The two questions people ask me all the time are, “What made you write this book?” and “How long did it take you? To me, that’s like asking how long a piece of string is. The answer to both questions is, “I was always writing it. It’s been in my head ever since I was born.”
I grew up, as many people of my generation, hearing family stories. They began as soon as I was old enough to balance on a knee and continue today. In my family, days are spent sitting and talking. We talk over food, over chores, while sitting with our dusty feet up in the heat of the afternoon. Sometimes there are long silences that tell a story too.
My grandmother was the main teller of the dark tales. Her husband’s infidelities had left her committed to God and once she learned to read she spent her time reading the Bible and comparing the gospels to the tragedies that were unfolding on the news each night. I grew up believing Armageddon was coming. My grandmother nodded with certainty every night as she heard about earthquakes and calamities, one finger hooked in the page of her Bible. She was also the one who talked about the past. My mother and aunt talked about everything, but there was enough current gossip to keep them occupied. Fashion, hairdos, infidelities, the mess we children were in. It was my grandmother who repeated certain stories over and over like a mantra. Repeated them sometimes until she exhausted herself. She was the one who gave me the most material.
In the late eighties, while I was at drama school (RADA), one of my teachers encouraged us to write everything down as ‘fuel for the mind’. That summer, when I returned to Cyprus, I began to write down my grandmother’s stories. She would talk and I would take notes and translate them into my diary. I’d always heard the tales but now I was writing them down in detail.
Of course, when I discussed the stories, they were different to my mother’s and my aunt’s recollections – part memory, part story passed down, a degree of embroidery involved by each storyteller. And right then, I became intrigued by several things at once.
First of all, the truth of the story. For each person it is different. Every one has a different perspective – usually starring themselves. The storyteller becomes the central player in the tale.
Secondly, the way stories were told. The older the stories, the more magical the telling. People died of broken hearts, “I heard it shatter, like glass,” and, “He vanished over the roof tops,” or someone inadvertently cursed someone who suddenly died.
I wanted to explore storytelling and how it is many layered, part fiction, part fact, part memory, a bit of ego.
I was also struck by the fact that my family continued to live in the Empire for a long time, despite watching 1.5 million people file past their door and die. They stayed there until they were finally kicked out in 1922, living alongside the people that persecuted them and, later, helped them to safety.
The stories stayed in my diary for a decade. When my husband and I moved to America in 1999, he had the work visa and I didn’t. I decided to work on the book – going over the stories I’d translated and turning them into chapters.
I wrote everything down, starting with the year 1895 and kept going up to the year 2000, following my great grandmother’s stories with my grandmothers, mother and aunt’s and mine. The earliest chapters, the one’s in Seamstress, were the most difficult because I only had stories and scraps of stories and I had so much homework to do. Every time someone walked into a room I had to research if they would light a lamp, strike a match or flick a switch. Most of the people I would try and corroborate dates and events with were already dead or very old. There was little information on the internet. That’s all changed now; everything is easily found on the web. Like taking the freeway at rush hour instead of waiting it out with a cocktail. If I’d waited two decades, researching the book would have been much faster.
But then again, I love research. Finding photos, discovering nuggets that confirm facts in a dusty book in a library or bookshop. You can go down a wormhole on any subject; food, medicine, sewing, drugs, sex, war. Love. Family.
A tale of love, loss and redemption; of friendship between enemies and a family of extraordinary women who survive against all odds, living alongside their oppressors.