An Interview with Jenny Mastoraki

September 4, 2017 by  
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It is a cold, damp, Athenian winter afternoon in 1982 and the gutters are running with rain water, the inclemency has driven crowds into all the cafes of Kolonaki (a rather chi-chi quarter on the edge of the town centre) but Jenny Mastoraki and I finally find refuge in the smoky, steamy second floor of one of the more unfashionable cafes. Jenny is slender in blue jeans, her hair is long and straight, and she smokes Kents. There is something in her manner of speaking I have not encountered before here: something brittle, epigrammatic, almost glib. Or perhaps this is the first Greek person I’ve met who does not take herself absolutely seriously.

At this first meeting I learn that she was born in Athens in 1949 of “extreme Rightist, monarchist” parents, and entered university to study Byzantine and Medieval Studies in 1967, as an “innocent.” Her initiation into politics was supervised by her lover, a radical, and for a time she felt close to the Euro-Communist party (KKE-S) but never joined. She graduated in 1970 and in 1972 published her first book, still a “daring” act even though two years earlier the publication, as a conscious act of resistance, of the anthology Eighteen Texts had broken the censorial ice (it sold out overnight). The secret police, ASFALIA, were in the habit of visiting the publishing houses to note who was publishing what by whom and this is how Mastoraki came to be “invited” by the police to be questioned. She was kept waiting for hours, “shaking like a leaf.” She says she was not brave. Since then, however, she has had little time for “progressive politics”; by her account, there are hundreds of feminist grouplets of ten women each, all squabbling, the Left is riven by sectarianism, and the media are hopelessly partisan. “The only thing for a writer is to stand outside all of this and just watch.”

Jenny Mastoraki, photo credit http://chronosmag.eu

image source: http://chronosmag.eu

After the fall of the Junta I 1974, there was an “orgy” of publications from people who, up to then silent, burst forth full-throatedly with memoirs of a whole generation’s worth of experience beginning with the anti-German resistance of the Forties. At first this was very poignant but now, says Mastoraki with exasperation, these people sound “dated,” their emotions verge on the sentimental, their language bleeds into crude polemic. Probably the same thing will happened to her generation, the “Polytechnic generation:” already people who were not even in the country at the time of the events claim to have been at the barricades. Such poseurs are beneath contempt.

Neither in this conversation nor later will she mention the incident recounted in the brief biography prefacing her poems in the ground-breaking English-language collection, Greek Women Poets, 1978 (translated and edited by Eleni Fourtouni) that Mastoraki was “among the students who fought during the uprising,” was savagely beaten by the police and almost died.

I want to know more about her, hear more from her. She invites me to visit her in her home in suburban Hymettos, a very spacious apartment owned by her parents. We sit down in large chairs. The living room is also furnished with ponderous bookcases filled to the ceiling with Greek, Italian, Spanish, German and English books. She provides tea, pastries, roasted almonds, but herself only smokes. From time to time a seven-year-old girl, dressed in a kind of tutu, makes an appearance, followed by a matron known as “Kiria Flora,” who I assume is the nanny. Later in the afternoon, a man arrives, delighting the child, but Mastoraki pays him no attention. I suppose this is the estranged husband to whom there had earlier been a brief reference, and this poem:

How did we get to this place anyway?

What did we put into it and what are we getting out of it?

We’re lugging on our backs a name that doesn’t belong to us –

endless roads

that were never our own.

(from “How Did It Happen?” in Greek Women Poets

The story of Mastoraki’s family is a superb account of the recent fluidity of social class in Greece, “class” bearing only a tenuous relation to the classic configuration of proletariat, petit bourgeoisie, bourgeoisie, of more industrialized and capitalized societies. Mastoraki calls hers a middle-class family but in reality, she points out, they were once a middle-class family (her grandfather had owned a couple of laundries before the war) but are no more (the business had collapsed and her grandfather ended up working in another man’s laundry). Nevertheless, she was raised with “bourgeois pretensions,” a kind of masquerade put on for the neighbourhood and relatives who knew the truth anyway. When she was ten, the family moved away to a new neighbourhood which had been one of the “Red” quarters bombarded by Right wing forces during the terrible civil war, 1946-1949, that had followed on the heels of German occupation and liberation, and finally to this place in residential Hymettos where land was still cheap.

