Stephanos Stephanides on Memory Fiction

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Cypriot writer Stephanos Stepanides about the complexity of the notion of home and the creative and subversive nature of literary translation, as well as his film, Poets in No Man’s Land.

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Stephanos Stephanides Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.

Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.

The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at

This episode of Origins features Cypriot writer Stephanos Stephanides.


Merrill: Stephanos Stephanides is a poet, fiction writer, translator, and filmmaker from Cyprus. He is professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cyprus. In 2005 he published Blue Moon in Rajasthan and Other Poems; in 2008 he won the first prize for video poetry for Poets in No Man’s Land at the Nicosia International Film Festival. His poetry has been published in a dozen languages; he has served as a judge for the 2000 and the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize. And we are very fortunate to have him here today to talk about his work. We are recording from the University of Iowa on Monday Oct 10, 2016. We had a chance to sit down with Stephanos, who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency. Welcome, Stephanos.

Stephanides: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Merrill: You are working on now, what you call, a memory-fiction novel. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how the genre of memory-fiction differs from traditional fiction on the one hand, and from a memoir, creative non-fiction on the other?

Stephanides: Yeah, well, I think initially I didn’t know what to call it when I started writing. And the term came up in collaboration or in discussion with one of the editors that was publishing a piece. But I think initially my impulse was poetic, and to unfold into narrative some of the stories that gave rise to poems. And memory has always been very important to me, I think largely because I’ve lived through various dislocations. The first one was when I was taken away from the island of my birth as a child by my father. So that always haunted me. It was like an interrupted narrative. I felt like I wanted to pick up –

Merrill: And you went to where?

Stephanides: To England. Yes, yes, and this is why English is my dominant literary language. So it’s a case of both a loss of a mother, my motherland, and the language –

Merrill: Your mother tongue.

Stephanides: My mother tongue, yeah. So it lived in my imagination of course when I started going back in my teens and in my twenties, and then eventually I settled there when I was forty, it was filling up all these gaps. And filling them up came, I mean, I fleshed it out in my imagination and I hear a lot of different contending and contested stories. So I can’t really call it a conventional memoir. It’s more like a poetic evocation through narrative, which I flesh out; and sometimes I invent dialogues or I compress different stories together into one, so it’s not exactly facts either.

Merrill: And it’s not exactly just personal memory, you have a contested political memory if you will.

Stephanides: Yeah, I think the politics of the place has also factored the way that this is shaped considerably, because as you know the island became partitioned in the process of my lifetime. There was ethnic violence from soon after it was declared an independent state in 1960 to the De Facto Partition in 1974. And these official narratives, well, a lot of the time I believe them as well. We all believe them, and then new things immerge and you never know what you believe, even what I believe now is not going to become a different story as time goes by.

Merrill: And your family was part of that mass dislocation as well?

Stephanides: Yes. Although both my parents actually left before Partition, and my memories then of the village was living with my grandparents in a rural pre-modern world, which began to disappear with modernization and then disappeared altogether with partition because it came in the occupied areas. So in effect, when I had the opportunity to go back and see the village, which was just before the two of us met in Cyprus, it was very haunting.

Merrill: This was the first time in how many years, that you had gone back to see it?

Stephanides: It was the first time in 30 years. The partition took place in 74’, and I had visited a couple of years before 74’, and then I went back again in 2003.

Merrill: And another family was living there.

Stephanides: Yeah, another family. And some other houses fell down. Some were like how I remember them. So there was all these changes in the landscape, and who was living there, and what their stories were.

Merrill: All of which informs this book, in an excerpt from this memory fiction, which is called The Wind under My Lips, you write, “I do not know really when journeys end. Journeys become layered with time. Once they begin, you do not know where they are going to take you. Knowing when a journey begins is no less a problem.” In fact you have lived quite a peripatetic life, and I wonder how this movement has shaped your interest in dissolving borders through poetry and translation, and what kinds of borders are you interested in blurring. Indeed, I know you blur borders in your very activities on both sides of the green line in Cyprus.

