THEO PANAYIDES meets a creative who wears many hats, but in all of them is certain of the need to be flexible
I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t really fancy a tea. Marilena Zackheos looks crestfallen. We have “munchies” too, she says hopefully, indicating the kitchen of the spacious flat she shares with her husband Brady (he’s back in the US, visiting his folks) – and points to a dish of home-made olive pies, the so-called ‘village’ ones with the pebbly exterior and doughy insides flecked with flakes of fresh coriander.
I pick one up and try it, somewhat dubious despite her assertion that she’s “passionate about food”. To my slight surprise, it’s delicious. It’s as good as the ones you find in bakeries, I blurt out. Actually, I’d like them to be even better than the ones you find in bakeries, she replies brightly, smoothing over my faux pas, and explains how she uses orange juice instead of water to make them extra-fluffy. A little later we’re sitting at the dining-room table, with her laptop open for easy reference. The laptop is adorned with a stencilled image of Snow White, beaming out her virginal simper as I try to take a picture. A guitar rests on a chair; the books on the bookshelf range from Derek Walcott to the Marquis de Sade to 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die. Marilena herself sits at the head of the table in a black dress, smiling and sipping coffee from a Pisces mug. Pisces people, says the mug, are “creative, intuitive, loving, trusting”.
That’s one side: Snow White, the cosy domesticity, the home-made olive pies. Another side of Marilena may be glimpsed on YouTube, though only imperfectly – at least till an album called Oh My by the Grendel Babies comes out sometime in 2016. The Babies are her band, or the band she used to have in Washington DC (she and Brady moved to Cyprus about four years ago) – a four-piece with cello, keyboard, drums and violin, drawing influences from vaudeville, swing and chamber music, known primarily as a live act with skits and outlandish costumes alongside the songs.
She gets on the laptop and plays me a song called ‘Wife of Bisclavret’ – a song about “the harm that people do to each other”, based on a 12th-century Lai (i.e. short narrative poem) by Marie de France. It’s about a wife whose husband is a werewolf (!), and the mayhem that ensues once she learns his secret; she leaves him for another, he finds her (in wolf form) and tears off her nose, etc etc. It’s not a song that goes with Snow White and delicious munchies; it’s a rollicking, theatrical, angrily ironic kind of song, like something from The Threepenny Opera – and Marilena’s voice is especially startling, ranging from a leer to a yowl to a crisp Joanna Newsom falsetto. “I was in a punk-rock band called Maenads,” she explains – this was in Cyprus, back in her early 20s (she’s now 35) – and she lost her voice from too many punk-rock exertions, forced into a months-long silence which in turn led to opera training to make sure it didn’t happen again. The result is a voice to be reckoned with.
The album version isn’t out yet (the making of the album is a saga in itself); all that’s available on YouTube is a live version from 2009, with the Grendel Babies – still a duo at that point, just Marilena and her friend Jennifer – performing ‘Wife of Bisclavret’ at some outdoor festival in Washington DC, dressed in white togas, yowling out their tale of mediaeval werewolves in mid-afternoon to a smattering of suburban parents and their kids. The song isn’t quite as impressive, of course – yet the setting makes it seem even bolder, its creativity even more unabashed. “One of the things I tell my students,” she says at one point, “is that, when you go up there, you need to be 100 per cent unapologetic about what you’re reading. No inkling of shame or fear!”.
Students? Yes indeed, that’s another side – though let’s mention the professional side first, the one she leads with on LinkedIn (which one is her main hat? “All of them. I’m a multi-tasker”): Director of the Cyprus Centre for Intercultural Studies, and Assistant Professor at the University of Nicosia. She teaches at the University, but that’s not where the quote about students being unapologetic comes from – because she also teaches (or leads) poetry workshops at Write CY, a “creative writing joint” that’s mostly the brainchild of American writer Max Sheridan. “You can’t dictate poetry. But you can inspire,” explains Marilena, her aim being to nudge budding poets into looking at the world in a new way – “What colour is this texture? What does this texture sound like?” she’ll ask her blindfolded charges, having them touch different objects and think synaesthetically – and reading out the results, with no inkling of shame or fear, at workshops or Open Mic Nights.
I’m wary, and can’t help showing it. My problem with creative-writing classes, I explain cautiously, is that they make writing seem easy, when in fact it’s very hard.
She looks dismayed again, like when I didn’t want any coffee or tea. “Well, it needs to be fun, right? Because it’s play.”
No! Not at all! It’s the opposite of play.
“Of course it does. Freud talked about this,” she insists gently. “We lose touch with play, the older we get, and this is a space where you can do that. Where you can play with words, play with structure, play with form, with ideas.”
Play doesn’t need to be frivolous, of course; that’s the point. Marilena herself is extremely serious – most of her time is spent at the Centre for Intercultural Studies, running events to promote diversity and anti-racism – yet she doesn’t have the rigid mindset one associates with ideologues. “I see things as more fluid,” she admits at one point. “I don’t think anything is forever”.