Mastoraki’s maternal grandfather supported the family in lieu of her father, a poorly-paid civil servant who was transferred to Crete when Jenny was four. (She didn’t see him again until her own daughter was three.) She was still a girl when she learned from her mother of a thwarted love affair with a young doctor that her father broke up – “my grandfather didn’t want a son-in-law superior to him,” Mastoraki explains. The young lover committed suicide and the marriage with the less-impressive civil servant was arranged shortly after.

Because her father was stubbornly opposed to education for women, Mastoraki’s mother was pulled out of high school and left unqualified for any sort of work except housework. She became a strong and affectionate mother, “almost sick with her love for her children,” especially her son about whom she had a “sense of mission.” Here are the twin themes of Mastoraki’s girlhood rebellion: the demand to be schooled; the ambition for a world beyond her mother’s. Had she had her “fair share” of her mother? “Yes and no. Anyway it was too late. When I started to learn things, all I wanted was to get out.”

Her family hated books. The home, then, was an environment in which it was impossible to get reliable information about the outside world especially since the adults were correspondingly reactionary, “not out of ideology, because in fact they knew nothing and have no ideas,” but out of tradition, out of a need for safety. The school, where Mastoraki had “democratic and open” teachers, became her threshold to the world of ideas. She devoured books. She borrowed them from classmates. While she was still reading fairy tales, the family made no fuss, but when she was twelve and became interested in more serious material, her mother declared that all books were dangerous and forbade them all.

At sixteen, Mastoraki had odd jobs and with her earnings bought her own books, which she read “like a maniac;” also like a maniac, her mother tore them up. “She said that if you read too much you go mad and, anyway, I was a girl and what did I need to read for?” This tug-of-war continued through high school, Mastoraki’s only support coming from her grandmother, an “exquisite” person who, barely literate, loved books anyway and read, or tried to read the hagiographic Lives of the Saints that were then popular. The day that university entrance examination results revealed that Mastoraki had placed first in her class, her mother gave her a crucifix. “She put it around my neck and said, ‘Okay, you’ve proven you’re smart. Now I want you to find a husband and get married.’” But Mastoraki was desperate to go to university. “My mother was like her own father in that she didn’t want me, her daughter, to be better than she was. She never forgave me for going.”

University was a bitter disappointment. Her professors turned out to be “asses” (a Philology professor spent an entire academic year on one page of Demosthenes) and her fellow students, mainly villagers dreaming of becoming teachers in small towns, “had no brains at all. They just wrote down whatever those bloody bastards, the professors, were saying.” She was still living at home and working – as a secretary and tutor – to help support the family, and in her spare time studying at the English, German and Italian language institutes in Athens.

In 1970, however, at the end of her third year of studies, she met a man who became her lover, a Communist film-maker fifteen years older than she. It was her first serious affair and it changed everything.

On April 21, 1967, Jenny’s mother had come into her room to tell her all the schools were closed. She had heard military music on the radio and an official announcement that the army had seized power. Jenny asked her if that was good or bad, and was told not to worry about it. So she didn’t; why should she? She hadn’t been reading newspapers, only literature, a lot of it foreign, and had been writing poetry and studying hard, shutting out the rest of the world.

Now it was three years later and she was getting to know her lover’s friends, all Communists, and began her first reading in politics and economics from borrowed books. In houses and cafes, she talked with people who’d been in and out of prison, but felt no personal danger. She bought her first “forbidden” books; it was easy enough to get them if you were closely acquainted with certain booksellers and were prepared to travel circuitously through dubious neighbourhoods and pay huge sums. Her first purchase was a volume of the poems of Yannis Ritsos (a Communist and Nobel Laureate): “It was worth it.”

 

Before the army coup, American rock ‘n roll had been familiar and important to her but the Junta changed all that. Now it was the music of resistance of the Communist composer Mikis Theodorakis that absorbed her; some of her friends managed to get out of Greece on student excursions and returned with illegal booty, Theodorakis’s records slipped into album covers of Charles Aznavour and Donovan. A video cassette of Costas-Gavras’s political thriller, State of Siege (music by Theodorakis) was passed from hand to hand, purse to purse. For one day the Junta permitted a screening of Lindsay Anderson’s If, and everybody hurried to see it, having sniffed out its content from the bits of commentary in the press. At its conclusion, the entire audience rose in a frenzy of applause, and it was banned outright the next day.

