The Crying of Lot 49 Cyprus

The Crying of Lot 49 – Who will Cyprus belong to? The bitter auction of an island that has been going on for 43 years… Who will win the lot? Those whose voices are not silenced, of course… He who has command over words holds the power. Can you tell which side this is from the map?

Oedipa Maas is the heroine of The Crying of Lot 49, a novella written by Thomas Pynchon in 1966. It is about her quest to unravel a centuries old dispute between two mailing companies: Thurn and Taxis and The Trystero. Oedipa inherits this mystery after her former lover dies and leaves her his estate. Thurn and Taxis is an official mailing service as opposed to Trystero, who has been forced underground and  continues to operate secretly through waste bins rather than mailboxes. It’s acronym W.A.S.T.E stands from ‘We Await Silent Trystero’s Empire’, and its symbol is a stoppered posthorn, an icon  indicating silence, or suppressed communication.

With silence as a theme, the style of the novella is also naturally cryptic. The story has many dead ends, and Pynchon structures it so that you feel as if you are getting somewhere, only to have it fall from reach: a truth teetering ever on the periphery but never coming into view. Oedipa Maas never gets to the bottom of this. Instead, she wrestles with a terrible gordian knot that is constantly changing, writhing and evasive.

For me, the dilemma of Oedipa Maas is strikingly similar to my own. I too must write a novel about a centuries old dispute with the Cyprus problem being an unavoidable subject. I too must separate false echoes from real voices and the way is fraught with thorns, a political minefield. Moreover, the truth is bitter, very bitter, but the question is do I coat the bitter pill to make it easier to swallow? Or do I expose all in the unbearable starkness that I know it to be? The former will allow my voice to carry further, because the sharp edges of truth would have been blurred and blunted by the semantics of diplomacy. It would demand tactical omissions that would mute my own annoyance and inner rage at having my people and their suffering seem second rate in comparison to the south of the island. The latter however would be all bones and sinew, an unpalatable truth, hard to listen to, as impossible to swallow as the spiny prickly pear that is a native cacti-fruit of Cyprus.

Most people only know about the events of 1974, some possibly may have some idea of the events leading up to it, but over half of this war has been fought silently on paper, in the form of maps, political speeches and sly semantics designed to sedate and smooth over the ugly truth. Let me explain…

The south of the island for me is symbolised by Thurn and Taxis, the mail company that still runs as normal. As a result, Greek Cypriots have enjoyed a fairly normal existence, have a more stable economy than us, have benefitted from the unwavering support of various alliances (the biggest of which is their religious compatibility with the European Union). This was their passport to being accepted by the world as the ‘official’ side of the island, despite the overwhelming evidence that the Megali Idea (the big idea) for the unification of Greek lands to Greece (Enosis – union) meant culling anyone in their way, including the British Army at the time. But like I said, religion is a great unifier, and things are forgotten when your gods share the same name – don’t believe me? Just watch the European Song Contest…

Thus, the south has enjoyed uninterrupted communication of its ideas, thoughts, free speech and above all, it has convinced the world that they were the ones hard done by.

The north on the other hand is represented by Trystero – a country whose voice has been muted, silenced, stoppered by the powers that be. Despite there being a presence of Turkish Cypriots on the island since the Ottoman Empire, our existence has been mysteriously scrubbed from maps. The attempt to silence and sabotage our existence, our language and our culture can be evidenced with a simple map. For decades after the war, the north side of the island was a blank, or simply labelled the ‘occupied area’, with no signs to show that villages even existed. For me, there is no other explanation for this other than a remaining inner desire to eliminate a people: the EOKA genocide plan went from physical slaughter to one one fought on paper.

Of course, these are things I gradually became aware of as an adult, when I learned how powerful words could be and the way world leaders use them to reach their own selfish goals. But this didn’t mean that as a child it didn’t effect me. I had the misfortune and luck to grow up in a predominantly white neighbourhood. People in the 80’s were ignorant of other cultures – people presumed I was either an Arab or Pakistani.  When people inquired out of curiosity, I said I was from Cyprus and people always assumed I was Greek. I have lost the number of times I have had to correct them by saying, ‘no, I’m from the north side’. This was sometimes met by stares of incomprehension and often I would sense an imperceptible withdrawal, as if I was an anomaly, an alien species that they should quickly do away with, because (unknown to me then) to the world we were the aggressors, we carried the gene of the ‘Hun’ and were a threat to European values.

