Author Tags: Fiction, Literary Landmarks
LITERARY LOCATION: Kalavryta Museum, Kalavryta, Greece
DIRECTIONS: Drive north from Athens to Diakofto, then up into the mountains.
Despite being occupied many times by invaders, Greeks have always proudly maintained their culture. Stella Leventoyannis Harvey didn’t know how much the resistance fighters of Crete would fit into her first novel, Nicolai’s Daughters, until she visited Kalavryta. On December 13, 1943, German forces had massacred all the males in Kalavryta over the age of thirteen and locked the women and children in the school and set it on fire. Many of the women and children were able to escape the blaze, but only thirteen males over the age of thirteen survived. "The novel found its soul in that tiny mountain village," Harvey says.
In Kalavryta, approximately 1,000 houses were looted and burned. Some 700 civilians were killed during what the Germans called Operation Kalavryta. Twenty-eight communities — towns, villages, monasteries and settlements — were destroyed. "I listened to the testimonials of the victims recorded in the Kalavryta museum," says Harvey, "which had once been the village school, and I climbed Kappi Hill where the massacre happened—considered the worse atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis in Greece during WWII—and it was then I realized I wanted to tell the Kalavryta story.
One of the testimonials Harvey listened to in Kalavryta was by a man in his eighties. "He talked about being lined up with the other men and boys that bright December day and being asked by a German soldier how old he was. He lied about his age. He didn’t know what made him lie because he had no idea what was to come. He lied almost as an act of defiance. It saved his life. He broke down during his testimonial, saying he’d felt guilty his whole life for surviving while all his friends died.
"I’ve often thought about that man and what the impact would be on a survivor with so much guilt to bear. In the novel, Nicolai’s father’s guilt is based on a different set of circumstances, but I came to realize what living with the weight of such guilt means in a person’s life, first through the pain I saw in eyes of the man in the testimonial recording--who had a difficult time looking into the camera as he spoke--and later in the damaged human being that is my character’s father.
With dual narratives from a father and a daughter, Nicolai’s Daughters (Signature $2012), profiles the tragedy-ridden Sarinopoulous family in the village of Diakofto, on the Gulf of Corinth. During visits to Diakofto twenty-five years apart, both are haunted by shameful village gossip emanating from the WW II massacre of Greeks by Nazis at nearby Kalavryta. It was a reprisal for the killing of 78 German soldiers who had been taken prisoner by Greek guerillas in October.
Nicolai's Daughters was translated and released in Greece in 2014 by Psichogios Press.
Stella Harvey's second novel, The Brink of Freedom, returns to Greece and the contemporary plight of refugees in the Mediterranean area, depicting some of the efforts made by Canadians to try to help them.
Faced with their own severe economic crisis, Greeks have difficulty responding fully to the influx of would-be refugees, many of whom try to reach the island of Lesbos, near Turkey. In the novel, a young boy goes missing from a refugee camp in Athens. After he is found with a Canadian woman, Greek police apprehend a Gypsy from Ukraine on suspicion of human trafficking. Desperate times invariably result in desperate measures.
The appearance of Harvey's novel was poignantly timely given events in the first half of 2015 when migrants flooded into Europe, primarily fleeing the civil wars in Syria. Understandably the bailouts required for Greeks to remain with the Euro made it doubly hard to swallow when Greeks knew their main main creditors were Germany and France.
"The characters are as real to me as my neighbours and friends," Harvey wrote in 2015. "I feel desperate when my characters make what I think are bad decisions. I hear myself shouting, please don’t do that. Yet, they persist in being their own masters. So I have no choice but to stand by them. I weep with them when they suffer the consequences of their decisions. And I cheer for them if they find their way out of their predicaments.
"Long after the novel is complete and I’ve started a new project, my characters and their troubles and triumphs never leave me. Despite their quirks and shortcomings (don’t we all have them?), my characters have kept me company and been as good to me as any friend or good book might be."
Born in Cairo, Stella Leventoyannis Harvey grew up in Calgary and founded the Whistler Writers Group in 2001. She launched her second novel at the festival in Whistler in 2015.
Her short stories have appeared in the Literary Leanings Anthology, the New Orphic Review, Emerge Magazine and the Dalhousie Review. Her non-fiction has appeared in Pique Newsmagazine, the Question and the Globe and Mail.
According to her publisher's website: "A social worker by training, Harvey ran a management consulting practice in Canada and abroad, developing business and strategic plans, implementing mergers, acquisitions and large change initiatives and helping ease the transition of employees caught in corporate downsizing."
Much of Harvey's family still lives in Greece and she visits often. Harvey's family is originally from the Peloponnese, from a town calle Kyparissia, where a grandfather and a great grandfather were born. Her Greek grandfather fought in WW I and the Greek Turkish war. Her grandmother was raised on the island of Naxos.
Nicolai’s Daughters (Signature Editions, 2012) 978-1897109-97-7 $22.95
The Brink of Freedom (Signature Editions, 2015) 978-1927426760 $22.95
The Brink of Freedom (Signature Editions $22.95)
from BCBW (Spring 2016)
For her second novel, The Brink of Freedom
(Signature Editions $22.95), Stella Leventoyannis Harvey travelled to Greece to better grasp the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean.