So, Athens in the early 1970s: clandestine literary evenings, the movies, chatter in cafes, arguments in apartments, banned songs, all of it a “huge salad” in Mastoraki’s head, none of it very systematic or organized, most of it a “searching” for she wasn’t quite sure what, a slow ripening (she can see that now) of the brazen, autonomous poet. It was the milieu rather than individual personalities that was inspiring to her, and Mastoraki did not form deep attachments. The Communist lover left her with a distaste for the type, “one of the most horrible that you can imagine,” riddled with complexes especially when, in his forties, he carried within him his generation’s burden of political failure. “You get tired of them very quickly. The younger ones are better, they’re more indifferent to the failure.” Female friendships proved more important; for one thing, her group socialized invariably as couples, with the exception of one much older woman who is still her best friend. In listening to the story of her friend’s life, Mastoraki came to understand the meaning of the older generation’s acts, their “huge history,” as she puts it, to honour that history and to refuse any facile continuity with it.

“She [the best friend] comes from a very poor family and she and her husband have been Communists since they were children, really. They have been together for twenty-five years but have managed to live together only since 1974 [the year of the Junta’s collapse]. When her husband was in jail, she was out, and vice versa. They have been torn apart by exile, prison, torture. They have been very sick at times, because of this treatment, and because of the beatings she has never been able to bear children. Such people are very authoritative for me because they are not dogmatic. They pass through the same doubts as I, even though I have not paid for my doubts in blood, as they have. Still, they are open-minded and can even criticize the Left very bitterly. I ask them: if I feel so frustrated and I have paid hardly any price, how must you feel who have given up most of your lives for these politics?”

These politics. Her politics were always emotional, she says, as though to dismiss their seriousness. But why should she not feel the horror and the pity and the offence evoked by the spectacle of people arrested, tortured, put on farcical trial, exiled, killed, by hooligans in uniform? “What attracted me to the Left in 1968, 1969, was that these people suffered.” Here is the point where salutary disorientation begins, and a poem. After a “metaphysical stage” of poetry-writing in high school, Mastoraki found herself writing a very, very long poem, “Soldiers,” inspired by “something” in the Greek atmosphere she didn’t like. She struggled to understand what was happening by using images from the German occupation of the 1940s: the soldier as oppressor. It still moves her to read that poem, and it was not among those she eventually destroyed. “I was trying to understand with instinct alone; people were in jail and nobody was saying anything about them. They were trying to hide the fact, and I was shocked.”

The “instincts” still guide her, although they are tempered now by a certain superciliousness. She claims not to “give a damn about any of it” but still votes according to her sentiments which, as long as they are “harmless” (meaning, as long as the Euro-Communist Party has no chance of coming to power), she still trusts.

Mastoraki disclaims any heroism in her first decision to publish, in 1972, during the regime of the Junta. It didn’t really seem so dangerous, she says, and she’s no hero. The first edition of Eighteen Texts had preceded her act and, although its authors had been harassed – had their passports cancelled, had been interrogated at the headquarters of ASFALIA or were visited in their homes – what could the secret police do, really? “They wouldn’t throw me in prison just for a book, I knew that.” She was young and ambitious and, when her publisher, Kedros, called to say the first copies of her book had arrived, she fairly flew to their offices and felt that everybody was staring at her in admiration. “I felt very proud. I found the whole thing fascinating. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘this is it.’” As for her second book, she claims she published it out of sheer “perversion.” “Once you start on this road, it’s hard to stop.” When it appeared in the shops, she claims she didn’t answer the telephone for three months.

The assertion that it is “quite easy” to be published in Greece is probably related to the notorious fact that writers pay some of the publishing costs with their own funds. By the time of Mastoraki’s third book, she had a contract but still no advance, “no, never,” and, although fifteen per cent royalties is a decent rate, a writer is “lucky” to sell out a first edition of one thousand over a year (at, say, 150 drachmas [US$1.50] a copy); If they did, it would be considered a best-seller. “You have to have another profession or else you are ruined.” Not even Nobel Laureate Elytis lives from his books.

So, for the past seventeen years, Mastoraki has been a translator, an occupation as creative in its challenges to her as poetry. She translates out of sheer jealousy, working on literature she wishes she had written, and labours over the text as any writer would. When we talked, she was translating Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe, 940 typewritten pages revised at least ten times. “I could have done the whole thing in six months if I hadn’t been concerned to reproduce a work of art in Greek.” She says she is one of the best-paid translators in the country, which means she earns 1000 drachmas [US$10] a page. She has been working on Auto-da-Fe for three years and will eventually be paid 300,000 drachmas [US$3000], “which means 10,000 per month, which means you starve. So I also translate easier stuff. And every four or five years I set the time aside for my own writing, because one thing’s for sure: when I’m translating something I really love, I can’t do my own writing.”

