In Conversation with Joanna Eleftheriou: This Way Back (2020)

As I was creating a list for my reading around Asia project, I asked my friend Joanna whose memoir This Way Back came out just last year:

“Can I list This Way Back for Cyprus, you think?”

Joanna and I met in Columbia, Missouri during my second year of graduate school; she’d already graduated and found an academic position in Texas. We’d had coffee when she visited Columbia once. The catastrophic hurricane that hit Houston the same year brought us together again, when she had to flee the city.

Although I still feel apologetic about the uncomfortable red futon on which Joanna had to sleep in my tiny graduate student apartment, those few days we spent together convinced me that I’d known Joanna in a past life. As we watched the news to get updates on Texas, we reminisced about our childhood memories, the Mediterranean, Greek/Turkish food and music. She writes in “Without Goodbyes,” one of the essays in her collection:

Our conversation turned to the way we both felt pulled toward America and, at the same time, east toward cultures that madden us with their demand that we prioritize our families. I told her that when I gave my manuscript the title This Way Back, I couldn’t even figure out if it meant my attempt to get to ancestral Greek lands, back to New York where I was born, or whether it just meant that I had been saddled with a restless sense that the home I have to get back to is always somewhere else […] We talked about the American right to privacy and how we both loved it and also felt isolated by it. We felt safeguarded by American privacy but oppressed, too, by the relentless prioritizing of communal norms in our Greek and Turkish cultures. We shared exasperation at midwestern over politeness and the absence of yoghurt at meals.

As Joanna and I listened to Aegean folk songs together, we also discussed the ways in which we both were taught to otherize each other –which, I’m elated to say, obviously backfired.

So, when Joanna encouraged me to list her memoir for Cyprus within the context of my reading project, I wasn’t surprised at all. “I actually open it by stating the distance of my village from Beirut for the express purpose of destabilizing the idea that we are European because we speak Greek,” she explained, “Plus, I always thought Ancient Cypriot art looked weird until I saw it in an exhibit with art from Central Asia and the ‘near East.’ ” 

A timely narrative about identity, faith, and belonging, This Way Back opens with Joanna Eleftheriou in Cyprus for her father’s funeral, a Greek Cypriot immigrant in New York whose dream of returning home to Cyprus became more and more intricate. As the brilliant essays in the collection take us from a specific memorial scene in a small town in Southern Cyprus, Asgáta, to Northern Cyprus, New York, Missouri, Istanbul, and across Greece, Joanna explores the meaning of love and loss in various contexts.

What does it mean to love a homeland yet not be able to fully return? she asks, and how can one express love for the same sex in a culture that doesn’t recognize its existence? How does one deal with the liberal privilege of labeling grief over such a cultural denial as inconsequential? Joanna’s insight into the dynamics of love and loss as one seeks a sense of belonging is moving and captivating and guided our conversation about her book.

As always, Joanna and I had so much to discuss, which is why I’m not calling the following video an interview. Another point to remember is that we hadn’t gotten the chance to chat for a while so when we did, we couldn’t stop. You know how it goes. This is the reason why it took me more than a week to edit the video (with the help of my friend Tristan) and why still some transitions may seem abrupt.

To be honest, I’m not keen on videos and reels; I feel more comfortable, more at home if you will, when I write about books, or transcribe interviews. I’m a writer, after all. And I already suffer from Zoom fatigue as a result of endless hours of online teaching, meetings, and chats with friends. But this had to happen. Despite some of the technical flaws, our conversation was flawless to me– and as always, was meaningful.

I hope you enjoy it-

and I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions and/or comments for me or Joanna.

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