Contributor Spotlight: Joanna Eleftheriou

headshot of Joanna Eleftheriou

Joanna Eleftheriou’s essay Cyprus Pride” is featured in Issue 77 of the Bellingham Review

What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?

I was talking to my friend, the poet Natalie Diaz, shortly after the day recounted in the Bellingham Review essay, when I found myself describing the banners in the Cyprus Pride parade to her. I described what I’d seen on YouTube: the way men holding anti-gay banners lifted them against the police and the priests, and beat them. Natalie said “write about that, that image.” The first time Natalie had said that to me, we were in grad school together at Old Dominion University. She said she’d be coming by my house to make sure I’d done it, so I did write about what she suggested (the connection between my father and the moon) and was, just like that, liberated from my excruciating “I can’t write an MFA thesis!” rut. And I produced an essay (called “Moonlight”) that’s still my favorite piece. So, seven years later, I listened to Natalie again, and out this essay came.

When the time came to defend my doctoral dissertation, I merged what I then believed were two books – one about Greekness and the second about my lesbian identity – in order to graduate on time. My committee – five keen, generous readers – said that the most interesting thing about the work they’d just read was the way ethnicity and sexuality intersected. Once they pointed that out, I realized that “Cyprus Pride” actually brings that very intersection into focus, and this essay became a linchpin for what was now a single book. I made it the collection’s final essay, the one toward which all the earlier essays would build.

Tell us about your writing life.

Writing mattered to me before I learned the alphabet; I scribbled along lined paper and read the stories to my stuffed animals, confident that my scrawls were just as good as the grownups’ cursive. It did not occur to me to tell stories without first writing them down. As I grew older, I became more closeted about my passion for writing, and to the world, I cared only about science. It was only when I met Lydia Fakundiny, whose anthology The Art of the Essay remains unsurpassed, that I was forced to come out as a writer.

It was my senior year of college. An upperclasswoman I admired had said “don’t leave Cornell without taking a class from Lydia Fakundiny.” I enrolled in both Fakundiny’s classes, one on the essay as literature and the other a creative writing workshop of the same name as her anthology. Cornell English classes were four credit-hours each, and she warned me, “that’s a lot of Fakundiny.” I wasn’t a bold kid, and my response to her then was perhaps my boldest late-adolescent move: “but I know when I have met the person I can learn from.” It was August, 2000. I’ve considered myself (in my work as a writer and as an editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies) a Fakundiny disciple ever since.

Fakundiny’s courses introduced me to the English tradition’s great essayists – William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, E. B. White, James Baldwin, and Joan Didion – and I began by imitating them. Consequently, in workshop, I would get heat for two things: my long sentences and my interest in geopolitics and history. I gradually became willing to write shorter sentences. As for geopolitics and history, I just had to learn to (a) make them compelling and relevant to American audiences and (b) wait. Recent developments in American politics have disheartened most of us, but as a writer, I’m finding readers are becoming more receptive to the obsessions I’ve had all my life. I was told to change, to get over my obsessions, but really, I just had to wait until the whole “real art is apolitical” myth was disposed, and exposed as the privileged, conservative stance that it is. I’m publishing work now that I’ve sat on for years, having waited (not so patiently!) for the moment when my own obsessions would finally match what felt urgent to the world.

An obsession that isn’t too apparent in “Cyprus Pride” is the theme of work. In most of my other essays, I am constantly asking “what counts as work?” It’s a question about gender, a question about the body, a question about values, a question about money, and a question about government. Yet I honestly did not know I had this obsession until I noticed its recurrence in multiple essays. I got curious about what other unacknolwedged obsessions lurked there, and made for the book a “theme table,” A color-coded spreadsheet that identifies eight themes, it charts how each is addressed in the book. The themes (or theme-clusters) are: 1. Desire 2. Labor, Ritual, Physicality, The Sacred 3. Inheritance, Memory, Monument, Restoration, Legacy 4. Ethnicity, Land, Home 5. Education 6. Art 7. Sacrifice, Duty, Rights, Activism 8. Screens, Spectatorship, Mediated Access to Reality

Which non-writing aspects of your life most influence your writing? 

What will be obvious to readers of “Cyprus Pride” is that my writing is replete with Greek-Cypriot culture. I love the philosophy I find within Greek folk culture, both music and dance. And I am determined, as I say in the essay, to find a way to remain in the Orthodox Church even though it casts my tenderest emotions as demonic and perverse. I’ve recently become fascinated with Buddhist and Yogic philosophy and the way many of the principles currently popular in the West overlap perfectly with the Orthodox tradition that raised me.