Her story concerns a young boy who goes missing from a refugee camp. After he is found with a Canadian woman who wants to help, Greek police apprehend a Roma from Ukraine on suspicion of human trafficking.
“The characters are as real to me as my neighbours and friends,” she says, “I feel desperate when my characters make what I think are bad decisions. I hear myself shouting, please don’t do that.”
Stella Leventoyannis Harvey was first struck by the mass influx of migrants into Europe when she was in Greece in 2012 finishing her first novel, Nicolai’s Daughters about the Nazi occupation during World War II.
“In 2012, the economy was shrinking further, unemployment was in the double-digit zone and young Greeks in particular had few opportunities. This was also the time when I saw the rise of the far right Nazi party, Golden Dawn (Chrysí Avgí) and attacks by this group’s followers on foreigners and the later murder of the Greek anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas. “
Among all the countries in Europe, Greece had been cited by the European Commission as the country most tolerant and welcoming to migrants in 1989. Harvey wondered what had happened to filoxenía (Greek for hospitality) and how she would feel in a refugee’s shoes.
Her curiosity led her to Athens where she found an apartment close to a Roma camp, later described in The Brink of Freedom. When the police tore down that camp, she could see the desperation on the faces of the people who watched their temporary shelters being destroyed.
“There was nothing I could do but watch helplessly,” she says, “and later try to write about it.”
Harvey returned in 2014 and visited a refugee detention centre, Amygdaleza, the largest such facility in Greece. High fences were topped with razor wire; there were guard towers with armed officers at each corner. The staff spent close to two hours with her as she toured the facility. She met with doctors and other medical staff.
A week later, she read in the newspaper that a twenty-six-year-old Pakistani man died in that centre. Police had allegedly beaten him while he was in another detention centre because he was involved in a protest over the living conditions. The man had allegedly requested medical treatment. It had been denied. Harvey didn’t know the man. But she wasn’t able to get him out of her mind. His death made her question what she’d been told by Greek officials and it left her wondering about her own naiveté.
Next she visited the Asylum Service of the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection in Athens to understand the registration process for asylum seekers. It all seemed reasonable. Then she talked to an Afghani boy who spoke perfect English. His family had been in Greece for months waiting to hear about their asylum request. He liked his school, he liked being in Greece, but he wasn’t sure the government was going to let his family stay. His face became very serious. It upset her that a little boy had to worry about such things.
Visiting Syntagma Square—in an exclusive, affluent neighborhood in the heart of Athens—Harvey came across a makeshift camp in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On cardboard boxes, blankets and plastic tarps, some 200 men, women and children stood or sat, placards in hand. A number had tape across their mouths.
This was Day 5 of a hunger strike. She found an English-speaking bear of a man with kind eyes and an open smile who was willing to share his story. Like other Syrians, he’d come through Turkey to Greece. To do so, he had been smuggled into Greece in a decrepit, rusted fishing boat. He had received refugee status but now his status was reviewed every six months to determine if it was safe for him to return home. He was in the square because he didn’t have a place to live.
“Yes,” he said, “it’s true that I won’t be shot in the streets here, but I’m not allowed to live either. All we want is freedom.”
Harvey came to understand that refugee status doesn’t permit the migrant to find a job or gain social assistance to find a place to live. Official refugee status also doesn’t enable someone to legally travel to another part of Europe.
Eventually she created her main characters Vijay, Saphal and Sanjit for The Brink of Freedom. Roma also take a leading role. Harvey spoke to those who could understand English or else her somewhat clumsy Greek. “I wanted to see through their eyes,” she says, “to sense their plight through their hearts. More and more I came to realise that in order for me to write, I need to first feel.”
A Swedish woman raised in Greece, Maria Larsen of aid organization Children’s Ark, was Harvey’s guide to the Roma settlement just outside of the port city of Corinth where a paved road narrowed. The city gave way to farmland, then a decimated olive grove strewn with garbage. Maria said the farm had likely been abandoned. When the Roma moved in, they likely burned the trees, some of which were over 500 years old, to keep warm.
They entered the camp through the open gate. There were all sorts of houses, from shacks to newish-looking houses. Harvey had never seen new houses in other Roma camps. Maria said that the drug dealers in the camp likely owned them. This tidbit would give her more to explore in her novel, connecting two characters from different backgrounds.
Children’s Ark donors were primarily Swedish. “The general society ostracizes the Roma,” Maria said. “So they stick to their own, living apart from the rest of the general Greek community.”
It became increasingly clear to Harvey the extent to which both new migrants in Europe and the traditional migrants—the Roma—are frequently victims of ignorance. This research was all grist for her novel, mostly set in the Athenian neighbourhood of Ta Prosfygika.
Of Greek heritage, Harvey came to Canada as an immigrant from Egypt, where her family was living, after the Egyptian government began nationalizing foreign businesses to oust foreigners. “We weren’t mistreated and my parents felt, with few exceptions, that Canadian immigration authorities treated us in a respectful way. The process was orderly. No dangerous, life-threatening crossings. No people smuggling.”
Much of Harvey’s family still lives in Greece and she visits often. Part of the proceeds from The Brink of Freedom will go to the Red Cross to support their efforts to help refugees in Greece.
A social worker by training, Harvey is mainly known in B.C. as the founder/manager of the Whistler Writers Festival. 978-1927426760