My illiterate Greek grandmother offered to buy me a husband. She embarrassed her upwardly-mobile children, yet she echoes through my work, as do women like her – if of different ethnicities. She has become a touchstone.
To find myself a writer, dependent on words my paternal yiayia was unable to read or write herself strikes me as uniquely fortunate; some days, even astonishing. My maternal yiayia, on the other hand, completed high school in Greece – rather highfalutin for a woman of her generation – and was certainly competent in reading and writing in her native tongue. That competence did not extend to English, however. Neglecting English may have been a matter of choice for her, depending on how you define choice. Though God knows there was a good deal of chatter between us, I can’t recall having had a single substantive conversation with either yiayia – and certainly not about anything like a book – never mind that each one’s love for me was palpable. Ideas cobbled together in Grenglish or otherwise mattered less than brushing a butter wash over cookies known as koulouria; or kneading dough; or tiny sachets, stitched with a cross, to tuck in my clothing drawers for protection.
Small business owners, my yiayias’ husbands – each my papou – mastered literacy to a greater extent than their wives. My paternal papou, a man who achieved the second grade before fleeing to the United States, taught himself to read American newspapers and stock exchange reports. As he turned the halved, then quartered, pages of newsprint, his “r’s” rolled: “Everything in rotation.” All things in order. He meant it, he lived it, it paid off. But these men died before I was born or reached my teenage years.
So the fact remains: were they alive today, none of my four grandparents could have read anything I’ve written. I leave to one side whether they would have been interested. Regardless, these facts make me wonder about the meaning and power of literacy, my grandparents’ desire for it in their children and their children’s children – and my own apparent devotion to it as the vehicle for mysteries I pursue through writing.
According to Merriam-Webster, a person or entity is literate if educated, cultured; able to read and write; versed in literature or creative writing; lucid, polished; or has knowledge or competence. Of these, my grandparents excelled only in the last. And this was enough. Let’s return to my paternal yiayia. She offered to pay for marriage because she wanted me to be happy. In the world as she understood it, she was taking action. Her offer became a family joke in later years, and I deployed it widely. I recant. From her, the offer was profound good faith. It was evidence of practical, cultural, and emotional competence. This, too, is literacy.
In fact, it seems to me that cultural-emotional literacy like hers is indispensable to words comprising fiction, poetry, lyrics, essays, and breathes life into them. It also requires humility. The more I write, the more indispensable and insufficient the words themselves.
In some sense, my yiayia need not have worried. Her dreams for me came true sideways: I am partnered, but to things and beings she hadn’t envisioned. I have written or dealt with the written or spoken word for as long as I can remember – reading books over and over as a child; a B.A. in comparative literature in English, Spanish and French; an M.M.A. in singing that required delivery of whatever language underlay art song or aria; a career on and off Broadway during which I wrote and performed lyrics and one-woman shows; a J.D. leading to brief-writing, argumentation, constructing strategic documents, and legislative drafting; stories, essays, long-form fiction. Ironically, in so many of these partnerships, I had to learn two lessons: how to master the words and when to function “off the words,” much as yiayia did. I imagine her eyes glittering with satisfaction at the preceding sentence.
During my first career in the performing arts, I studied weekly with the superb acting coach, Michael Howard, and tried to understand the cademic reality that interior life in a scene both depended upon and transcended a script’s words. In fact, there was technique to be learned for getting “off the words.” It sprang from the truth that the pauses, the silences, the movements, one’s very presence and neurological/emotional journey in front of an audience and around, below, behind the words were ignition for what happened to a script inside a darkened theater.
Later, when I coached a small group of non-singers to sing, I spent a few sessions with the warm and formidable Olympia Dukakis. She leaned on each word in a song as though it were a high, stone step toward an altar. The melody was collapsing under the heavy tread, yet she challenged me: “Well, when aren’t words the most important thing?” “In a symphony,” I heard myself say, able in that moment to offer what I myself needed to remember. There was a reason a song’s lyrics were set to a particular pitch and rhythm. Sound, by itself, was communicative power.
Some days, I was obnoxious enough to say to friends that scripts and screenplays were an inferior form of music. I must have been longing for something to tell such a lie. Then there was dance; and the power of costume – the fabric, the feel, the historical reference, the concept; the gravitational pull of place and lighting; the multiple literacies of theater.
I knew it was time to leave the theater when I believed my level of proficiency, high or low, in these crafts left me stranded. A dear friend, an exquisite actress, was sitting on the far end of my couch in New York City. We were watching TV coverage of the terrible 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Wordless, rescue dogs curved in and out of rubble. Their handlers used commands and signals to communicate. I said to my friend, “I don’t have a single skill those people need.”
I did not think I would get into law school, but within eighteen months, I was registering for my contracts course. Though rescue dogs had propelled me into law – that, and the fact that every remaining member of my nuclear family was a lawyer – the irony was this: I was entering a world in which words took on outsized meaning. Every comma mattered. Emotion, purportedly less so. Yet I discovered it was possible to employ word-based analysis in shareholder suits against management; or to challenge atrocities committed during rape and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. I’m not sure which of these would have pleased yiayia more, if at all. In any event, regardless of their tethering to words, such legal actions’ moral echoes were entirely different. Legal literacy became complex.
As did cultural literacy. When I became mother to my son, born in Peru’s high Andes, I learned something about the Aymara language of his heritage. It is one of the only, if not the only, language known in which the speaker refers to the future as positioned behind her. This is because the future has not yet been seen. The past, however, lies in front of the speaker, who has witnessed its passing. So when talking of the past, she points forward. Take that, Western literacy; and add Western scholars’ inability to identify methods of intergenerational knowledge transmission in the highly-developed Inca civilization. It left no “evidence” of a “written” language – except, perhaps, the knotted-cord quipu. A literate civilization? The question reflects its own limitations.
Add to this my beloved son’s language development: humming, inflected sentences with words dropped in only later. It was as though he were engaged in some interior jazz, creating melodic arcs that meant something on their own. They did. I often knew what he was saying before all his words came together. He’s a medic now, approaching graduate school. He loves figurative language, music, and song. He thought the Odyssey was so gorgeous, he read parts of it aloud to me in high school. We fired the racist physician who told him he would never deal well with abstract ideas. He’s been a competitive chess player and understands spatial strategy better than I ever will. I have no idea what yiayia would make of him. Perhaps it’s just as well. She had her village biases against non-Greeks.
Perhaps she never got over her father’s having forbidden her from going to school and learning to read. He was, according to family lore, the source of her illiteracy. Was her illiteracy gendered? I’m not sure. When I was around twelve, her son – my own charismatic, generous father – cautioned me against ever becoming a lawyer. “I’ve seen women lawyers, sweetie. They’re not feminine. Don’t do it.” He outgrew that iteration of misogyny. He danced on the ceiling when my LSAT scores came back a quarter of a century later. Still, certain family traditions regarding women leave me asking: if competence is literacy and if perceptions of both are limited by gender bias, what does that say about the literary arts?
Were this discussion happening in the family kitchen, Yiayia would be clattering pots out of the cabinet by now and telling me that a woman worth anything would be helping her make an avgolemono soup for dinner. If I suggested I might be tired from final exams, she’d ask, “Why are you tired? Did you scrub floors?”
I am in love with words, as was my mother, whose essays and poems I discovered after her death. I am so glad to know, however, that a love affair with words does not define literacy. To Yiayia and theater folk and rescue dogs and lawyers and social justice plaintiffs and quipus and the heights of Machu Picchu and a son who is a gift I say: thanks for the markers that will guide me toward writing beyond words if I can get there.