THEO PANAYIDES meets the author of children’s books that all address a serious question and finds a serious woman beneath a layer of niceness
‘Have you read your mummy’s books?’ I ask five-year-old Christoforos, sitting with Marina Michaelidou-Kadi at the kitchen table in her Nicosia home. The boy shakes his head, looking shy. Marina repeats the question gently, pointing to the small pile of prize-winning children’s books on the table in front of us – and this time Christoforos nods, which makes sense since Marina seldom writes a story without testing it out on her own kids, Christoforos and seven-year-old Sophia. “I thought you meant if I read them today,” he explains very seriously. A five-year-old’s logic is a wonderful thing.
The house is out in the suburbs, surrounded by fields on all sides. It’s comfy but relatively modest, and doesn’t necessarily look like the home of a government minister (Marina’s husband, Costas Kadis, has been Minister of Education and Culture since mid-March) – though it does look like the home of someone with a strong eco-conscience, a house made for long Sunday walks in leafy Nature. That said, like most modern kids, the Michaelidou-Kadi siblings seem more at home sitting in front of the TV watching cartoons than in the fields outside looking for bugs. They’re big on recycling, though.
So is Marina. She’s the one with the strong eco-conscience, her voice – which is sleepy, gentle, slightly croaky – seeming almost to crack in despair when she talks about the environment. “We don’t have a concept of the choices we make, and what effect they have on Nature,” she laments at one point. “And I don’t know what the answer to that is. I mean, as a person you can say ‘I’ll buy organic’ or ‘I’ll only shop in small shops’, but the changes are so huge that sometimes you just feel helpless… It’s something that honestly upsets me very, very much.” We might have a conscience as individuals, she adds, “but what we’re doing as a society is totally in the wrong direction, in my opinion.”
Note the word ‘upsets’ – as opposed to, say, ‘enrages’. Marina doesn’t come across as the confrontational type. In a word, she seems nice, a laid-back 38-year-old (though the easy-going air is apparently a façade) with big sensitive eyes and long straight black hair. We’re barely a third of the way through the interview (in Greek) when she begs me to address her in the more informal singular form, not the polite plural. In fact, she seems so nice that you start to wonder if a person can really be that nice. Surely it’s a bit stage-managed, for instance, when she opens the door with little Christoforos in tow, ready to greet me in a show of sweet domesticity? (I presume she knows how to handle the media; after all, her half-sister is Elita Michaelidou, talk-show queen and doyenne of daytime TV.) But maybe she’s just being a doting mother.
What’s she like as a mother? Marina smiles at the question. “I’m better now. In the beginning…” She shakes her head wryly: “The truth is, I’m not one of those women who’ll say ‘I had a wonderful time when the children were babies’. I think I was very, very anxious. Now that I look back, I regret it a little, because I had a lot of stress. I don’t know why – well OK, I do know why, because I’m a stressful person in general.”
Was she very over-protective?
She tried not to be, she replies, “because I knew it was wrong, but instead I suffered all that tension on the inside. So, every time they got sick I was really anxious – or, for instance, [I worried] that they’d hurt themselves. I remember, when they were babies, I used to get up all the time to check that they were breathing!” She laughs at the memory. “It wasn’t easy… Yeah, people who meet me always say ‘But you look so calm’ – but I keep it all inside, I think. Nowadays I think – I hope – I’m slightly better, at least I try to control it.”
The writing helps, apparently. It wasn’t really planned, it just happened – around five or six years ago, when Sophia was a toddler and husband Costas was Minister of Health in the Papadopoulos government. Marina wasn’t really a writer; she’d written stories as a kid, but mostly to have something she could illustrate (she loves drawing and painting even more than writing). Her real magnum opus is a diary she’s kept every night since she was 12 years old – not every single night (she stopped for a while when she went to university) and not very long, maybe half a page before she goes to bed (these days her entries tend to be about the children more than Marina herself), but still a way to make sense of her emotions, especially “during those times when I felt a bit down, or not very well in general”. The diary also acts as a link to her childhood self, and the half-forgotten hues of a child’s worldview – which came in handy when she started reading children’s books to Sophia, and thought about writing one herself.
The result was Sophia and the Small Forest, its heroine named after her own daughter, its subject “one of the most important environmental problems, the destruction of Nature due to development”. Little Sophia lives close to a forest, which she crosses every day to go to school – but a developer, “a man in a grey suit”, wants to cut down the forest and build a shopping mall, so Sophia and her friend Salih make a plan to save the forest, planting trees and putting a child’s name next to each tree. Faced with the kids and their symbolic handiwork, the adults are shamed into silence. One by one, they abandon the man in the grey suit and join the children – and the forest is saved.
