Amanda Michalopoulou is a prolific author of novels, short stories, and children’s books; it is rather difficult, therefore, to locate only one thing that categorizes her work, other than the quality of it, of course. English-only readers are lucky as they can now experience the joy of reading a Michalopoulou work in its entirety: Dalkey Archive Press has recently published I’d Like, a metafictional work reminiscent of Calvino and Borges. Readers of English can also find translations of her short stories in an excellent anthology of contemporary Greek writers titled Angelic and Black (Cosmos Publishing, 2006), and in Decapolis: Tales from Ten Cities (Comma Press, 2006); there is also a story to be found on Words Without Borders.
Amanda was kind enough to meet me in New York—where she vacations occasionally—to discuss I’d Like. Special thanks needs to go to Amanda’s translator, Karen Emmerich, who was instrumental in arranging the meeting, and who was also present during the following interview. A good grasp of contemporary Greek writing can be traced simply by reading Karen’s translations of writers such as Miltos Sachtouris, Margarita Karapanou (forthcoming), and Vassilis Vassilikos, to mention just a few of the other authors she has translated.
For more on Amanda Michalopoulou, read George Fragopoulos’s review of I’d Like, also in Issue 16.
George Fragopoulos: What brings you back to metafiction, as this is not your first work to use such techniques, and can you say a little about I’d Like’s peculiar form?
Amanda Michalopoulou: Well, I always felt that my life, and everyone’s lives nowadays, is not linear, and that whenever we do something this something is broken up by another activity or event; there isn’t such a thing as a linear life anymore, and fiction always imitates life, and it is interesting to do the same in fiction, for me anyway. And the way I narrate stories is in a very Greek way, a very southern-Mediterranean pattern.
GF: That’s very interesting. Do you compose on the computer first?
AM: Yes, always on the computer.
GF: But do you compose more with an oral framework in mind?
AM: No, not especially. There is an oral origin to the work, but even if there is an orality to it, it is still writing because it is shaped in another way when you are writing.
GF: You did mention the non-linearity of the text, and that leads to my next question: was there a lot of anxiety or tension in regard to what order the stories would appear? Because other than the final one, “I’d Like (Orchestral Version),” it seems they could have appeared in almost any order.
AM: It organically grew. I always start with a linear story, and then I realize, at a certain point, that it can’t be linear anymore, that someone else must narrate his or her own point of view or that a letter or telephone call or diary should come in to the story to explain something. I also like the idea of characters who try to investigate things, who search. And with metafiction you can always change point of views.
GF: And that also categorizes your first novel, Γιαντες (Wishbone), which revolved around a pair of siblings dueling over who would narrate the family story, through very different narrative styles.
AM: Actually, Wishbone also started as a linear narrative, and, as I told you, we should hear the stories, we should know the brother’s [one of the siblings from the novel] stories, and I also wanted to hear the brother’s, Elias’s, side of things; and I had a lot of fun with it. Sometimes I ask myself, Is it too much? Am I playing because I like it or does it fit organically into the book, and I don’t know what the answer is but I do try to keep it at a minimum. As to how it connects to I’d Like . . . No, because although we hear different parts of the story in I’d Like the narrator is always the same, and even if the person narrating a particular story is not the same, we’re still hearing the story from the main narrator’s point of view. So this is different from the first novel where you had two narratives with their own values, their own progress.
GF: But also, in that novel, it is so difficult to differentiate exactly where the one ends and the other begins, because they are so obviously inter-linked.
AM: Yes, but I wanted to be very clear who was talking in Wishbone. In I’d Like things are a bit more complicated.
GF: Do you feel I’d Like represents a break for you from your past works then?
AM: It was a break. It was a moment of liberation. It was the first book I wrote while living in Berlin, and so I really felt very free to experiment with things I perhaps would not have felt so free as to experiment with in Greece. So it is a very special, very precious book for me.
GF: You also mentioned, in a previous interview with Monica Carter, how almost all of your books are finished or, at the very least, written partly outside of Greece. Can you speak a little more at length regarding what you call “psychogeography” and how the theme of displacement functions in your work?
