New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
“Plato in New York”, a work in progress by avant-garde writer, Ersi Sotiropoulos, an unusual, riveting, and groundbreaking presentation in the Living Room at the Gershwin Hotel on October 11 was described by Sotiropoulos as a “hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry”. “Plato in New York” was perhaps a “first” such hybrid by a Greek author. But it was not the only “first” from this acclaimed Greek author. “Zigzag through the Bitter Orange Trees” (“Zig-Zag stis Nerantzies”), one of her twelve books of fiction (and published in German translation as “Bittere Orangen’ in 1999), was the first novel ever to receive Greece’s two most important literary awards, the Greek State Prize for Literature and Greece’s preeminent Book Critics Award (2000). More professional tributes to Sotiropoulos’ work: her last novel, “Eva”, a young woman’s odyssey through the backstreets of Athens on Christmas Eve, won the Athens Academy prize for best novel in 2011, and her book of stories “Feel blue, dress in red” has just been short-listed for Greece’s National Book Award.
Sotiropoulos, who lives in Athens and was Artist in Residence at the Gershwin Hotel from September 6- October 18 (and Director’s Guest there in 2010), explained to the GN that “Plato in New York” used fictional narrative, dialogue and visual poetry, was a way of exploring the identity of the city through analogies between two distinct and very different times and cultures, New York now and Plato’s Athens. “The idea is to portray New York as Plato’s cave, a complex place where it is almost impossible to separate the real from the virtual”, she says, “Plato wrote, ‘How can you prove whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?’ It seems like the eruption of the past in the present, but it is not so simple. With the virtual devouring big chunks of the real, apparent these days in the financial world and the media, Plato’s questions seem as relevant as ever.”
The creation of “Plato in New York” took time. Sotiropoulos notes that she has been thinking about this project for many years and her stay at the Gershwin gave her the opportunity to concentrate on it. “I imagined Plato landing in New York today, wandering around and questioning the people on the street. Times have changed, but the questions are still the same: ‘What is love?’ he asks, and we know that for him ‘Love is the pursuit of the whole’, says Soteropoulos, “His questions are simple, direct, not sophisticated, and I wanted to find out how different people respond to them and confront Plato’s thought with the private, everyday philosophy of famous or ordinary persons. Reinventing Plato’s dialogues has been very challenging and the response of the audience at the Gershwin presentation was great.” Sotiropoulos hopes to present “Plato in New York” when the project is completed.
In answer the question of what drives her work and how she would characterize it, Sotiropoulos said, “Passion, I guess. Art could be the only way to keep one’s identity in a world of alienation… For me, writing is recreating the world, bringing order in the chaos.”
“I realized that I wanted to be a writer very young”, says Sotiropoulos, who began writing when she was around eight years old. Born in Patras, she recalls that “there were a lot of books” in her house when she was growing up, and although she was sometimes encouraged by her family in her writing ambition, she often “felt like an outsider”.
Ersi Sotiropoulos published her debut novel, The Trick (“I fársa”) in which she describes life in a strict patriarchal society in 1982. Asked who are her favorite writers, Sotiropoulos said, “There are so many writers I like; I can’t say who influenced me in particular, but when I was growing up and as an apprentice writer, the main influences came from poets: Ezra Pound, Cavafy, E.E. Cummings, were and still are my favorites.“ As for the ancients, she named “the Greek lyric poets, Alcaeus, Anakreon, and Sappho…so simple and so modern”.
Sotiropoulos studied philosophy and cultural anthropology in Florence and worked with the Greek embassy in Rome. She has been a fellow at institutions and universities around the world, including the Rockefeller at Bellagio, Bogliasco Foundation, Sacatar in Brazil, University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Schloss Wiepersdorf in Germany and Princeton University.
A notable recent essay by Sotiropoulos was “Europeans Have Forgotten Their Greek Inheritance”. To read excerpts of another of Ersi Sotitopoulos’ essays on the Greek crisis, go to: http://feelingmyage.co.uk/2011/10/greece/