INTERVIEW: Alexandros Plasatis on listening, exophony and ‘Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Alexandros Plasatis on the research process behind his collection Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021).

It strikes me that Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness is in many ways an exploration of stories within stories. The epicentre of the work, the Café Papaya, feels like a reflection of the work itself – a hub in which the stories of the staff and their customers alight, mingle and then move on. Even within those stories are other stories and other narrators, creating a Conrad-like distance from the objective truth, a house with many mansions. I wanted to know how you approached the book in terms of that ambiguity of form, its cross-genre feel. Did it feel like writing a cogent novel with a singular centre of gravity, or collating a short story collection, or both?

It felt like a big mirror had been smashed – you take one piece and examine it, you look at its curves or corners and you take another piece and examine that too, and another, and as you look at them you’re fascinated by their shapes. Each piece that never existed before the mirror was smashed now begins to stand up alone as an object because it means something to you, each piece starts to create its individual story in your head and you feel some sort of attachment to them. You know that these are parts of the big mirror that now doesn’t exist and you decide to stick them back together to see if you can re-create the big mirror and when you do that you find out that the big mirror is not a big mirror anymore but the broken pieces are still parts of the big mirror, you get the feeling both of the wholeness and of the fragmented and you look at it and think, ‘Are you one big mirror or many small mirrors, a novel or a collection?’

So, no, it didn’t feel like collating a short story collection because I knew that each story was part of something larger: the community of Egyptian fishermen, Café Papaya, the harbour life, Kavala. And it didn’t feel like writing a novel because when I was writing each piece I forgot the whole and focused on the individual piece, and each piece reflects different angles of myself and the Egyptian fishermen in a way that I think wouldn’t work in a novel. It felt like re-making a whole out of something smashed.

This ‘stories within stories within stories’ that you mentioned, you know, I remember part of me was telling me not to do it, I was not supposed to do it, but a stronger part of me was telling me to go for it, to do what I’m not supposed to do, it’ll be fun. I remember I did this more in the story ‘Two Arms’. And as I was going for the story within the story within the story, I felt I was trapping myself deeper and deeper and I had to get out of it somehow, and my one part kept saying, ‘See, I told you, didn’t I?’ and my other part kept replying, ‘Hahaha, I’ll do it.’ And so I did it. And it was fun entangling and disentangling myself within stories.

Your question created this idea in my head. It’s just an idea, I haven’t researched it or anything: so, I am an immigrant. How does an immigrant identify himself? To identify himself, the immigrant must see himself as a story within a story within another story, and we narrate these stories to ourselves from different cultural viewpoints. Perhaps the immigrant, due to his experiences, feels more at ease, it comes more naturally to him to create this story within story or the novel-in-stories thing, because the immigrant has the fragmented inside him.

I like that idea of how stories beget stories within a fragmented or fractured cultural experience, and I think that’s supported by the act of sharing stories that’s so prevalent throughout the collection. It feels to me as though the disparate narratives are linked not just by storytelling (as in most novels) but by the act of someone listening, which is also a repeated motif. In that sense, I’m curious to know how you might relate the physical act of listening to the process of research behind the book. How important is it, if at all, for a novelist to position themselves as someone who listens or maybe listens in to the fragmented stories of our world?

I listened to these people for thousands of hours, but as a human, not a novelist. When you listen, listen without labelling yourself or those who talk. Taking yourself as a novelist or writer or whatever, you filter things out when a person talks, you think, ‘This is important, that isn’t.’ If you do that you become the silent director of their talking, you don’t listen or you listen to what you want them to say, not what they truly say.

I listened to the Egyptian fishermen and the beggars around the harbour without thinking that now a fisherman or a beggar was talking to me. They were humans and I was a human. They were the artists and I was the observer of their art. I listened while I was drinking coffee with them, while working in the café, while I was drunk and/or stoned, and while I was terribly tired from all that listening I kept on listening to them, and my reward was to discover one simple thing: that true listening means understanding and understanding means travelling and then I wrote this book so other people can travel with us. When you listen, you’ve got to be there every second, wanting nothing more than to understand, even when what you listen to annoys you, or when you are really tired, and sometimes you have to keep on fighting your ego to truly listen. The real people who I later fictionalised in the book had a need to be listened to, to be understood. They were marginalised people, ignored and seen as inferior by the many. And when they knew that a man was truly interested in their lives, they came to me with their stories, they came with their laughter and pain and truths, and when I was too tired and had headaches from listening, they came with their aspirins, and said, ‘Here, take a couple, I want to tell you something.’

Yes, you explain in your Acknowledgements that you worked as a waiter at a café in your hometown of Kavala, where the book is set, and it sounds as though you absorbed the stories of migrant fishermen in a similar manner to the staff at Café Papaya. On that theme, we’ve spoken about what the act of listening might mean but I’d like to go a little deeper into how your research for Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness leant on your actual experiences. In particular, I’m curious as to how your memories of a since-departed place fed into the process of you transposing these stories into prose fiction.

‘Acknowledgements’ is a story and had been published as a story before. I don’t try to explain anything there. It’s part of the funfair. The research of this work was what anthropologists call participant observation: I spent three or four years with these people, being their shadow, lurking around the harbour, serving coffees in the café and asking questions, going out to bars with them, doing formal and informal interviews in all sorts of places, being – as Patrick Chamoiseau said – ‘a kind of parasite, swimming in a sterile bliss.’ During that time of participant observation I kept some notes, and when I moved to England I expanded those notes into diaries written in Greek, one thousand handwritten pages.

