In Stella Leventoyannis Harvey’s first novel, Nicolai’s Daughters, she explores the legacy of a terrible secret and how the ripples of anger and shame pass through generations to result in three families lost to each other.
As Harvey deftly weaves together the three stories of Nicolai, Alexia and Theodora, she skillfully unravels the secrets of the family. The book launch will be held as part of the upcoming Whistler Readers and Writers Festival (Oct. 12 to 14).
In Nicolai’s Daughters, Harvey tells us that the insidious virus of secrets and the damage they inflict, infects not only one person and one family, but all those down the line. Her characters are not bad people. In fact, they are good people, loveable people.
The reason they’re not telling the truth is because they want to protect those they love. With wisdom, patience, and a great affection for her characters, Harvey investigates the theme of what it means to confront a family’s prejudices and hidden stories, in order to move away from the horrors of a long-ago past.
When did the seed of Nicolai’s Daughters take root?
I started this book with a few images, thoughts really, mostly about loss. It tends to be a theme for me as a writer.
I have some ideas about why that is, but I'll save that for a psychoanalyst's couch. I have visited Greece on many occasions since I was a child. I love the hospitality, the openness, the generosity of Greeks and at the same time I also felt that there was some fear of happiness, something inherently sad and complacent, something at the root of all the superstitions I grew up with. I wanted to explore this contradiction.
Greece has been a nation that has been conquered many times in its history, has fought many battles and yet somehow Greeks have maintained their culture. I didn't know how any of these thoughts fit or even what I wanted to write about until I visited Kalavryta.
The novel found its soul when I visited this small mountain village. I listened to the testimonials of the victims recorded in the Kalavryta museum and climbed Kappi Hill myself and realized I wanted to tell the Kalavryta story and at the same time explore the compromises made and secrets kept in order to survive war and what all this does to a family, not only at the time of the tragedy, but also the impact on the family's subsequent generations.
How did the village of Diakofto come alive in your mind and on the page?
I knew I wanted a place in Greece that was not frequented by a lot of tourists. I wanted Alexia to be plopped there and to find a place completely foreign to her, a place not in the tourist guides, a place very different from her home in Vancouver.
Also, Diakofto is close to Kalavryta and it has its own story line. Bounded by water on one side and mountains on the other, Diakofto is an ancient Greek word meaning cut in two, similar to the mountains that loom over this village with the deep Vikos Gorge winding its way between them. I thought that worked well with some of the themes in the novel.
When I read about Diakofto, I also had an image of it similar to how Alexia first views it, a pretty seaside community, but in fact it wasn't as attractive as I had pictured it myself before I finally visited there. But I've gone back a few times and like Alexia, and I've come to love it too.
How much of your own experience is reflected in the novel?
Good question. Alexia missed her extended family her whole life. I have to say that comes from my own longing.
My family immigrated to Canada when I was six and I felt as though I missed my aunts and uncles and cousins my whole life. My parents missed our extended family also, so as a result there were always extra people sitting around the kitchen table at Christmas or Easter.
Anyone without a home was always invited into my parent's home. I think that comes from generosity but it also comes for a deep-seated longing for a larger family. When I return to Greece (even though I never lived there), it feels like going home. It's a culture and a people I absolutely love.
Nicolai and some of his fears and superstitions are things I grew up with and still believe. So my superstitions are the butt of many a joke. And that's another way the book reflects my experiences.
In Nicolai’s Daughters, the speech of Alexia’s extended Greek family is humourous, sharp, humble, wise and at times, cocky — what’s your trick to capturing their vernacular?
I grew up with it. My parents spoke this way and anytime we went to Greece, this is how my relatives spoke. I love voices; I love hearing how people express themselves, love seeing their expressions, love making up stories in the absence of knowing what is really going on. I love trying to understand why people do what they do.
Harvey is the founder of the Whistler Writers’ Group and director of the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival. The book launch for Nicolai’s Daughters will be held as part of that event at the Squamish Lil-wat Cultural Centre next Friday (Oct. 12) at 6:30 p.m.