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Commonwealth Prize winner tells the stories behind the story

The central theme of all works by the Cypriot winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is the role of women in the events of 1974. THEO PANAYIDES meets their author, a woman struggling to balance a job, kids and being a normal person

I assumed Constantia Soteriou and I would bond over our shared love of books, but in fact we bond over our shared acid reflux. This is surprising, both because she is, after all, the winner of this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize (she does read books too; we just don’t get around to talking much about them), and because her stomach troubles are apparently the result of stress and she seems the opposite of stressed, a bubbly, outgoing woman who talks with her hands. That’s how it is, she notes sagely: “The image you project isn’t necessarily who you are on the inside”.

In a way, it’s a lot like writing. “When you sit down to write, you’re a different person from the person you are in general,” says Constantia, sitting in the cafeteria of the Press and Information Office (PIO) in Nicosia. She has jet-black hair, brown eyes, and a rather sharp nose and chin in a round, pleasant face. Her body language is relaxed, almost coquettish. She’ll reflexively toss her hair back before answering a question, and at one point sticks her tongue out playfully at a colleague at a nearby table. It’s a Friday, and the atmosphere is boisterous. A group of men sit down (this is around the time when Constantia is telling me that “we live in a patriarchal society”) and start arguing with the waitress, good-naturedly but extremely loudly, forcing us to pause the conversation. “They’re complaining that the ice cream is too cold,” she giggles, somehow managing to decipher the din – then goes back to lamenting the marginalisation of women’s voices.

Women’s voices are a big part of her project as a writer – in her two previous books, Aishe Goes on Vacation (2015) and Voices Made of Soil (2017), and her forthcoming third one, title still unconfirmed, of which ‘Death Customs’ is a part. ‘Death Customs’ is the story that won her the Commonwealth Prize – and reading the story, in a translation by Lina Protopapa (about whom Constantia gushes gratefully), is a surprise because the style is so lean, the rhythm almost staccato. Here, for instance, are the first few sentences:

“I met Spasoula in one of the gatherings, one of those occasions. September. When we gathered at the railings and held photographs in front of the prisoners coming from Adana. For them to look at and tell us whether they had seen our loved ones. Whether they recognised them. Lies. It was in no gathering. It was at the photo studio. At Takis’s. Sixteenth of November, when we gathered that first time; we had gathered at that hotel, Filoxenia, and I was holding our beloved Giorgakis’s photo and Mrs Loula gave me a sideways glance. A grande dame, she was, a lady of the committee. Old family, Nicosians.”

The story deals with mothers and wives of missing persons from 1974 – especially now, when their loved ones’ remains are being discovered and buried. “What happens after they’re buried?” muses Constantia. “Is it a closure? What’s going on with these women’s psychology?” Her subjects – at least so far – have always been historical, and directly linked to the Cyprus problem. Aishe, in the first novel (which won the Athens Prize for Literature), was a Greek Cypriot who converted to Islam to marry a Turkish Cypriot, her life upended when the checkpoints open in 2003. The second book dealt with the troubles of 1963, giving voice to 13 women from both communities. That book, like the new one, was polyphonic, blending many different protagonists – and also short, not much more than a novella (around 15-17,000 words, or 120 pages). Constantia’s writing is invariably brief and to-the-point – which again is a slight surprise, given how chatty she is in person. Like she says, the writing self is a whole other self.

It may also derive – though of course we’re speculating here – from the role that literature played, and continues to play, in her life. Books weren’t a big part of the family background. “I’m a working-class girl from Kaimakli,” declares Constantia, with the air of laying her cards on the table. “My parents weren’t especially educated people”. Her mum was a housewife, her dad a worker in a shoe factory. She discovered books mostly through her older siblings (she’s the youngest of three) and became a regular at the public library, reading most of the Greek classics – Elias Venezis, Stratis Myrivilis, the inevitable Kazantzakis – and perturbing her family (not her parents, but aunts and such) by having her nose in a book all the time. One wonders if the style to which she naturally gravitates – this terse, non-florid style – may subconsciously be a result of that background, as if a more ornate style might be considered unforgivably self-indulgent.

There’s also the practical matter of not having much time to write. “I have my job,” she explains, listing the various strings to her bow, “I have my family, I have writing… Sometimes I think I’d like to do nothing but stay home and write – but in the end I’m not the kind of person who’d enjoy being alone in a room like that. This idea of the writer isolating herself from the world doesn’t really agree with me”. Even the Commonwealth Prize – a first for a Cypriot writer, presented at a ceremony in Quebec City a few weeks ago – isn’t necessarily a turning point. Will it change things for her? “Ehhh… I don’t know how much things can really change,” she replies rather shamefacedly. It’s indeed an important prize, with a fairly substantial cash element, and will hopefully act as a gateway to translating her books into English – but her twin eight-year-old boys still need their mum, and she won’t be quitting her job at the PIO (she’s a press officer in the Turkish Section) any time soon, either.

