Review of Nicolai’s Daughters

Nicolai’s Daughters

Aidos, the Greek goddess of shame, must have been looking over Canadian Stella Harvey's shoulder during the six years she spent crafting her first novel.

In Nicolai's Daughters, published by the Winnipeg literary house Signature Editions, she deftly explores the consequences of confronting a family's prejudices and hidden shame, bringing long-held secrets and private shames into the open.

It is the sort of story that could rapidly descend into soap opera, but it does not. Harvey keeps her characters firmly and credibly under control.

Although she lives in Whistler, B.C., Harvey travels frequently to Greece to visit relatives. This familiarity with the country and its people lends a feeling of authenticity to the rich, emotional family dialogues that drive the story.

There are many shades and sources of shame, from getting caught in a tryst on the beach to wearing high-heeled shoes to market. Harvey casts shame both as a moral compass and as a tool for bullies; the possibility of incurring shame is a powerful motive for keeping secrets, and the Sarinopolous family has many secrets.

This is the culture into which Alexia, a 32-year-old Vancouver lawyer, is plunged when she travels to Diakofto, her father Nicolai's former village, to find the half-sister he had hidden from her until moments before his death, and to meet her relatives in the Sarinopolous family.

Twenty-five years earlier, Nicolai, seeking solace following the death of his wife, had left Alexia with her godparents in Vancouver and returned to Diakofto.

But there was no solace. "How are we supposed to explain your return to our friends and neighbours?" his father demands.

Nicolai's father refused to acknowledge Alexia because she is "not of Greek blood" and his son did not marry in a church. As far as Nicolai's father is concerned, "The child is illegitimate." These are matters of deep shame to the old man.

"He can't change," Nicolai's mother tells him.

The family blames the experiences of the Second World War for the old man's bitterness. He was one of the survivors of the Nazi massacre of Kalavryta, which saw 700 civilians killed and 28 communities destroyed.

The choices he made in order to survive the massacre left the old man burdened with a deep shame he could not talk about. This repressed shame turned to guilt and rage which he often directed at his family.

Harvey tells the story through the alternating experiences of Nicolai and Alexia, his story from the perspective of his 1986 visit to the family, Alexia's from her 2010 visit.

Finding little family help for his depression, Nicolai has an affair that resulted in the mystery daughter Theodora. He knew nothing of her existence when he returned to Canada, and found out only through a letter from a business partner.

Over the years, he writes many letters to Theodora, but does not mail them, saving them instead in a box. It is these letters that Alexia is required to take with her to Greece.

At first, the family in Greece does not tell Alexia about her sister's existence, and Alexia does not tell them the search for Theodora is her real reason for being there.

Patiently, like an archeologist on a dig, Alexia dusts aside the family's shards of shame and layers of secrecy to discover the truth about Kalavryta, lay bare the family's secrets, and finally bring Theodora and her husband publicly into the family.

— Gordon Arnold The Winnipeg Free Press

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Nicolai’s Daughters

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey was born in Cairo, Egypt and moved to Calgary as a child with her family. In 2001, Stella founded the Whistler Writers Group, also known as the Vicious Circle, which each year produces the Whistler Writers Festival under her direction. Stella is a fiction writer whose short stories have appeared in The Literary Leanings Anthology, The New Orphic Review, Emerge Magazine and The Dalhousie Review. Her short story, Step 5 was long-listed in the 2013 CBC short story contest. Her non-fiction has appeared in Pique Newsmagazine, The Question and the Globe and Mail. She currently lives with her husband in Whistler, but visits her many relatives in Greece often, indulging her love of Greek food and culture and honing her fluency in the language. Nicolai’s Daughters is her first published novel.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different? Interesting question. I don't know that my book changed my life except I did learn more about the tragedy of Kalavryta in WWII and was able to use this long forgotten event to inform the heart of my novel and to remind people of the great sacrifices Greeks made during that war. I began the novel with the premise that tragedies such as this impact a family (which is really where war is felt, suffered) even as they try to rebuild or start new lives. And I believe that impact is felt in each subsequent generation of the family until they are able to finally come to terms with the sacrifices and comprises made to survive. Most people I meet at readings have never heard about Kalavryta. Some 700 Greeks from Kalavryta (the men and all boys over the age of 13) were massacred by the Nazis in December 1943 in what the Germans called, Operation Kalavryta, and what was considered later to be one of the worst atrocities Greece suffered during the war. In Vancouver at one of the events to promote Nicolai's Daughters, I met a man who lost his uncle in Kalavryta. He knew the details and had visited Kalavryta, but said that his aunt didn't talk about this tragedy very much. He appreciated that someone was writing about Kalavryta. Greeks suffered greatly during WWII because right from the start they were part of the Allied Forces and while this is only one part of my novel's story, it does shed some light into why my three main characters do what they do, why my minor characters do what they do, and hopefully helps the reader understand how this long ago event still impacts Greeks today particularly given the current recession and what some Greeks see as Germany's insistence on austerity measures. Greek animosity today may have some of its roots in Kalavryta and other WWII atrocities.

