A Conversation with Elena Georgiou about Immigration, Food, and Dance
by Nancy Hightower
Given that the term “immigrant” is now so often malignantly deployed in political rhetoric, there is no better time to read Elena Georgiou’s collection The Immigrant’s Refrigerator, which explores boundaries—both physical and emotional—and how they shape individual’s identity and community (both adopted and home). Georgiou translates the experience of exile as her characters try to find love amid displacement or celebrate the intimacy of a shared meal against the backdrop of unspeakable violence. The Immigrant’s Refrigerator reminds us that “home” is in reality an unfixed, fluid state always being negotiated by the personal, political, cultural. Even more importantly, these stories help to erase the imaginary, destructive boundary of us and them.
Nancy Hightower: Considering the timeliness of this book, what was your original impetus?
Elena Georgiou: I did not set out to write a book about immigrants and displaced persons. I simply sat down to write a book about a private moment in my own family. It had to do with a broken relationship. But when I began writing into the story, what I found was not only a betrayal but also the layers and legacy of colonization. I asked myself: What does it mean for one immigrant to leave his/her immigrant spouse for a more recent immigrant from a completely different country of origin? As I wrote into this story, the layers kept coming, as did the complications, and so it became clear to me that this was not one story, based on a personal history, but a collection of stories that opened out into our 21st century world.
NH: You have written that you are "the child of immigrants" and "an immigrant myself." How do you as a writer navigate those multiple tensions of trying to establish a sense of "home" when talking about identity?
EG: Honestly, I don’t consciously try to establish a sense of home—in my writing, in my life. After a large amount of soul-searching that lasted many years, I have come to accept that “home” is not a static thing. It moves. It changes. And our relationship to the idea of “home” moves and changes along with it. In these stories I didn’t lead with identity. I can’t remember even consciously thinking about identity as I delved into each character; instead, my guiding light was “universality through specificity.” Although the multiple tensions of being from “somewhere else” form the foundation of character—mine, my characters—I wanted to focus on something different; I wanted to put my lens on letting go of the violence of the past that led to the forced migration, and to focus instead on the various ways that immigrants and displaced persons try to begin again.
NH: I was particularly struck by your experience as an ex-dancer and how you use that sense of choreography to describe the immigrant experience— how immigrants, too, are experts in the "art of moving." Can you talk more about this sense of "agency" within that realm of displacement?
EG: Any displaced person/immigrant is required to become an expert in the “art of moving.” It is not only how the person survives; it is also how the person thrives. The movement might be the quick movement of fleeing an invasion or it might be the slow movement of walking thousands of miles across a desert to possible safety; the movement might be the dance between languages and dialects, or between one culture and another—sometimes three or more. Then there is the movement between those who share your culture and those who don’t. There is also the ballet that the child of immigrants—who then immigrates herself—keeps learning as she ages. Negotiating the choreography of the old home with the choreography of the new one is sometimes a solo, sometimes a duet, and often performed with a corps; and this choreographed movement goes on for as long as an immigrant/refugee/displaced person continues to breathe.
NH: What do you wish people understood about the immigrant experience that you feel isn't portrayed in news stories or the current media, and how did these concerns influence the shape of your stories?
EG: I always wish that people would pay attention to immigrant silences and the smallest facial expressions. A story can be found in what is left unspoken. A story can be found in the struggle to speak. I would ask non-immigrants to notice the way an immigrant waiter struggles to say the word yogurt; to notice the way a refugee taxi-driver pronounces his own name; to notice the expression on an immigrant mother’s face, when she doesn’t have enough of the new country’s vocabulary to express herself and so her child has to speak for her. It was noticing small immigrant gestures, and profound refugee silences, that led to the birth of most of these stories. For example, the silent gesture that led to the title story happened before the truce in Northern Ireland. I was walking down a London (UK) street with a young man from Belfast. A car backfired and for one long second he thought it was a bomb going off. Over the decades, I have never forgotten the fleeting look of terror on his face. And all this time later, this experience found its way into my work.
NH: Your characters have seen unspeakable violence in their home country, yet they are also surprisingly pragmatic in terms of how to make a bricolage community wherever they are--finding what is at hand and making things work as well as they can (I am thinking of the cook who hands out gazpacho soup to those crossing the border, while the rest of the time, he "drives a hearse" as he collects the bodies of those who don't make it (often children). Can you talk more about these micro-communities?
EG: I think it is well known that, nine times out of ten, when a person leaves their home country as a refugee or an immigrant, it is out of desperate circumstances—fleeing war, fleeing persecution, extreme poverty, etc. When this happens, this is something that affects large communities or people, not just one or two. The one positive of this, more often than not, is that displaced persons can make their new home among others from the country they’ve left behind. Being surrounded by people who understand what you’ve left behind, and who understand what it takes to begin again, lessens the shock of arrival. To state the obvious, beginning again, with a new language, a new culture, in a new country is an incredibly difficult thing to do—imagine, for a moment, yourself forced to begin again in a similar situation. Life would be so much easier if you were surrounded by people who knew your language and your struggle firsthand, yes? But we have to believe that it is not as difficult as remaining in place and running the risk of losing your life or the lives of those you love. I can’t speak for all displaced persons, but I can tell you from my personal experience that it is the will to survive and the desire to do whatever is necessary to save those you love that turns immigrants/refugees/displaced persons into pragmatists.
NH: What has the writing of this book taught you?
EG: Writing this book has taught me the following things: Borders change. Countries appear and disappear. Walls go up. Walls come down. Wars begin. Wars end. These are the things that divide us. And things that unite us. What I’m most interested in, at this particular moment in time, is what unites us—the need for family, the desire for lovers, the essence/feeling of home. Writing this book has also confirmed for me that we can sustain one another not only by sharing our food and our love, but also by sharing our stories.
NT: In 100 words or less, what do you what do you want your readers to know about you?
EG: I think that breaking bread is about communion with others, and so I believe in the importance of sharing a meal. I also believe in magic and god and secular humanism. And love. I think that diplomacy is underrated. On a variety of occasions I’ve felt at equally at home on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, on Hampstead Heath in London, and standing up to my waist in the Mediterranean Sea. And like Nietzsche, I believe that without music the world would be a mistake.
NH: What are you working on next?
EG: I’m working on a biblical novel. I can’t say anything more than that right now, in case I jinx it. But I can tell you that what it has in common with The Immigrant’s Refrigerator is that it focuses on what unites us, as well as the magic/miracle/power of stories.