This Way Back

This Way Back

by Joanna Eleftheriou
This Way Back

This Way Back

by Joanna Eleftheriou

Paperback(1st Edition)

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“Winning and contemplative.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review) 

Going back to her ancestral homeland, a Greek American girl discovers she is a lesbian in love with God, so her questions about home and belonging will not be easily answered.

This Way Back dramatizes a childhood split between Queens, New York, and Cyprus, an island nation with a long colonial history and a culture to which Joanna Eleftheriou could never quite adjust. The book avows a Greek-Cypriot-American lesbian’s existence by documenting its scenes: reenacting an 1829 mass suicide by jumping off a school stage onto gym mats at St. Nicholas, harvesting carobs on ancestral land, purchasing UNESCO-protected lace, marching in the island’s first gay pride parade, visiting Cyprus’s occupied north against a dying father’s wish, and pruning geraniums, cypress trees, and jasmine after her father grew too weak to lift the shears. While the author’s life binds the essays in This Way Back into what reads like a memoir, the book questions memoir’s conventional boundaries between the individual and her community, and between political and personal loss, the human and the environment, and the living and the dead.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781949199666
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2020
Series: In Place
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Joanna Eleftheriou is an assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University. A contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, she grew up in New York and Cyprus and now lives in Virginia. Her essays, short stories, and translations have been widely published.

