Words and Interview by BA Ciccolella and
Aliki Marie Pantas Semones.
Images courtesy of Joanna Eleftheriou.
One of the things that Joanna Eleftheriou stresses with her students in the writing department at CNU is “Can you say something that matters to other people?” Her first book, This Way Back, coming out this October, is a series of essays coalesce into a memoir discussing her life and experiences coming out in her conservative Greek community. For Joanna, the book is “like my whole self. For me, writing, praying, and being myself are all the same. People ask how can you be gay and religious, how can you be Greek and American, how can you be an artist and an intellectual? There’s all these opposites that I inhabit, and the book is my way of insisting and asserting my existence.” Her upcoming book speaks to anyone who has ever had to assess or reassess their own identity.
“You still never know, there’s no way of knowing- people, even of our generation in America, and in Greek-America, in some ways can be a bit less progressive in terms of gender. In some ways there’s a backwardness in the ethnic community, and so it is incredibly hard [to come out], in ways that don’t get acknowledged.” Joanna says, regarding her personal story. As a kid in school “I had these powerful feelings- I was falling in love with women, but I interpreted those feelings as a kind of spiritual connection as opposed to a sexual one, because that’s the only framework that I had. I never heard women talk about a hot guy in a way that sounded like the way that men talk about it. I was hearing girls say ‘He would make a good boyfriend because he’s rich, or something’ It always sounded to me that girls were choosing boys that would give them status among the other girls, but I never heard a woman talk about having sexual desire for a man, there isn’t a rhetoric or a place for that, so it never occurred to me.”
One of the major stressors when discovering one’s identity can come from the people around you. “When I was starting to admit to myself that I was gay, in my late 20s when I was doing my Masters, it felt ‘too late’ because so many people in my program had pegged me as being prudish or scared. I couldn’t talk about sex, because I wasn’t having it, so I had nothing to report. But they constructed this persona of me that was really timid, or anti-sex, and I felt like telling them that I was a lesbian would be so opposite from this identity that they had put onto me- I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want that to happen again, so when I left to do my PhD in Missouri, I just told people there that I was gay, and the more often I said it, and the world didn’t collapse, it felt better, and it felt safer. In therapy I realized that this does produce a kind of chronic stress- to have an experience that doesn’t match other people’s experience, and I’m constantly trying to make some kind of sense out of it.”
Then there are the pressures from the faith community. “I came out to the priest, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s not a sin to feel that way, it’s just like any other deformity or defect, like when you have a club foot, you can’t run, if you’re gay you just can’t have sex. You can be a full member of the church, just don’t do anything with your desire.’ And to him, he was being very supportive,” said Joanna. Others ask “When are you getting married? Because we can’t have you floating around the community just by yourself like that. They need the community stability. The community feels threatened by single women, like ‘we need to know who you belong to’. I asked my friend when I went back to Cyprus, ‘You don’t think? I’m not a…’ and she said ‘Oh, yeah, all our friends say if Joanna wasn’t religious she would be a lesbian.’ And I was like, ‘You hid this from me? You didn’t tell me?’”
Though everyone handles these pressures differently, Joanna has come to see the issue in a more personal way. “If I actually act on my desire and I ask for forgiveness, what are the odds that God will forgive me, vs. if I live a celebate life, what are the odds that I’ll forgive my church for depriving me of any romantic or intimate experiences? And I decided I’m going to bet on God, and I’m going to say that God is more likely to feel generous towards me than I am likely to feel generous and non-resentful, and not be able to hold a grudge against my church.”
“Nobody will believe you when you tell them how long it takes [to write a book],” said Joanna, who has been working on drafts and concepts that eventually turned into the essays which make up her latest manuscript for over 20 years now. Sometimes it can even be a challenge for the author, who is so close to the material, to realize exactly where their own book is going. This is where having readers you trust comes in very handy. “I went into my dissertation defense saying ‘I know these are two different books, and I just put them together because I needed 200 pages, but I’m going to take them apart right after I finish my PhD,’ and my committee was like ‘Are you kidding? The most interesting thing about this manuscript is the way throughout we start seeing the intersection of your identity as a Greek person, trying to understand why it is important to you to keep asking yourself, am I American, am I Greek, am I Cypriot, and then also inhabiting an identity and a sexual orientation.’ That, almost by accident, was one of the things that made the book more interesting.”
Though the book covers different decades of Joanna’s life, there are interesting mirrors to our very current experiences. Joanna, for example, due to the nature of her having friends and family on two continents, has a lot of emotional, life-defining moments which have happened on screens in her life (she watched her first Pride Parade in Cyprus from her computer in Missouri). “There’s a pattern in the book, and it becomes a kind of statement or question. I’m inviting the reader to think about how in this day and age, so many of our life defining and deeply emotional experiences are happening with us alone in a room looking at a screen.”