In a society as highly politicized as Greece, it comes as no surprise to learn from Mastoraki that writers are organized among three different unions or associations. That they have accomplished almost nothing of direct material benefit to the writers is also not so surprising, given the prevalent Greek notion of politics as “agitation and propaganda.” Taking clamorous public positions on the political questions of the day takes precedence over satisfying writers’ bread and butter issues. One of the associations is practically moribund, being a kind of clubs of writers and literati from the university. The second, the Greek Association of Writers, some seven hundred strong (although many of these are not professional writers), is close to—some would say taken over by—the Communist Party. It is wealthy, owns its own office building, and publishes a variety of newsletters and journals. But it has been singularly unsuccessful in changing the “objective” working conditions of the Greek writer, preferring to limit itself to ritualistic denunciations of American imperialism.

In reaction, a break-away group of one hundred have organized as the Society of Authors, who operate on a shoestring out of a member’s apartment. They want a standard publishing contract established, not just the verbal “gentlemen’s agreement” which now prevails in the industry, they want to be paid for their appearances on state television (“As it is, the producer gets his salary and you get taxi fare”), they want the Department of Culture, under the glamorous stewardship of Melina Mercouri, to do as much for writers as for actors (“It’s a scandal that the First Prize for acting at the Thessalonica Film Festival is 600,000 drachmas and First Prize for a novel is 150,000”), they want some kind of social security for the penurious (“When Tsirkas was dying, he was taken to a hospital and put into a public ward with thirty other patients, and you know the misery of Greek hospitals. After a direct appeal to the Minister of Health, he died in a private room. Ritsos gets some 160,000 drachmas a month as a pension. Ritsos!”)

As for her own future, Mastoraki doesn’t like to think about it. “It seems too dreadful.”

 

I am a Greek

which is to say

I am entitled to a space

one by one.

I think

therefore I shall not exist

much longer.

I hesitate.

This saves me.

(from “Poems,” in Boundary 2 Winter 1973)

After her second collection, Kith and Kin, was published in 1978, Mastoraki didn’t write again until 1982. Now a third collection is ready and she is “panicked”: with her sense of how “useless” everything is in terms of poetry, she is seriously considering not submitting the manuscript for publication. “What for? I ask myself. This sense of futility when you publish: the same old people will go through your poems, ‘they’ liked my last book very much, so what? What does it change? If I had some way of preventing them from seeing my work, I would do it! There’s only about fifty people I want to read it. The idea that I have to mail out one hundred copies of my book to the literary establishment…They’ll praise it, which I hate. Because you never know what they really mean. They give praise in exchange for praise. Look, I hate all this hypocrisy and I refuse to feed it. I get sent two hundred books a year for my opinion, I respond to maybe four or five of them. See what I mean?” She has her way of protecting herself. She has an alibi: she calls herself a translator, not a poet. She hates the title of “poet.” A poet is a creep, a nutso. There’s an untranslatable Greek word for it: psonio. That’s not her.

For Mastoraki, the spectacle of the literati in full flight of political engagement is profoundly alienating. She is emphatic about this: she is not at all engagé or politically committed. She concedes her first book was written “with this voice and that, in those times, it was necessary to do so. But no longer.” The concrete object of contestation – the Junta – is gone and in its place is something diffuse and bearing many names. How do you take aim at it? In times of national crisis, the private dilemma of the writer – how may I serve politically without degrading my art? – is overridden by events, but in more normal times, the writer can make the choice. And Mastoraki, as she puts it, has chosen to write poetry, not slogans.

“There’s a line from Elytis that I like very much: ‘I’ve grown rusty in the south wind of men.’ The south wind is moist and he sees himself, the artist, as made of metal which, exposed to too much humanity, goes rusty. I think that many kinds of participation and movement among people can corrupt you as a writer…like Ritsos, who must write a poem every Sunday! [in the Communist Party newspaper] As soon as you engage in anything, you do things other people expect of you, not what you want to do anymore.”