‘Diversity’, for instance, is one of those words (like ‘multiculturalism’) that’s become a shibboleth for a healthy society – and she obviously agrees, but not because she read it in a book. Diversity is part of her life, from her marriage (she and Brady are an “intercultural” couple) to her many sides, and indeed her many friends. “My husband kind of makes fun of me, because I have a lot of different friends. Very different backgrounds, very different personalities. I have friends who are the artist type, I have friends who are kind of more buttoned-up.” What do they all have in common? “I find them very interesting. And I learn things from them. And even if I don’t agree, I’m very interested in hearing that point of view. Very much so. Like, for me, it’s really important to be around all these different views. I can’t imagine just hanging out with one type of person, one type of view”.
This too is perhaps a kind of play, mixing and matching those around her – not in a cold or exploitative way, more as a form of creativity, like the eclectic mix of genres that informs her music. She has very bohemian friends and, for instance, very religious friends who don’t always share their views, afraid of giving offence. “I’ve always been kind of the defender of the underdog,” says Marilena, so it bugs her that God-fearing types now feel ostracised. Yes, I point out, but not long ago it was atheists who felt out of place. Is she just going to keep switching sides, and helping whoever needs help? “Why not?” she shrugs disarmingly. “I think you should reserve the right to always change your mind. Because things change, nothing is constant, nothing is permanent… You need to be flexible. Flexible in your viewpoint, flexible in your outlook.”
Maybe it stems from her childhood (speaking of Freud, as we almost were earlier) – a childhood where things did change fairly regularly, and being flexible became a survival mechanism. “I was born here, but then – I guess my parents were living in Moscow at the time?” she says, her intonation making clear (if it wasn’t already) that she did some time in the States as well. And Beijing in between. And Geneva, for a year and a half in her mid-teens. Her father, Sotos Zackheos, was (and remains) quite a big-shot, a diplomat whose high-level postings meant frequent uprootings for Marilena and her brother.
Other places meant international schools, growing up with a multitude of cultures – the offspring of expats and diplomats – in a kind of tolerant bubble-world. Other places meant you could re-invent yourself each time, though you also had to make new friends and try to fit in. She was something of a Goth-punk in those days, and still has a touch of that gloomy streak (“I don’t get to dress like this at work,” she notes, contemplating her all-black look with approval: “I think this is the animal in its true habitat!”), though I also get a sense that much of her energy went into not feeling gloomy. It’s not really shocking to learn – though she only confides it reluctantly, and with all sorts of qualifiers – that she went through “kind of a heavy depression in my younger years”. Marilena comes off as a person who needs a complex balance to be at her best, her different sides working in tandem, a person who’d easily suffocate without the freedom to play – the freedom to always change her mind, as she puts it. She’s sensitive to a fault, and can barely watch a film without getting weepy. And of course she’s a poet, among other things.
She likes the “confessional” poets, she admits, the likes of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton – troubled women who poured out their pain in poetry. (Strangely, or not so strangely, she’s not so confessional in real life, and shakes her head at the loss of privacy embraced by the Facebook generation.) As well as the Grendel Babies album and a children’s book she’s currently working on, 2016 should see the publication of her poetry collection titled Carmine Lullabies – and she quotes me a line from the title-poem: “A farewell adds something to this world”, her own farewell being to whatever traumas lie in her past. “It’s about saying goodbye to this past, a haunting past or a painful past, and moving on”. It’s surely significant that her academic work was initially on island cultures’ literary response to national trauma – but that, “after reading a lot of very depressing accounts”, she decided to change her focus from trauma to recovery from trauma, “stories of victimhood turned into narratives of empowerment”. She’s learned not to wallow in the darkness.
“I feel now more grounded than ever,” Marilena Zackheos tells me – ‘now’ referring to her marriage, her life back in Cyprus, her mix-and-matched diversity of interests, Snow White on her laptop and a book about female evil (it’s called Vile Women; she co-wrote it with Anthony Patterson) available on Amazon. Cyprus has changed, just like her: she often felt like an outsider when she was younger, “but now I’ve carved my way [in]… It’s like ‘I’m here, whether you like it or not’.” There are like-minded people here now: Write CY is a big deal in her life, a writers’ hub where one can feel less alone.
That’s the point, at the end of the day – especially perhaps for someone who went through childhood having to make new friends every couple of years, and whose work now (i.e. the Centre) consists of trying to bring people together. That’s the point for any writer and musician, the burning need to connect. Marilena tells me a story of having a poem published in a journal while she was still in her teens, and receiving an email from a woman who thanked her for her poem, told her that the poem had made something click inside her and that, as a result, she’d finally decided to leave her husband. “And I’m thinking ‘Oh God, what have I done? I’ve just wrecked this marriage!’” – but of course the woman’s feelings were already there, the poem merely crystallised them; the woman, in effect, had become Marilena’s co-writer. “The act of conversing is also, I think, in a way an act of creation,” she adds, possibly with a nod to this Profile – and it’s true, we created it together. She had me at the home-made olive pies.