When writing a novel set in the past, you’re hoping to animate the period, to imagine what might have happened between the historical events that we know are true, or perhaps to even interrogate what it is we recognize as true, and why. As Peter Ho Davies noted in an interview: “I’ve been attracted over time to those little bubbles of history where we just don’t know what went on in that space.” He continues: “The instinct to lay fiction over the top of history… is simply to understand why certain things happened.”
But when writing in a contemporary moment that engages with a particular social, political, or cultural event, you’re writing on a shaky, ever-changing terrain, so you cannot simply lay your fiction atop it. What might have been your foresight may become fact, and so instead of imaginative visionaries we simply become regular old observers. You may be outpaced by history. In some ways, it is impossible to write fiction set in the present moment because the present moment does not exist. We only have the past and the future.
David Bezmozgis, in an essay entitled “The Novel in Real Time,” describes the experience of writing his most recent book, The Betrayers, set in Crimea: “I kept changing when the action was set,” he writes, “constantly pushing the date ahead by another year to coincide with the year of its ultimate publication.” When in 2014 Ukraine and Crimea were suddenly in upheaval, the concerns of his novel in light of the present conflict no longer felt relevant. The events were too urgent to not mention, but with them the plot would no longer work. “The novelist who tackles social and political phenomena,” he writes, “must posit a world and commit to it fully. He cannot merely describe—he must anticipate an outcome, if only a little. If a work of journalism is a solid structure made of facts, the novel is a moral and imaginative leap from atop that structure.”
How a novelist makes that leap, however, is the question, but I think it has to do with the way we create and inhabit the work’s reality. Right now, I’m writing a novel set in Greece, where two major global events are playing out: the financial crisis and the refugee crisis. But a fictional narrative is not a media narrative, nor should it become literary tourism: here is the Acropolis, here is a homeless man, here is a protest march, here is a woman who has lost her job, here is a refugee trying to get to Germany. Here is how the narrative connects them. Yet to ignore these realities seems insular, and ignorant.
Greece presents the novelist, particularly the foreign novelist, with a particular set of complications because it already exists so powerfully in our collective literary imagination, with its ties to both mythology and a classical past. Sometimes these things become overdetermined. For a good few years it seemed impossible for the New York Times to write about the current crisis and not use the words “Greek tragedy” or to invoke the Greek gods. The earlier trope of the dancing Zorba, or of Greece as a place of leisure and spiritual awakening, linked too easily, in the eyes of international media, with the idea of Greeks as lazy freeloaders who do not want to work.
Recently these two tropes merged in Anthony Bourdain’s travel and food show Parts Unknown, when the celebrity-chef-journalist traveled to the Greek island of Naxos. In trying to move away from looking at Greece as a beautiful paradise and tell the more grave story of the crisis—a good intention—Bourdain created a nearly grotesque caricature of the Greek character. He said he knew nothing of the island—to him is was a “blank slate”—-yet he managed to project clichés onto that slate anyway. What he meant was he did not go in with any knowledge of the island. And what he came away with was, well, not much. The profile of the Athens-based (if they have ties to Naxos they were not made clear) music and theater collective , Adespotes Skyles (Stray Dogs, or Stray Bitches), came off as crude and simplistic—little was said about their artistic project. Instead, the show used them as props. Which is too bad. The performance I saw several years ago, “The Waltz of the Dirty Streets,” was smart and vibrant and provocative, borrowing elements from cabaret and poetry; traditional Greek music, rap, and lament; and the incessant chatter of a 24-hour news cycle, all to capture a bleak, austerity-crippled Greece, particularly Athens. Their theatrical project is as complex as it is compelling, yet when they were briefly shown performing no subtitles or context were provided, and the women just served as pretty figures to dine with Bourdain’s crew. After attempting to explain the work they do, or insight into the Greek predicament, it seemed they gave up.
You come to Greece to eat good food and dance and get drunk, one of the women says—a gender-swapped Zorba—yet this attitude is about as far from the Greece they portray in their performances as you can get.
But she doesn’t say this without a bit of ironic self-awareness: she knows what Bourdain wants: “here is a typical Greek sunset,” she says, not without a hint of irony: “A boat. The sea.” Remnants of other more thoughtful conversations remain, but they are fleeting, surely edited out. Another fisherman Bourdain encounters talks about taking his son to brothels (I admit, the way it was delivered was perhaps too tempting for Bourdain to not include). Villagers are portrayed sitting idly in cafes, and the subtext of this is, Crisis? What crisis? As if bars are not the things that last, amid financial ruin.
Much of this is both bad editing and asking the wrong questions, but of course I understand there’s an element of performance here as well. I wonder how much pressure the theater group—or the locals, for that matter, toasting the camera— felt to perform a certain type of Greekness, an exaggerated manifestation of what they thought Bourdain was looking for, Bourdain might have been seeking to present a certain archetype, and he’s handed it with a platter of freshly caught grilled fish, a carafe of raki, and a group of beautiful women winking with an irony he unfortunately misses.
