As We Write, We Consciously Open Up Space in The Language to Contain Those of Us Who Were For Generations Silenced or Misnamed
I began writing on the island of Lesbos (where I was born) at the age of two when I broke my femur & had to lie in bed in a full-body cast for two months. First I taught myself to read phonetically. I read the writing on every page of the children’s books that had been piled on the floor by my guilty parents to keep me company in that pre B&W-TV time, & then improved it, as if I was born knowing that the given logos needed improving, that I had to open space for me in it. My parents were impressed that I could read the fairytales but were shocked that I would then read them my improved, dramatized version of them. I had scribbled childish edits in the marginalia. This struck Mom as blasphemous, for she feared that the evil eye would punish my hubris even more than it already had. I have no memory of this, beyond my parents’ telling. I only have B&W photos of me in a hard cast on a hard cot with a column of children’s books on the hard marble floor on each side of me. I do remember the books I read, & I can now say that every book I read fetishized & femininity, commodified the female body, & presented sexual inaccessibility as briefly empowering. The logos that was making me a sentient being was by default misogynistic. It was teaching me to express & translate myself at the same time that it was censoring & homogenizing me. Women weren’t even expected to use language outside the domestic realm. Every paradigm, morality, methodology, theology, cosmogony, every thought & common sense that I now use was being passed down to me in those formative years by the patriarchy to fit its needs, promote its privileges, perpetuate its authority, & to devalue, demote & defame me.
In terms of words we use & their assigned meanings & values, & in terms of memories we have created to make sense of the world, everyone of us is a misogynist. Without patriarchy, we have no access to common meaning. As women, we lack our own signifiers.
I learned another language during my early years on Lesbos. My great grandma & my grandma were silently teaching me the secret prelingual language of trees, & of nymphs like the original Eurydice, a language of electric jolts & nerves that I felt & read on my skin of my fingertips when I turned off my mind.
‘Everyone’s destiny is prewritten, demon,’ Mom would say. ‘God have mercy on you.’
‘A family’s secrets,’ Mom’s Mom would say, ‘are its greatest treasure. No man needs to know you’re different. Just do not speak of it.’
Mom would whisper to her Mom that my demonic defiance was Dad’s fault for having encouraged my facility with words & giving me false airs & improper expectations. When Dad was at work, Mom would slap me on the crown until I stopped my reading which she considered delinquency. Dad would tell Mom that my mental processor was past her comprehension, & that I would be the next Odysseus Elytis, the poet from Lesbos who had just received the Nobel prize in literature. I didn’t ask Dad: Remember Sappho, remember what happened to her when she got famous, remember what they did to her legacy & her people? Do you dare me to write about love in any language after knowing what happened to Sappho’s body of work & to her descendants?
I learned four languages looking for one that would be a better fit for me. I read every text I could find in the library of Heraklion, Crete, where Dad moved us when the junta fell & he lost his job at the Ministry. I was polite, compliant, affectionate, a star pupil & mentee, fractured in numerous split identities, none of them a Lesbian of small or capital l. I kissed Dad’s hand every night before bed to receive his forgiveness & his blessing. When my parents went to sleep, I attended policy meetings at the Communist Youth Party local headquarters, & painted illegal graffiti slogans or glued red posters on public walls.
When Dad found the Communist pamphlets in my desk, he beat me. When he learned that I joined a theater group, launched a sit-in against a tyrant principal, organized a city-wide strike on behalf of the Minoan antiquities, he beat me. He allowed me out in the world under his name; when I dishonored him or disobeyed him, he beat me to help me remember the borders & boundaries of my social role. He didn’t like it, but he had to train me to be a Good Girl.
I was finally able to make Dad happy when I agreed to study to be a writer soon after I discovered the surrealists, oulipo & dada in a basement bookstore in Heraklion. They made more sense to me than Maoism so I resumed writing of my unacceptable aggression, resentment, rage, lust & alienation. A real self never emerged — neither from my socially summoned & sanctioned nor from my socially rebellious & secretive bit selves. Having no identity became my identity.
But I vowed to speak & write in a language that can be read intuitively, like a spread of tarot cards; in the nonverbal language that I learned from my grandma when she was reading coffee grounds & tea leaves every morning & stitching prayers & wishes into embroideries every afternoon; & from my great-grandma who used herbs & rhyming spells & blessings to heal the townspeople as Antissa’s midwife & resident doctor. Their language wasn’t passed in words but in an alchemical code. My body understood it in electrical jolts & volts, in flashes & shivers, in beats & sensations. It was a complex other language. Intuiting its meaning required my most intense focus because I had to forget my schooling & enter a consciousness that was not the one I normally inhabited; & I feared that if I went too deep, I would not remember how to come back. I would forget how to be ‘me.’
My women ancestors taught me to read the nonverbal communications that come our way from mother nature & its energies, from our collective memories & ancestral storehouse of wisdom, from being attuned to the rhythms & arrhythmias of our cosmos. At the same time that they used words to tell me No & force me to stay silent, they taught me, without ever Saying it, that our original sin is the separation of God from Nature, that God is I Am.