Meet Greek-American Author Joanna Eleftheriou
Greek-American Author Joanna Eleftheriou is a fascinating individual. Like many Greek-Americans, she straddles two different cultures, two different worlds. But Joanna also straddles a third—Cypriot. Born in Queens, NY to a Greek-Cypriot father and a Greek-American mother with roots in Constantinople, Karpenisi, and Sparti, she weaves the varied customs and traditions—even dialect—of these places into a distinct and multi-faceted tapestry, yarns from each locale adding texture and color. Each shaping her life and perspective.
Joanna’s father long dreamed of returning to his homeland. When she was in her early teens, her family moved to Cyprus. She’d attended Greek-American school in New York. Attended Orthodox Church. No kid wants to leave their friends, but Joanna felt she at least had language, religion, and culture on her side. To her surprise, she found a new world. Not only did she have to learn the nuances of the dialect, but also the Cypriot customs.
She returned to the US to attend university. Joanna has studied at Cornell University and the Center for Ottoman, Byzantine, and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham (UK). She earned a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Missouri.
A contributing editor to Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, she’s also the book reviews editor at the Journal of Modern Greek Studies, and a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She’s an Assistant Professor of English at Christopher Newport University in Virginia Beach, VA.
Though she travels regularly to Cyprus, in the summers, she can be found in Greece teaching Greek language and culture at Writing Workshops in Greece. This Way Back is her first book.
Becoming a writer
She grew up on novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and likened herself to the author, living in a new frontier. Like many American kids of the time, Joanna’s reading list including The Babysitters Club, Anne of Green Gables. Attending high school completely immersed in a foreign language, she worked hard to be able to understand new texts. The poetic nature of the Greek language gave her entry into things that would shape her, individually, and ultimately, in her work.
“Poetry came alive for me in high school,” Joanna said. “Greek and English poetry. It blew my mind with the possibility of expressing what’s inside me. I realized what you could capture with words. That I could capture who I was and what I felt. I wanted more than anything to be able to do that.”
She said that knowing two languages deepened her ability to write.
“I’m constantly aware of multiple ways of phrasing things. I bring in untranslatable words like meraki and kefi. Part of that drive to write is that I want to fill the gap. My English-speaking mind can’t fill the gap of what my Greek-speaking mind knows. There are multiple possibilities each language doesn’t present that create a sense of possibility.”
Inspired by things she “can’t understand”, she strives to tell what’s she’s feeling.
“In my writing classes, I say that’s not enough. No one really cares. But once you make it into art, into something the reader can see themselves in—that’s when they care. Like the unsent letter to my father that’s in This Way Back. I wanted to tell him something, I really needed to get it out. I wanted readers to be able to access their own vulnerable connections with their fathers. That type of intimacy is what literature is for. I write to discover, teach to empower, read to feel less alone.”
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About This Way Back
The book is a collection of essays written over the course of 14 years.
“I was still living the experiences necessary for the book to come whole, until recently,” she shared.
Published in 2020, the book has found a small but devoted audience. Many have contacted her personally to tell her much they enjoyed it.
Through the essays, we follow Joanna on her life’s journey. From her early years in New York, to living in Cyprus for 10 years. She shares how the influences of being Greek, Cypriot, and Americans shaped her.
“Few Americans even know about Cyprus. It’s confusing to explain that it’s another country, smaller than Connecticut, 60 miles from Syria, but we speak Greek but only in part not occupied by Turkish forces. This is kind of forgotten in spaces that are totally American.”
She shares much about Cyprus and her history, even her trek to the occupied North. And so much more. Some might call it a memoir, and that’s OK.
“Because the most important thing for me in the book are ideas—what it means to be part of a country, ethics, belonging. Even how we treat historical monuments. I mention three times in the book that statues used to be painted and we ignore that.”
Review of This Way Back
Joanna Eleftheriou bares her soul in This Way Back. With her elegant prose, she beautifully captures that sense of nostos, our longing for home. But what is home? As a Greek-American, I can relate to the romantic notions we create of a place. And then when we arrive there, it’s not as we envisioned. She gives words to our feelings. She invites us deep into her world. A world in which she not only finds herself, but we find ourselves. In these pages, she finds the courage to be her true self, and gives us the courage to be who we are. From unwritten letters to her father, tales of straddling cultures and homes, to finding her true place in the world, she weaves and warps her tapestry, and adds dimension to our own. Add This Way Back to your list.
By Joanna Eleftheriou
West Virginia University Press, 1st Edition, October 1, 2020
ISBN-10 : 1949199665
ISBN-13 : 978-1949199666
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