Other changes to my life: I've been lucky to meet more people, hear their views about Nicolai's Daughters, talk about Greece, a country I love. In case it doesn't show, I like talking, exchanging ideas, being around people. A lot!

In my writing I'm always trying to understand the personal experience, again why people do what they do. In doing so, I hope to understand a little more about the world around me. I hope all my writing informs, entertains, and makes people think. In this way, Nicolai's Daughters is very much like my short fiction, except I've spent a lot longer with these characters in my life. Six years to be exact. But who's counting?

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction? Well, in my previous life I used to write business plans, strategic plans and change management plans (some might consider these works of fiction too). And in a previous, previous life, I wrote pre-sentence reports as a probation officer and casework reports as a caseworker in a young offender centre. But, I've always wanted to write fiction. But, I have never had time to do it. I wrote an outline for a previous novel and then was transferred to Europe for work so while it came with me, I didn't work on it until I returned to Canada three years later. It was at that point I took a look at that outline and began to write fiction. My first novel, which now sits in my drawer, was where I started to experiment with fiction. I learned a great deal about story telling. Actually, I think I relearned what I already knew about story telling, the skills that were beaten out of me in my various jobs in government and later in the private sector. I like fiction because it gives me the freedom to create characters and share some of my wildest thoughts, insecurities through my characters and their situations. I like it when my characters are talking to me, nagging me and pushing me to get their stories right. There is one part in Nicolai's Daughters that is incredibly sad for me. It has to do with Nicolai and his regrets. Even when I read this part now (and I never read that section out loud in public), I break down in a way that feels as though my heart is breaking. During one of these times, my husband found me in my office at my desk. He asked me what was wrong. I explained what had happened to Nicolai. My husband gave me that look of his that I've come to like (not that that was an easy thing to do) and asked me if I knew that my book was a work of fiction. I nodded. Then he reminded me that I was the writer and I could change it. Through loud sniffles, I said I didn't think I could. This is how it was supposed to be. I know it sounds strange, but the characters I create come to life for me and even when I don't like what they're doing, like a parent, I have to let them go and do what they need to do. Crazy, I know. But it seems to make sense to me and that's what I love about fiction, I.e., how real it is.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes? Every writing project is different. Sometimes I wake up with a voice in my head as I did with a short story I wrote about a female Chechnyan suicide bomber. I could hear her accent, see her mannerisms, feel her anger and indecisiveness. And she wouldn't let me go until I got her story down. Other times, I have an idea and go looking for my characters. I feel that all my stories come to life when I come to know my characters intimately. I write many drafts and with each, I get a different view, another layer of detail, more information and as a result more insight.

