By Leslie Lindsay
A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own–and a nation’s–epic struggle in the aftermath of WWII.
I was definitely intrigued with MY LAST LAMENT (Penguin/Random House, April 2017). The cover is gorgeous, plus I spent about a month living with a Greek family as a teenager. And then there’s the economic strife Greece is currently facing…in fact, it’s so bad in areas, one of our neighbors recently brought her mother (who was living in Greece) to her U.S. home to work and save money that she could send back to her family.
Another little fun fact: I recently watched an episode of WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE featuring John Stamos; much of the episode was filmed in Greece. The imagery is gorgeous, the people strong…but not without shame, hard work, and more.
MY LAST LAMENT is ‘told’ on a cassette tape by Aliki–an old woman and the last of the village lamenters–women who compose lament-poems for grieving families (this provides a very intimate storytelling method and would be fabulous heard as an audiobook). Aliki agrees to speak with an American ethnographer about her fading art. In the process, Aliki begins to sing her own story–as a fourteen year old girl, she witnessed her father’s execution for stealing a squash…at the hands of Nazi soldiers.
While I’ve read several stories about WWII, this one was entirely different…yet, the same. There are Jewish refugees, public executions, economic strife, makeshift families, unique trades/hobbies (in this case, puppeteering), but I can honestly say, I’ve yet to read a story about Greece during the aftermath of WWII.
I’d like to say I were sitting on a white-washed patio tucked into the hills of Santorini sipping Roditis with James William Brown…alas, we’ll have to make do with my suburban Chicago patio and Nebraska varietal. If wine’s not your thing, grab a beverage of choice and plop down.
Leslie Lindsay: Welcome, James. I’m curious about the title, MY LAST LAMENT. Did it come before or after you wrote the book? Was it in complete relation to Aliki, your main character, or was it somehow derived from another place?
James William Brown: I always have trouble coming up with titles and I usually complete a work without one and then have to work it out. That was the case here. The manuscript was finished but had no title. I knew that I wanted a line that was in Aliki’s tone of voice so I re-read the work carefully, looking for something that could represent the whole book and I found it on page 333, where she says this is probably her last lament. As the whole book is really a lament for her life and times, the line seemed to suit, so I called it Probably My Last Lament. My editor didn’t like “probably” and thought it was more dramatic just as MY LAST LAMENT.
L.L.: You have a personal connection to Greece, having lived there in the 1960s teaching English. You loved it so much, you found other ways to sustain yourself and stayed…for ten years! Can you talk about that experience, please?
James William Brown: I lived in Greece from 1967 to 1977, teaching and writing. I began my first village short stories there and one grew into my first novel, BLOOD DANCE. When I arrived, a military junta was running the country. On the surface, everything looked normal but in fact the jails and detention centers were full of people who had dared to criticize the government. Reports of torture were widespread and elections and public gatherings were forbidden and there was both press and mail censorship. I worked with a group of people, Greeks and foreigners, to smuggle documentation of what was going on to Amnesty International in London which lobbied other governments to put pressure on the Greek government and as a result, many of the political prisoners were released. After the junta fell in 1974, I wrote articles for The Nation and other publications about how Greece was adjusting to the aftermath of seven and half years of military rule. It was a heady time with a rebirth of arts, music, political life and optimism about the future. Greece is really like the mythological bird, the phoenix, which is destroyed in fire and re-born again and again.
Years later when I was working for an educational publisher here in Boston, the publisher acquired an Athens-based publishing house and I became the liaison between the editorial departments in Boston and Athens. And my wife and I return to the same village on one of the islands as often as we can so the country remains part of our lives. Some parts of MY LAST LAMENT were written in that village. Greece is a complicated and often maddening place but endlessly fascinating.
L.L.: I am so curious about the role of a village lamenter. In all honesty, I had never heard of one before. My sense is, a lamenter composes chants/songs/poems for a grieving family specific to the person who has passed. Do I have that right? At times, too it reminded me of the practice of hospice care. Can you illuminate the profession for us?
James William Brown: Yes, that’s right. It’s an ancient folk custom originally practiced throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and North Africa. But it has largely died out in modern times. I first got interested in it when I was living in a house that overlooked a village cemetery. When a funeral procession entered the cemetery, old women in black would stand by the gates making bird noises to ward off bad spirits. I found out that some of these women were professional lamenters who composed lament poems about the dead at the request of relatives. In a sense they eulogized the dead and honored them at a time when the actual bereaved family and friends were probably too overcome with grief to be able to do so. In that way, lamenters performed a service for the bereaved family, the community and for the dead themselves.
L.L.: There are some really tough things that Aliki witnesses in her life: her father’s execution ranks high, but there’s also poverty, smuggling of Jewish refugees, a makeshift type of family. But this was WWII and just after. How does this time period compare with the local political and economic landscape of Greece?
