their educational level—even those who hold a postgraduate degree. This evidence substantiates the importance of demand-led economic policies for combating both cyclical and structural unemployment.
What about the effect of labour law deregulation on income and living standards?
Unfortunately, the dismantlement of collective bargaining institutions and wage suppression have obstructed the path towards any socially inclusive economic restructuring of Greece. Along with drastic cutbacks in social welfare spending, they have led to an unparalleled deterioration in living conditions, widening the development and income gap separating the country and the rest of its EU partners. In particular, real GDP per capita in Greece has dropped by 24.5% in the period 2008-2016, standing today at nearly 17 thousand euros. This evidencecorresponds to only 63.3% of the average per capita real income in the EU-28, indicating a disturbing process of divergence between Greece and the EU in terms of living standards.
Furthermore, austerity has exerted a severe impact upon living conditions in Greece, leading to a dramatic upsurge of anchored poverty. It is also important to note that, together with the striking increase in poverty, over the last six years, an ever growing part of the population in Greece suffers also from material deprivation.
It is worthy to note that the austerity agenda has impinged disproportionally upon the living conditions of unemployed persons. Specifically, for this population group severe material deprivation has risen from 20.2% in 2009 to 43.4% in 2015, meaning that more than 4 out of 10 jobless people do not have the means to meet at least four key requirements for decent life.
How can we rethink an exit from the crisis, after 7 years of memoranda?
The INE-GSEE has elaborated a policy proposal built upon three pillars: an alternative debt crisis management framework; interventions for stimulating domestic demand and re-regulating the labour market. We propose a new financing architecture in line with the principle ‘sustainable primary surplus – sustainable debt’. At a first stage, what is needed is a new financing architecture that would set the annual interest payments at least equal to a lower, pre-specified sustainable primary surplus target. In this context, debt-restructuring does not necessarily imply a ‘haircut’, but a new repayment schedule and much lower average interest rates.
Taking into account that the Greek economy is a consumption-led growth economy, an investment-led productive transformation of the Greek economy is also essential. In fact, empirical evidence indicates that stimulating productivity by means of increasing investment spending by 9% per annum over the period 2010-2017 would have produced the same competiveness gains in terms of real effective exchange rate as the ones caused by cutting wages, without the recessionary effect of the latter option.
This project for stimulating domestic demand should be designed so as to provide support to selected sectors and activities that have strong multiplicative effects on actual and potential output and in which Greece possesses significant comparative advantages, such as: (a) agriculture and food industry; (b) high-quality and sustainable tourism activities; (c) sustainable energy networks and green power infrastructure; (d) high and medium-high technology manufacturing sectors (e.g. refined petroleum products, manufacture of chemicals and chemical products).
Nonetheless, given Greece’s consumption-led growth model, reviving real investment activity has to run in parallel with stimulating employment. In this respect, we propose the design and activation of a ‘Job Guarantee Programme’ (JGP) in Greece.
However, to expand employment and economic growth in Greece, the immediate abolition of the measures taken in the direction of greater labour market flexibility is imperative, along with the adoption of a new, socially inclusive agenda for reshaping the labour market. In this context, a range of policy interventions that could serve this goal includes the full restoration of collective bargaining system and the unconditional application of all collective bargaining agreements.
** Interview by Ioulia Livaditi
* The "independent Annual Growth Survey" (iAGS) report is produced by four independent economic institutes (the French Observatory of Economic Conditions (OFCE), the Austrian Chamber of Labour (AK), the Danish Economic Council of the Labour Movement (ECLM), and the German Macroeconomic Policy Institute (IMK)) with funding from the European Parliament S&D Group within the context of their Progressive Economy Initiative. The report analyses the economic situation in Europe, compares various scenarios of economic policy, and makes recommendations on economic priorities for the year ahead thus providing an independent alternative to the “Annual Growth Survey” published by the European Commission.
According to the iAGS for 2017 published on December 2016, titled “Elusive Recovery”, Europe needs more and better employment and a lower dispersion of income as well financing redistributive welfare states via the taxation of high wealth, high incomes and inheritances in order to promote economic growth and increase social stability. However, while a growth-oriented economic policy is necessary it is not sufficient to obtain social progress and individual well-being. Policy makers need to move beyond the predominant, narrow focus on GDP growth, and aim instead at a broader set of economic, social and environmental targets.
Karen Van Dyck is Kimon A. Doukas Professor of Modern Greek Literature in the Classics Department at Columbia University where she created the Program in Hellenic Studies. Her books include Kassandra and the Censors: Greek Poetry since 1967 (Cornell, 1998; Agra, 2002), The Rehearsal of Misunderstanding: Three Collections by Contemporary Greek Women Poets (Wesleyan, 1998), The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present (Norton, 2009), and The Scattered Papers of Penelope: New and Selected Poems by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke (Graywolf, 2009), a Lannan Translation Selection.