4 - Where does a story usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning? My stories, novels come from notes, short pieces that take a life of their own, people I meet, voices I hear both in my head or at a coffee shop. I am constantly wondering about my own motivations and the motivations of others. And when I wonder, a story isn't too far behind.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings? I love doing readings, going to book clubs, getting feedback both good and bad, hearing how my stories have touched others. I love people and I have to say I'm a very social person and someone who naturally likes to be engaged and on the go. I also think that I get lots of ideas from living my life, being in touch with what is going on in the world around me. Because I'm not a naturally quiet person (does it show?), I have to be incredibly quiet in order to create. It is when I am quiet that I enter the world of my characters, see them, experience what they are experiencing and get it down on paper. So as a result I'm usually up before 5. I like the dark, the stillness both in the world and in myself. It feels as though I have permission to enter another world during these times. I'm most productive between about 5 a.m., and about 9 a.m., but I usually push it to 11 a.m., if I can and then I'm spent.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are? I know I will sound Poly Anna, but I believe man is basically good. I believe that people do dastardly things for reasons and I want to know what those reasons are. I want to understand them. I'm also obsessed with loss, the impact of loss, how loss informs someone's life. It seems to be a theme in all my work and one day I may use a psychoanalyst's couch to figure out why that is or maybe a story will come along that makes it clear to me. How do any of us know what the current questions are? I don't. I see the things that happen around me and in the world and I try to find some meaning for it. I do this through my writing and through discussion. I love talking, in case it doesn't show. Or perhaps I've already said that once or twice.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be? To shine a light on various topics, take the personal experience and inform the big picture, tell us something about ourselves that might make us act or do something bold either for ourselves or for others.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? I loved (God, is there anything I don't love? Well, yes. Arrogance, self-righteousness, a few other things) working with my editor, particularly because she understood what I was trying to accomplish with Nicolai's Daughters. And when we disagreed, we discussed and discussed again. She was incredibly respectful of my point of view and I hope she feels that I was respectful of hers. Sometimes she agreed with me, other times, she didn't, but in the end Nicolai's Daughters has touched its readers because of  my editor's commitment to make this work the best it could be. I'm also a big believer in critique groups as a good source of caring readers/editors who can provide solid feedback and critique early on and throughout the process.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? Author Caroline Adderson said to me once (I was tired and in tears at the time) that it took a lot more than talent to write and finish a book. It took drive, determination and focus. I was complaining at the time that I had no business writing fiction because I had no talent or at least I wasn't as talented as any of my other classmates in SFU's Creative Writing Certificate Program. Her wisdom made me find my determination and energy again to continue with my project. The second piece of advice came from author, Lawrence Hill who said that if I continued to fix my first three chapters, I would never finish my novel. He told me to keep going, to fix things later. I now give this advice and Caroline's advice to other writers. And sometimes when I catch myself taking out the same comma one too many times, I remind myself of the advice I was lucky enough to receive.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short story to novel to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal? I like working in short and long fiction although the latter is my preference. I've also been writing more non-fiction through my blog. It feels like I'm writing a different essay once a week. I like working in all three areas and move between them fairly easily. I learn something new with every piece of writing so whatever I'm working on helps all my other writing projects.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin? My day starts at about 5 a.m.. When I'm good, I don't turn on email, or look at the news headlines. I sit down and begin work, so I can get right into my story and make some progress before my husband and the rest of the world wakes up. I write until about 11 and if it's been a good morning, I'm usually spent. I then work out or run, have lunch, work in my garden, answer emails, get to my other job (organizing the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival) and if I have any time left over, I read in the afternoon. It always feels like a packed day. I try not to work on weekends and usually use this time to catch up on other things I've left undone.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? I'm an angry gardener (and a bit of a compulsive one too) so sometimes I go outside and hack at the weeds and in that mindlessness, I find my way back to my story. Sometimes I go for a walk. Other times, I go back to the character sketches I've drafted for each of my main characters and reread them, try to add some further details, find some hint of what my character wants. Still other times I reread a previous chapter or two, try to find the thread of the story again.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home? Where is home? I'm not exactly sure. I love the smell of a pine forest that reminds me of my home now in Whistler. I love the smell of jasmine, lavender and wisteria that reminds me of Greece, which is the home I've missed my whole life growing up in Canada. I love (oh, God that word) smells of baklava, lamb, lentils, spinach that remind me of my parent's home and waking up Sunday morning to my mother's cooking.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art? The only time I experimented with music and writing was with a piece of classical music. I can't remember where it was from, but I found that my writing took a dark, or should I say darker turn. I felt the music and my own written word in my chest thumping and exploding. I can't say I liked the feeling very much. Oh, and back to my story about the female terrorist I told you about earlier, a friend sent me a piece of music after he read the story and it really made my story come to life. That piece of music helped me edit the story further and include some of the angry bits the music brought out in me. The song was Tender Mercies by folk singer, Eliza Gilkyson.

This is going to sound weird but the last piece of music I downloaded was a Greek singer (George Dalaras) singing about Greek independence in Greek. I wanted to listen to the lyrics and that moan in Greek folk music as a way to get close to the voices I was trying to find in my Greek characters in my novel.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? Life is important to my work as is reading. I love Cormac McCarthy, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Alistair Macleod, Alice Munro, Nikos Kazanzakis, among so many others. I like writing that tells me something about myself and about the world. I like what I call political writing, writing that feels significant, that I will remember, recommend and reread and that I feel somewhere inside of me.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? Gee, how much time do you have? Live in Europe again for six months to a year, specifically in Greece, become fluent in Greek, finish a draft of my next novel, see Australia and hike in New Zealand, go back to South America, go back to Italy where I lived for two years, visit Japan, get over my fear of downhill skiing. I have doubts about this last one.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer? I've been lucky enough to have lots of occupations or as my husband puts it, I had trouble holding down a job. I am a social worker by training and I've parlayed those degrees into work that had me in the prison system (as an employee, not a client), and in the corporate boardroom. I loved every job and career I've had. I like organizing (or as my husband says, pushing people around) so I think I have finally found my place with my dual working life as writer and festival organizer for the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, that I founded twelve years ago. And despite the lack of funds, the festival keeps going and gets bigger and better every year. It is hard to let go of this work that gives so much to so many others.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? I did something else first. In high school, my teachers thought I was going to be a journalist. I wrote a great deal. But the chance to help others was an important focus for me so I went into social work instead. Don't regret it one bit. Met a lot of people and had a lot of experiences that will forever remain in my heart. I'm glad I found my way back to writing though. On good days, I wonder why I just didn't do it right off the bat. On bad days, I wonder if it would have been easier if I had started at it earlier in life and stuck to it. Every single day, I feel lucky that I get to do it.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? I loved Alistair Macleod's Island, a collection of short stories. I read a different story every day to savour them, think about them, understand them. Do they make great films these days? Sorry, I saw a documentary on CBC about men who travel to Thailand to marry Thai women that was very interesting. I liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The King's Speech, No Country for Old Men, and Silver Linings Playbook. Yes, I'm driven by characters and story, rather than action.