Read an Excerpt

The Rope of Desires [excerpted]
The easternmost village in the Cypriot Republic’s southern state, Asgáta rests five miles from the island’s coast and 140 miles from Beirut, which lies southeast across the sea. Mud brick houses sink into a valley, the stone Church of the Twelve Apostles hovers over a creek bed, and hills rise up all around. From their peaks, the waters of the Mediterranean, or the haze above it, are visible. Gullied roads cut through the underbrush of terebinth, sage, and thyme and into a sparse forest of juniper, wild carob, olive, and pine. When the rains come, brown hillsides turn green. Poppies bloom red against this green, then almond trees blossom, also yellow daffodils, rock rose, and spiny broom. When my father died, this green that he loved had not yet dried in the summer sun—it was April, the hills still bright, for the winter that had preceded his burial was a good one. Rains filled the dams so that after many dry years, they spilled over, and long-empty riverbeds bore water.
After a lifetime of moving back and forth between his birthplace and America, Andréas Eleftheríou settled in the former: Asgáta. With eleven months to live, he arranged a garden, planted gardenias and roses round a new home, and set near the front door a trellis for the jasmine that would welcome summer visitors with its sweetness, and at night, bid them goodbye.
It is uncommon to praise a burial, its just-rightness. But I cannot ignore the comfort of my father’s place in Asgáta’s graveyard. He loved people, but not all of them—he was particular in his choice of company, and took measures to secure substantial space between himself and his neighbors. He chose houses precisely for the empty space—the nothing—at the borders of the property: Queens, 1974, an enormous backyard; the Troodos mountains, 1989, a ring of pine forest; Asgáta, 1993, a carob-strewn tract belonging to the squabbling children of his aunt Melaní; Parekklishá, 2011, a dirt road, an enormous hedge, and a thicket of weeds too narrow to build on (ever). Before he left Parekklishá for the last time, my father spent eleven months looking over his thicket at the city and the sea.
Burial plots are given without charge to people from Asgáta, no matter how long ago they left the village, and the next grave is dug as it is needed, so the snaking rows tell a chronology of loss. My father’s place in this chronology gave him neighbors he’d liked when they were alive, so I imagine him comfortable spending an afterlife in proximity to them. He also has a view of the one-room schoolhouse that had left him memories so fond, he’d had an architect design our Asgáta house so that the living room’s bay window framed the school’s pale blue shutters and roof of red clay. And so, when I saw him lowered into a corner plot with a tall cypress on the right, a quiet kinswoman on the left, my grief softened with a sense that he might be glad his years of illness had now ended.
My father’s death summoned me to Cyprus in the last week of April, too late for me to return to school in Missouri, but early enough to cut my semester short—adding an extra week to my time on the island where he had wanted me to stay.
As the funeral bells tolled and the priest said, “Give rest to the soul of your servant Andréas in a place of light, a place of green grass, a place of rest, where there is no sorrow,” the sun flooded the cemetery with light. The men were comfortable in their suits, not sweat-drenched like they would be in Cyprus’s late May, yet I was warm enough in a short-sleeved dress. It was the balm of warm sunshine and cool wind that my father had once assured us Cypriots enjoyed every day. The perfect temperature for a funeral. My brother and his oldest friends bore the coffin. I walked behind them with my mother and sister to my right. A few yards to my left walked my own old friends who had visited me there, in that very place, when I lived with my parents in the village.
As we stood in the same church my mother, brother, and I had attended week in and week out for a decade, listening to the same chanters and the same priest, surrounded by neighbors wearing the same clothes they always wore, by people who belonged in Asgáta where Andréas was born at home, death folded itself into life. The ground he entered was the ground from which he pulled root vegetables, into which he dug irrigation ditches, and on which he played soccer every Christmas with the bladder of a slaughtered pig.
And when the priest scattered onto that body wheat, the wheat too had risen out of that ground. The oil poured onto my father had been pressed from olives grown in that place. The plate thrown into the grave to shatter in the coffin below, like the wheat scattered into the wind, would become part of that earth again. Into the ground of our everyday lives my father’s friends and son and students dug their shovels, and out of it they heaved the dirt of the place onto the box that bore his body.
After that, Dino and Cathy returned to their American lives, but I stayed behind on our father’s island because mine could wait until the fall semester. My fellow English instructors in the States asked for my Cypriot address and sent sympathy cards to my parents’ house. I spent the summer there, in their house, alone with my mother, reading. My mother read theological books in English and reread the gospel in the original Greek. I read theoretical books on mourning—Harrison, Butler, Derrida—and I pulled my father’s journals from a drawer and typed their contents up, driven, I guess, by a need for work. Sometimes, I translated what I’d typed into English. I typed in Greek, and I typed again in English. This typing, and this retyping, too, was the work of mourning. I did the typing when my mother was out, not because I thought she would forbid it, but because I could not speak about my desire. For every act of grief that wasn’t part of a ritual, I had only silence. There was language for what were the customary duties of the bereaved. For my desire to read and type up my father’s language, I had none.
First among the nameable labors of mourning was the making of kólyva, a wheat-based food offered on the ninth day after the death during a memorial at church. On the eighth day, my mother and I invited friends up to the house, littered though it was with piles of my father’s clothes, washed and folded for donation. I’d gone to high school with Erika, and we had spent a lot of time in each other’s houses—mostly hers, since she lived in the city close to school. When we had activities in the afternoon on a school day, I would stay at her house instead of taking the village road all the way back home to Asgáta. Erika and her mother Ivi showed us how to prepare the boiled wheat and decorate it with pomegranate, anise, raisins, sesame seeds, and blanched almonds. They directed us to place the almonds in the shape of a cross over the wheat.