AM: Yes, it’s always like that, and perhaps that is why I can’t finish a novel now, because I’m stuck in Berlin!
Karen Emmerich: It must be weird, because you are already in the place where you would be finishing something, but now that place has become the place where you can’t finish anything.
AM: Exactly! Because it has become home.
GF: You are very fluent in two other languages as well, English and French. Have you ever thought about trying to displace yourself within another language, to write in a language other than Greek?
AM: I did think like that once, when I was younger. But I’ve become more conservative regarding language now. When I was younger I thought of a story of a young woman coming to New York and trying to make sense of the linguistic life by reading advertisements and signs. So her language would be the language of advertisements, a broken English. I never wrote it, but it was always a plan for me. I still feel that to write like that you have to be completely bilingual in another language, and I’m not there.
KE: Or you can become completely bilingual by doing. Have you heard of Tawada Yoko at all? She’s Japanese, lives in Berlin actually, and she writes in both German and Japanese. But when she first started writing in German, her German was not very good. And she uses that distance from the language in that it allows her to experiment in ways that most German writers can’t because they are rule-bound and they know how things are supposed to be. Whereas you can write in English in ways that neither one of us could write in English.
GF: This also raises the question of how one belongs to a national literature. You said earlier that your story telling has a Greek or Mediterranean aspect to it. Do you feel you belong to a national literature, or are such distinctions no longer applicable?
AM: No, I never felt that. I always felt very alone in literature, as a human being I mean, sitting there writing. Of course I had my experiences, my background, but not that I belonged to categories like “female writer,” or “Greek writer,” or “young writer under the age of thirty-five.” No, I don’t feel that way.
GF: I ask because of the influences felt in your work. Borges is mentioned, and Calvino in particular seems to have been an influence. If on a winter’s night a traveler seems to have influenced the form of I’d Like . . .
AM: Yes, it was a novel that was very important for me.
GF: Did you have that particular text in mind while writing this?
AM: Probably, but not in a conscious way. Although our fantasies function in completely different ways, the way Calvino breaks narrative is something that is very interesting to me, something very playful.
GF: And one of the things that endeared me to your text is that there is an incredible warmth to it, something that perhaps you don’t get as much in Calvino or Borges, and this is mostly felt in the story of the family.
AM: Especially for this work, I think it has something to do with the fact that I was a mother for the first time in my life, and it was a completely different world of feelings for me. And I guess it comes through the writing as well. I felt I started writing when younger in a more intellectual way, and slowly, the more I grow older, things happen to my life, and I am no longer afraid to show feelings anymore in the writing. And it has to do with the fact that this book needed those emotions to narrate the story. It would be impossible with an intellectual approach. Sometimes the book asks for certain things that you have to offer.
GF: But I’d Like also has a grotesque or violent side to it, and they made a lot more sense to me when you mentioned Karapanou in that interview with Monica, and how she was a precursor for you. Can you speak a little about Karapanou’s influence on your work, especially because a lot of English readers know very little about her?
KE: But they will! Kassandra and the Wolf is being republished, along with two earlier novels in fall 2009 and spring 2010.
AM: Well, what can I say about Karapanou? She’s a major influence although I know I can’t write like her. And this is the best influence because I knew I could never imitate her. It was so intense and so real, and never imitating anything else. Her work was so original. And it was such an original voice and reading her diaries, which just came out, and reading her entries from thirteen years old, you could already see her voice. You could listen to this voice and see it was already there. What I admire in her is her originality. But of course, it was a very sad life story, and when I say to myself that you are not as original as some other writers you admire it all goes along with a whole other private history. But I feel that nobody has talked about childhood the way she did, really, in Kassandra. If she wasn’t Greek, but was American or German, I feel everybody would know her. Everybody could recognize themselves in her writings about childhood. And she was not at all your typical Greek author; she read widely in American and French literature and was always an outsider in a sense.
KE: And if you think of many Greek writers, it is incredibly common to be moving between languages, to be moving between places, so she is typically Greek in the sense that she is coming form the “outside” or writing as she does in The Sleepwalker. She is writing about the island of Hydra in The Sleepwalker, magnified a thousand-fold and turned into this surreal, weird place by combining foreign and Greek elements and composing characters who are shadow puppets in a way. And this is what stuck me about I’d Like. Not in terms of style or structure but in terms of characters it is your most Greek book in that it takes place only in Greek and there is nobody in it that is not Greek.