The diaries were very important to me, they were the first draft of my book, but at the time I had no intention to write fiction and I had never written fiction before. In the diaries I tried to write everything. With the help of the notes, I pushed myself to remember everything and write it down, especially little details that to me seemed insignificant at the time. Maybe when you write you must not take yourself seriously. By being insignificant you see clearer, you are a truer version of yourself, not some God who knows everything. So I wrote my insignificant little notes like a good little student.

Years later, I used those diaries to write fiction in English. I feel it helped me that I was writing about a now-faraway place. Memory and feelings are more alive when what you had you have no more.

I think there’s a lot to unpack there, especially in how that process of listening, diarising and writing (in Greek and English) helped to shape the difference in flavour between the Egyptians narrating in Greek, the Greek characters’ own narration, and then you as a Greek writer writing in English. Do you see Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness as an exercise in exophony, as specifically facing the challenge of articulating a non-native tongue?

The book is not an exercise in exophony. Writing in English was a statement. Greeks pissed me off and I left the country and wrote it in another language, simple as that. It took me 15 years as I had to learn a whole new language, but for me that was part of the fun and I never felt frustrated for writing in a language that I hadn’t, and still haven’t, mastered.

You know, when we were kids we would go out to play in the neighbourhood and our neighbourhood had mental borders, we knew that up to there and there and there was our neighbourhood, we felt safe, and the kids of the neighbourhood stuck together and we played our games. Writing in your second language is like going out there to explore other neighbourhoods, it gives you this sense of freedom and danger, you’re the outsider who sees new roads and trees and kids who might be playing different games and you have this feeling of newness, of everything being more alive, more dangerous, more unexpected. You know that you’ll never know the other neighbourhoods inside-out like the other kids that grew up there. But because you’re an outsider, subconsciously you train your senses to become sharper, you need them sharper because you’re in the unknown and the unfamiliar.

Because of the ethnography and the long period of time I spent with the Egyptian fishermen, I found it easy articulating their voices. Ethnography gives you a spherical experience and creates a bonding so that later, when you write creatively, you can be them. I know exactly how the Egyptians felt when they spoke in Greek because I feel the same when I speak in English. Say you want to drive from A to B and the easiest and quickest way is the motorway but because you don’t know the rules of the motorway you take the unusual way and drive through country lanes. You get there in the end, it takes you longer, and the journey leaves you with a different aftertaste, both you as the narrator and the person who listens. My Egyptian friends had all different levels of Greek, and this too I try to show in the book when they speak. And this is easy as well, because I’ve been through different levels of English.

In English, I am unsure of every single sentence that I write, always, even the simplest one. It’s like every sentence is an equation and there is no book of solutions. So every sentence that I write appears to me as some sort of mystery, it looks back at me and asks me, ‘Am I right? You’ll never know, dickhead.’ And I laugh and take my sweet little time with it.

I use all sorts of dictionaries to try and get words right, and even then I’m unsure. Thesauruses, Greek to English, English to Greek, English to English, even Greek to Greek to find a start with a word, visual dictionaries, slang dictionaries, synonyms and antonyms, etymological, idioms. I know that out there, there is a word I’m looking for, and so I start hunting for it, and this makes writing in English a game for me, it’s fun.

And every time I finished a story, I called over an English friend and we sat next to each other in front of the computer, going through the story. And what was important about this friend is that he is – and this is how he describes himself – an underclass. So he is someone who understands marginalised people, even though he’s English and the people in the book are Arabs or Greeks. When I wanted to get a word right, I would interview him so I could get the deep meaning of the word, so that I could feel its weight. We could be talking about a single word for an hour. There were times were he thought that I used the wrong expression or word, but I usually knew that already and there was a reason I wanted to sound different. There were other times when my friend insisted that a sentence is wrong, and he called me Manuel and described these weird sentences as ‘Manuelisms’, meaning that I sound like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, in which case I would call him a Gammon and I would re-write the sentence.

By the way, I came across a comment about exophony recently. It made me think, which I rarely do. ‘Exo’ means ‘from outside’ and ‘phony’ means ‘voice’. Shouldn’t it be called exography then, with ‘graphy’ as in ‘writing’? I don’t know, what do you think?

You may be right, although as someone who has about six non-English words in their repertoire, I may not be the authority… (C’est la vie, I suppose). I’m aware there’s much more we could discuss, but to close I’d like to ask what I’ve been asking a number of my interviewees. I want to know how you feel your work might operate in terms of being an act of research in and of itself. What does the work investigate, at its core, that is better investigated through this synthesis of the novel and short fiction forms than through, for example, a transcription of migrant narratives or a traditional doctoral thesis? At the heart of it, does it look for truth, or meaning, or both, or neither?

It looks for heart and finds heart and laughter. The truth is there, fresh and slaughterhouse raw, not all nicely packed up in fancy packets on supermarket shelves. I don’t remember myself looking for meaning when I was out there, but I remember these people giving me meaning without me asking for it.

But I talk as if I know what the book is about, which is not true. I don’t know what the book looks for, the book is beyond me, what it looks or doesn’t look for only the book knows, not me.

About your question on what the book investigates better than a traditional doctoral thesis. Many years ago Captain Cervantes said something like this in Don Quixote: It is one thing to write as a poet, and another to write as a historian. The historian must pen things as they really were, without adding to, or diminishing anything from the truth; but the poet may say, or sing, not as they were, but as they ought to have been.

Alexandros Plasatis is an immigrant ethnographer who lives in Bolton and works with displaced and homeless people. He is the author of the Edge Hill Prize-nominated Made by Sea and Wood, in Darkness: a novel in stories (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021). Stories from this book have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of The Net, and over the years all the stories were published in US, UK, Indian and Canadian magazines and anthologies. He is the editor of The Other Side of Hope: journeys in refugee and immigrant literature.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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