As a child, I was naive and didn’t think much of it – but as time goes on you become aware of such things, the way people address you, the begin to question the underlying nature of their questions, the look in their eye; it belies not just a curiosity, but a secret desire to have you, with our own words, assume or admit the role of ‘other’. The older I get, the more I rail against this. Maybe this is why writing this novel is so important – it is our story, on OUR terms, free from the condemnation and the vilification of hundreds and thousands of other voices that has been waged on us for decades.

Some people still don’t know that a North side exists – such was the power of the political maps even then. The Greeks harboured a terrible grudge against the Turkish Army for saving the muslim population. The map was their revenge against the fact that their Megali Idea had been spoiled – their genocide, interrupted… it was a sort of death for us to deny us a place in history books, on maps even international sports events and tourism exhibitions.

Even Google Maps, until recently, depicted the north of the island as empty, with only Nicosia, Famagusta and Kyrenia as the only places of civilisation. It beggars belief that such ignorance could have continued on so many platforms for so long. And we have fought and fought and fought, often with very little to show for our efforts, because ours is a voice that is deliberately ignored, and worse, this is a worldwide conspiracy.

The maps weren’t the only things however that the Greeks managed to control. Below is a well-known image used by Greek Cypriots for decades to depict Turkish Cypriots:

A famous Greek Cypriot poster used to express their opinion of the Turkish Army’s peace operation in retaliation to the genocide that was quietly taking place on the island. These are still used and so-called ‘United Cyprus’ fairs. The semantics are interesting as well as the depiction of the North side. Peace talks anyone?

The leaflets here were given out at the 2018 Cyprus Wine Fair that took place in London, which I became aware of through T-Vine, a media outlet dedicated to giving voice to the Turkish Cypriot community. This propaganda for four decades has been used to condemn Turkish Cypriots as bloodthirsty barbarians and is recognized officially as a representation of the conflict. This is how Greek Cypriots see us, only the north side is coated in blood, only the north are the people who are to blame.

No one speaks of how the Kykko Monastery in Paphos had been turned into a slave camp holding thousands of Turkish Cypriots by the EOKA soldiers as prisoners of war, who were often women, children and the elderly. Moreover, no one acknowledges the heinous crimes committed by General Grivas and Nikos Sampson, the latter of which was a journalist who secretly murdered his own people and reported it falsely as crimes committed by the TMT (a paramilitary organisation founded by Rauf Denktas, President of North Cyprus, to fight against the EOKA and EOKA-B Greek junta).

The poster of the bloody Cyprus map at its core is racist and an insult to Turkish Cypriots everywhere whose struggle for survival was obtained at the eleventh hour when Bulent Ecevit, prime minister of Turkey at the time, secretly gave the command for Turkish troops to storm the island and save hundreds of Turkish Cypriot communities from certain genocide, my own family included. How these posters could have found its way to a wine fair is beyond me…

For years I have watched peace talks fall to pieces, come to nothing, mainly because the voice of one side of the island is preferred over the other. Turkish Cypriots have long spoken out against the propaganda of the south, but their voices have been silenced, or ignored. The north suffers from a Trystero syndrome, and our voices can only be heard through obscure channels which are never official nor are they loud enough for all to hear.

This is why the planning period of this novel has been so long and arduous. It is not merely a novel, it is a quest to find my own voice as writer and a Turkish Cypriot. It is a quest to find the right channel, the right medium so that I can remove the stoppered posthorn that has been handed to us again and again when it was OUR turn to speak. It may even be the chance for North Cyprus to finally have its voice heard by all – and dare I say it, finally be acknowledged as legitimate.

As James Baldwin once said,If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write.’ The novels produced abut Cyprus so far have never truly examined the moral question of those dark years… and this is something that I lose sleep over. It maddens me when I think of how novels like Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell and The Cypriot by Andreas Koumi (both voices by other cultures), who take the Cyprus Problem and dilute, change and trivialise the suffering of us during those years. Romeo and Julieting the Cyprus Problem as a ‘Greek boy falls in love with Turkish girl’ is an insult and not a very imaginative metaphor for what happaned. It only shows a lack of imagination, and only dances around the issues of what really happened during those years. The Cyprus Problem is not a forbidden love story…

Novels like these so far have only served to skirt the ‘problem’. When I look at it, I still see the gordian knot there at the core, one strand strangling another.

Today, the Cyprus problem manifests as an ugly auction, where the side with the loudest, most confident voice takes all – and this is where the problem lies. We as Turkish Cypriots are not interested in taking all, we simply want our voices to be heard, our stories to be acknowledged. We want to FIND our missing dead, in whatever shallow grave they have been flung into and learn in what awful method of torture they surrendered their lives.

