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Veteran book publisher tries to ‘uplift the universe’

For a local book publisher, it is all about being positive. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman who has published it all – from children’s books to metaphysics – although none was brought into being without pain

En Tipis Publications – the publishing house founded by Voula Kokkinou, co-owned with her brother Savvas – has its office in a part of Kaimakli full of garages and car mechanics, Voula’s literary haven surrounded by rather incongruous signs for MOTs and paint jobs. I have ample time to notice these things, because I go twice in two days: the second time for the profile (“Do you smoke? Shall I bring you an ashtray?” asks the assistant, in a touch I find refreshingly old-school), the first for a press conference for a children’s book she’s publishing, Your Own Little Dragon by Margarita Vassilopoulou, which she exacts – in the nicest way, of course – as a kind of tithe for granting the profile. I don’t mind. The market for books is brutal in Cyprus.

There are all kinds of books, of course. Novels, for instance, don’t feature much in our conversation, poetry only fleetingly. It’s not that En Tipis don’t publish such books – they’re among the biggest publishing houses on the island, having brought out some 1,200 titles since 1996 – more a case of Voula herself (though she’s always read avidly) preferring to map her life by other genres: Art books, for instance, her background being in graphic design, or books on metaphysics and spirituality, which she started delving into after losing her mum in a car crash when she was 26. (She turns 60 in a few weeks, on July 17.) “Everything is energy,” she tells me, sitting in a small book-lined room with a cat named Theo – from Theophilos, her dad’s name – padding around companionably.

Everything is energy; that’s her core conclusion after years of reading up on the subject. I didn’t think we’d talk about such things – maybe because I see her first at the press conference, sitting at the head of a table laid out with snacks and fresh lemonade, steering the conversation like any good publisher – but here she is, short reddish hair and a decorative cross around her neck, expanding on a Kazantzakis quote about those people who ‘uplift’ the universe: “We’re all little cells of the Divine,” she explains, “so by helping – whether it’s through culture, or good deeds, or purity of soul, or through a soul that’s free from hatred, from envy, from jealousy, from pettiness, from love of material things in general – you’re helping to uplift the universe”. All that’s corporeal is fantasy, adds Voula, quoting Hermes Trismegistus; only the soul is immortal.

Hang on, though. How does she know we even have a soul?

“Well, it’s energy. How can energy be lost?… Every thought, every word, every deed is recorded in the universe”. The universe, she says, is a hard disc. “Forget the mind, forget the soul, focus on energy. Everything is energy.”

And what of her own energy? “Ever since I was a child I’ve been doing, without even realising it –” she pauses – “certain exercises, shall I say? ‘Exercises’ is such a cheap word. It’s really more of an effort, a constant effort, to guide myself towards the positive, away from the negative. I’ve always been an optimist… Maybe because I was born in a household where there existed such enormous sadness”. That’s the story of her family, and we’ll get to it later – but first we should probably dwell a little more on Voula as a person, lest she come off hopelessly dreamy.

She does have a touch of the middle-aged ‘cat lady’ – she’s never married; she likes to talk to the plants in her garden, thanking them for smelling so beautiful; she does have a cat, as already mentioned (actually two cats, Theo and Mytha) – but it doesn’t seem sloppy or head-in-the-clouds. She’s benign, but it comes across as a systematic benevolence, a rigorous process of becoming a certain way (she herself used the word ‘exercises’). One gets the impression that she works on her positive energy as a conscious trait, like with everything else she does – and she does a lot. She collects fossils. She paints and makes jewellery, often at the weekends when she’s manning the En Tipis bookshop in old Nicosia. (They don’t get many customers; it’s a truism – but still sadly true – that Cypriots don’t read.) She’s a photographer, currently preparing a photo book on feral cats she’s encountered on her walks. She does PR work and book presentations. She’s taught copper engraving, and been on the board of workers’ union Peo. And of course she’s a businesswoman, running a business that was hit hard by the crisis (full-time staff shrank from six people to one, and they also had to move from the centre of town to this incongruous part of Kaimakli), gets little help from the state, and is constantly striving to survive in a tough market.

On the one hand, she tells me this story, one of the loveliest stories I’ve ever heard: “When my dog was dying, I devoted 10 days to her”. The dog’s name was Loulou, she was 16 years and 22 days old, she’d been taking pills for years for various ailments, and eventually it became clear that the end was nigh – so Voula switched off from the world. “I don’t exist,” she recalls telling her staff. “I’m not interested in any client, I’m devoting the next days to Loulou. They’re the last days of her life, and I know she’s happy when I’m constantly with her – so I’m going to be with her”. Voula spent the next days at home, lying in bed with her elderly dog, lifting her up every couple of hours so she could breathe more easily or go to the toilet; “Every two hours, day and night. For 10 days, I didn’t sleep properly”. The last few days were spent at the clinic, where Voula held Loulou to her breast so they could feel each other’s heart – one heart taking its cue from the other, beating in sync – “and I thanked her for all that she’d given me, for her love, and apologised if I’d upset her or hurt her, and it was such a strong connection, you can’t imagine. So my little dog went off happy, because I’d been there for her last 10 days.”