After the ninth-day memorial, my mother and I stood behind tables set up for this custom outside the church, and as villagers left the churchyard, they took a handful of boiled wheat and said, “Memory eternal.” Once, as a picky teenager, I refused to take this handful of kólyva and the widow took hold of my arm and pulled me back. “Eat. For his soul.” I took in my cupped palms the wheat of the dead, and I placed the undesired food inside my mouth and chewed. Under the grieving woman’s gaze, I let pomegranate seeds break sweetness onto the earthy flavor of smooth wheat, and never refused kólyva again.
Next, we had to pay visits to the cemetery. There wasn’t much to do while visiting, although according to our mayor, who’d dug the grave, there was water to spill. Buckets of it. The mayor explained that before a stone memorial could be built on top of my father’s grave, the heap of raised earth needed to settle, and we could speed this settling process up by carrying buckets of water and sloshing them onto the earth. Because the task gave my hands something to do, I ignored my suspicions about the logic (how much earth could a few buckets of water move, especially since we had a whole winter ahead before we could build the memorial?). I continued to fill that red paint bucket with water and haul it, sloshing, to spill onto the pink-brown rocky mound. I got my clothes a little wet but didn’t mind, since it was now late May, and hot. My mother and I spilled buckets and buckets onto the earth while his photo, on the temporary wooden cross, looked on. Andréas had thick, long sideburns because in the photo he was young.
After the day’s water spilling was done, and weeds were pulled from the grave, I passed the rest of the visiting time by walking around the graveyard. I looked at fading pictures and the flowers, some new and some plastic, some recently alive. Nearby were the large family tombs of neighbors I’d known during the years when we lived together here, in the village. Asgáta’s four-hundred-odd residents were easy to remember. I didn’t know everyone’s name, but I knew all of their faces. Mothers and sons, uncles and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren, and husbands and wives now shared tombs here, the way they had once shared a single village house in life. A stone’s throw from my father’s grave, in the direction of the old Twelve Apostles Church, lay my father’s maternal grandparents, in a shared grave marked with a gray stone crucifix. It bore the dates of their deaths, and I learned that my great-grandfather had died before my father’s birth. I saw on it also the printed evidence of what I had known—that my great-grandmother had died while my father was away at boarding school, so that he learned of the loss long after it had occurred, when he stepped off the bus after school had let out for Christmas break. All this memory-laden stone, all these memorialized generations, provided comfort to me as the tangible markers of lives I’d heard of only in stories.
I spent my high school years in that village and four more after college. I ran past the cemetery often while exploring the hills. I had entered it only during funerals. I don’t know why I had never before walked around inside. What I do know is that the comfort of a visible lineage for myself there, in a particular place, set distance between Thoreau and me, who was in his thirties when he wrote in Walden, “Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens, cemeteries.” I have come to love living among cemeteries and ruins. As I’ve travelled around the Mediterranean Basin, I’ve often come across piles of unmarked antiquities—in Lésbos a fallen column and in Thássos a cracked sarcophagus; in Athens a metro full of ancient art and in Thessaloníki the Vía Egnatía’s pavestones—all half-heartedly fenced off or grown over with weeds. In Asgáta, a Roman skeleton turned up during my visit in 2019, and when I left, the grave was still covered up with boards from old crates, cordoned off with yellow police tape, and protected by a night guard until its significance could be assessed. This ancient cemetery, or the ruins that suggest one’s existence under the ground, lies less than a mile from the Church of the Twelve Apostles where less ancient relics lie. Chances are, the archaeologists won’t excavate. So very many generations have left records of themselves in stone that there is no space left in the museums, or in the museums’ crowded storerooms, and the cities remain strewn with ruined memorials. Sometimes, archaeological finds are reburied after excavation because the best preservation material is the earth.
I wonder if Thoreau ever changed his mind and acquired a taste for ruins in the way my father, still happily in America in his twenties, later yearned toward ancestral gardens.
A few weeks after the funeral, my mother and I were once again tending to these little graveyard duties when a neighbor entered and told us not to worry about a third mourning custom we’d been neglecting. The living are supposed to keep alight an oil lamp, which is housed in a miniature cupboard fixed to the back of the wooden cross. The lamp is really just a glass of oil with a floating wick in it.
Only pretending to veil her reproach, the neighbor said, “Don’t worry! I have been lighting Andréas’s lamp when I come to tend my mother-in-law’s grave.”
When we thanked her but showed no remorse for our neglect, she said, “You do know it has to be kept lit for the soul to go up!”
We assented, and may even have lit the oil lamp. But my mother is very religious and also very American, and so quite unworried about practices that, like the lamp-lighting, were not based in official Orthodox church canons. She lit it a few times during our visits after that, but always agreed when I suggested we snuff the flame before leaving. Every summer, wildfires decimate large parts of Cyprus forest, and the trees killed take many human lifetimes to grow back.
Some days later, late at night outside my parents’ house, I reported to Erika the way the neighbor had chastised us for our neglect of my father’s needs as he progressed in the afterlife. She imitated the exasperated voice my dad would use if he were to become stuck in the grave, unable to go up, because of my mother’s strict no-folklore, dogma-only religious allegiance. This allegiance had frustrated him when he was alive. Growing up in Cyprus, my father was used to bending the rules of Orthodox Christian dogma and prioritizing cultural practices that sometimes reach back as far as pagan times.
Erika and I were laughing when a bird whooshed down from the sky flapping large wings, waited a moment, and then disappeared.
“What was that?” Erika asked.
“An owl!” I explained that I’d been finding them perched on telephone wires above me while I ran, flapping before me on my long walks in the hills—more in the first weeks after his death than in the sum of all my previous several years of running in the Cypriot hills.
“It’s my dad,” I said, and she accepted the answer.

Table of Contents

The Rope of Desires 1

Of Acacia and Maple 22

Your Schedule Depends on the Sky 27

The Actress Who Isn't Acting 31

She and I 51

Ithacas 59

The Temple of Zeus 82

The Other Side 103

Wild Honey, Locust Beans 123

Unsent Letter to My Father 135

Shopping for Story 144

Dancing Greek 152

Out 177

Cyprus Pride 184

Inheritance Law 199

Without Goodbyes 221

Epilogue: Moonlight Elegy 243

Acknowledgments 255

Notes 259

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