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Novelist enjoys getting lost in words

One writer has found the meaning of life here in Cyprus, which reflects her affinity with islands. THEO PANAYIDES meets her

Edie Meidav brings out a notebook as I reach for my tape recorder: “I’ll take notes too,” she says brightly. Even before this, on the way from a charming old wreck on Aeschylus Street (where she’s been living since May with her husband and two daughters) to a table on Phaneromeni Square (where she often comes in the mornings, sitting on the steps to write and watch the world go by), she’s been peppering me with questions. Am I from here, i.e. Nicosia? How far back? Parents, grandparents? Have I been a journalist for long? Am I a younger sibling? (There are social cues that give it away, apparently.) (I’m not, though.) She’s unforced, voluble, pixieish; older film fans may think Rosanna Arquette, with that permanently startled New York manner. We order a metrios each, but her coffee sits untouched as she talks. The notebook is also forgotten, except once when she pauses, opens it carefully and notes down the Greek word ‘parea’. More on this later.

I’ve caught her at a very special moment, and not just because she turned 50 this year. It’s unclear if she’d have been so attentive, or asked so many questions, had our conversation taken place in Amherst, for instance – where she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts – or indeed in April, before she came to Cyprus on a Fulbright scholarship. Her first choice was apparently Greece, but Cyprus didn’t have many applicants (“I’m praying for you,” well-meaning friends intoned gravely before her departure; “It looks like it’s very near to Turkey and Syria”) so she switched to our unpopular island, and has found it stimulating.

“I actually really love Cyprus,” she says, unprompted. “This has been an incredible time for me. It’s been a creative resurgence for me to be here. I was feeling a little bit dead, and I feel it’s been a kind of magical time for me – from everyone I’ve met, and the complexities of the political situation… I feel the meaning of life here. I have a fantasy of coming back and working at the Home for Co-operation,” she adds, meaning the bicommunal NGO headquartered in the buffer zone. “I’m drawn to the place.”

Edie is superstitious about works-in-progress – but there may be, could be, hopefully will be a novel coming out of this experience, like there was many years ago when she went to Sri Lanka on another Fulbright and was spurred to write her first book, The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon. Since then she’s written two more novels and a collection of short stories, Kingdom of the Young (“Stylistically virtuosic,” raved the New York Times, praising her “long, looping sentences as full of life as her characters”), and there’s also an as-yet-unpublished novel set in Cuba, where she also lived for a while. Cuba, Sri Lanka, Cyprus: they’re all islands, I point out. True, she admits: “There’s something I like about the knowability of an island, the gravitational pull – in a way, the community it creates… Because it’s like, people really have to deal with one another here”.

It’s an interesting point – because Edie too, spent much of her early life as a kind of island, and took a while to acquire the knack of having to deal with people. She grew up in Northern California during the time of busing (the practice of transporting students to schools outside their neighbourhoods, to improve diversity) and was the “only white kid in my classes”, an island in a raging, politically-militant sea: “There was a principal called Big Daddy, and when we saw him we were supposed to do the Black Power salute”. Later, at the other end of the class-war spectrum, she felt herself an island at Yale, a Berkeley hippy – she’d come to the interview barefoot, having no clue what she was letting herself in for – surrounded by what she calls “the oligarchy of America”.

Nothing really seems to have come easily. “I wasn’t sure what was going on, I was trying to figure it out,” she recalls of her formative years. “I was thinking a lot. One boyfriend a long time ago called me ‘Murk’” – she laughs at the memory – “because I would get into a murky state of mind”. (“He didn’t call me that all the time,” she adds, in fairness to that long-ago beau.) Her family sounds a bit overpowering, one of those “super-driven” idealistic Jewish families where everything’s a drama and a big deal. (“What kind of name is ‘Meidav’?” I ask; “An Israeli acronym for a Polish patriarch,” she replies mysteriously, adding that the family charts its provenance to a 2nd-century sandal-maker in Palestine.) Her mum’s a sociologist and engineer who taught belly-dancing on Sundays; her dad was a “clean-energy visionary” who devoted himself to developing clean energy in countries like Honduras and Kenya. Her older brother lives in Seattle, and until recently had “a very cool job restoring the salmon habitat for a Native American tribe on a reservation”. Edie herself has been working at Kofinou refugee camp during her few months in Cyprus, teaching English to victims of war, and has also volunteered at the SOS Children’s Village orphanage in the occupied north – all in addition to thinking about her novel, and peppering people like me with questions.

It’s not just because she’s writing a novel, though: she reaches out to people all the time, it’s her style. (A few days later I see her at the anti-invasion demonstrations on the Green Line, blithely taking photos of hardliners who surely wouldn’t care for being Instagrammed by some curious American.) “My daughter was just saying to me today that I come on very intensely, like a wave, in the way that I connect to people,” she admits. Yet it’s not something simple, not just a case of being friendly. It’s a kind of survival mechanism from when she was young, allied to the fact that – like all writers – she’s forever trying to figure out the prickly process of connecting with others.