Her bilingual anthology Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (Penguin, 2016; NYRB, 2017; Agra, 2017) was chosen by the New Statesmen as pick of the year, the Guardian as poetry book of the month as well as by Andrew Marr for his BBC Start the Week. Recent articles of hers on Cavafy - “Forms of Cosmopolitanism” and "Translating a Canonical Author," have appeared in the LARB (2014) and Teaching Translation: Programs, Courses, Pedagogies (Routledge, 2016).
Karen Van Dyck spoke to Reading Greece* about Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry, noting that “the project was about mapping poetry scenes – a what’s where, rather than a who’s who”, focusing on “the most salient feature of this new poetry – its multiethnic, multilingual cosmopolitanism”. Asked about the role of poetry in times of crisis, she discusses that “given the recent resurgence of separatisms –Grexit, Brexit, Trump’s wall – the message is only more urgent now. We need poetry, and poetry in translation, to tell us things we can’t know otherwise, and if we don’t pay attention, it is at our own peril”.
As for translation, she comments that “the translator of contemporary poetry has to think beyond national boundaries in the same way the critic must work to undo the sense that literature is a national institution that obeys the rules of one language”, and concludes that “it is up to translators, but also the minor cultures themselves to get their literature out there through astute marketing that is informed by knowledge of the receiving cultures. Anticipating the impact of a translation in the receiving culture is a way to take responsibility for the translator's work, something that translators as well as publishers need to do”.
Austerity Measures gathers the very best of Modern Greek poetry. What’s the story behind the book? Has the crisis rekindled the interest of foreign readers in Greek poetry?
Yes, definitely. Both in the UK and the US readers are interested in Greek poetry again. The Guardian has been posting interviews with Greek poets and now the NYRB blog has invited them to read their poems and post videos of themselves.
The story behind the collection is quite simple. Reading and writing about Greek poetry for over thirty years I was wowed by the intensity of artistic output in the wake of the recent crisis. It was unlike anything I had seen since the Dictatorship. Like then, the strong presence of women poets was palpable. The poems being written were poems I felt needed to be translated, poems that had something to say to a larger audience outside Greece.
Though I first imagined “Austerity Measures” as a title in English, its appropriateness was clinched when the editor of the Greek edition Stavros Petsopoulos also saw its potential “Μέτρα λιτότητας” (Metra litotitas), both a term imbedded in the political discourse of the times, yet also deeply poetic. It could challenge the strict divide between disinterested belle lettrism and engaged social realism that has prevailed in Greece. At so many different levels, then, the anthology is about translation. Going back and forth between languages, between poets and translators, editors and publishers, and so forth.
“What most distinguishes the poetry of this new millennium from that which came before is, on the one hand, its diversity – there are no clear-cut schools or factions – and, on the other hand, the cultural conditions that it takes for granted”. Could you elaborate on that?
I was most surprised by how so many of the new poets I was discovering had no idea what other poets were doing. The poetry magazines and small press publications in piles on the floor of my office at Columbia University in New York City - Poiitiki, Pharmakon, Teflon, Poiitika, Shakespeirikon – belonged, on the one hand, to separate spheres, but also, on the other hand, had important overlapping concerns. The anthology was an attempt to mix up the piles and put everyone into conversation. I chose poems and translations, not poets or translators. The project was about mapping poetry scenes – a what’s where, rather than a who’s who.
Anthologies are always about the art of ordering, bringing out an argument by grouping certain texts together. I focused on what I consider the most salient feature of this new poetry – its multiethnic, multilingual cosmopolitanism – and then went for examples that showcased how something we usually think is destined to be lost in translation can actually be a way of connecting up disparate traditions – formal issues such as line length, the shape of a poem or issues of literary tradition and convention such as intertextual references, proper names, linguistic register and codeswitching.
Initially I thought about putting the less known online poets like Jazra Khaleed and Kyoko Kishida first so as to shock readers out of any expectation of Greek clichés like marble columns, sea, and sun, but my editor at Penguin relayed an interesting observation: most readers, he said, thumbing through books of poetry in bookstores, open to the middle. This is where you can catch them by surprise. So I kept to my plan to start in Athens with established literary magazines, and then move to the more offbeat literary collectives, from there to online poetry, then to poetry in the provinces and on the edges, and finally by migrants inside Greece and Greeks outside scrambling the borders of what counts as Greek poetry altogether.