“I don’t want to talk about the financial crisis,” Bourdain says. “It’s bumming me out.” It bummed me out too, for other reasons. Perhaps he would have been far better off just focusing on the food and drink indeed: on the farming family he dines with, or a family who runs the distillery, or another who makes cheese. If he had given more depth to the characters in his narratives and not the political overlay, the political would have more organically emerged. Bourdain is a journalist, and this is a television show on CNN, of course, but it’s these media narratives, often insidious, that make the more complex fictional truths of literature all the more important.
This is not to say that literature should not attempt to focus on a contemporary moment, or engage a current topic, whether that is political unrest, financial crisis, war, and so on. A very lively discussion in Greece continues about literature of the crisis, and several anthologies have gathered poetry written during and about Greece and the austerity measures it lives with. Some of the works that have become part of this discussion, however, were not necessarily written after the financial collapse but instead before it, a prescience reading of what was to come. Something Will Happen, You’ll See, by Christos Ikonomou (translated into English by Karen Emmerich, and published by Archipelago), is often discussed under the umbrella of the crisis but it was written far before. Says Ikonomou in an interview: “So back in 2004 [when the Olympic games were set in Athens], there was a kind of excitement all over Greece, you know, there was this fake prosperity and all these things. But for me, I had the sense back then that something was wrong, something was not right. So what I tried to do by writing this book is to scratch the surface, go beyond the surface of things, and go deeper, and explore the darker corners of the situation in my country. But the main thing is that I didn’t want to write the book only for the crisis in Greece.”
Plenty of other novels could fall into this category, and a host of other short story collections, essays, and poems as well: Greek works that respond to, reflect on, or engage the crisis directly, as well as works that were simply prescient. But in the past couple of years I’ve noticed a higher than usual amount of contemporary fiction being written about Greece by outsiders—I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Greece’s recent presence on the world stage—both in the context of the global financial and refugee crises— has influenced this to some degree. As writers our imaginations are often drawn to places of conflict. As Charles Baxter has said, “Hell is story friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned.” And as a writer, I’m most interested in the sort of fictional reality these novels choose to inhabit, because it seems the choice of that reality influences the ability to move fiction away from what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the single story.” “And when we create a single story,” she says, “show people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, ….that is what they become.”
I’m particularly interested in English-language writers writing Greece as outsiders. Though I’m Greek American I consider myself an outsider too. I was born and raised in the States; unlike many Greek Americans who learn the language from their parents, or Saturday Greek school, I only began studying the language as a graduate student; and I do not live with the austerity measures my Greek friends and family have to navigate daily, And I’m interested in books by outsiders because it’s often the gaze of outsiders who create these single stories. But three recent books seem to get it right.
The first—Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West—bends the lines of reality; the second, Rachel Cusk’s Outline—examines a breakdown of reality, and the third, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation—is grounded in a reality plagued with so much uncertainty that the narrator’s experience in Greece begins to feel dreamlike. These novels all allow for a complexity in the Greek contemporary experience because their fictional realities comprise Greece, as opposed to Greece comprising their fictional realities.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid spends the least time in Greece, but I’m including it here because of its powerful narrative concerning the plight of the refugee. By bending boundaries of reality, setting a love story between two refugees fleeing an unnamed country experiencing civil war, Hamid takes the often frustrating, uncertain world of attempting, with no prior experience, to negotiate a smuggling underworld, and he transposes it to a parallel “unreality.” Instead of smugglers, rickety fishing boats, and passages in the backs of trucks or as cargo, the refugees must learn to negotiate a secret world of magical portals, doors which, if the refugees are lucky enough to find them, will transport them West across the globe, not to unnamed places but very recognizable ones: Greece, London, California. The young couple, Nadia and Saeed, exit through a door in their home country to emerge upon a deserted beach club on the Greek island of Mykonos.
This Mykonos is not the island paradise that exists in the collective imagination, nor is it a direct transposition of the refugee camps on the island of Lesvos, or on Greece’s mainland. Here Hamid, instead of laying his fiction over the grim realities as they are, dramatizes what negotiating this treacherous migration might feel like, both in its risk and its unpredictability. That he chooses the island known around the world as a gorgeous vacation spot, and perhaps also for its decadent, all-night parties, is surely no accident (Alexander Maksik, in his 2013 book A Marker to Measure Drift, did something similar: a Liberian refugee wandering the island of Santorini). By giving Mykonos a more grave “double,” he forces us to consider: How can we go about our business, our lives, our fun, when a global humanitarian crisis unfolds right before our eyes?
