Considerations on the reception of Cypriot literature
21 June 2021
Daniele Nunziata University of Oxford
Literature from Cyprus is not read and not studied enough.
Schools in Cyprus often place texts by authors from Greece, Turkey, or the United Kingdom at the forefront of their curriculums – depending, of course, on what part of the island the school is based. And schools in those three Guarantor Powers often don’t accommodate multiple Cypriot authors into their reading lists. On the rare occasions they do, the shortlisted Cypriot texts are usually those which celebrate connections with the nation to which the target readers belong.
Pascale Casanova has discussed how translation is a factor in ‘the inequality faced by participants in the world literary game’ that occurs in the liminal ‘relation between what are commonly called “source” and “target”’ forms or locations. These inequalities extend to what is not translated – or (in line with the word’s etymology) to what is not borne across. How many texts by Turkish-speaking Cypriots are read and studied in schools in Greece, and how many by Greek-speaking Cypriots in Turkey? How much literature ‘from the other side’ is welcomed in each opposing segment of divided Cyprus?
As Panos Ioannides has summarised, ‘today and in the recent past, the country’s [Cyprus’] literary output has not been systematically studied by Greek critics [or] received its fair share of attention and recognition from the reading public’. In parallel ways, Nergis Canefe has described how ‘Turkish Cypriot literature’ has a ‘marginal status in the Turkish-speaking world’.
While many citizens of both Greece and Turkey view the island of Cyprus as an integral part of its respective national or cultural sphere, the reluctant reading of Cypriots – and especially Cypriots from a different linguistic background – expresses a refusal to engage with a full impression of Cypriot history and everyday life. The Greco-Turkish binary of self and Other is revived in pedagogy and academia through acts of literary exclusion.
In addition, Cypriot authors (of whatever linguistic background) who express ambivalence towards the relationship the island has with all of its so-called ‘motherlands’ are doubly marginalised for not adhering to commonly-accepted narratives of national belonging. At best, a piece of Cypriot literature which is unswervingly and unapologetically Cypriot makes for awkward conversations about affiliation. At worst, it is viewed as a kind of cultural traitor.
This has an indelible impact on every author from the island. Aware of the political ramifications of every literary choice – what language to write in, where to publish, and what cultural motifs to draw on – Cypriot authors are always conscious of how they will be received in political terms. Nicole Doerr observes that ‘[i]t is clear to practitioners and theorists of translation that all translation is political’. This is not only true for Cyprus, but I might suggest that all acts of writing (translated or not) are inherently political for Cypriots.
In the third, fourth, and fifth chapters of Colonial and Postcolonial Cyprus, I examine Cypriot literature of the past fifty years. Into the layers of their writing are unavoidable metatextual allusions to the pressures surrounding linguistic form and political association. This ranges from authors like Costas Montis who wanted to write solely in Greek and never in English, to poets like Mehmet Yaşin who writes in Turkish but actively works towards the publication of bilingual editions of his work which are translated by fellow Cypriots.
Within this spectrum is the increasing number of Cypriots writing almost exclusively in English. Arguably, the very first of this tradition was Taner Baybars – but he is now joined by dozens of contemporary authors who are choosing to use English as their primary literary tongue. In some cases, this might be tied to a desire to speak globally in an Anglophone-dominated publishing industry. However, for most Cypriots writing in English, the decision is more localised. Self-translation allows them to communicate more easily with Cypriots who read English but live ‘on the other side’. This opening-up of readership in order to cross the Buffer Zone is also related to an urgency to avoid having their works subsumed into cultural and political categories of Greekness or Turkishness which might not represent every Cypriot author’s sense of identity.
In academia, the category of ‘Cypriot literature’ is rarely considered and often awkwardly ignored because a field of Cypriot authors speaking multiple languages (Greek, Turkish, Cypriot Arabic, Armenian), and sometimes writing in English, complicates neat boxes of ‘Greek Literature’, ‘Turkish Literature’, and ‘English Literature’. As always, the question returns as to whether these terms mean ‘literature written in that language’ (Greek, Turkish, English) or ‘literature from the country tied to that adjective’ (Greece, Turkey, England)? The pressures of national affiliation looms large in the terminology used by reading lists, library shelves, and academic courses. Where do Cypriot texts belong when their existence ‘in-between’ inevitably muddles these categories?
Cypriot writers composing their works through self-translation – and working collaboratively with their peers across languages – are wilfully playing with these ontological boxes, and complicating questions about how literary studies understand its tethers with both linguistic and national fields.
For me, growing up in London in a half-Cypriot household meant that travelling to the island every summer was confusing. Why did Cypriots in the south fly two national flags, while Cypriots in the north flew two different flags? That’s four in total for one small island. Plus, there’s the Union Jack we saw driving through Dhekelia, and then the UN Flag in Pyla/Pile and along the border. Six. Where was Cyprus and ‘the Cypriot’ among this vexillological tapestry of barbed wire and red-white-and-blue? What cultural fabric independently represents the experience of simply being from the island?
With my book, then, I wanted to actively make space to analyse Cypriot authors as Cypriot authors and to listen to what they needed to say – sometimes through the displacing act of self-translation – about their sense of belonging and non-belonging. Most British-Cypriots I know, who are avid readers, have never encountered Cypriot writing, and many are surprised that such a field exists. I was never set any Cypriot literature at school or as a university student. The more exposure given to the aesthetic, political, and linguistic complexity of the field might help transform future reading habits (in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and the UK). It might also encourage us to put pressure on our binary ways of categorising cultural production.
1 Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. M.B. DeBevoise (Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 133.
3 Nergis Canefe, ‘Communal Memory and Turkish Cypriot National History: Missing Links’, in Maria Todorova (ed.), Balkan Identities: Nation and Memory (Hurst & Company, 2004), pp. 77–102 (p. 87).
4 Nicole Doerr, ‘Translation and Democracy’, in Fruela Fernandez (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Politics (Routledge, 2018), pp. 64–78 (p. 68).
Dr Daniele Nunziata is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Oxford specialising in postcolonial writing and theory. He is the author of Colonial and Postcolonial Cyprus (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and a contributor to World Literature in Motion (Columbia University Press, 2020). His research has also been published in several journals, including PMLA and the Journal of Postcolonial Writing. He primarily lectures at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and participates in the literary projects Writers Make Worlds and Great Writers Inspire (https://writersinspire.org/people/daniele-nunziata).