What is the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits? What can it mean for poetry to be political, or apolitical, in times of social and economic crisis? Can poetry actually offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
Only after the anthology was finished did it become clear to me how the drama of borders, migrants, and a sea impossible to patrol, now so much in the news, had emerged in Greek poetry some time ago. Literature often tells us what will happen before it happens. Poetry, more than other genres, plays the role of a Cassandra. What is striking is how the soothsaying in this poetry involved upending an older model of disinterested modernism. It insisted on talking about the troubles, however indirectly. It wasn’t possible to let boatfuls of migrants drown or to build barbed wire fences and detention centers without serious repercussions for everyone. Given the recent resurgence of separatisms –Grexit, Brexit, Trump’s wall – the message is only more urgent now. We need poetry, and poetry in translation, to tell us things we can’t know otherwise, and if we don’t pay attention, it is at our own peril. As William Carlos Williams says in the epigraph to the anthology [#34], “It is difficult to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.”
Most scholars reckon that the content of a book cannot be separated from the particularities of the language that gave it shape. In this context, where does the role and responsibility of the translator lie?
I think the translator of contemporary poetry has to think beyond national boundaries in the same way the critic must work to undo the sense that literature is a national institution that obeys the rules of one language. But on this count the translator may have a head start since she already knows her translation is de facto divorced from the source language. It comes as no surprise that everything is up to her now. It is her responsibility to make it make sense for a new audience in a new way.
In her article The Making of Originals: The Translator as Editor, Karen Emmerich notes that when translating from a so-called “minor” to a so-called “major” language or literature, translators do sometimes hold remarkable power, including the power to produce what will in many cases become the only interpretation of a work of literature available in a given language. How do you respond to this power? Can translation ever be unethical?
Translators in any language when translating into any language wield the power of interpretation in their work. It is not more so when translating into a major language or when translating a minor literature. The specific situation determines the nature and function of the power. Translation everywhere is a cultural practice with far-reaching social effects. The question is how the translator takes responsibility for this power.
Translation is always about the possibility of a second, third, or fourth translation and never about a single, authoritative translation. Yes, often this doesn’t come to pass given the unequal distribution of cultural prestige and capital, but the ethical charge, if you will, must always imagine it is possible and fight for it. An ethical translation is one that understands the conditions of its own production and makes that visible. It is one that is open to different interpretations. Here I think translators and publishers and reviewers in the target language can do a huge amount to educate readers about how to read translations, but I also think authors, publishers and reviewers in the source language need to think beyond literature as a national institution.
In an interview you did with Theodoros Chiotis I noticed with interest his plug for a more consistent state policy for translation. The problem, of course, is whether the people deciding what gets support know enough about the international publishing scene. Other minor literatures such as Catalan have a better record of supporting not only the translation, but also the dissemination of Catalan literature abroad. The Greek Ministry of Culture would need to work with foundations and international groups of scholars and writers in the countries where the literature is being translated and published. Not every translator or press in a major culture can offer strategic help in supporting a minor literature, some, for example, are in the business of ghettoizing the literature in an appeal to one readership such as Greeks of the Diaspora. It is up to translators, but also the minor cultures themselves to get their literature out there through astute marketing that is informed by knowledge of the receiving cultures. Anticipating the impact of a translation in the receiving culture is a way to take responsibility for the translator's work, something that translators as well as publishers need to do.
What about books that are written between two or more languages? What does a translator do with texts that are already translational? How demanding is it to translate Diaspora and immigrant writing that doesn’t belong to one national canon?
Many critics think it is impossible to translate multilingual literature, but I prefer to view it as a resource for translation. Multilingual literature with its high coefficient of creole and hybrid idioms (Gringlish, Gritalian, Gralbanian) challenges the prevailing assumption that languages and cultures are discreet entities. If originals cross borders and share common words, syntactical structures and referents, then surely translations can too. Multilingual practices in the source text map out ways for translators to be more experimental by exposing the instability and ideological import of their own language. That can only help readers become more aware of the linguistic and cultural conditions of minority—in every sense of that word.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Charilaos Nikolaidis (Athens, 1986) is a lawyer and a lecturer in Public Law and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He is the author of the poetry collection Fox on a highway (Melani, 2015).
Photo Credit: Kristina Bratuska
Charilaos Nikolaidis spoke to Reading Greece* about Fox on a highway noting that it is “an exercise in learning how to laugh, how to put things into one’s own perspective and to challenge one’s certainties”, and that humour and sarcasm allow us “to give seriousness all sorts of new shapes and colours”.
He discusses the binding thread between law and poetry, where “poetry invites us to imagine what could be and the law requires us to implement what needs to be”. As for the role of poetry in times of crisis, he comments that poetry is “a way to fly against the gravitational pull of circumstance”, and concludes that “as concerns Greek literature, something really interesting is going on. Our obligation is to be extrovert and to insist on communicating it”.