Stephanides: Yeah, well, I think each place I lived becomes a home in an affective immersion. So, and you carry that with you, which makes the whole notion of home coming very complex. So every time I left somewhere, a new sorrow comes in. It’s like a repetition of the first departure. So going back, it’s also taking all of this with me and looking back and trying to imagine yourself how you were. So then these blurred borders through the various layers of the past and present, and then how these have been spatialized into political borders - that to me are always tenuous. And I think reading the work of the French historian [Fernand] Braudel and especially he has a posthumous short work with memory in the Mediterranean inspired me a lot. He talks about the idea of the long duration, and that has helped my imagination go into a mythical level and into a distant past that somehow dissolves the event. Because however powerful and traumatic it might seem in the present, if you look into deep time, there’s many layers and fractions, so I try to look through all these layers and fractions.

Merrill: And then to capture some essence of each of those layers.

Stephanides: Yeah, yeah.

Merrill: One of the ways you do this is through translation, and you wrote recently that you place yourself in the camp of poets like Joseph Brodsky and others, who say that poetry is found in translation, rather than Robert Frost’s statement that poetry is what is lost in translation. Could you explain why that is and maybe talk a little about the different kinds of translation projects that you’ve undertaken?

Stephanides: Yeah, I mean I’ve done all kinds of translation because I’ve also done it as a living and when you do it commercially, you have to work with certain rules. But since we are talking about creative writing and literature, I’ll focus on that dimension.

Merrill: Recognizing that even the commercial translation then informs your own creative work because it expands your kit bag, if you will.

Stephanides: Yeah, absolutely. Because even when for example I was often sent to the Midwest when I lived in Washington to interpret for wheat farmers and millers. So totally different worlds. Then you’ll have to learn their language and terminologies, the way of negotiating meanings. It all informs each other basically. It’s getting into different systems of thought, and feeling, and being. And that’s what I find exciting about translation. I think it’s a very creative experience, because it takes you out of yourself and then back into yourself. So it’s a journey in itself, and having grown up feeling out of place and out of language and yet at the same time at home in that place, and that language that became my stepmother tongue, if you like.

Merrill: Both in Greek and in English.

Stephanides: Yeah, you always think through the gap rather than in the center of one or the other. So it’s like thinking through this gap and negotiating this gap, and it gives the possibility of expanding the edges and the borders of possibility.

Merrill: And you’ve also translated, or you’ve collaborated with Turkish poets on the other side of the border. How has that gone and what’s the inspiration for that?

Stephanides: Well, it came out of poetic dialogue. Because of the Partition, I didn’t have contact with the Turkish. My parents were, even more so my grandparents - two of my grandparents, spoke Turkish. So we didn’t have that context. So in effect, it was a process of dialogue with Turkish-Cypriot poets who would draft their work in English, or someone else would. And I would enter the dialogue, and to understand their source through their explanation. And, umm, but it was also a process of poetic dialogue, because besides the translation, I would often respond with a poem to a poem that they had written. Because it inspire you to prod beyond the boundaries of the language that you were writing in. But I also did that before the checkpoints were opened. I had to contact with Turkish-Cypriot poets when I first went back to Cyprus and we could not cross. It was also a way of reentering the literary scene on the Greek-Cypriot side.

Merrill: So you were beginning a dialogue that eventually would be able to take place face-to-face.

Stephanides: That’s right, yes, yeah.

Merrill: You have invoked Jorge Luis Borges who said that, “The original is unfaithful to the translation.” Do you find this to be true to your own experience with literary translation?

Stephanides: Yeah, I mean I really find Borges exciting. He obviously says that as a way of being irreverent.

Merrill: Yeah.

Stephanides: Because he’s always irreverent to the centries entering the center through the periphery. And although he’s often called the cosmopolitan writer, I think he’s also very much in the world of cosmopolitanism. He was always probing what’s going on at the center. So there’s that element of irreverence there. But there’s also a lot of truth in it, in what the creative process involves, because it is very difficult to actually know what the original is. And he expands on this with the The Thousand and One Nights, The Arabian Nights, with Homer. The Thousand and One Nights are developed through oral tradition, but then has many different versions in European languages. Or Homer, how can we really know Homer. He was three thousand years away. But in practice, to give a more practical answer, I’ve also found that when my poetry is translated to another language, I get new ideas. Sometimes I want to go back to change the original, because the translation seems to be more faithful to what I originally wanted to say. Especially with Greek. Sometimes my imagination might be on something to do with the landscape I’m living in, but I find an English way of putting it. And the translator will bring something else out. So it begs the question: where is the original, where is the translation?