A memoir is a very personal piece of art, and though the stories in Joanna’s book are deeply personal, the hope is that the piece will speak to others in similar situations, for whom coming out might be uncomfortable. Many times we feel alone simply because we do not know that our neighbors are suffering in the same ways we are. Without exploring who we are individually, it is difficult to create a community that can properly support diversity and change. “I take my experiences, and use those personal experiences as vehicles to investigate these questions that aren’t really answerable, such as why do we want identity, why is work and labor so important to creating our identity,” Joanna related. “It kind of gives meaning to my suffering. In my reviews they have said that I was most powerful when I’m writing about my sexuality, but it’s almost like there’s no other way. My writing that’s about sexuality is very blunt. I think my writing about Greekness is more intellectual, but the pain of not being heard, I feel it so much more intensely- and I’m glad that I got the compliment- but there’s just no other way. I want my readers to hurt with me, because I want them to feel how much pain I’ve gone through. I want my readers to cry with me.”
At the same time, it is difficult for any writer to allow their audience the space to feel with them. Part of the art of writing which Joanna teaches at CNU is making sure that you are relating properly to your audience. Writing for multiple communities is even more of a balancing act. “I actually read another essay of mine to the Modern Greek Studies Association at a panel, and I had to take out all this explaining I had done for an American audience,” Joanna said. “Readers are excited to learn something new, but if you don’t find ways to make that totally surprising new thing that they have never learned about before accessible to them, then they’re just going to not relate, and they’re just going to feel like it’s foreign.”
She also stresses again that to be successful, a writer must be able to write something that is relevant to other people, not just themselves. “I already knew my subject, but to write about my own life- You can’t just write a rant, you can’t just write your feelings, it’s learning what the audience needs to hear. I need to build bridges between my experience and the experience of my readers, who are mostly going to be American.”
It’s also important to make sure, as an author, you are telling your story, not the story people expect to hear from you. “Even while writing, people still want confirmation of what they already know. I’d get sent an abstract asking to contribute to an anthology on Greek-America. Then when I sent the essay they said ‘We wanted you to talk about how LGBT people are marginalized in the Greek-American community’, but we left New York for Cyprus when I was 10. I wasn’t really a lesbian yet when I was a child, and I can’t speak to that. But that’s what they expected, they heard ‘a person who writes in english, of greek descent, you’re going to tell us what we expect to hear about.’” By telling her personal story Joanna works to break down certain barriers and stereotypes in her community.
Though writing a book may take longer than anyone who has not been working on a book could ever guess, Joanna makes certain to teach her students not to let perfectionism get in the way of their art, and their path to success. “There’s a temptation for all artists to keep working on something, and keep trying to perfect it. So part of teaching for me is showing students how to find a happy medium. So I try to teach students to face that deadline. Students many times ask for extensions when they don’t really need them. What they need is to get over themselves, get over their egos, put their butts down, actually do it, and accept that our fantasy of that brilliant thing that we think we can write is just that- it’s a fantasy.” One of the first things artists ever learn is that a work is never finished, in the case of a writer, it is merely published. “It’s important to be more realistic with ourselves, and give up those fantasies of the perfect work, and submit it, even though we know we could keep working on it for the rest of our life.”
Keeping true to the topic she has spent 20 years dissecting, Joanna’s advice to students and beginners still speaks to the theme of identity. “Listen to your inner voice. The book that’s in you to write- it’s in you. You need to find the people who can teach you, and can mentor you, and can help you, but when you feel like somebody doesn’t understand your work, you can trust that. I interpreted having the readers who didn’t understand what I was trying to do as the work being not good. You need the people who understand what you are trying to do in order for them to show you how to find that book and bring it to an audience.”
“I feel like some people tried to change me as a writer to match more what readers wanted. Keep being true, and trust that what you have to say will find the right reader. You have to get better at saying it, and get better at finding a way to show other people what’s inside of them. You have something real and true, and each of us has something real and true to say. Developing means figuring out what that is, and saying it better. You have to be pretty persistent- this is who I am, and this is what I am trying to say. I’m glad that I didn’t try that hard to figure out what people wanted to hear from me and I stuck with what I wanted to say, but I also do wish that I had gotten this advice: Keep at it and persist, and all the haters are going to act like they were your biggest fans.”
Pre-orders for Joanna’s book, This Way Back, are available now–
the book will ship on October 1!