We also suffered, but we have not thrown mud at the neighbour.

Our nursery rhymes do not consist of calling them ‘dogs’ and ‘swine’.

A unified Cyprus does not mean a Cyprus without borders – it means a Cyprus where         both sides enjoy equal rights.

And most importantly, if there is still a presence of the Turkish Army, then it
indicates how deep the mistrust goes with the south.

I for one, cannot look at the smiles, when the daggers hidden in the paperwork.

Our opinions have been placed in the waste bin by the international community, but waste is also fertile. From there, our ideas will grow and bear fruit. It’s not long now…  we will march with words…

…We Await Trystero’s Silent Army

 

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The persistence of memory dali

The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali (1931)

For the longest time, I considered memory to be a writer’s worst enemy – especially if the work depended on historical facts. Yes, history is a beautiful spine on which to sculpt your writing so that it stands tall and true, but personal memory at some point invades, intervenes, blurring and bridging the boundaries of the textbook with the private lens. In its nature, memory is a treacherous creature, with a cat-like, self-serving temperament. It is biased, nimble-fingered, secretly sand-papering over the unsavoury while lengthening, gold-leafing and glorifying a fleeting moment.

Writers cast their buckets into the deep, dark well of memory, often to draw broken fragments of things real and imagined. We wrestle with its imperfect sequencing, the colour and timbre of our emotions. We agonise and doubt the integrity of the ingrained, painfully drafting and redrafting, until the event itself is depersonalized, no longer an original of itself and by default divorcing ourselves of any responsibility for it.

It is in times like these that we run and take shelter in the bosom of artistic license – when we cannot do the thing justice and the ink on the paper gleams wetly back at us, judgmental and doubtful of its own meaning. We cringe when the thing itself is butchered by a moment of caveman yammering, when what was needed, but was tragically absent, was the balanced, civilized and surgical precision of semantics.

In short, for the purely fictional writer, historical fiction can be a blessing and a curse. But it is all we have, and we write, not out of pleasure, but out of necessity, a desperation to record and in the off-chance, to immortalise a part of ourselves.

Therefore memories are fossils. Ribbons of magnetized tape that hold the code to not only our lives but countless others. DNA that irrevocably binds us all together. A mesh of voices whispering in the head, trapped.

What makes me write about the persistence of memory today? It is partly inspired by Penelope Lively’s booker prize winning novel Moon Tiger which I have reviewed here if you are interested in reading my thoughts about it. Lively treats memory in a different way. Her novel is about history, and centres around a historian (who is sadly losing her mind and is dying from cancer), but staring in the face of father time and realising she hasn’t got very much time, our determined protagonist comes to a startling conclusion: that memory, like time itself, doesn’t have to be ‘in sequence’ at all.

The past and present can exist in tandem, and is interwoven on purpose to show stark similarities and a very pronounced pattern than history, indeed, repeats itself. The life of Claudia Hampton and a fragment of ammonite are one and the same. Her memory of her last night with her one, true love in the searing heat of Cairo is superimposed on the Egyptian friezes of pharaohs and their sister-wives.

The big picture that emerges is one that suggests the following: are we just fragments of some god’s memory floating in the ether of space and time? Is this why this pattern is condemned to repeating itself? Why we are persistently reminded of our shortcomings and forced to reenact an event like a hiccup of history seven generations down the line? Why an abnormal chromosome assumed to have phased out, returns with a renewed aggressiveness?

Lively’s treatment of memory and time has made me think about my own work, and how really time and history aren’t really difficult to write about. It is our obsession with wanting everything to be linear, ordered, in sequence, that makes us fret. The concept itself is a fault by default. Some of the best novels I have ever read do not have linear timelines, as they are far more faithful to the way human memory behaves.

Reading Moon Tiger has relieved me of this expectation in my own work in progress. Whether we like it or not, memory and history has a way of surviving beyond us. For this I am thankful. I am even more thankful for the fact that language itself, one word, after another, after another, is distilled history itself, and as we write and talk we are constantly shuffling from one age to another without even knowing it.

Here, Claudia Hampton in one of her lucid moments makes her memorable speech about language:

Today language abandoned me. I could not find the word for a simple object – a commonplace familiar furnishing. For an instant, I stared into a void. Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. Later, I made an inventory of the room – a naming of parts: bed, chair, table, picture, vase, cupboard, window, curtain. Curtain. And I breathed again.