With this conviction, Mastoraki speaks squarely from her generation’s experience, a generation unattached to a political party (at least not for any length of time) and a party’s prescriptions for the intelligentsia. Her generation was glued together by the common need to confront the Junta and, when the Junta left the stage, they came unstuck from each other. She sees this as normal. The theme of “betrayal” by politics as enunciated so movingly in the poems of Manolis Anagnostakis, who published nothing after 1971 until his death in 2005, carries no resonance for the younger writers. “Betrayed? By whom? If the generation after us doesn’t remember what happened during the Junta years, that’s their problem.” Since, in her view, it was the Communist Party who betrayed the generation of Anagnostakis – by demanding their allegiance to a philistine orthodoxy – then there is all the more reason now to renounce any such political loyalty. “Historically and formally” she belongs to the generation of the Seventies, those who were first published in the 1970s, but she is not conscious of belonging to it by any common stylistic experiments or diction or forms. “I just write how I feel like writing.”

As for that other source of generational continuity, the Ancients, Mastoraki feels no connection whatever. She reads them as she reads fairy tales, a fantasy world. She chafes as well at the Greek pedagogical technique of finding for every modern experience its analogue in ancient history. “Some World War Two exploit is inevitably compared with Leonides and the heroic Three Hundred at Thermopylae. This is the sort of the thing the Colonels kept emphasizing: our great and glorious ancestors. I hated it.” Perhaps because the achievements of Byzantine literature are rarely extolled outside an ecclesiastical frame of reference, she finds them more congenial and suggestive. “Through the Byzantine texts, you see real, human persons, not those idealized figures of antiquity. The official histories of the court, the arcana, stories of Empress Theodora performing naked in the Hippodrome of Constantinople…she did! Scandals. Pornography. I read all this on my own; they wouldn’t teach it at university.”

For all her professional solitariness, her sarcastic evaluation of her literary antecedents, her repudiation of political engagement and her pessimism regarding her probable fate, Mastoraki nevertheless is a self-acknowledged member of that tribe known as Greek writers. Just being a Greek she carries around with her all those things – politics, idealism, history, memory – which have so profoundly constituted and shaped the experience and mentality of her friends and neighbours, relatives and forebears, in this cataclysmic century. She does not deny this. “Even when I try, I cannot forget these things.” But when she sits down to write, “these things” recede and she is alone, and the poem is her own affair.

Afterword

Although undated, this text was probably put together in the late 1980s, in Edmonton, Canada, a short time after a last trip to Athens in 1987. It was hand-written, from notes, and I clearly meant to write further drafts. However, I abandoned the project, and the lined sheets of yellow notepaper lay almost twenty years in a file titled “Greek writers.”

In the winters of 1981-2, 1983-4, and 1986-7 I lived in Nafplion, but travelled frequently to Athens where I imbibed the exhilarating atmosphere of a society that had thrown off the dead hand of conservative politics and elected a socialist government. I was keen to learn how my own generation of writers, who had come to maturity during the awful period of the army dictatorship (1967-1974), were doing in this new dispensation, particularly women writers. As a Canadian who had grown up during the Sixties, I was obsessed with the theme of the relationship between art and politics in the life and work of people who had been challenged by both.

Except for the chance encounter with Rea Galanaki in a bookstore, I made no note of how I came to meet these particular writers. Except for Katarina Anghelaki-Rooke, I did not see them again after the interviews. In the winter of 2006, when I “Googled” each of them, I learned that Nasos Vayenas had become a Professor of Literary Theory and Criticism at the University of Athens and published as recently as 2004; that Rea Galanaki had achieved a very notable success with her novel, The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha (1989), which has been translated into several languages, and that she was short-listed in 1999 for a European Literature Prize, and, because I still visit her, I know that Anghelaki-Rooke’s distinguished international career as a poet, translator and lecturer is secure. As for Jenny Mastoraki, however, the traces are fainter. It seems she has continued to write, judging from some fragments of prose poetry published in an American journal in 1997, and an authoritative critical study of contemporary Greek women poets published in the US in 1998, which includes accounts of the poetry of Galanaki and Mastoraki, theorizes their work as “feminine survival strategies” for recognizing how meaning is “lost, disfigured and denied.” It is not clear whether this study is concerned with work produced after the 1980s.

Myrna Kostash

Campbell River, BC

December, 2006

 

 

September 4, 2017, 4531 words

 

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Myrna Kostash lives in Edmonton when she's not traveling in Eastern Europe.