A Review of Nicolai’s Daughters, and Interview with author Stella Leventoyannis Harvey ~ by Rebecca Wood Barrett
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. She begins with Nicolai, who leaves his eight year old daughter Alexia behind in Vancouver, to return to his family in the village of Diakofto, Greece. Having lost his wife to cancer, Nicolai recognizes what a poor father he is in his angry, grieving state. The last thing he wants to do is treat his young daughter like his own father treated him, with ill-will and bitterness. Nicolai’s mother blames his father’s long-held resentments on the war, in which he bore witness to the massacre of an entire village of men, including his own father, in Kalavyrta. She says, “Something very bad happened to him. None of us can understand.” Frustrated by his father’s rejection, Nicolai begins a brief romance with Dimitria, a friend from childhood. After several months, Nicolai leaves her and his family behind, to return permanently to his life and daughter in Canada.
Many years later, when Alexia is grown and a successful lawyer, her father reveals a secret on his deathbed: she has a half-sister in Greece. In his will, he asks her to return a box of letters to the young woman, Theodora. Alexia can’t help feeling betrayed, as though she and her mother weren’t her father’s true loves. However, she decides to travel to Greece to meet her father’s family for the first time, and carry out his wish. Once in Diakofto, she is overwhelmed by the family’s raucous, generous, gossipy nature. She also learns that they shun Theodora and her family.
After a few weeks, Alexia surprisingly finds herself shifting away from her workaholic persona into a more relaxed state. She warms to her new family, their hospitality and gatherings laden with traditional Greek food and wine. She grows especially close to one of her aunts, Christina. Not yet ready to reveal herself to her half-sister Theodora—Alexia orchestrates a chance meeting with her, and pretends to be a stranger. She and Theodora become friends, and Alexia learns of the difficult life Theodora had, growing up without a father. She has lived with the constant shame of being an illegitimate child, and now, as an adult and mother of a small child herself, still suffers under her mother-in-law’s constant verbal jabs.
As Harvey deftly weaves together the three stories of Nicolai, Alexia and Theodora, she skillfully unravels the secrets of the family. Through Alexia’s relentless pursuit of her grandfather’s secret—which grew out of the Kalavryta massacre—she recognizes her own capability for keeping a secret. Despite her disgust at the gossip and lies-of-omission her family perpetuates, she continues to keep her true identity from her half-sister Theodora; she has no wish to cause her more pain.
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.
RWB: When did the seed of Nicolai’s Daughters take root?
Harvey: 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.
RWB: Nicolai’s Daughters is told from several points of view. How did that come about?
Harvey: Slowly. First I began to explore Alexia and her story of loss. Her mother dies when she is only eight and then her father abandons her. I wanted to find out why a father would do such a thing. With that question, Nicolai entered my head, forcing me to understand him and his actions. I couldn’t help but empathize with him. And when Nicolai admits to having fathered another child, Alexia knew nothing about, I found myself wondering how this other child grew up, how she would be different and yet the same as Alexia. And I heard her voice too. More timid, accented, yet persistent. Now you’ll really feel like I need a shrink. But I’m happiest as a writer when my characters are talking to me, when I hear their voices, see their expressions and somehow find the words to put what I hear and see on the page.
RWB: How did the village of Diakofto come alive in your mind and on the page?
Harvey: 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.
RWB: Most of the characters in the novel are holding a secret, and this is one of the strongest themes in the book. How do you go about building a character? Are they based on people you know? Or are they pure invention?
Harvey: They are pure invention, although I must say the accents some of my characters have are accents I grew up with. What we all feel when we are rejected, experience loss, are angry, afraid etc., are really universal. What I hope to do through the story is show who my characters are and why they react the way they do in different situations. I love them all even the most dastardly ones, like the cad, Achilles in the novel. He was meant to be a “walk on, walk off” character, without the slightest hint of even a minor role but, like his character, he walked on and stayed, refusing to walk off, and became an integral part of both Nicolai’s story, and Alexia’s, years later in the novel.
RWB: How long did it take you to write Nicolai’s Daughters, and what’s your typical writing day like?
Harvey: My first draft is dated 2006. God! Where has the time gone. I completed a full draft in late 2010. I tinkered with the first three chapters for about two years, fixing, changing, amending, and rewriting those first three chapters about a million times. Then I was lucky to be accepted into the Banff Centre’s Wired Studio which included a two week residency at the Banff Centre. My mentor was The Book of Negroes author, Lawrence Hill. The best advice he gave me was: Stop fixing, just keep writing. Those who keep fixing never finish a novel. You can fix it later. And so that’s what I did, I spent most of 2008 and 2009 finishing the novel. Then most of 2010 rewriting it about a million times. Then of course when Signature Editions accepted the manuscript in late 2011, there were more edits to be made.
My typical writing day starts at about 5 a.m. I love the quiet and the dark and being alone with my thoughts. Because I tend to be asocial person who likes to have a ton of things on the go, it’s very hard for me to get quiet enough to sit down and concentrate. I do that best in the morning when the rest of the world is asleep. I typically write until 11 if I’m having a good day and then I go on with the rest of my life. Sometimes I come back to it in the afternoon but mostly I don’t. When I’m on a roll, everything else stops, everything else goes on the back burner. Eat? Who needs to eat? But this happens very, very rarely. It’s usually a struggle and I never think what I write is good enough or really finished. I tinker stuff to death and only stop when I realize I’m putting back the same words I deleted only the other day.
RWB: How much of your own experience is reflected in the novel?
Harvey: Good question. Alexia missed her extended family her whole life. I have to say that comes from my own longing. My family emigrated 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.
RWB: 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?
Harvey: 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.
RWB: What authors, mentors or ideas have influenced the novel?
Harvey: I love books that make a bigger statement, say something about our world that we need to pay attention to, whether it be how we treat each other, or how we treat the environment. I love books that make you feel and empathize and understand situations, people, places outside my comfort zone. This insight usually helps me see me more clearly too. So I want to write stories that do all this. I have tried to do this with Nicolai’s Daughters.
I love everything written by Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ), just about anything written by Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men), Margaret Atwood (The Year of the Flood), and Barbara Kingsolver (The Lacuna). I hold the best up as my light and if nothing else, aspire to do my best.
Stella L. 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 at the Squamish Lil-wat Cultural Centre in Whistler at 6:30pm on Friday, October 12th, 2012.