Merrill: So let’s keep that in mind as we move on to talk about the documentary film you made called Poet in No Man’s Land, which describes or enacts nine poets coming together in Nicosia, near the UN buffer zone that divides the island, in order to explore the meaning of their work across the different languages and cultures as they read and translate each other’s works. The film is about exploring the spaces between cultures or languages to show the process of transformation, and the negotiation of meaning. And I just love the idea that you’ve made this dialogue first over the page, then in person with the Turkish-Cypriot poets, and then not only in your own poetry and prose, but also on film. So I wonder how crossing the space of the UN buffer zone, which you call the “No Man’s Land” compares to the translation of the poem. When you make that physical gesture, how does that inform future work and how does that differ from the dialogue you’ve already begun on the page?

Stephanides: I guess the idea came to me because the buffer zone, which I call the “No Man’s Land” is – I am taking the language and putting it into a territory. And in translation there’s always the processes of deterritorialization, and the choices you make may reterritorialize the idea of this so-called “No Man’s Land”. I say ‘so-called’ because even in the workshop, there are people who would begin to dispute it. They would say, well, it was someone’s land. And is it really “No Man’s Land” when we see the ghosts of the houses. And I thought it was a splendid metaphor of what goes on, on the page but it’s actually related to territory and how this territory is affectively charged. But in this workshop beyond this Cyprus question, we brought poets from other countries, from Poland, Catalonia, Portugal, and the idea was that they could take the metaphor and do what they like with it. They didn’t have to deal with the Cyprus problem or the Cyprus question.

Merrill: Because these issues come to stand for the whole. We see them replicated in other parts of the world.

Stephanides: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that it was these reverberations that we wanted to get.

Merrill: In the film, you described translation as both creative and subversive. So I wonder what in yourself or in others are you trying to subvert or uncover by linking two languages and cultures?

Stephanides: I think it’s subversive in the fact that you always have choices. And then these choices you make are tactical and strategic, both aesthetically and also in the way it relates to what the symbolic order, or the symbolic powers are. So how do you crack those symbolic powers and bring in new possibilities. A lot of this came out in the discussion.

Merrill: And were there any political ramifications from the project? Have you noticed a difference in, let’s say, political discourse on either side of the buffer zone?

Stephanides: I think probably, I mean I think it has had an impact on literary discourse, and how far this has an effect on politics is always hard to measure because politicians repeat the same rhetoric over and over. And then hopefully in the long run this will open up new ways of seeing. But I think the immediate impact is really hard to measure.

Merrill: In a way, when you talk about opening up new spaces, you’ve done that your whole entire life as a writer. Let’s say in the poem Blue Moon in Rajasthan, you take us on a journey through the deserts of India on the way to a Hindu temple, and you show us through an inability, you demonstrate an inability to look away from a world ignored by those who live in it. And from the Midwest of America, to England, to Cyprus, to Rajasthan, you really have been an incredible traveler. How does that play on your writing?

Stephanides: I think writing for me is a continual process of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. So it’s breaking out of the way I’m accustomed to seeing things, and letting the strange come in and seeing it in new ways. And I think at the same time, those that are in it, those that I’m looking at, I don’t present it exactly how they see it either. So what I am saying is, it will ring some familiarity with them. But at the same time bring in a new prism. So it’s another process of exchange, I mean it’s umm, so journeys are always, well, there’s a word I learnt doing fieldwork among Indians called darshan, which is like the returning gaze. You receive the darshan of the deity, which means the deity looks at you; it’s is a moment of epiphany. And I discovered that it had etymological roots with the Greek word theoria. And theoria, which, well, it gives to ‘modern theory’ but comes from the word theorein, which has to do with seeing and vision, which is also a Sanskrit root of darshan. So it’s these kinds of accidental moments here in words, but it also happens in the journeys, these sudden moments of marvel and surprise that they would select something familiar that was strange before.

Merrill: And you mentioned fieldwork, you had a career as an anthropologist, and I wonder how that training, that discipline informs your work?

Stephanides: Yeah, I got into anthropology when I was…as a young lecturer, I went to - when I just finished my PhD I was teaching at the University of Guyana for six years. And it was in economic ruins, there were no books, but the whole country seemed to me like, umm –

Merrill: A text.

Stephanides: Yeah, a text. So I was constantly going into the rural areas and I got very much involved in communities and Hindu temple communities, especially devotees of the goddess Kali, and I –

Merrill: Which eventually led to the making of a film.

Stephanides: Of a film, yeah. And so in effect, I mean, I was seeing the whole ritual process that had been transposed through oral tradition. I wanted to make it into a text. So I mean, it involved anthropological, ethnographic, detailed observation, and participation. But at the same time, I approached it with a literary mind, or a writerly mind. I wanted to get to the actions, sensuous, and performative aspect of it.

Merrill: So is writing then for you at least partly a form of ritual?

Stephanides: Yeah. I think there is something connecting ‘write’ and ‘rite’, with a ‘w’ and without a ‘w’.

Merrill: Yeah, yeah. In the summer of 2009 edition of 91st Meridian called Excerpt Cypriana, you brought together Cypriot writers from both sides of your country. And you wrote that “there is a strain in Cypriot poetics that seems to be seeking new crossings.” When I think of all the crossings you have made in your life, I wonder if you could tell us about what new crossings you think Cypriot writers today are seeking, and what new crossings do you imagine for yourself going forward?

Stephanides: I think there’s a lot of literary experimentation that has emerged after the checkpoints opened in 2003, which accelerated the contact between the two communities. And it also broke the notion that we have to separate literatures that were Greek and Turkish literatures that were like provincial literatures to those motherlands. So what emerged was this exploration of each other’s words, and works, and worlds and our exchange through translation in the ways that we’ve already spoken. And I think that can only be an experimental process because you do not know the teleology of it. But it’s quite clear that over the last ten years or more, there is a new kind of literature that is emerging. I mean one of the first things that emerged after the opening of the checkpoints was a new literary journal that was multilingual and transcultural, and we publish anything in Greek, Turkish, or English, or translations thereof, and of all visitors that come to the islands. So we were expanding the idea of what’s our national literature is, or even – or rather undermining the idea of national literature.

Merrill: It’s more polyphonous now, right?

Stephanides: It’s more polyphonous, yeah.

Merrill: Yeah, yeah. So before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder if you can tell us a little about what you’re working on now, what you’re reading, and recommendations you might have for our listeners.

Stephanides: Well, because I am writing about memory, I’ve also, I’ve been reading [W.G.] Sebald at lot.

Merrill: Yeah! Which one?

Stephanides: Well the one that The Emigrants. I enjoyed considerably. There’s also blurred boundaries between what is himself, and what he is imagining, and what he’s imagining is himself. And he makes various detours into various things he reads or encounters –

Merrill: And he blurs the boundaries between past and present so expertly that you actually never know how you’ve gotten from point A to point B.

Stephanides: Yeah, and I always revisit [C.P.] Cavafy and [Derek] Walcott. Walcott for the Creole cosmopoetics.

Merrill: And an island imagination.

Stephanides: An island imagination. And he speaks to the Mediterraneans, so it’s a way of taking his gaze and speaking back to it. And Cavafy has always been uneasy about the territory of being Greek, and he’s always looking at the context and interactions with the different worlds of the East Mediterranean for its long history. And Orhan Pamuk…who I, well, My Name is Red is something that I dip into because he also invokes this Ottoman past that was occluded from the official histories that I grew up with as a Greek-Cypriot. So that’s the Ottoman world that I knew my grandparents were very much a part of. Yeah.

Merrill: Well, Stephanos, thank you so much. This has been delightful.

Stephanides: Thank you very much, Chris.


The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at


Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available September 15, 2017 on iTunes and SoundCloud where I talk with Alice S. Yousef, a writer from the Palestinian Territories.

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Stephanos Stephanides
August 15, 2017

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