I spend a lot of time on screens. I wish this weren’t so, but for it to change, I’d have to have my friends live close to me the way the people in my Cypriot village got to see one another every day, and swap their pains and triumphs. Since my friends (made mostly during grad school take one in Virginia and grad school take two in Missouri) live all over the globe, I rely on the internet to maintain my community, and remain within it. After I first wrote “Cyprus Pride,” I believed I couldn’t publish it until I went to an actual parade – I thought it was a problem that I’m narrating myself watching youtube videos and twitter posts as they arise. Then, I noticed there were more essays in my book that involve me looking at photos on the internet, and having deep, even life-changing experiences. Over the years, I started to think about this less as a liablity and more as something my book has to offer, a way of reckoning with the fact that we live so much of our lives now staring at a screen. It’s not fair to simply dismiss those experiences.

For twenty-two years after my fourteenth birthday, I ran every day. Since the approach of my fortieth, I’ve had to substitute cycling for running on many days of the week, but running remains the one activity I can rely on to give me joy. Like prayer, it brings me peace.

What writing advice has stayed with you?

Janet Peery, my first fiction teacher, told me to be fearless in telling the most difficult truths, and to pay close attention to the way I end my sentences.

What is your favorite book (or essay, poem, short story)? Favorite writers?

James Baldwin, Constantine Cavafy, Audre Lorde, Nickey Finney, Andreas Karkavitsas, Cynthia Ozick, Alki Zei, Odysseas Elytis, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Yiannis Ritsos, Rebbecca McClanahan, Lia Purpura, Kostas Tachtsis, Wendell Berry, Natasha Tretheway, Stratos Myrivillis. Also lots of writers who are also friends.

What are you reading right now?

Jessie van Eerden’s The Long Weeping and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings

What project(s) are you working on now, or next?

Last year, I wrote a lot of new material that served to turn my essays into a chronological, booklength memoir. Someone had said that because the book was so much about my own identites, and how conflicting ones are reconciled, it makes more sense to write it as a memoir. I’m glad I wrote that book. But as I worked to polish it, I found myself longing for the essay.

I don’t believe genre is about meaningless labels. I’m still experimenting with thinking about my book as a memoir-in-essays. Even though I believe that form exists, I also know that essays operate very differently from memoir. I’m willing to try to write memoir just as I write poems and short stories, as well as translations. But I’m wild for the essay.

Going back to an earlier, pre-memoirization draft of the book felt like a homecoming. I was so happy to be once again using my own experiences as vehicles for the ideas I want to wrestle with, rather than making a narrative of my life into the book’s central concern.

I completed my essay collection, This Way Back, last month.

Anything else our readers might want to know about you?

I like to say that I flout a lot of binaries. I’m a devout Orthodox Christian lesbian, an American who only participates in Greek and Cypriot pop culture, an MFAer who reads Critical Theory like Derrida was going out of print, and a professor of literature and creative writing who still thinks she teaches geometry better than anything else. I really, really, really liked math and physics when I was a teenager.

None of my peers in high school made fun of me for being a nerd, but my teachers did! My biology teacher called me “Miss Physics” because I demanded that she explain biological processes such as osmosis in terms of the principles of physics. I demanded the same of my chemistry teachers, and they resisted, but eventually I wore them down and got them to explain why exactly the electrons move the way the do during covalent bond-making.

Now, I’m in the same boat as my teachers were, but because I recall viscerally my effort to learn everything (even stuff I wasn’t equipped to understand), I try to honor every question, and take each foiled student effort seriously. It’s kind of like therapy, giving others what I didn’t get myself.

I teach in a Texas State Prison, and my university, the University of Houston-Clear Lake, is the only one in Texas to award Master’s Degrees to incarcerated students. A TV station in Dallas drove the five hours down to Houston to film me teaching MA-level creative writing to incarcerated men. I will have an essay about that coming out soon.

In the very beginning, fifteen years ago, I wasn’t a fan of teaching because I disliked being the most well-read person in the room. With practice, I figured out how to make the classroom into a space where I can learn from the students as well as vice versa. Ever since then, I’ve had an absolute blast in the classroom, both with the incarcerated and non-incarcerated students. They are really insightful and creative, and it’s a tremendous gift to me as a writer to get to witness daily the initiation of new writers into the life of the mind. It helps me believe my struggles with the blank page will eventually matter.

I didn’t really know what else to say regarding fun, quirky facts, so I asked my niece, who said “Chickpea enthusiast, organized yet messy, coffee lover, can rock any hand-me-downs!” Another source said “Amazing light packing skills!” Indeed, I’ll go for a week trip with only a backpack. I teach at the Writing Workshops in Greece, and this summer I flew to Greece for seven weeks with only a carry-on, weight limit 22lb. Half of that was my laptop.

Where can our readers connect with you online?

My first move after finishing my book was to create I also tweet at @JOANNAessayist. Hearing from readers is my writer’s dream come true.

JOANNA ELEFTHERIOU is an assistant professor of literature at the University of Houston – Clear Lake, a contributing editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and a faculty member at the Writing Workshops in Greece. Her essays, short stories, and poems appear regularly in journals including CutBank, Arts and Letters, and The Common. She is completing a memoir-in-essays titled This Way Back.

Featured Image: “Prayers” by Christian Oliver Harris