Your first poetry collection Fox on a highway has received quite favorable reviews. Tell us a few things about the book.
‘Foxes laugh when nobody is watching […]’, declares the epigraph of the book. Fox on a highway is an exercise in learning how to laugh, how to put things into one’s own perspective and to challenge one’s certainties with a positive attitude and without fear of leaving the safe haven of conventionality. The highway is not a place for a fox but this is why she needs to be there. Being simultaneously alive and out of place provides the detachment which is necessary in order to experience things anew. The other foxes might not listen to her, but that is a risk that a curious fox needs to take. My fox was lucky enough to have received a lot of warmth from people I (and she) did not even know. So, the risk paid off.
Your poems are characterized by a humorous touch and a subtle sarcasm. What purpose do they serve?
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, some things are too important to be taken seriously. The veil of ‘seriousness’ is often used as a cover for lack of imagination. This happens when seriousness is understood as a certain form that needs to be followed strictly, any deviation from it being frowned upon simply because it is a deviation. Humour and sarcasm break this cycle, allowing us to give seriousness all sorts of new shapes and colours. For instance, there is no reason to insist on a grey desperation where an orange one would do.
In his review of your poetry, Petros Golitsis comments on the priority you give to language, which re-arranges the world through innovative optic and sound combinations. What role does language play in your writings?
I first came to appreciate poetry through the songs that I would listen to when I was a child. This is how I first met poets such as Michalis Ganas, Manos Eleftheriou, Nikos Gatsos, Odysseus Elytis and many others; through the lyrics they had written for songs. I have always been fascinated by the way poetry can turn into music and that is why my first poems were essentially lyrics for songs. This helped me a lot, for example, in my translation of the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay which is going to be published soon, given that rhyming and rhythm are an important part of her style.
I keep writing - without publishing - lyrics for songs, both in Greek and in English, enjoying the musicality of language. The effects of this private exercise are certainly reflected on my published poetry. An important indication in this respect is my effort to use mainstream vocabulary and to be as direct as possible. A poet I admire very much, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, wrote in her review of ‘Fox on a highway’ that ‘wisdom is being translated into everyday language’, which is exactly what I aim to do and the greatest encouragement I could ever hope for.
Law and Poetry. Contradictory or complementary fields? Does writing actually constitute their binding thread?
Both law and poetry aim to interpret the world and, at the same time, to shape it. As a consequence, both require us to engage with immense concepts. How we choose to do so is what separates the two. For example, the first person who came up with the notion of equality was certainly both a poet and a legal scholar. But the moment he or she brought a claim before a mediator to assert a right to non-discrimination, the legal analysis took precedence. Poetry describes the human condition and the law regulates it. Poetry invites us to imagine what could be and the law requires us to implement what needs to be. One completes the other. Perhaps this is the binding thread.
“At home, poetry calls on us to defend its role in a world that we are now obliged to design from scratch. These are tough times for poets – and not only for them. Tough, and therefore interesting”. What is the role poetry and art in general is called to play in times of crisis?
Art is a way to communicate and to reconceptualise, in times of crisis and in times of prosperity alike. This is the main role that we can expect it to play: to bring us together in articulating our need for expression and to inspire us in our quest for what is possible and yet unattained. It is no coincidence that great poetry has been produced in difficult periods of history given that it is precisely at such times when the call for unity and inspiration becomes most urgent. Poetry in times of crisis is a way to fly against the gravitational pull of circumstance, not in order to escape from it, but in order to overcome it. The amazing work produced by many young writers in Greece and abroad attests to this.
It has been argued that the new generation of Greek poets is multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational. What is it that makes a national literature appealing to a foreign audience? And, in turn, to what extent do Greek writers incorporate foreign influences in their work?
Many contemporary Greek poets have studied abroad, many are still living abroad and virtually everyone has come across foreign writers, either in translation or in the original text, multilingualism having increased significantly during the last decades. I have personally gained a lot from reading the work of foreign poets (e.g. Wislawa Szymborska, Wendy Cope, Billy Collins and many others) and I have detected influences from foreign literature in the work of most contemporary Greek writers.
This is not surprising in my opinion. I have always envisaged literature in general and poetry in particular as a roundtable where writers from all different places and periods exchange views through their work. Perhaps a similar roundtable –if not the same one- hosts the readers. The appeal of national literature depends on the contribution it makes to that universal discussion. As concerns Greek literature, something really interesting is going on. Our obligation is to be extrovert and to insist on communicating it.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou