Stella Leventoyannis Harvey is a Canadian author and the founder and artistic director of the Whistler Writing Society. Harvey was born in Cairo, Egypt and immigrated to Calgary, Alberta with her family as a child. She now lives in Whistler, British Columbia. Her books include Nicolai’s Dauhgters, The Brink of Freedom, and her latest book Finding Callidora. Crystal sat down with Stella to discuss Finding Callidora and what it means to write about family.
Crystal Mackenzie: This story encompasses your own family history. What inspired you to do this and make it into a novel?
Stella Leventoyanis Harvey: That’s a good question. I think, for me, and I say this often, is I missed my culture my entire life. The hole where home is, belonging, probably my entire life, and I have always been very interested in that, and so I started to do some research trying to find out. Listening to stories is the other part of it, my parents would tell us all these stories about life before Canada and piecing those things together was really interesting for me, so I started to look for my family, my extended family. I was in Greece at one point and I was asking my aunt some questions about where we were from in the Peloponnese, and she said when she was younger, she had gone to the village where we were from, which was Kyparissia, and she’d asked somebody about the family lot, the family land, and the person looked at her suspiciously and said “are you with us or are you against us,” you know, this whole thing about royalists versus the Prime Minister. She didn’t know what they were talking about, but the man said to her “we need to know what side you are on, because there was a family vendetta.” And when she used that word “vendetta,” it was like a lightning bolt went off. How could there be a family vendetta? Where did it come from? What are the roots of it? All of these questions started popping up in my head about this word and it wouldn’t let me go. So that, and a bunch of experiences in meeting my extended family while I was in Greece, by accident, sort of started me down that road.
CM: How much of the details are drawn from your family’s past and how much creative license did you afford yourself?
SLH: The book is separated into four parts. And really, you know, I knew, for example, that my grandfather had been had been in WWI and in the Turkish/Greek conflict. I knew he had a brother that he never connected with after and, because they were both in the war, they assumed he died. I knew sort of where the family was from. So, the first section is totally made up because I have no idea about this vendetta, why would there be a vendetta, what could have possibly happened, so that is all made up because whatever the truth is, is long gone with the people that are long gone. But I wondered about that, so I made that part up. In sections two and three there is some family history and there is a lot of license, because I just don’t know and nobody’s around to tell me anymore. Then the last part of the book, which is the most recent Callidora, is, for the most part, fairly accurate, because I know that that side of the story, that generation. It is my experience. There is a lot less license in that part of the novel as there is in the rest of the novel.
CM: In the second and third part you have some characters that find each other again, like Yanni, who would be your uncle, spends part of his youth living with a cousin, Sofia, and his father’s sister, Katarina. Katarina and Yanni’s father have not seen each other since he left home for war. Yanni also meets up with the rebel girl, Chloe, who has a family connection, as well. Is Sophia based on a real character, is there a Sophia in your life that did have some of the knowledge?
SLH: Not really. There is an actual Sophia, but it wasn’t someone that passed anything on. I wish I knew more of the history and the background, but like all Greek tragedies you have to make some of it up.
CM: Did you always know it would be a book, or did that evolve as you were doing research?
SLH: It evolved as I was doing research. The word vendetta sent me down this particular path, and the accidental meeting of an extended family member that no one, including my father, knew about also took me down this particular path. But yes, I knew it was going to be a novel and that there were some things that I wanted to experiment with like, for example, each section of the novel has a different protagonist that is related to the original matriarch and patriarch of the family. I knew I wanted to experiment with that as opposed to having one story of one or two characters throughout. The other thing of it was, my family was always really interested in history and in politics and in newspapers. My father always read a lot of newspapers, I read a lot, and so I wanted to portray what was going on at the time, what was happening globally in the world, and reflect that in the characters and what was going on for them personally. I think it was always going to be a novel, but it was these other things like the vendetta word, and the meeting of the extended family that really sent me down the road.
CM: One of your cousins in the USA also has the name Stella, is Stella a family name the way Callidora is?
SLH: Yes. It was my grandmother’s name. There are three of us in my generation, also a cousin in Greece, with her name. I think it’s very traditional in the Mediterranean culture. It might also be of other cultures, I don’t know, but certainly in the Mediterranean culture.
CM: The book spans four generations, almost 100 years, which includes some really big historical events like World Wars, civil wars, immigration, rebellions. The book makes great leaps forward in time, with a headline from that time period beginning each chapter. This technique really helps orientate the reader in time and place. What gave you the idea to use headlines to help focus the reader, and what was the process of choosing just the right ones?
SLH: The idea was actually not mine. I belong to a critique group in Whistler and we review each other’s work. When we get to a completed work like a novel, they agree to read the whole thing. Someone in my group said, well it’s really interesting that newspapers and politics and all of these things are so important to the all these characters, have you thought about using headlines as chapter headings? And I went, no, I didn’t. But, in the research of the book, I had found a number of headlines because I wanted to know what was going on in that time, so I thought about it and I started to look for other headlines given the years, and it just worked really well because it shows you what’s going on in the world at the time and keeps you grounded, because the novel does span 100 years. There are various characters in the 4 sections, so how to keep them connected, who are they, what’s going on, all of that stuff, the headlines actually place the reader, so it really worked well. I’d written to a number of Greek newspapers, some of whom did not get back to me. I had spent some time in a library in Athens, just an incredible experience because Lord Byron had been in this particular library (the Gennadius Library) and his writing pen was in the cabinet, and I contacted that librarian and she sent me a bunch of headlines. I contacted Pier 21, and the researcher who contacted me back was incredibly helpful and excited about the project, so he sent me some headlines that were really great about the immigrant experience coming to Canada. I started to comb things like the Globe and Mail. Ernest Hemingway was with the Toronto Star, so I looked up archives of the Toronto Star to see some of the headlines from him because he was in Turkey at the time of Greek Turkish war and writing for the Toronto Star. It was a long hard process. Lots of contacts and lots of internet searches. Some newspapers just don’t have that kind of archive, and others do: the New York Times was excellent, The Globe and Mail, excellent, the Toronto Star. Even in the Egyptian papers I was able to find some things, like one headline, “Peacemaker dies,” which is about Anwar Sadat when he was assassinated. And then finding the right headline for the year. I remember, when doing edits, realizing there were a couple headlines that were off from the years I wanted them to be, so I had to go back and find some new headlines that reflected what was going on in the world.
CM: Yes, it was layered like that. Every headline put you in that time and space.
SLH: That’s what I wanted, I wanted it to mean something to the characters as well, which was really important to me because they were such news junkies as I am, that it reflected that too. In fiction, I think you want to use techniques and processes that reflect character, setting, place, storyline, and controversies in the crisis, the tension that is going on within a character, within the storyline.
CM: I’d like to touch on the story of actually finding Callidora, that land. It seems like a crazy, far-fetched coincidental, too good to be true kind of story, but that is how you finally found it. Can you tell me that story.
SLH: Yeah, it was just such an interesting thing. I had gone to Kyparissia many times on my own and tried to find someone who would talk to me about the land. I had found grave sites and went to City Hall and I found a woman who was very helpful in terms of finding my family history: My grandfather, his siblings, my great grandfather’s name, all of that kind of stuff, and had a person who happen to speak English in the office write it out, but I’ve never been there with my father. And so I said to my dad you know when we go back to Greece together you are going to have to come with me to Kyparissia, because my father was fluent in Greek, and I thought he would make more inroads then I could in my terrible Greek. We stayed in this B&B, and I said to the owner, “I’m searching for my family history” and he said “yes, you foreigners all like to do that sort of thing. We don’t have to because family is all around us, our history is all around us.” He told me to go to a land registry office, which is in the book, and I asked the lady there and she looked at me and said, “well do you know any coordinates of this place?” and I said, no, I thought maybe you could help me, and she goes, “you know it’s just like in your country, you need to have the information about the property so we can find it for you.” Okay, well I guess that’s not going anywhere. So we’re walking down the road going back to the hotel, and I said to my dad, I think we’ve done everything that we possibly can to find this, I don’t think we can do anymore. The people are long gone, even my father at that point was in his late 80s, so I said, I don’t think we’re going to find it, and just as I said that a truck went by with Leventoyannis, which is my maiden name, my father’s name, my family name, on the truck. And he stops a block away. He was picking up his son because he was going to Kalamata to deliver watermelon. I spoke to him through my father and he said, “I don’t know if we’re related, but here’s my number, call me and I will ask my father.” My own father said, oh, don’t bother the man, we’re not related, Leventoyannis is very typical name of the Peloponnese, but of course I never listened to my father, so I phoned him, and the next day his father came to the hotel. We talked and I had my family tree and he was repeating certain names and I wasn’t quite sure and then he said, páme, which is let’s go. He took us to his farm, and he made us a meal, and he got on the phone with someone in Athens, a cousin, who was asking my father all sorts of questions. I figured there must be some relation because they were talking about my aunts, they were talking about my uncle, names I knew. So, we’re going back, he’s dropping us back off at the hotel, and he says to my father, see that piece of land over there, and my father said yes, and he says, I don’t know why it always had a name, a woman’s name, Garifalia, which is Daisy in English, and I just began to sob. I said Dad, that’s my great grandmother’s name, your grandmother’s name. It was just an incredible thing, just by accident. In the book and in life, I have found things, like my American cousins, by accident. I think when things are meant to come together, they do. Like when you search, and search, and search, as I’ve been doing, I think it just somehow comes together. I don’t know why or how, but even with my paternal grandmother, we walked into the town where I knew she was born and I asked the woman at the bar about my grandmother’s name, and she goes out in the middle of the street, yells up at another woman, and the woman says, oh was her father’s name Yanni? I said no, that was my uncle, so she knew my grandmother, Stella. You know, it’s shocking to me, but I think when you look you find, you search you find, or maybe it was just luck. I don’t know, but I just feel very lucky. Yes, my novel is fiction, but some of the story contained in the book really happened.
