New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
“I’m very proud of Yvette. The entire family is so incredibly proud of our girl; she is so creative. It is not a little thing to write a novel and have it published in twelve different languages,” says Tasso Manessis about his daughter Yvette Manessis Corporon and her debut novel, When the Cypress Whispers (Harper Collins Publisher) to be released on April 1, 2014.
“It’s is a tapestry of my own life, crafted from the memories, legends, and relationships I hold most sacred”, says Yvette Manessis Corporon about When the Cypress Whispers which has already received very positive reviews from Publishers Weekly and many important personalities and authors, one describing it as “a love letter to Greece by a wonderful storyteller”.
At times reading like a coming-of-age book, When the Cypress Whispers deals equally with weighty matters, principally the rarely-told story of the Jews of Corfu and their experience during the Holocaust as well as problems of Greek American identity that can arise in a mixed-background relationship, and the power of tradition, of the past, all against the backdrop of the protagonist, Daphne’s deep love and unbreakable bond with her grandmother.
“The book provides a brief glimpse of the multi-faceted dimensions of the horrors endured by Greece during World War II, the struggle for survival and the innate humanity of the rural Greek population that enabled some to reach past their own hardships and, in the process, save others,” said Marcia Haddad Economopoulos, the Museum Director of the Museum of Greek Jewry, NY (Kehila Kedosha Jannina), “I would have loved this book even if there was absolutely nothing written on Greek Jewry, but the fact that this subject plays a prominent role in the book, made me love the book even more.”
Manessis Corporon, an award-winning writer and producer for the syndicated entertainment news show, EXTRA, in New York, squeezed the 6-year long writing of When the Cypress Whispers into her breakneck work schedule by rising at four or five in the morning, “making a big pot of coffee” to wake herself up, and sitting at the kitchen table to write as long as she could, which was until her two young children woke up and it was time to go to work. “It was all so private; it was something I had to do to challenge myself, ” said the author, speaking with the GN,” People didn’t even know that I was writing a book.”
GN: Was writing a book a long-time plan?
YMC: After years of asking everyone from Oscar winners to Grammy winners and politicians what it feels like to achieve their dreams I realized that I wanted to feel it too, and that it was time to start chasing my own dream.
There were so many things that I wanted to write about: my family, our traditions, favorite myths, our island home, and issues and idiosyncrasies of being a first generation Greek American, that the entire process was like a giant puzzle that I struggled to somehow find a way to bring together. It was a challenge to see if I could fit all these themes into a story that not only worked, but that anyone would find even remotely interesting.
Now that people are reading the book hearing someone say that it moved them or that they related to it is just mind-boggling. I always hoped that it would be a story that would resonate, not just to Greeks, but also to any culture… any religion, any ethnicity. Now the fact that international rights to the book are selling around the world–so far to twelve countries–that different cultures are relating to it is beyond my wildest dreams.
GN: How much do the characters in the book derive from real people?
YMC: Like Daphne, I spent childhood summers in Greece surrounded my colorful and crazy–in the best possible way–extended family, and swimming in the Ionian sea!
Everyone says that the number one rule of writing is to write what you know, so I did. First, I wanted to write a story that spoke to me and our family, to honor the incredible women and traditions that I come from. The Yiayia in the book is based on my father’s mother, but she’s a composite of all the wonderful Greek women in my life… I can say that all the women in my book are modeled after the women in my life–my mother, grandmothers, aunts, cousins and friends. These women mean everything to me. They are my sisterhood, my lifeline, my strength, and my source of inspiration.
No matter who we are or where we come from, we all have that special someone in our lives, someone whose words resonate in our ears and whose voice guides us every day. For me, that person is my mother, Kiki. She is truly my best friend in the world–she inspired the story just as much as my grandmother.