There are various points one could make in connection with that story. The first is that Marina’s dad was himself a developer, a “man in a grey suit” (her mum was a nurse; she grew up in Limassol; she has no other siblings or half-siblings except Elita, who’s 15 years older), though there’s no way of knowing how that played into his daughter’s eco-conscience. The second point is that Salih – though it isn’t made explicit in the story – is a Turkish Cypriot boy, adding another layer of political engagement (some would say political correctness). Even more significantly, the name ‘Salih’ means ‘he who does the right thing’ – a description that could easily apply to Marina herself.
She may not be an activist per se, but she’s passionate about worthy causes; her opinions are unfailingly sensitive, caring, compassionate. We talk about the children’s books she read as a child, and she cites the Lucky Luke comics – but makes clear that she didn’t realise when she read them how “wrongly” they portray Native Americans. She talks about the US, and how much she enjoyed her studies there (she did Psychology then a Masters in Public Administration at Boston University, followed by a PhD in Natural Resources Policy and Management at Cornell) – then specifically lauds American multiculturalism, and how much she misses it in the relatively “closed society” of Cyprus. Most of her books aim, at least in part, to make kids think about issues. Her latest, Savel’s Red Dress, is about a little girl who’s a refugee or asylum seeker (she had to flee her home because of war). An earlier book, Nicolas and Elli, talks about animals caged in zoos, Elli being an elephant – she’s based on Julie, an elephant who spent 45 years cooped up in Limassol Zoo – befriended by young visitor Nicolas.
There’s another point one could make about Marina: she may be sweet, and her books may be full of ‘positive’ messages – but she isn’t naïve, nor is her worldview idyllic. Elli the elephant dies at the end of the book – an ending Marina wrestled with for a long time while writing it, and an ending many kids simply refuse to accept: if you ask a five-year-old how it ends, they’re likely to reply that “Elli was freed and went back to her family,” she tells me (older kids generally get it, though). And, though Sophia and Salih save their small forest by planting trees, Marina herself is less optimistic about such easy fixes.
“The environment has been marginalised,” she intones sadly. The reality is that “all over the planet, forests are being destroyed, bio-diversity is being lost, animal species are vanishing”. An elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes. Here in Cyprus “there’s the attitude that ‘oh yes, tree planting, let’s plant some trees’ – but that’s the least of it! You need to protect the forests that already exist”. Aren’t most people environmentally aware? Probably, she concedes – “but the point is how ready they are to make sacrifices for the environment. I mean, you can say ‘oh yes, we need to protect the forests’, but when a decision must be made about a big project that’s going to bring in money – a development, or a golf course, that’s due to be built in a conservation area – that’s when you see how ready we really are”. Unfortunately, “the [economic] crisis is often used as an argument,” she adds acerbically.
Marina Michaelidou-Kadi oozes non-confrontational niceness, sitting in her home with her kids around her, talking of her books and worthy causes – but you also sense undercurrents of tension or frustration, eddying just below the placid surface. For one thing, the books are a kind of hobby; she gets ideas on the fly, in between daily chores and ferrying kids to private lessons, then writes them up in the evening. She’s actually a civil servant, having worked for the past 10 years at the Ministry of Agriculture (she’s now a Senior Officer, dealing with environmental issues) – and, like almost all civil servants, laments the bureaucracy that tends to stifle dynamic work. I assume she welcomes the reforms pledged by the government of which her husband is a part – though I also suspect that his high-powered job brings its own kind of tension. She is, after all, a stressful person.
Have their lives changed since Costas joined the Cabinet? Only in the sense that she barely sees him, she replies with another wry smile. He’ll come home in the afternoon for an hour or so, then back to work till about 10pm every day (it’s not just Ministry work; there are also constant events he’s expected to attend). It was harder the first time, she admits, during his Health Ministry sojourn when the kids were much younger – but it’s also true that Marina takes child-rearing seriously, and one of her books (Semeli’s Smile) is about a little girl whose mum is always in a rush. “I think, when people say ‘I have quality time with my child but I only see her half an hour every day’ … yeah, I’m not so sure about that,” she opines carefully. “Kids need time.”
Bottom line? She’s a serious person. She takes things seriously. She takes being a parent seriously. She took her studies “very seriously” in college, “and it may be a regret I have, that I didn’t travel as much as I should’ve done”. Her children’s books are serious, or “depressing” as she jokingly puts it. The books she herself reads are serious, currently Andrew Marr’s A History of the World plus a few books on parenting. What does she do to unwind? “I’m not sure that I do anything to unwind!” she replies, and laughs out loud. “Um, yeah, I don’t think I find it very easy to unwind.”
She recalls coming back from the States, more than a decade ago, with a fire smouldering inside her. “I wanted – how can I describe it? – you feel you want to do something. It may not be something important, like changing the world or saving a forest, but at least to make a contribution, even a small one”. That too, perhaps, was a kind of tension – but then she started writing and the tension disappeared, because her books are indeed a contribution, a “creative part” that can lead to change. “Maybe a child will start to think about Nature,” muses Marina. “Or animals”. All part of doing the right thing.