In 'Let Me Explain You,' Food Serves As Language When It Fails
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Stavros Stavros Mavrakis has had a dream. He's been visited by the Goat of Death, and he's convinced it's a sign he'll die in 10 days. Mavrakis is the Greek immigrant patriarch of a dysfunctional family that combusts in the debut novel titled "Let Me Explain You." Mavrakis is naturally a diner owner. It's one of the things he does not have in common with author Annie Liontas's own Greek father.
ANNIE LIONTAS: My father is a welder. He doesn't own a diner. We might be the only Greeks in New Jersey not to own a diner. It's true.
BLOCK: (Laughter) The broken English expression in the title "Let Me Explain You" - that's something she'd hear her father say all the time.
LIONTAS: It was something that we grew up with and kind of drove me crazy, actually. So he would say let me explain you something and we would know that some great wisdom or lecture would follow.
BLOCK: There are a couple of other - of Stavros Stavros Mavrakis's expressions rippled through the book. And one of them that the daughters especially howl with laughter when they think about is you want me to smell my fingers and tell you.
LIONTAS: (Laughter) Yeah.
BLOCK: Another message from your father.
LIONTAS: Yes, actually, that one was - that's a very fond memory. I'm not sure what we were talking about, but that idiom just came out. And my sisters and I looked at each other and we were like, what does that even mean (laughter)? And apparently, you know, colloquially it means do you think I'm a mind reader, right? This is a very loud, Greek way of sort of making that point. And I learned actually that that idiom has its roots in ancient Greece when people would go to see an oracle and the oracle would dip their fingers in some sort of wax or ointment and bring their fingers up to their nose before they made the prediction.
LIONTAS: So, you know, something that seemed completely, absolutely ridiculous and untranslatable has, like, pretty substantial roots.
BLOCK: A lot of the novel circles on food and food as a means of communication and also a means a sort of binding family together. And I wonder if you could read a section where Stavros Mavrakis, who is - recently come to America. He's having a terrible time. He has no job. He has no money. And he goes to a diner and is given a piece of galaktoboureko - a pastry with cream and syrup.
LIONTAS: (Reading) Oh, the galaktoboureko. It was 2 o'clock on a Greek afternoon with the Papas (ph). It was 20 years ago running through the field with his arms stretched as wide as grapevines. It was sugar if the past were made of sugar. It was semolina-sweet with tear drops of lemon. The first bite was not too sweet, and it made him cry.
BLOCK: Annie, it's - this cake is just a real conduit for him, a direct line into his past, into his childhood.
LIONTAS: It definitely is. And it's sort of - I think food does that for us. There's something very golden, almost sepia, about galaktoboureko and its connection to the past for Stavros. And there's even - you know, food in this book is a kind of - a kind of language when language fails. And it's a kind of translation for family connections when those connections are breaking down. And there's even an idiom that, for me, drives much of the book, which is (speaking Greek) which means I ate the whole world to find you.
BLOCK: I ate the whole world to find you.
BLOCK: That's an incredible image, isn't it?
LIONTAS: And it's a Greek way of saying I've been looking everywhere for you. But it's also much bigger than that. You know, it speaks to a different kind of hunger that I think this book responds to as well.
BLOCK: Is that your experience with food, too, Annie, that it does become a means of communicating a language when language fails, as you put it?
LIONTAS: Yes. I think that I could've been wooed with food actually, but my wife - I actually wooed her, so it didn't really work out that way.
LIONTAS: I do love food and I think that it's, you know, just speaking to my own culture, of course, I've lost a lot of Greek language as I assimilated. And so food is one of the ways I keep a connection. You know, I'm an immigrant and so I have a - I think an immigrant's work ethic, but also have inherited what work means. But writing is a very different - I think it's a very different path than what my family had anticipated.
BLOCK: So you were born in Greece.
LIONTAS: Well, it's actually - it's a little complicated. I was born here. My parents were in an arranged marriage, like the characters in the novel. And when that ended because of my mother's substance abuse, I moved to Greece at age 2. And so when I moved back here at 5 or 6, I very vividly remember the experience of assimilating.
BLOCK: So a lot of the storylines in this book then really are drawn from your own early life.
LIONTAS: Yeah. That is very close. The experiences I had about going over to Greece and then coming back here and what that experience of immigration does to daughters was something that was very important to me to explore.
BLOCK: Just knowing all that history now, how painful was it for you to excavate some of those really early memories and turn them into fiction in this way?
LIONTAS: Well, there's something very liberating about turning something to fiction. You're sort of taking something that, you know, you've experienced but giving it a whole different life, an entirely different representation. So while there were certain things that were certainly maybe difficult, at the end of the day, when you put them on the page, it feels very different than simply, you know, articulating something as nonfiction.
BLOCK: Well, Annie Liontas, thanks for talking with us.
LIONTAS: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: The debut novel from Annie Liontas is titled...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "Let Me Explain You." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.