CM: This book captures the complicated relationship people have with family, land, and home and as immigrants, this relationship is even more complicated. The Alevizopoulos family is three generations displaced from their homeland when they arrive in Canada, but they are Greek from heart to head to toe. What does Greece, that land, mean to the Alevizopoulos family, and what does that land mean to you?
SLH: I think it depends on who in the family you’re talking to. I’m not sure it means the same to my siblings who were younger when they came to Canada, as it means to me. I fell in love with Greece as a teenager when we went back for the first time, with the country, with the land, with the people, with everything about it. We never gave up our heritage either, even though in Calgary it was very difficult to get things like feta cheese back in the 60s in the 70s, my parents found a way. My mother would make everything Greek, we would celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter, we would celebrate Christmas in the Greek way, so I grew up with these traditions that my parents never let go of. For me, that’s my connection to home. Someone at a reading I did asked me, do you know who you are now and where you belong? and while Whistler will always be my home, it’s the longest place I’ve lived in my whole life, there’s always going to be a part of me that home is somewhere else. When the plane comes in to Athens, flying over the beach on the outskirts of Athens, I start to feel it and when it lands, I feel like I’m going home.
CM: Did you have or have you since the book was published come across any resistance from family members for telling the family story?
SLH: Not really. My Greek cousins have not read the book yet. My American cousins were the ones that I was most worried about just because of my uncle’s history. They read it and they just felt sad because they got an insight into something they didn’t have before. I mean, I asked them for permission, whereas with my Greek cousins it wasn’t as big a deal because I don’t really delve that much into that part of the family history. I was mostly worried about my American cousins, because there are some very sensitive issues that come up in there.
CM: There’s a scene were Callidora and her mother are shopping at the Safeway, and it made me think of how much food is important in a culture, and what a change this Safeway would be compared to a market back in Greece or Egypt, but also a comfort. What role do you think having that Safeway so close to home for the Alevizopoulos family and for your family would be?
SLH: My mother in particular loved the market, we’re the talkers in the family, so going to the markets—and it was the same for me when I lived in Italy for two years—at the market you know the people, talk to people, the market is more than food, it’s food, but it’s also your social network. I lived in Italy and after I left, for longest time, we would go back every two years and we’d stay in a hotel in the same neighborhood and Bruno, my market guy, would go “Stella, where’ve you been?” because I went to see him every Saturday. Even though I was a foreigner, it was like going home.
CM: As a historical fiction writer, what is the difference between historical fiction and creative nonfiction?
SLH: That’s a hard one. Creative nonfiction is nonfiction right, it is based on true events. I mean, historical fiction can also be based on true events, like my first book Nicolai’s Daughters is also historical fiction in that its parameters are the history of a particular country, so those are true events, but everything else is fiction. None of those individuals are true, no characters are true, all of that kind of stuff. Whereas creative nonfiction is 80 to 90%, true, so, you’re using real names, typically, you’re using real events, things that have happened, etc. Creative nonfiction would be memoir, personal narrative, essay, something that is not just based on the truth but at its core is the truth. The difference between Nicolai’s Daughters and Finding Callidora, is that the latter was much more autobiographical and historical, whereas in Nicolai’s Daughters I used history as place marks for what was going on at the time and the impact of war on this particular family. WWII was the part that was real, everything else was made-up.
CM: Thank you Stella for your time and for sharing your family with the world. Finding Callidora was such an interesting read and really made me think about the concept of home, land, and family connection. Thank you.
Crystal MacKenzie is an author and editor from Calgary, Alberta. She is the Editor in Chief of FreeFall Magazine.