On my blog today, I’m privileged to introduce my readers to the bi-cultural Sophia Kouidou-Giles. Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, she tells me about what inspired her to write her memoir Sophia’s Return: Uncovering My Mother’s Past, a work that captures family secrets.
Sophia Kouidou‐Giles was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, and university educated in the USA. She holds a Bachelors in Psychology and a Masters in Social Work. In her 34-year child-welfare career, she served as a practitioner, educator, researcher, and administrator publishing articles in Greek and English professional journals with a focus on child welfare services to abused/neglected children, and statewide responsibilities in child care licensing and adolescent services for youth in foster care in the state of Washington. Her memoir, Sophia’s Return: Uncovering My Mother’s Past (Επιστροφή Στη Θεσσαλονίκη), published by Tyrfi Press in Greek, in 2019 and now available in English.
I wanted to write ever since I was a child. My grandmother’s gift to me was making up stories before nap time, a habit I took up later with my own family. I was easy to get a present for because I was a voracious reader, accumulating Greek and world literature in translation in my teens. At work and on my own time it has been a way to clarify my thinking, create worlds, and gain insights. The writing life suits me in retirement where the frantic ‘to do’ lists are not as long and pressing. Besides, it a has been a life saver during the homebound days of COVID.
Being bicultural, I learned to observe, ask questions, and stay curious. Bridging one culture (Greek, my birth language) to the another (America, where I have lived my adult years), has given me a valuable set of lenses. I value reading and writing and hanging out with that crowd.
Were there overt negative reactions to the book? Did they contain grains of truth? What was your response to those reactions then and now?
Divulging family secrets, in Sophia’s Return, and disclosing my perceptions about the role my father and grandmother played in my parents’ divorce, elicited strong reactions from some people. The book is steeped in the Greek culture of the mid twentieth century, the post war era (WWII), and events that influenced my family.
We all have differing memories and points of view, and that is to be expected. In the end, what I was after was uncovering family secrets and presenting my own reaction and a more dispassionate assessment of the times, the challenges we faced. It helped me resolve what I had missed, the circumstances I had not understood as a young child. I am a believer in searching for answers.
What does your writing space look like?… like do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?
I am a nomad in my house, using several ‘workstations’. There is a very tidy, organized space that I use during the day, but I most often I start on a messy kitchen table, where notes, books, and sources about what I am working on at the moment are spread. There is also the comfortable chair in the living room, and the computer on my lap. I move in between, depending on what I need to do, focus in the tidy space, ‘study’ material in the kitchen, or free write, mostly in the living room.
What genres do you work in?
I started writing poetry, but in recent years I turned to non-fiction and am currently working in fiction. I am discovering how even in fiction my models are combinations of living characters in imagined plots. Much fun!
How much time do you spend writing each day?
It varies a great deal. Some days it is a couple of hours and others seems to be on and off the whole day. I count on riding the waves on days when ideas and words come easily. I rarely go for a day without writing. The same is true of my reading habits.
What is the funniest typo you have ever written?
I waited outside the office, ringing my hands, -can you hear them turning into bells? Instead of: I waited outside the office wringing my hands.
What’s the hardest part of writing or publishing?
All that follows, revising and finishing a manuscript, was a surprise. The energy it takes to search and submit the manuscript to publishers and the silence that followed was a difficult time, not unlike the times when I submitted to journals and received rejections, but the stakes were much higher with a book. The joy of receiving a contract from my publisher, and all the steps that followed, have been a delight! Mainly though, all that effort takes away from the primary act of writing.
Who is your favorite character from your book(s)?
I am increasingly interested in writing that bring to life mythological characters and breathes in them human qualities, flaws, and passions in new interpretations of the archetypes they represent. Currently, I am reworking myths surrounding Circe, an enchantress that Homer wrote three lines about, the one that turned Odysseus’ men into pigs. She has inspired many writers through the ages, Ovid, James Joyce, Margaret Atwood, and Madeline Miller, among others. In my forthcoming novella, she is a Goddess with clay feet.
How would you like your books to change the world?
There is something healing about exploring the past, uncovering facts, and gaining insights. Not just a better understanding of what transpired but also a settling and letting go, perhaps discoveries with a new angle, a fresh lens. Exercising our right to understand our own story is one we should be able to claim. The recent proliferation of memoirs has created space for many women to speak out/up. If I ever inspire another writer or reader to pursue their truth, my efforts would have paid off.
Do you travel to research your book(s)?
It was not by design for the book, but I did travel, and the experience contributed to writing the book. There were a couple of reasons that prompted my travels: my memoir takes place in Greece, my native country where I was tracing family genealogy. I was also focusing on my mother’s abandonment of our home and all the unanswered questions about the circumstances. After retiring from social services, I travelled to parts of the world my father and mother lived in. It was my need to touch places they had talked about.
From the Pacific Northwest in the US, I travelled to Thessaloniki, my birthplace, the second largest city in Greece. I visited Constantinople, where my paternal grandparents lived and Cappadocia, Turkey, where my father and his sibling were born and raised. Tracing my father’s family roots to the 1800’s led me to the Mastihohoria (gum villages) on the Greek island of Chios. Memories and unanswered questions about my childhood in Greece and my disrupted relationship with my mother took me on another intense journey of family interviews in different parts of Greece, and to several library resources to unearth the past. Tracking all this in notes turned to scenes, then chapters, and finally Sophia’s Return.