James William Brown: I suppose the most obvious similarity between then and now is that Germany occupied Greece during WWII and today, because of its role in the European Union which is more or less regulating the present Greek economy, Germany has now what might be called a financial occupation of Greece. Many of the present day problems in Greece have grown out of the aftermath of the War and the bitter civil war which followed it, as chronicled in MY LAST LAMENT. Distrust of government, unwillingness to pay taxes to it, a dense bureaucracy that strangles innovation, lack of opportunities for youth which encourages them to move abroad—these are just a few of the problems. And of course Greece is on the forefront of receiving massive amounts of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa at a time when the country teeters toward default on the many loans it has taken from the EU just to keep economically afloat. But it has to be said that Greeks in general have many gifts: resilience, a sense of humor, a light heartedness contrasted with a certain ferocity and tenacity of spirit, along with a great capacity for joy and a sense of the irony in life. And these have allowed them not only to endure but to prevail. I tried to get many of those qualities into the character of Aliki, who narrates MY LAST LAMENT.
L.L.: I have to ask about puppetry…this is fun to me. Different. I have to wonder…is the act a little about suspending the horrific plight of the country and adding a little levity, in addition to a way of earning money?
James William Brown: I wasn’t really trying to add levity but I don’t mind if it reads that way. Shadow puppetry is another centuries-old folk custom once prevalent in the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe. In Greece it flourished mostly during the 400 or so years when the country was occupied by the Ottoman Turks. Karagiozis, the main character, is the scheming villager who plays dumb in order to outwit the Turkish overlords. These comedies were originally for children but Stelios, the puppeteer, brings them into the present by making a puppet based on Takis, one of the other characters, helping to outwit the occupying Germans. Then there were also more serious historical plays enjoyed by adults too such as The Hero Katsandonis, which Stelios, Aliki and Takis perform several times in MY LAST LAMENT For uneducated rural audiences, this was a way of learning their cultural history when the times they were living through were as terrible as the times in the play. So there is a sense of stories within the story, levels of time overlapping such as when Stelios makes puppets based on himself and Aliki along with the Takis puppet in a story about what happened back in their own village which changed their lives and started their travels together as puppeteers.
L.L.: And madness. Always a fascination of mine. What is your take of the mental unrest in MY LAST LAMENT?
James William Brown: The only mentally unbalanced character is poor Takis who demonstrates traces of both childhood schizophrenia and bipolar behavior. Of course the question is what conditions were present in him to begin with and what were brought on (or exacerbated) by events such as the village massacre by the Germans in which his mother, and Stelios’s mother, were killed and for which Takis initially received much of the blame. There’s no way of knowing. What’s clear is that his rock to cling to is Aliki but he’s too young to understand that she’s on the cusp of young womanhood. So her love for Stelios drives him into fits of jealousy and worsens his other conditions. Still, he’s a lost little boy, deserving of love and pity and so much more than life can possibly give him. There was little if any help for children with these kind of psychiatric problems in that place and time. I cared deeply about all my characters but I cared the most about Takis.
L.L.: I don’t know about you, but I’ve drained my glass of wine…is there anything more you’d like to add about MY LAST LAMENT, your summer plans, if you’re going back to Greece anytime soon, what you’re working on next, or something completely different?
James William Brown: My wine is nearly gone too. One thing I’d like to mention is that MY LAST LAMENT, in spite of many terrible events, is also a funny book. Aliki’s tone of voice as she records her life is by turns wry, ironic, crabby, irreverent and altogether down to earth in its humor. And, as she says near the end, “Hope, that’s all we’ve got, isn’t it, our most important word?”
No special plans for summer but my wife and I may go to Greece in September. I’m working on another novel in which both Aliki and Takis continue to be characters (they won’t let go of me). There’s a scene later in MY LAST LAMENT in which Aliki sees a photograph in a newspaper of Takis grown into a young man in a military uniform in the 1970’s. That photograph is the launch of another story because as Stelios said, “We become the stories we tell.”
L.L.: Thanks so much for chatting with me—it’s been a pleasure!
James William Brown: Thank you. Leslie. Here’s to you! Now the wine is done. On to the next story.
For more information about MY LAST LAMENT, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of the book, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James William Brown is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Blood Dance, which the New York Times said, “…conveys the layered history of a small Greek island where the past is everywhere. An assured and seductive debut.” His short stories, articles and book reviews have appeared in a number of publications including most recently Narrative Magazine and Fiction International. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, Brown has also been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and is a two-time winner of writing fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts. He has served as editorial director of publishing houses specializing in materials in the fields of applied linguistics and English as a second language in New York, Boston and Athens and was formerly the host of BookNotes, a weekly radio book review program in Massachusetts. Originally from Illinois, he lived and taught in Greece for ten years but presently lives with his wife in the greater Boston area. They return annually to a village on the Greek island of Evia. He is currently at work on his third novel, also set in Greece. [Author photo credit: Jane McLachlan Brown]
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[Cover and author image retrieved from Penguin Random House’s website. Greek grandmas retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted. Shadow puppetry image from Wikipedia, mythological phoenix retrieved from ancientorgins.com, all on 7.12.17]