Constantia Soteriou is a Cypriot writer, born in Nicosia in 1975. Her short story ‘Death Customs’, translated from the Greek by Lina Protopapa, is the winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Here, she discusses the possibilities of fiction, the oral narratives of women and belonging to a new generation of Cypriot writers with Granta magazine.
How did you get into writing? What prompted you to start?
What really prompted me to write were the stories I heard from my mother, my grandmothers and their friends, who talked about the political events happening in my country, Cyprus. They would all give their own version of the story. I grew up among all these strong women who gathered in each other’s backyards and exchanged stories about the war and the shocking events that they had experienced, while at the same time drinking coffee and preparing dinner. The women’s version of our story, their oral narrative, I realised, had never been heard before. It was different from the written narratives of men. So when the time arrived for me to write, I wrote about the women I knew, and the stories they told.
What interests you in the short story as a form?
Every writer has their own writing style. I prefer short stories – they suit me better. It’s very difficult to compress large ideas into a short text, and I like the challenge. I like the power that the short form carries when it delivers a message. It is not only the story but how you tell the story that matters. The short form gives me the chance to tell the same story in different ways.
What would you say are the main themes in your writing?
For the time being I am focusing on the oral narratives of women, and on the history of Cyprus. I have already written two books, both published in Greek; the first is the story of a Christian woman who converted to Islam in Cyprus – I examine the sacrifices that women make not only in the name of love but in the name of national identity and religion as well. My second book is set in 1963, and is about the Turkish Cypriot woman who worked as a prostitute, and found herself in the middle of the conflict that lead to the Green Line that to this day partitions my hometown of Nicosia between Turks and Cypriots. My third book is coming out next autumn, and it is about the mothers and wives of those who have gone missing on the island. ‘Death Customs’ forms a part of this book. Along with telling the womens’ stories, I include their traditions, cooking recipes, customs and superstitions, dreams and omens, everything that forms the world of the women on the island. This book was more difficult than the first two, as I had to maintain a balance between emotion and fact.
The themes are all around me, they find me and I find them. A world here, a story there. Even a dream. As a writer you must walk with open ears because the stories are there waiting for you to write them down.
‘Death Customs’ is both painfully personal and deeply political. How did you come to write this story?
I went to a funeral of a missing person, a distant relative of my family, whose remains had been found. His mother was there, an elderly woman in her late eighties, who had been waiting to bury her son for forty years. She had been wearing black all that time, left in this no man’s land without any information about what had happened to her boy. We are talking about a lifetime. I was shocked, because the boy was only nineteen at the time he went missing. I could not imagine the experience of waiting for so long. There was a network of women surrounding her at the funeral, supporting her like an ancient chorus. There was the ritual – the funeral – as it takes place according to the Greek Orthodox religion, which gave some comfort. But we also have death customs that follow after the funeral. When I went home I kept thinking about this woman’s story. As for its political aspect – I did not start writing with politics in mind. I write about what is painful, and what is personal, and that is as political as it gets.
Why is it important to address political and historical issues in fiction?
Fiction offers a certain distance from the political and the historical. It keeps you in a safe zone to learn, to try to understand and absorb detail. I think is important in political and historical writing to keep these in the background of your story, for them not to be the main subjects. Without noticing it, they will become one of the protagonists of the plot.
What can fiction do that non-fiction and journalism can’t?
Fiction provides the emotion that a story needs in order to be heard. Fiction is not about facts, it is about personal stories, characters, it is about details, and the way that a war or a conflict can affect you as a person. Fiction does not care for facts; but fiction cares for people in a way journalism does not. People remember the books they read, not the newspapers.
A story like ‘Death Customs’ might be seen as controversial by some. Have you encountered any challenging responses to your writing in the past?
I know that my writing can be read as controversial. It is not easy to talk about subjects that have a political or an ideological dimension, especially in places like Cyprus, where all the political issues are both recent and painful. I have heard some people call my work ‘personal propaganda’. But I want any criticism of my writing to be about style, not about the political views people read into it. In general I think people understand what I want to do, and that is to tell a story, while seeing things from my own perspective.
The judges have praised your story for its complexity of form and its inventiveness. How conscious are you of these aspects when you are writing?
I am conscious of everything when I am writing. I have a plan, a schedule, an outline for each character. I know from the beginning what I am going to write and how I am going to write it. My time is always limited, so unless I have a specific structure and a plan in place I cannot write. For each character I have a ton of details prepared in my mind, though not all of them make it into the book. Their names, the colour of their hair, their favourite foods. I have everything planned before I actually start writing. Writing is hard work, and unless you are organized you cannot have a good result. Talent is not enough. You have to work hard and give a piece of yourself, of your soul, to write a good book.
Are there any political or social issues in Cyprus that particularly concern you right now?
I am always concerned about the future of Cyprus. I want my country to be united. I do not want my children to grow up like I did, confused and hurt. I worry, because what I see now is a road towards a permanent and legal separation of the county. I am Cypriot, I love Cyprus. Being Cypriot is something no one can take away from me.
How do you feel about the writing scene in Cyprus at the moment? And in Greece?
I think there are great writers in Greece and Cyprus, and I am very sorry that there are not more books being translated from Greek into English, or any other language. Greek literature needs to find its way abroad. As for Cyprus, I am a part of a new generation of Cypriot writers that follow international literary developments, read contemporary novels, experiment stylistically and write in the Cypriot dialect. I am proud to be part of this generation of writers.