“I was sitting at a table with a bunch of writers,” recalls Edie, “and I suddenly realised that everyone had some oblique relation to speech when they were young. One person stuttered, one person was quiet…” Edie herself was quiet, so much so that her face would flush and her heart would race at the thought of speaking in public. “My family’s really vocal,” she explains, “and there wasn’t really room to speak in that family”. As the youngest of three, she slipped into the background, playing the piano in lieu of speech: “I wasted hours of my youth improvising on a piano”. She seems to have been very promising (her teacher was a daughter of the legendary Jascha Heifetz) – then again she also spent time in Hollywood as a scriptwriter and story editor, and entered Yale as a Biology major, and later went to New York on a dance scholarship, and wrote a story as a teen (about the accidental death of her best friend when she spent a semester in Israel) that won a high-school prize and led her to a class with noted author Peter Matthiessen, and spent a “bohemian summer” living with the gypsies in Granada, and “thought I was going to be an artist” for a while in college so she’d venture to the roughest parts of New Haven in order to sketch sketchy people. It’s fair to say that finding herself took a while.

Improvisation is one possible motif in trying to make sense of this complicated woman. The way she writes has a lot to do with her days at the piano, “listening to possibilities, as one does when improvising”. She likes to “get lost in the words,” says Edie, writing way too much and treating the process as a kind of subtractive sculpture (the trick lies in getting her ego out of the way, she explains) – and of course the way she goes through life is also improvisational, trying things out and seeing where they take her, engaging with people and hoping they’ll respond to her riffs with riffs of their own. Has it ever gone wrong? Many times, she replies. She’s been robbed, and held up at knifepoint; worst of all, she’s been misunderstood. She tells me of a time in Sri Lanka, when her friendly openness with the local houseboy (she was house-sitting for a US Embassy family at the time) was predictably misinterpreted as “Western woman is open to sex”. Her marriage, I suspect, has been a useful anchor in this regard (she’s been with her husband for 20 years; their daughters are 14 and 10) – “but it could’ve gone differently,” in terms of her emotional life.

Islands, as already mentioned, are another motif in trying to encapsulate Edie – not just in terms of being a misfit but in terms of being an individual, the atomised self putting up a sea of self-consciousness between itself and other selves, the ego that has to be sidelined in order for the writing to take place. She’s always tended to take her inner struggles desperately seriously, and also tended to see other people in opposition to herself – not as enemies or rivals, but simply as other islands; “I think it took me a while to find a community that wasn’t just a community of other beautifully-isolated selves”. Academia helps nowadays (a discipline she got into almost by accident, though she’s now a newly-tenured professor), and of course writing helps above all. At one point we talk religion, and Edie says she used to be agnostic until she started writing her first novel: “Because I used to think ‘Shouldn’t I really be volunteering in a soup kitchen with Mother Teresa in India, what’s this whole self-indulgent artist business?’… [But then] I think every artist knows this feeling, when you feel your ego leaves the room and you’re connected, there’s some kind of channel. And so it was through writing that I began to believe in God”.

Letting go of the ego – or allowing it to be subsumed, in a group for instance. This is where she carefully notes down the word ‘parea’ (I assume it’ll appear in the Cyprus novel), the Greek word for a gang of steady friends you socialise with systematically. “It’s amazing to me here, and it’s amazing to my children too,” she marvels – the way Cypriots “travel in groups”, groups from childhood, groups from high school; “It’s actually beautiful to me, I haven’t quite had that experience in my life ever”. It’s flattering to think we’ve inspired her – though, to be honest, Edie’s Cyprus experience has been somewhat selective. She loves that Nicosia is so multicultural, citing the clusters of Sri Lankans and Filipinos – but in fact that mostly applies to old Nicosia, viewed as a ghetto by many suburbanites who have no contact with other cultures. She also loves the Home for Co-operation, its buffer-zone protests and poetry readings reminding her of “the 60s idealists of my childhood”; but most Cypriots don’t share that level of bicommunal enthusiasm, being largely apolitical when not actively hostile.

Does it matter? Not really. An island (like a person) is a closed system, offering – to use her own word – a ‘knowable’ narrative. It’s silly to expect that Edie Meidav’s novel will encompass the whole of Cyprus, or even the ‘real’ Cyprus. Instead it’ll feature the Cyprus that speaks to her personally – the country that stirred her creative juices and may have aroused her self-admitted “saviour complex” (probably inherited from her fervently virtuous family), the country of guitars being strummed in the buffer zone and mornings spent writing on the steps of Phaneromeni, and the spirit of her late uncle Emmanuel who ran a camp for Jewish refugees in Xylotymbou in 1948.

One thing’s for sure: it’ll be a literary novel (assuming it gets written, of course, which is still far from certain), likely to receive rave reviews and sell … well, who knows how many copies? “People ask ‘How are your books doing?’ and I actually don’t know,” admits Edie, all too aware that being a writer is hard (“I could paper this whole square with all the rejection letters I’ve received!”) and finding readers to validate your toil, in this day and age, is even harder. Then again, brain studies show that people who read a lot of fiction literally change their neural pathways, strengthening the neurons that create empathy; that’s why “I still believe in novels at this late point in our history,” she affirms, seeing in books “a technology for overcoming that atomised self”. Islands again.

In the end, it makes no difference why she writes. This is what she does, the end-point of 50 years of wandering and improvising, part of the motley agglomeration of all her other quirks and character traits: “I love to dance. I love speaking another language. I love hiking. I love film.” I assume she loves people too – or maybe not as such, maybe just the endless circuitous process of engaging and trying to connect with them. She leaves me with an absolutely perfect quote, by William Gaddis: “The writer is always a shambles following his work around”. I don’t know the work, though I hope to read that Cyprus novel someday. But I met the shambles, and found her fascinating.