If Hamid blatantly subverts reality, Rachel Cusk’s Outline explores what it might feel like to lose an understanding of it. The narrator is a British woman teaching a creative writing class in Athens, and the book unfolds as a series of told narratives. Because Cusk allows her book to feel almost like an oral history, with the position of narrator as a mere vessel, she allows her characters to tell their stories as it suits them. There is no “Greek crisis” mentioned in Cusk’s book, though it is certainly present. Characters talk about scarcity and decay, or mention the protests, for example. Athens is still Athens: there are still tourists ambling around in the hottest moments of the day. There are scenes of both rage and compassion that can serve as metonyms. One woman inexplicably beats her dog, for instance, a harrowing externalization of a nation’s internalized shame and rage, and another character gives an old woman who is asking for change some money, gently stroking her fingers as she places it in her hands, a surprising blip of compassion suggestive of an overall Greek ethos of hospitality.
It’s no coincidence, as far as I am concerned, that all of Cusk’s characters seem to be looking back at who they were, and trying to figure out how they arrived where they now are. What the narratives share in common in Outline is the way all the characters, including the narrator, come to terms with new realities, the new normal. Which one can argue is the story of the Greek crisis: how to go on when your way of life, your reality, has been ripped out from beneath your feet.
As there are many ways to write a political novel, there are many ways to tell the story of a place. Katie Kitamura’s new novel A Separation, set in rugged southern Greece, deals with one characters’ violent new reality. The narrator has trouble distinguishing what she knows to be true and what she imagines to be possible. The Greece Kitamura captures is not the Greece of study abroad. There is no epiphany overlooking the ocean. There is no sentimental talk of a picturesque village, though the village is undoubtedly picturesque. But the narrator cannot see it beyond what it represents: mourning, a reminder of her husband’s infidelities, and a world of painful limbo. This is not the Greece of an older “single story:” there is no baudy, larger than life man encouraging her to let loose and dance away her sorrow. The landscape, which never moves her, is one of grief and violence: barren, with “the faint whiff of char in the air” from recent fires. Of what remains.
The novel deals with the concept of mourning—the narrator’s husband had allegedly come to Greece to research the dying tradition of professional lamenters—and the Greek word for these laments, the mirologia, etymologically breaks down to the words for that which is inevitable. Death. “The hills between here and Athens are black,” her driver tells her (which reminded me of a Greek folk song that asks why the mountains are black, on the verge of tears, and explores the relationship between life and death). “If you go outside the village, up to the hills, you will see, the earth is still hot from the fire.” Everything leaves its mark, and death is palpable. Still, the narrator muses, “It is easier to mourn a known quantity than an unknown one,” and this sentiment captures the precarity so many Greeks face. Kitamura may not have intended this reading, but it is a hard one not to consider.
It seems to me that the anxiety of bringing in current events sometimes feels like an anxiety of authenticity, the same way, in a historical novel, we might overdo certain details to show we’ve done our research. We want to show we’re paying attention. But true authenticity, it seems, comes from the way a narrative is truly inhabited, not by an anxious incorporation of fact, knowledge, or observation. Hamid writes that “Novels aren’t real: they’re words, made up. And modern neuroscience and ancient religions both tell us that what we call reality isn’t real either. ….Sometimes unreality can feel more real.”
In his introduction to Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis, editor and translator and poet Theodoros Chiotis writes: “I still remember walking through the center of Athens late at night on a Sunday in November 2009. The atmosphere was filled with tear gas and helicopters were patrolling the skies. It seemed like an inversion of the image of Zeppelins flying above Athens during the great spectacle that was the 2004 Olympic Games. It almost felt unreal.”
This I know: for me, this time around, the boundaries of literary realism are not expansive enough. My charge, I now see, is to allow the story to not mimic a certain Greek reality but to somehow reflect it, to run parallel with it to capture a chronic state of limbo, a landscape that to some might be paradise but to others is frustratingly bleak, a place to merely wait to see what comes next.
Natalie Bakopoulos is the author of the novel The Green Shore, and her work has appeared in Tin House, VQR, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Granta, Glimmer Train, O. Henry Prize Stories, and various other publications. She has received fellowships from the Camargo and MacDowell foundations and was a 2015 Fulbright Fellow in Athens, Greece. She currently teaches at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.
Adespotes Skyles. “Waltz of the Dirty Streets, No. 3.” May 28, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_Lv0nlwGrY (accessed April 2017).
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TedGLOBAL 2009, July 2009. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story (accessed April 2017).
Baxter, Charles. “Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama.” Burning Down the House. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1997.
Bezmozgis, David. “The Novel in Real Time,” The New Yorker. March 13, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-novel-in-real-time (accessed April 2017).
Chamberlin, Jeremiah. “Interview with Peter Ho Davies.” VQR. June 14, 2004. http://www.vqronline.org/web-exclusive/interview-peter-ho-davies (accessed April 2017).
Chiotis, Theodoros (Ed.). Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis. London: Penned in the Margins, 2015.
Cusk, Rachel. Outline. New York: FSG, 2014.
“The Greek Islands” Parts Unknown. Season 7. CNN. Original air date May 8, 2016.
Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. New York: Riverhead, 2017.Freeman, John. “The first Post-Brexit Novel: Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.” Literary Hub. 16 October 2016
Kitamura, Katie. A Separation. New York: Riverhead, 2017.