My mother, raised in a tiny, remote Greek mountain village, came to the US and married my father when she was just 18 years old. My mother never worked outside of the home or earned a paycheck. Raising her children and taking care of our family was her job. Despite the differences in our lives and our experiences, my mother is the one person who understands me best. She’s the person who has always pushed me forward, believed in me and convinced me I could do anything, even when I convinced myself that I could not.
GN: In the book, Daphne’s grandfather is killed in the war.
YMC: My own Yiayia’s husband, my Papou, was not killed, but she was a kind of war widow nonetheless; Papou had left for New York to work in the diners and save enough money to eventually send for his wife and children, but then war broke out and Papou couldn’t return to Greece. Yiayia was left alone on the island with two small children and no husband during wartime. With no husband, no money, no education, no job, and no way to support her family, my Yiayia and the other island women banded together and helped each other survive.
GN: And helped a Jewish family from Corfu survive, as well.
YMC: Yes. Some say a miracle took place on Erikousa during that time. The islanders also came together to hide a Jewish man and his daughters from the Nazis. The man was their tailor on the main island of Corfu. When the Nazis began rounding up Jews, the family escaped and hid on Erikousa. At risk to their own lives, the entire island community befriended and kept the secret of the Jewish tailor and his daughters. Yiayia became especially close to one of the daughters. They would sit day after day, sewing together, talking and helping each other through those difficult and scary times.
When my grandmother came to America after my Papou died, I remember looking at her and seeing a simple, barely literate woman dressed in black who made fish head soup instead of mac and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I never stopped to think about what life was like for her, how she managed to raise her children when she was separated from her husband, or if she ever feared for her life when she befriended a Jewish girl who was hiding from the Nazis. I never took the time to stop and really think about these questions, the extraordinary life she lead, how scared and lonely she must have been or the lessons I could learn from her… until I became a mother myself. Only then did I really stop to think about the sacrifices she had made, the risks she had taken and the tremendous courage she had shown. But by then it was too late to ask Yiayia to share more of her story with me.
GN: Daphne’s cold realization that her fiancé, Stephen, who is not of Greek heritage will never understand her, is a realistic portrayal of a culture clash that will be familiar to many. Have you ever experienced this?
YMC: I never dated that much, but whenever I dated someone who was not Greek there often was the defining moment when I said to myself, “This is not going to work”.
I remember one instance in particular. I was clearly an independent woman on the way, living in Manhattan, going to NYU, starting my career, but my date criticized my relationship with my mother, saying, “It’s not normal for a woman to be so close to her mother”. I said, “We’re done”.
On the other hand, my all-American husband, whose family is the antithesis of ours, has embraced and grown to love our culture. He was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church when we were to be married. And so I feel that he’s as Greek as I am. I’ve always felt that you don’t have to be the same, but you have to respect each other. You have to embrace, or at least respect the culture of the other person. In the book, Stephen is worldly and intelligent yet doesn’t try to understand Daphne’s traditions nor does he respect them.
GN: In the book Daphne has a strong connection to Saint Spyridon, patron saint of Corfu.
YMC: As Stephen does in the book, I once had a friend who questioned our faith in Saint Spyridon in Kerkyra. Like tradition, that’s not something you question in someone; it’s just there. Those reflections in the book come from very strong feeling.
Like anyone with deep roots to the island, Saint Spyridon is very special to me. There have been many visions and miracles in my own family that we attribute to the saint. I make sure to visit the church of Saint Spyridon every time I am in Corfu. There have also been many times in New York these past few years when I’ve felt I needed a little extra spiritual help, so I’ve sent a Facebook message to my cousin Effie in Corfu asking her to go to the church and light a candle for me.
GN: Have you thought about spending time on Erikousa with your family?
YMC: I see Erikousa as not only an important piece of my family’s history, but as a vital and integral part of our future, as well. I dream of one day being able to go back to Erikousa to fix my grandfather’s house and live there for months at a time, quietly writing books, cooking for my family, and watching my children swim in the sea and Greek dance with their cousins.