20 - What are you currently working on? A new novel also set in Greece. It deals with the growth of the radical right wing in Greece and the racism that has developed and grown against foreigners because of what I think are the tough economic times in Greece. I currently have four main characters, a Canadian aid worker working in a Roma camp in Athens, her alcoholic son who must come to her rescue because she inexplicably buys a Roma child, the head of the Roma family who sold his child, and the police man who not only has to deal with these people, but also his own family and their economic woes. I'm not sure where it's all going at the moment, but when it finds it's way, it will gain it's own momentum. I'm exploring how Greeks who are typically so generous and hospitable have changed as a result of the recession which I saw first hand when I spent three months in Greece last year. And I'm not saying all Greeks have gone to this darker side, but it did surprise me that even a few did, again particularly since this is the sort of hate and narrow mindedness they fought during WWII. I'm also exploring other themes, the role of the family in shaping ideas, and the relationship between mother and son, among other themes.  

— Rob McLennan

Nicolai’s Daughters

Our history lives in us, resides in our bodies, not just our singular unique experiences but in the collective experiences of our parents, our grandparents, our cultural backdrop. These are our stories and at some point in our lives our history will demand attention. Our histories will not be ignored.

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey's debut novel Nicolai's Daughters (Signature Editions) shows us how our past, the joys, connections, the secrets and experiences shape us and make us who we are. The author takes us on a journey, through time and place, gently unwrapping the secrets and tragedies of the Sarinopoulos family, skating seamlessly from 1983 to the 1943 massacre at Kalavryta, Greece, forward to 2010 and back again.

Nicolai leaves Greece, its lack of opportunities, a critical, cruel father and a future he sees as stifling to start a new life in Canada. And he does just that, until his world implodes when his beloved wife Sara dies, leaving him with the daunting task of raising their eight-year-old daughter Alexia alone. In his grief he abandons Alexia and makes his way back to Greece, looking for the comfort and the love of his family to find nothing has changed. Rejected by his father once more, adrift in his homeland Nicolai finds solace where he can. He returns to Canada where he spends his life trying to make it up to his daughter for leaving her, while he keeps secret the child he fathered during his brief hiatus.

Nicolai's Daughters is a story of parallel journeys, where the main characters, Nicolai and Alexia stumble along searching for connection with each other and the world, trying to discover where they fit into the puzzle of their own narratives. Alexia is caught up in being the perfect daughter, the star student then employee, but throughout it all she keeps herself separate, aloof, protecting herself. This character becomes a little confusing, as she is too smart to be as naive as Harvey portrays her. It's difficult to buy that the razor-sharp Alexia wouldn't read the cues from Dan, a colleague who clearly has more than a professional interest in her.

When Alexia discovers the existence of her half sister upon her father's death, she reluctantly follows his wishes to deliver a mysterious package to her newly discovered sibling, Theodora. Theodora is simultaneously on her own journey, trying to be the good Greek wife and mother, never feeling like she is getting it right, confused by the whispers, the mystery surrounding her dead father, the unanswered questions.

Through this journey Harvey takes us into the Greek psyche and paints a culture of contradictions. A way of life wherein many ways time has stood still — what the neighbour's think, how the family is perceived remains core. Gossip is as inherently Greek as their strong coffee. Yet the characters do whatever they can to side step it. Secrets are kept. Loved ones are shut out. Every step taken is watched and judged. One dare not venture outside the lines, or veer from tradition, as forgiveness is elusive.

But despite what at first may seem closed minded and harsh, we are charmed by these characters. We are invited into their modest homes, poor in possessions but rich in love, caring and tradition. Led in by way of sumptuous descriptions of place, rituals and celebrations that create a backdrop for the wonderful, complex characters the author has imagined. The reader finds a new or renewed appreciation for the Greek way of being that makes us yearn for that kind of connection.

Harvey has created a poignant, hopeful story of how love, compassion and acceptance can heal old wounds and reminds us that we need to look back to look forward, so we can start again and become our better selves.

— Alyssa Noel Pique News Magazine

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