The writing takes place in between, in the interstices of Constantia’s life. “I’m not the type to sit and write for eight hours,” she admits – even if she had the time, which she doesn’t. Sometimes she’ll get an hour in the mornings, once the kids and her husband have left – or she might take the boys to some afternoon activity, and make notes while waiting for them to finish. “Just don’t ask me how I manage ‘because I’m a woman’,” she pleads with a chuckle (female authors are forever being asked how they juggle work and motherhood), a certain feminist alertness to everyday sexism being part of her makeup. Venezis and Myrivilis slowly gave way to Jane Austen (in English) and Alice Munro; nowadays she tries to read mostly female writers – and her “primary goal” as a writer is precisely this, “to supply the female viewpoint, women’s testimony about events… History,” she points out, “is written by men”.

Has she ever felt discriminated against, or not taken seriously, because of her gender?

“Definitely! I feel it all the time, even now. Oh, lots of things,” she shrugs when I ask for details, “from former bosses who used to call us ‘girls’ – as in ‘little girls’…” She pauses, trying to think of other examples. “Generally speaking, I don’t think our society treats women as equals.”

That’s the thing about Constantia Soteriou. She doesn’t write for purely literary reasons, the way Jane Austen did (granted, that was quite a long time ago). She writes to express what ails her, and hopefully exorcise it. She’s a sociable person – not some writer in a garret – so she writes about social issues. She’s a woman who’s keenly aware of being seen (or ignored) as a woman, so she writes about female perspectives in a patriarchal world. She’s a person who was born in 1975, a year after the invasion (she turned 44 two weeks ago) – so she writes about that as well, the trauma she recalls from those early years. “I have very intense memories of what was going on – the checkpoints, the mothers of the missing…” Growing up in Kaimakli, right beside the Green Line, she and her friends would often find bullet casings when they went out to play. At school, the end-of-term show was always about the invasion, and the occupied areas and the missing.

Almost all Cypriot writers – except those much younger than herself – take the Cyprus problem as their subject, she notes, though each generation treats it differently. “I don’t go on about how awful it was, or how great was the suffering. I think my generation are ‘post-suffering’.” Writing her trilogy of short books – novels, novellas, call them what you will – does feel like the closing of a chapter, she says (she’s likely to try something else for the next one), but it had to be done. “You don’t write to impress others, or to be read. You want that too, of course, it goes without saying – but I think writing stems from your own need to express certain things. And perhaps to heal yourself too.”

Writers come in all shapes and sizes, and Constantia is quite an unusual one – not reluctant, exactly, but self-deprecating, as if eager to play down that side of herself. “I know I don’t sound very interesting – I’m a very normal person!” she says with a laugh, repeatedly calling herself “a bit boring”. Not only does she come off sociable and extroverted, she also explicitly describes herself – without my even asking – as sociable and extroverted. It’s as though she’d like to keep the perception of herself as a writer at arm’s length. “My life includes many other things [apart from writing], which keep me very grounded,” she assures me. “The kids, my family, my friends, my job. And I think that’s extremely important, to be very stable as a person. Otherwise you can’t function.”

She always wanted to write – yet writing also seems to be something that had to mature in her. “All my births, whether kids or books, happened late!” she jokes. She became a mother at 36, and a published author – except for a handful of stories in literary magazines – at 39. (Her secret plan was to publish a book by the time she was 40, or else not bother; she only just made it.) Before that, she worked as a journalist at various outlets, wrote a column on Turkish affairs in Phileleftheros, worked at a PhD for several years but didn’t finish it. It’s as though she were waiting for the books to germinate within her, or her subject to balloon so irresistibly it could no longer be denied. Some writers write in order to escape their daily life; Constantia seems to write in order to complete it.

That daily life sounds quite pleasant – and, as she says, very stable, the agreeable routine of a civil servant. Her husband works at Pasydy, the civil servants’ union, the ultimate in good working conditions (they literally wrote the book on good working conditions!). Her own hours are also quite manageable, 7.30am to 3pm – and having two kids is always hectic, yet in fact motherhood has made her more creative, maybe because she’s become more aware of time and less prone to squandering it. Does she ever feel like she took too long to get going? Not really. “I think it’s turned out quite well,” she says mildly.

One more piece to mention in this puzzle – the one I’ve already mentioned, our common bond, her acid reflux and the stress that lurks behind it. She really doesn’t seem all that tense, I mention. (It’s true, she doesn’t.) “Seriously? Thank you. I’m very stressful, really! I am, I am.” She’ll wake up at four in the morning, think about the next day’s deadlines and toss and turn, unable to get back to sleep. She worries about getting older, her body declining. She’ll always – though she tries hard to fight it – anticipate the worst in a situation, tending naturally to a certain pessimism. Maybe that’s why she values stability, maybe that’s why she’s keen to hide the writerly side behind a bubbly, pointedly ‘normal’ side – and maybe that’s also why she writes in the first place, to confront these anxieties and turn them, like so much chopped kindling, into terse, expressive, award-winning prose. It can save you a fortune in Nexium.

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