We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes – our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, and survive and survive and survive.

Profound, isn’t it? How the alpha and the omega of everything may very well be, just words. And they will persist, beyond memory.

 

 

 

writingIt’s 8am, and here I am, bleary-eyed, half incoherent, but awake. Summer nights have had me tossing and turning, so sleep has been an inconstant bedfellow as of late. I came round to the land of the living at around 4am today and noticed a familiar nauseous gnawing in the pit of my stomach. It was a fiend I knew well. Managed to sleep again and awaken at a more agreeable time only to find it hadn’t gone away, it was still there: the succubus of ‘you-havent-written-for-2-weeks’ feasting on my intestines.

One coffee later and here I am, determined to work through and complete this damned short story that I birthed in September. The ending is missing – like always I got the hardest parts done, only to ‘rest’ and then forget about the project.

Sometimes it’s good to have an enhanced sense of guilt: it makes you work harder.

So this is why I’m sitting down to a bit of hardcore writing this morning. I’m in the garden, I’ve got my coffee, my word document is up and I’ve just glanced at the opening paragraph of my short story.

“He lived in a house of yellowing books. In the hallway these towers of thoughts and dreams loomed silently, their pages mottled with age spots. Beyond the gloom, more volumes fell down the stairs in a vertiginous spill. Some, spread-eagled on broken spines, gaped silently in toothless despair while others, firmly shut, were eyeless to the world. The only light fell in glowing bars through the dirty curtains in the living room. Somehow, dust motes still found a way to churn in the stasis.”

There’s so much to say about the journey I have taken with this project – (a journey I am still on by the way) and a project is never really ‘finished’. No. You just learn to leave it when the prose gets as tight and smooth as possible, and you can bear to let the world see it.

What many won’t know is that this opening has been through countless drafts: eight major revisions to be precise, but with lots of minor adjustments. It used to be twice as long at one point – but as you look at your story and ask yourself what it is that you NEED to tell rather than what you WANT to tell, you realise you don’t need half the words there. Some call it ‘cutting out the waffle’, I call it ‘purging the ego-talk’. Sometimes we write just to show off what we are capable of…

I have yet to complete the ending of this story – it has been quite a journey, but I am so excited. It’ll be the first project I’ve completed in full. The first that came to me fully formed in my head, and that is a big thing – as big a thing as when JK Rowling said the whole of Harry Potter came to her while she was sitting in the carriage of a train heading back from god knows where.

One word, after another word, after another word. That is how we build worlds… now, let’s get to it!

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John Ernst Steinbeck (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968)

I don’t want to spoil the perfection of the following letter that is addressed to aspiring writers. If anyone has looked for a mentor to guide them along this lonely road of letters, then I give them John Steinbeck’s inspirational texts. Here’s a man who trod the path, understood what writing was ‘really’ about, and managed to convey it in a way that we beginners would be able to understand.

For all those who cannot ‘see’ their way clearly and are confused as to where their road is taking them, and for all those who think ‘reading’ is enough experience to write a good book, I invite them to think again. Steinbeck points towards the necessity of an inner enlightenment that an upcoming writer must go through to become who they want:

“Dear Writer:

 Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all – so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher’s side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic ’20s, and I was going out into that world to try to be a writer.

I was told, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

It wasn’t too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time – a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

      She told me it wouldn’t.

                                                                          John Steinbeck, 1963

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All journey's begin somewhere, and what better adventure than to walk the road less travelled...

Everyone knows beginning’s are difficult. Like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, Dorothy falling into the land of Oz or Wendy’s flight into Neverland the budding writer draws a deep breath and begins a terrifying free-fall into a world of their own creation. I have always believed that all people have at least one story within them worth telling, and often the road that one travels on towards that story can sometimes be more fabulous and interesting than the story itself.

As fiction slowly replaces reality and I begin my transformation from reader to writer, this blog will help document the ups and downs of my personal journey into authorhood, the publishing world and everything else that is between and beyond.

Of course, I began my journey a while ago, but my realisation of the journey’s ‘significance’ did not dawn on me until quite recently. So here I give you ‘Notes About A Small Island’, my story about what it is to really begin at the very beginning, not knowing when or where or how the end will come about.

NOTE: ‘ Notes About A Small Island’ is by no means an expert handbook or fail-safe guide to writing or publishing a bestseller. Instead, it is the humble abode of all my experiences or rather, my growing ‘awareness’ as a writer for her art.  

Picture courtesy of A. Halil – ‘My Yellow Brick Road’