GF: Although there is the author in the very beginning who is Greek-American . . .
KE: Yes, that’s right!
GF: Although he is, of course, still rooted deeply in Greece and in Greek.
KE: But in comparison with almost everything else Amanda has written, even the other book of short stories [Outside Life is Colorful] many of them are set abroad.
AM: And the psychological explanation is that I felt that I could speak about Greece once I wasn’t there, I could explore it, and I knew I would not be back for a while so it felt safe to talk about it.
GF: How did Rilke find his way in the text? And are the sections from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge?
AM: Yes, they are. But sometimes I don’t know how it happens. When I read I read different things, I try to read things that are closer to my mood, closer to my emotional landscape. And I don’t read linearly. I have a stack of books and I just pick through them. And Rilke was one of them, and when I read those parts they felt like they belonged because they explain a lot. And because Rilke could help me write a better ending than I could on my own.
KE: And that made for an interesting translation problem, too. I wanted to use Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the German but, because of copyright issues, I couldn’t. And the way in which those Rilke selections were translated are very tied up with the narrative; phrases from those passages then return in the narrative, especially in the very end of the book.
AM: And also it would make sense that I’d Like’s author-protagonist at that age would read Rilke and love it, and that she would like to read it to her mother and encourage her without knowing what this encouragement could do to an older person who doesn’t read the way she reads. It’s also a comment on how you read when you are eighteen, or twenty and how you idealize literature; there are other ways of interpretation, especially with writers like Rilke.
GF: Karen, did this text present any other challenges in terms of translation?
KE: It was hard the way all things are hard. But because of the way the stories are so interconnected, you had to be really careful. Certain very important words would appear elsewhere or be refracted, certain images; you had to be careful to allow for those resonances to be apparent.
GF: So what’s the next work to be translated into English?
AM: Right now, the idea is to have some stories translated to be published in different venues and magazines. As far as a novel goes, not sure as of yet.
KE: Although the ultimate goal is to translate Princess Lizard . . .
AM: And Karen has already translated some chapters of my novel. This would be, obviously, the next step, hopefully.
GF: And how is that going?
KE: Well, I’ve done a sample, and it’s just a matter of sending it around, trying to generate interest.
GF: And why that novel in particular?
AM: Because it is the latest one.
KE: And because it is the one Amanda is the most excited about.
GF: And what’s it about? I haven’t actually read it yet.
AM: You talk about it, Karen . . .
KE: It’s another family dynamic involving all sorts of supernatural, funny things that are happening. It’s sort of like your family growing up, Amanda, and about this thing that happens in childhood and the growth of that in later years. I don’t want to spoil the whole plot, but it also involves a book within a book, all these narrative voices that come out, it’s half-mystery, half-thriller . . .
AM: A family thriller.
GF: You are currently writing a new novel where the main protagonist is a teacher. Can you say a little more about this new work and whether or not it deploys metaficitonal techniques?
AM: It is told from different points of view, and each narrator picks up from the previous one; it is almost like a relay race. And the problem with this book is that the main narrator does not want to say what his emotions are, or what he is going through. He narrates differently from all the others around him; they explore the past, but when he talks it is only about movement and practical life. So I liked the juxtaposition between such narratives. So the others who are very interested in his life are his sister, a woman who falls in love with him, different people who when they meet him and things happen between them they try to explain. So we find out about his life through other people.
GF: And when do you think you’ll be done with it?
AM: Who knows! I really don’t know. I’m travelling to Morocco soon because someone in the novel moves there so I need to go and visit the German community there.
GF: Finally, can you speak of what I see as an ethical dimension in your works, especially in relation to your characters?
AM: I’m very glad you mentioned this, because it is very important to me, this ethical point, and how one tries to understand the heroes and to talk as they do and feel as they do. I think it comes spontaneously to me, to not be didactic, to follow their the characters’ voices, to not punish them when they are bad or make heroes of them when they are good, like soap opera heroes; I really hate that.
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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