Interwiew with Ersi Sotiropoulos
The Greek writer and poet Ersi Sotiropoulos travels from Athens to Visby once a year, preferably in the winter. For a few intense weeks she is completely absorbed in writing.
– I have been to many artists' residences in different parts of the world: in Brazil, France, Germany and Italy, but for me, this is the best place to get completely into the writing process, she says.
The first time she came to the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators was to finish the novel Zig zag stis nerantzies, which became a multiple award-winner in her home country when it was published the following year. A story about desire, vanity, greed and the longing for love, set in contemporary Athens, it was the first novel to win both the prestigious Greek State Prize for Literature and the Book Critics´ Award of the journal Diavazo. It has been translated into several languages, including Swedish and English, the latter under the title Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees (Interlink, 2006). The success of the novel gave her a special affection for the center here in Visby.
– It is truly a great place for writing, she says. You can really concentrate and get into a rhythm in the writing. That´s why I always love to return here.
Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees got even more attention some years after publication, in the spring of 2007, when the extreme right-wing politician Konstantinos Plevris brought charges against the novel, claiming that it contained “pornographic, obscene and immoral” scenes, after which there was a heated debate in Greece about censorship, morality and freedom of expression. While waiting for the court´s sentence to be pronounced, the book was removed from all school libraries in the country, something that upset the author deeply. But it only increased adolescents´ eagerness to read it.
– It´s an unpleasant story, but I got a lot of support from other Greek writers, she says. We won the lawsuit and the court overturned the ban and re-introduced the book to school libraries in 2009.
Ersi Sotiropoulos, who today lives in Athens, was born in 1953 in the city of Patras on the Peloponnesian peninsula. Right after school, she left Greece and moved to France and then to Italy, where she studied philosophy and cultural anthropology in Florence. In 1979, she returned to Greece, got a scholarship to the famous Iowa Writers´ Workshop, and traveled to the United States. She has been a guest writer at Princeton, written scripts for film and television and worked as cultural attaché at the Greek embassy in Rome.
Film about three writers in contemporary Greece
When she was younger she used to write all night, she says, but now she is doing the opposite.
– I have created routines here at the center and when I´m not here I really look forward to coming. I wake up very early, at three thirty. Sometimes it snows and around half past five every morning the same man passes by with his dog.
When she wants a break from solitude, she invites the others at the center for a meal of home-cooked pasta, a dinner where everyone can gather and share experiences.
– That´s what I like so much here, that you are free to socialize if you feel like it, but can also choose to stay in your room without having to say good morning or good night, she says, smiling.
– At home in Athens the rhythm of life is different, more hectic. You get phone calls at eleven o´clock at night and you rarely go to bed before one. It´s difficult to find time for yourself, hard to put up a wall and tell everyone: “Leave me alone for a while.”
In Visby, when she wants to get out for a while, she walks down the cliff into one of the cafés and orders a soup for lunch.
– My sense of Visby and my memories of the town when I´m not here remain vivid. I even dream about it sometimes – about my room at the center. Since October, when I knew I could get a room here in February, I´ve imagined myself waking up here, making my coffee, starting to work ... Everything in this place makes for harmony, she says.
In February last year Nicolas Autheman, from the production company Les Poissons Volants, did a documentary film for the French-German TV-channel Arte about three Greek authors: La Grèce de Christos Chryssopoulos, Petros Markaris, et Ersi Sotiropoulos, which aired in May 2014. When Ersi wanted them to film her interview at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators, the television station said no. They thought it would be a paradox to send the film crew to a remote Swedish island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, since the program was about the history of Greece and Athens, the economic crisis of today and the future prospects for the country.
“To be able to write, I need peace and isolation. It´s hard to find silence in Athens. I´m writing with my back turned to the Parthenon. Acropolis, this sacred rock. A white gaze that defies history”, she says in the film.
Began to write on a piece of wrapping paper
Ersi Sotiropoulos started to write at the age of eight. She clearly remembers the moment when she knew that this was what she wanted to do. It was the Christmas holidays and the family traveled to Ersi´s aunt in Athens.
– I started to write on the back of some wrapping paper that I found in the kitchen. A large paper with dried pieces of egg, traces from the baking of a Christmas cake. It was a crime story and I remember that I felt ambivalent: I wanted to draw the others´ attention to what I was doing and at the same time I wanted to be left alone. I was building up a sort of barrier around me as I sat on the parquet floor writing. I got the feeling that life can be lonely, but very rich, she says.
She also became a reader very young. The years between 1967 and 74, when Greece was ruled by a military junta, were also the years of her adolescence. Some books were hard to find, since they were banned. She read Baudelaire when she was twelve years old and identified herself with him.
– He dyed his hair green, so I would also do that, she says, laughing.
She began writing poetry and debuted as a poet in 1980 with the poetry collection Milo + Thanatos + +, followed by several novels and collections of short stories. Reading poetry and later also writing poetry enabled her to keep her balance. It became a kind of safeguard for her during those difficult years.
– It was a critical time in my life. I was on the edge and wanted to quit school with its oppressive administration. I thought that life had to be something different from what I was living here, that real life had eluded me.
Fictional story about the poet Cavafy´s time in Paris
The writers who inspired her most in her early teens were all poets: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings and Constantine P. Cavafy. What she found in their work corresponded with what she was feeling or searching for at the time.
– The first thing I read was Eliot´s The Waste Land, which reminded me of the military dictatorship in Greece. The books spoke to me and they are still talking, she says.
A Swedish writer she likes to read is Stig Dagerman, and she has read a French translation of his novel A Burnt Child. Right now she is reading The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller, which takes place in Greece in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, a book she read for the first time when she was young.
More than thirty years ago, in 1984, she first got the idea for the novel she is writing now. She was then a cultural attaché at the Greek embassy in Rome and the curator of a major exhibition at Palazzo Venezia about the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863–1933), who lived for most of his life in Alexandria in Egypt.
– For the exhibition I went through all the documents pertaining to his life. When Cavafy traveled to Greece he was writing a diary, but I noticed that there wasn´t anything written during the three days he spent in Paris in June 1897, when he was 34 years old. All I could find from that trip was a theatre program he brought home to his mother. It was also a very interesting era in Paris: the Paris of Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Marcel Proust. The story that I´ve been writing for the past five years has been taking shape in my mind for a long time. The historical background is real, but the story of what Cavafy experienced in Paris is entirely fictional, she says, adding:
– What interests me is the formation of the artist – how a person becomes a poet.
Text: Maria Molin
Foto: © Sophie Bassouls