speaks to Lily Michaelides
As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 4, December 2013
Maria Pyliotou was born in Lefkoniko, which today lies in the Turkish-occupied areas of Cyprus. For many years she had worked as an Elementary School teacher. She has been presented with awards in Cyprus and Greece. For the lyrics of “The song of joy” she was honoured by UNICEF in the context of the “International Year of the Child”. In 1987 she received the Janusz Korczak Award for her book “The running trees”. In 2008, she won the children’s literature award of the Academy of Athens “Costas and Eleni Ourani Foundation” for her book “Do you love me? Yes, I do!” Books by Maria Pyliotou have been translated into French, Russian and Ukrainian. Today she lives and works in Nicosia, Cyprus.
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Q: You made your debut in literature with a book of poetry – “Consecrated soil” in 1959. Yet, being teacher, you followed the path that led to children’s literature, a path which has admittedly been rewarding for you. You’ve written mostly short-stories, novels and fairy tales. Do you remember when you began writing books for children?
A: It was during my first years as a teacher. At the time, school classes did not have a library and children’s books weren’t available on the market. Those were difficult times (1957), shortly before the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus, towards the end of the liberation struggle (1955-59). Difficult times indeed, which urged you to become creative in order to meet any required need. I would improvise stories and fairy-tales, mostly in order to appease or entertain my pupils.
Later, things got better. A turning point in my career was my collaboration, starting in 1964, with “Paidiki Chara”, the journal of the Teachers Association. It offered me the wonderful opportunity to communicate with children. They would write letters to me, call me on the phone. This collaboration went on even after my retirement. During those years I was also an associate for Children’s Radio Shows on CYBC. Working with Natalia and Yorgos Arvanitakis was and remains to this day an unforgettable experience. I learned the language required for a text intended for children, by listening to its audio version. These things paved my way. My first children’s book “Happy Kites” was initially written for a series of “Paidiki Chara” issues (1974-75) and was later published by the ‘Omada ton Deka’ (1976).
Q: You draw your ideas and heroes from the challenging reality of contemporary Cyprus. How are your books divided between imagination and reality? That is to say, how much of the plot is true and how much is imaginary?
A: Personally, I need a trigger to get me started. I have to grab onto something in order to develop my story. In “X.X.” reality overrides imagination. The book contained true stories of children who had arrived at my school (Eleneion) after the 1974 war. Refugees, startled and scared, struggling to adjust. I let each of them tell their own stories. It was good for them too, listening to one another’s background. By adding small doses of imagination, I crafted my first ten stories.
In subsequent books (“Our castle”, “Running trees” etc) fiction holds the largest part, and as I go along, the myth prevails. A novel counting 200 pages, titled “On the wings of the Golden Eagle”, is entirely a fairy tale. I would have loved to be able to write nothing but fairy tales.
Q: Do you seek children’s “advice” when you write? Do you give them your texts to read before you publish them?
A: Yes, when I was teacher I used to do that. And let me tell you, their remarks were unbelievable! Many were the times when they rendered me speechless. Gradually, I was able to guess how and what children wanted in a story. They seek adventure, humour; they detest demureness, didacticism, pointless verbosity. At the same time, they are indifferent to dry simplicity. Words matter; the emotion they evoke, but also their arrangement in a text. They need to set up a pace so that the text produces a kind of music – but definitely not rhyme. There are fairy tales written in rhyme and they have failed. A good children’s book requires experience, knowledge, sound instinct and hard work. As for the author, she must not content herself easily with her writings.
Q: When you meet with children, do they ask questions about a book they have read? If yes, which was the most interesting or “crazy” question they’ve asked you?
A: I’m always happy to meet with children and listen to their questions and remarks. I will never forget a child who was perhaps 11 or 12 years old, in Leivadia, Larnaka: I left his class before he had been able to ask his question, so as I was leaving he rushed after me and gave me a piece of paper. I read it when I got home, it said: “The stories you write, are they true? If not, congratulations for making them sound true”. I was deeply touched, it made me very happy.
