The Commonwealth Foundation (CF) spoke to Erato Ioannou, Cypriot writer, during the Commonwealth People’s Forum 2018 on 16-18 April.
This semi-structured interview enquired into storytellers’ experiences working with the Commonwealth Writers programme and explored the way in which less-heard voices can be brought to the forefront in order to influence public discourse.
CF: Erato, thank you for joining us. How did you come across Commonwealth Writers and did it change your approach to story-telling?
Erato: I have to say, I stumbled onto Commonwealth Writers while searching the internet for literary competitions to enter. As you can understand, Cyprus has limited publication outlets. The Commonwealth Foundation, through its projects for writers helps less heard voices from around the world to be heard all over the world. So Many Islands Anthology is one such project; through which myself and 16 other writers from the islands of the Commonwealth embarked on a journey.
‘Even though we touch on universal issues and themes, we have an individual point of departure—our individual, local, cultural, historical identity.’
It was an important moment for me as a writer, since the story I featured in the anthology, Something Tiny, was given the chance to be read all over the world. The anthology was distributed in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, the Caribbean, the United States of America and Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe. Who would have thought?
Now, in regard to my approach to story-telling…I’ve always felt that stories come together in an ever ending dialogue. Stories connect people and peoples. They create a network of narratives that is our shared humanity. Commonwealth Writers plays an important role in this process by acknowledging and supporting the polyphony of the Commonwealth; by helping us share our stories with the world. Now, I know, that it is possible for my stories to be read by a wider, international audience.
CF: What are writers in Cyprus writing about? What are some of the issues?
Erato: Topos—place—has a crucial impact on a writer’s work. It’s inevitable. Even when the work itself does not refer directly to it, Topos is haunting it. It reverberates silently against the words, and the reader will, in the end, sense its vibrations. It’s certain. Topos, interwoven with History, is part of the author’s identity. It’s embedded in her every molecule.
‘Stories have qualities that are immeasurable and possibilities that are limitless.’
So, in our work even though we touch on universal issues and themes, we have an individual point of departure—our individual, local, cultural, historical identity. For many-many years, violence, war, displacements, refugee issues, missing persons, were central to the literature of Cyprus. These issues persist today, I would say, through the inherited trauma, through our everyday experiences as we still live in a violently divided island.
At the same time, our world, and I mean the whole world, has gotten smaller. Technology has brought us closer. And as this coming together of the human race happens, we now create a common history—the history of our planet. And Cypriot literature and the literatures of the whole world cannot remain unaffected by this.
‘The nucleus of a short story is there from the start. The writing process is about crafting ways in which an explosion can occur around it.’ Erato Ioannou on the writing process (left) #CWprize pic.twitter.com/bwzzcUbiLu
— Commonwealth Writers (@cwwriters) July 26, 2018
CF: What areas of support do writers need?
Erato: There’s this famous essay by Virginia Wolf: a writer, in order to write, needs to have money and a room of her own. I am a mum of two, I have a wonderful husband and a demanding job. So whatever writing I do, I do it on the break from family and work. Life does not spare you. A writer has to sacrifice a lot. She has to be dedicated. She has to be self-disciplined. She has to make time. Ways to help this process should be sought. Maybe stipends for a writer to escape for one week from home to write? There are some creative writing hubs in the US and the UK that I know of but they last for two, three, six months. That’s a very long time to be away from your family.
CF: How important is it to hear from storytellers outside of the mainstream, the less heard voices? And can short stories impact the dominant narrative?
Erato: Stories have qualities that are immeasurable and possibilities that are limitless. That’s why it’s important to hear from storytellers outside the mainstream. Our voices, the less heard voices, contribute to the polyphony of literature, to its multiple dimensions. A tale unfolds from the writer’s imagination to speak a universal language to the world; to reveal one layer of meaning after another. Our stories do impact the dominant narrative. In one way or another, they do affect existing perspectives and prevailing perceptions. So yes! It is important to let the voices of storytellers from outside the mainstream to be heard. One has to understand, one has to learn, one has to know before she can change. Our stories explore our unique realities, which in the case of small islands, are physically small and geographically distant, but they contribute to a better understanding of human nature and of the whole world.