JULY 27, 2011
I’M A SUCKER FOR slim volumes about girls. I picked up Anne Germanacos’s collection of short stories, In the Time of the Girls, based on the shape and the title. What I discovered was a world out of time, a collection of fragments and stories whose narrators whisper little truths and tales across oceans, across centuries, across boundaries both fictional and cultural. If writers are hosts, Germanacos invites a large and eclectic tribe to her party. Greek gods and tattooed teenagers, forgetful husbands and secretive wives. Children who weave patterns across the page. Characters I recognize, dimly, from Greek plays and mythology, or from 8th grade Algebra class — I can’t be sure. The certainty comes from the writer’s unwavering authority. Even when being interviewed, Germanacos is clear, present, and warm. She wrote to me from her home in Crete where she teaches writing alongside her husband. San Francisco-born, she spends half of her year in Crete and half in California.
— Clarissa Romano
Monsters, like maps, are internal, but his country’s forgotten, or still hasn’t learned what’s private. He pictures himself a centaur, looks down at his hooves.
In Greek, there’s no word for privacy. The word that comes closest? Idiotis. Greek villages offer a tremendous (if sometimes brutal) version of community.
Place is everything, but, as I’ve learned, in some fundamental way, places are interchangeable. It’s our delight and delectation to know them as being different. Really, they’re all the same.
On the feast day, the Dormition, I dressed in a skirt and sandals, pulled my hair back, slipped pen and paper into a small purse. I followed the townspeople along the dusty, hot road to a chapel on the other side of the island. We were a long line of pilgrims, in August.
I don’t consider myself an expat both because I never gave up the US and because my experience in Greece was more entrenched than what I tend to think of as the typical expat experience. I learned Greek because I had to — in the 70s on small islands, no one spoke English.
I’ve lived in Greece for two thirds of my life. Still, I am on the edge of life in both places, and may feel at home anywhere or nowhere. There’s no avoiding it, but I think it’s a long marriage, children, and family that provide the deepest sense of rootedness.
When his father’s gone for good, Oedipus realizes two things: a mother isn’t a wife, and his is crazy. The house stinks of cat. He douses himself in aftershave from a blue bottle.
“Ma, we need to get rid of them.” She smirks; he lights a cigarette with a white Bic.
“Smoking and cats are not the same thing.” She says it slowly, wisely, the way she often speaks now that his father, her husband, is gone.
I read equally in fiction and nonfiction, less poetry. I just finished David Grossman’s magnificent To the End of the Land. I’m reading Tony Judt’s memoir. Roberto Calasso and Isaac Babel remind me of where to aim.
I am also in dialogue with critics, not in an academic way, but simply as a function of living in society. Right now, I’m reading Adam Phillips, a loyal if critical and very imaginative Freudian. The tentative title of my most recent work, which I wrote during the last nine months of my mother’s life, is Tribute to Freud (after H.D.); it is a challenge, (a rivalry), a love song, a dirge — my mother died July 19, 2010.
“Humble baby, grumble baby, baby say your prayers. Crumble baby, tumble baby. Sit up, let’s rumble, baby.”
“Ka-ka-ka-ka,” it says, like a crow or a machine gun, blowing bubbles at the back of its throat.
— “Adam and Eva”
My editing process is merciless — I’ve got a variety of sharpened knives. My writing process, on the other hand, is exuberant. I’ve got a 15-page piece that was carved out of twenty times that.
By the time I met her, the book was out of print. But as I wanted the man I’d seen kissing her, so I wanted a copy for myself. I wanted to hold the book in my hand: a done deal. Instead I was offered a story that felt too close to home.
Two risks I court are keeping the fourth wall permeable and sticking closely to recognizable, lived stories. Before the book came out, I had middle-of-the-night crises. Little spots of terror. By morning, they were generally gone. What I’ve learned is that the people who recognize themselves in stories tend to be less upset (they’re often honored) than those who may have been hoping for a story. It is understandable; they need to be patient.
My husband pops up in a variety of places, as a version of himself, of course. The truth is that all these stories are love stories. He knows that, and I hope the others do.
I’m not sure what I think or know anymore, now, in the days of the departed girls. You could even call it the death of the time of the girls.
Those girls are still too real. If I don’t forget about them and let them flow out to sea, the tide will never bring them back.
— “In the Time of the Girls”
It starts with a feeling, concept, place, character, image, or (most likely these days) a phrase, but if it doesn’t quickly gain a particular linguistic idiom and rhythm, I move off toward something — anything — that seems to come from another place.
I used to drink coffee to induce surprise and a sense of verbal and emotional flight, but it ruined my stomach. Now I just go for a walk. Or open a foreign language textbook, especially one in another alphabet. A different language frees the mind: sets it loose. Currently, I’m working on Arabic.
Straining never gets me anywhere. It has to come unbidden. I set the stage for its arrival, maintaining receptivity as best as I can.
Sometimes the spark that lit a story flares up again — incendiary! — and another story is required. I’d love to give more space to the epileptic boy who hears in color…
But I imagine I’ll always be haunted by “the girls.”
It may have happened when, six years ago, Olivia was visiting us on the island and lightning struck the house. We smelled burnt hair and were terrified that the lightning might have danced through her body. But there were no other indications, so this must have been our imagination — mine and her father’s. Still, we liked to tell people it had happened.
— “Ovid Sings”
A lot of modern Greeks think they’re the descendants of Plato and Aristotle. To me, they seem more like sad-sack versions of the (oh-so) human gods. In some sense, I’m an ancient Greek fundamentalist. I lived in Greece for 35 years,; I take these texts literally. The gods are so recognizably human. They are ourselves, writ large (and fanciful).
Our emotions are almost always bigger than we can handle: myths put them in some kind of enduring but entertaining order. While my mother was dying, I went back to The Iliad — container of so much death. Maybe I’m working toward modern myths. Something clipped but also airborne.
As a cousin in her late sixties, who acted in Greek tragedies as a young woman, recently wrote to me: “Now I can really wail.” Doesn’t that say it all?