As for the craziest question: “How will you react if someone tells you he doesn’t like your books at all?”
Q: What do you think of the progress of Children’s Literature in Cyprus? Do you find it satisfactory?
A: One could suggest that the financial crisis has a negative effect on the evolution of Children’s Literature in Cyprus. On the one hand, there are but a few publishing houses – and for an author to go ahead and publish his or her work, the price is rather high. On the other hand, publishing houses do have a point. Ours is a small country with limited distribution of books. Nevertheless, these adversities are not without their positive side: they urge genuine creators to become more inventive, to raise the quality of their work. Besides, a person’s need to write should not depend on the direct promotion of their work or themselves. It’s a good thing, encountering hurdles. It makes you try harder.
Q: Could it grow more than it did?
A: Literature is always open to growth. Since the years of Eugenia Petronda and Kypros Chrysanthis to nowadays, namely, in the span of half a century, it has grown by leaps and bounds. There are young people, genuine talents, who bring a breath of fresh air to Children’s Literature and, no matter how tenaciously the powers of conservatism try to impede them, they will not be able to halt them. Further, I do not adhere to the belief that “young people need encouragement”. Natural talents are not in need of encouragement, neither are they deterred by the opposition. They just go forward…
Q: One of the questions we often ask is: What do you think should be done for children to grow fonder of books – knowing as we do that in our times things are not as easy.
A: Usually, when a child grows up in a house with books, with parents who love books, he or she will grow fond of them too and start reading. School, obviously, always plays an incredibly strong role. I know of teachers who make children adore books, children who grow up to love books for keeps. It takes a devoted soul and much love.
I do not believe in seminars and in teaching literary writing. In such places rush authors-speakers who are eager to advertise their books, and of course they make a painful impression. What I believe in is the encounters between authors, the exchange of experiences. Interaction there is natural. I believe in the power and the magic released by fine books. There, the child-reader will discover every secret – and if they have questions, again, the book is the place to go for a solution. The same applies to perspective authors. One doesn’t become a writer by attending custom-made recipes. Only with his talent, given he is talented, and through the books of important writers will he acquire the keys; with hard work, exploration and avoiding the risk of complacence and self-indulgence.
Q: How can a book compete with technology – or even better, how can a book utilize technology (TV, the Internet, PCs)?
A: Technology (television, the Internet and so on) has entered our lives in order to make them easier and more pleasant; to provide direct access to knowledge. It can, without a doubt, contribute to the development and promotion of literary books, and also cultivate people’s love for them. Perhaps this is not happening to the extent we would have liked. In fact, we often say that technology has come to put books aside.
Once again I will refer to those genuine creators who, no matter how many hurdles they encounter, they have the power to become better, and produce books so powerful and exciting that technology finds it impossible to override them. If a book is “unreadable”, it is not technology’s fault. Time, through its magic sieve, will eventually reveal which books will stand its test.
Q: Writing is part of your daily routine. You are a feature writer, introducing new publications and authors for a daily newspaper. Are we also to expect a book by you soon?
A: After 24 books (mind you, I wish they had been less and better) I believe that the circle of my published works has closed. With great joy I read, though! I actually wish I had always read as much as I do now, even if it would have meant less writing.
I like introducing books for “Alitheia” daily. I have covered a large variety of publications, even students periodicals – as long as they are of a high standard and feature texts of note. I also have a keen interest in the column “Epiphyllides” [Feuilletons] of the same newspaper, featuring succinct everyday stories, and I would like to thank reporter Andreas Kounios for the valuable space.
Q: At this point in your life, what would you wish for?
A: I wish for our land to recover, to regain its balance; that unemployment is reduced to the minimum and that a just solution is reached for the Cyprus problem, one that will allow our children to anticipate a brighter future.
Translated by Despina Pirketti