Cy­press whis­pers of a mag­i­cal is­land

Emmy Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and au­thor Yvette Manes­sis-Cor­poron talks about her new novel

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY EVA TOMARA

Ereik­ousa, 2014. Walk­ing down the nar­row streets of this small Io­nian is­land, a man re­cently came across a cou­ple speak­ing a lan­guage which was un­known to him. “What brings you to our lit­tle­known is­land?” he asked. “The cy­press whis­pers,” said the friendly Pol­ish cou­ple in ref­er­ence to the in­ter­na­tional best-seller “When the Cy­press Whis­pers,” penned by Yvette Manes­sis-Cor­poron, whose story un­folds on Ereik­ousa, off the coast of Corfu. Lit­tle did they know at the time that they were talk­ing to the au­thor’s un­cle.

The daugh­ter of Greek im­mi­grants who em­i­grated to the United States, Manes­sis-Cor­poron is also an Emmy-win­ning jour­nal­ist and au­thor. “When the Cy­press Whis­pers” is based on the life of her grand­mother, “Yia-yia,” and her sto­ries of the “mag­i­cal” is­land dur­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion.

Pro­tag­o­nist Daphne’s emo­tional jour­ney to her na­tive is­land and her un­break­able bond with her grand­mother pro­vides a plat­form for another story layer, that of Corfu’s Jewish com­mu­nity and their ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the Holo­caust.

Is­sues re­gard­ing im­mi­grants’ dual cul­tural iden­ti­ties and the power of tra­di­tion also lie at the heart of the novel, which is set against the back­drop of an “undis­cov­ered par­adise” that the au­thor ea­gerly vis­ited ev­ery sum­mer dur- ing her child­hood years.

In her ef­fort to share her sixyear book-writ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the au­thor rec­og­nizes that the most im­por­tant les­son learnt through­out this par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary jour­ney was that “the rich­est sto­ries can come from the most hum­ble places.”

“Grow­ing up, I looked at my Yia-yia as a loving woman who came from hum­ble begin­nings – like many women of her time, she was un­e­d­u­cated, provin­cial and poor. I saw her as a poor woman who was rich in love for her fam­ily… and also a fan­tas­tic cook,” said the au­thor in an in­ter­view with Kathimerini. “I never stopped to think about her life, what she had been through and what she had sac­ri­ficed for the good of her fam­ily. I never stopped to think about the brav­ery she showed when she helped a Jewish fam­ily who were hid­ing from the Nazis or if she was ever scared or lonely after my Papou left for Amer­ica and she was alone with two small chil­dren dur­ing wartime.”

Although the book is de­fined as a novel, the au­thor con­cedes that, sim­i­larly to Daphne, she “grew up like many Greek Americans do, with one foot in each cul­ture.” The book, says the au­thor, is a lifetime mo­saic carved out of “sa­cred mem­o­ries, myths and re­la­tion­ships.”

Manes­sis-Cor­poron in­tended the novel to be a “love let­ter” to Greece, car­ry­ing the coun­try’s culi­nary fla­vors while teach­ing its his­tory and cul­ture.

“Through movies, lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture, it is pos­si­ble – and, I feel, nec­es­sary – to re­mind the world what the true essence of Greece is,” she said.

Through the novel the au­thor seems to have se­duced in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences, while mo­ti­vat­ing some of them to visit Greece. This is re­flected, on the one hand, in the book hav­ing reached best­seller sta­tus, as well as through a rise in vis­i­tors to Ereik­ousa over the sum­mer, ac­cord­ing to ho­tel owner Gior­gos Kat­e­chis.

“I don’t know whether the book brought them to the is­land, but many tourists were car­ry­ing the novel in their hands,” he said. Ac­cord­ing to the hote­lier, an event hon­or­ing the is­land for pro­tect­ing the Jewish fam­ily re­ferred to in the book is sched­uled to take place next sum­mer.

Mean­while, the hero­ine’s bond with her grand­mother comes across as im­pen­e­tra­ble, spir­i­tual and filled with magic. The pow­er­ful fe­male role model is re­flected in Yia-yia’s voice as she leads Daphne along each step through the cy­press whis­pers. Ac­cord­ing to Greek mythol­ogy, priest­esses and priests at the or­a­cle of Dodoni in­ter­preted the rustling of leaves to de­ter­mine the right ac­tion. The con­nec­tion is not co­in­ci­den­tal in this case given the au­thor’s own ties to Greek mythol­ogy.

While her Amer­i­can friends were lulled to sleep as chil­dren with tales of Cin­derella and Snow White, Manes­sis-Cor­poron’s bed­time sto­ries were the myths of Perse­phone, Arachne and Iphi­ge­nia, among oth­ers. Even­tu­ally, she came to see her own life re­flected in the myths of Perse­phone and Deme­ter.

“Like Perse­phone and Deme­ter, I felt most alive dur­ing those sum­mer months I spent in Greece with my fam­ily – and I spent the long win­ter months count­ing the days un­til I could re­turn to their warm embrace,” she said.

“While we may not be­lieve that the Olympic gods ex­ist any­more, the life lessons in myths still res­onate to­day just as they did in an­cient times. I think we’ve al­ways needed th­ese sto­ries to en­ter­tain, ed­u­cate and in­form us.”

Yvette Manes­sis-Cor­poron is daugh­ter of Greeks who em­i­grated to the United States. ‘When the Cy­press Whis­pers’ is based on the life of her grand­mother and her sto­ries of Corfu dur­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion.

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