How can you dislike such a person? Yet Voula was apparently disliked by certain colleagues when she worked at Selides magazine in her 30s (she spent six years at Selides preceded by seven years at Enimerosi, both as a graphic designer), and was resented, she says, both for being a woman and trying to do something new. One might say it’s two sides of the same momentum – the same endeavour to ‘uplift the universe’ – whether aimed at consoling a dying dog or making an office run smoother. She rose to become art director of the whole Phileleftheros group (of which Selides was a part) and fought hard to establish that role, scrapping the previous system where every journalist more or less decided the layout of his or her article – “so I wasn’t very popular with some people”. She became embroiled in office politics and finally quit altogether, starting En Tipis a few months later.

Then of course we have the signs; handwritten signs, two of them, one in English on a flower pot outside the door of the office, another in Greek next to the half-dozen parking spaces (parking is scarce in this area). “If you steel [sic] again the cat food I will call the police. I have you in a video,” goes the one in English. “If you park your car in the En Tipis parking again, I’ll have it clamped,” reads the one in Greek. (“Unclamping costs 50 Euros,” adds a second paragraph, as if to pre-empt those who’d say ‘I don’t care, do what you want’.) Voula assures me that the signs weren’t the result of some unseemly fight with a neighbour – actually she doesn’t lose her temper, “I’ve managed to create an inner calmness” – but they still suggest a person who, at the very least, is a doer, knowing her rights and going on the offensive when necessary. The energy isn’t just fluffy.

After all, how could it be? She talks me through some of the books En Tipis have published, many of them monsters like Lakis Anastassiades’ 900-page history of local doctors, or a glossy tome called Icons of Cyprus with full-colour icons on every page, or Ginaikon Vimata (‘Women’s Steps’) about pre-modern female visitors to the island, sold in a beribboned, limited-edition cardboard box craftily designed (by herself) to approximate the notebooks carried by those old women travellers. Books are complex, demanding projects. Five out of six of their books – all but 250 of those 1,200 – were paid-for either by the author or some third party, like a museum or cultural foundation, but those 250 that Voula financed herself “are a vast amount, for a publishing house in Cyprus”; it takes years to recover the investment (if indeed you ever do), selling a few books here and a few books there. “No book,” she sighs, “has ever come out of En Typis painlessly.”

It sounds like giving birth, and Voula does indeed refer to her books as her children – a substitute of sorts for the family life that never quite panned out for her. She’s never married, though she’s come close – the closest being probably a Greek man, the only one who truly understood her (but he was eight years younger, and she didn’t want to hold him back by keeping him in Cyprus) – and she always “had offers”, growing up as the youngest child of a rich, or formerly rich, Peyia family.

working as a nurse

That’s the past we mentioned earlier, the “enormous sadness”, the family story – and she frames it as a story, with a book person’s instinct. The wealthy landowning family, 150 workers in a time of “black gold” (carobs, not oil). The maternal grandpa who sent his kids to the American Academy, and would load up a boat with produce – almonds, wheat, carobs – and take them to Antalya to sell. Her own, wonderful father, so just, so progressive, brought low by tragedy. Voula was the youngest of 11, but in fact she grew up with only eight siblings; one brother died as a baby – but another was murdered in Eoka, two years before she was born, after which the family collapsed. Her mother attempted suicide. Her father, a changed man, started selling land willy-nilly. He was 52 when Voula was born (an accident? a hopeless revenge against Death?), her mum 42. Her parents were loving, the family close-knit even as the land disappeared and they veered towards bankruptcy – yet that sadness clung to the house like a smell of mildew, the glorious past that she, Voula, alone among her brothers and sisters, had never known.

Does that explain the energy, the consciously sunny personality? (She tells me of having worked her way through university in Greece, and a stint as a nurse in a maternity clinic where the patients all loved her: “Here comes our angel!” they’d say when she appeared.) Is she trying to uplift the universe as she may once have wanted to uplift her fallen parents? Does that also explain why she perseveres, at the head of a small operation, in a sector that must’ve seemed quixotic even in 1996 and is infinitely less commercial now, in the digital age? Online sales are another thing that goes unmentioned in our conversation.

Maybe so – but ultimately, trying to explain Voula Kokkinou is unimportant. As she says, everything is energy, and hers would appear to be good energy. I can see how she might be vain (she’s not modest about her achievements) – but I like the fact that we slip straight away into informal Greek; I like the fact that my feline namesake walks around freely without being shooed. I even like that she talks to her plants every day, thanking the freshly-cut cucumbers for being so fragrant. “‘Thank you’ doesn’t really appear in our lives,” sighs Voula. “Yet it ought to appear all the time.” I walk away feeling slightly giddy, surrounded by the clanking of car mechanics – and of course I’d also urge everyone to buy a copy of Your Own Little Dragon, by Margarita Vassilopoulou. It’s the least I can do.

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