Friday, July 4, 2014

Layers of Human History

 Guest post by Joyce Hinnefeld. Joyce is a a dear friend, a wonderful writer, & the director of last month's inspiring & amamzing Moravian Writers' Conference-- about which I've written on this blog. Take it away, Joyce!

My husband, twelve-year-old daughter, and I took a fabulous trip last summer, to Greece and Rome. In Greece we spent time in Athens, took day trips to Arachova and Delphi, then spent time on the island of Naxos and took more day trips, to Delos and Mykonos.

And let me tell you, I have got some photos! The iPhone makes it all too easy. But instead of the freshly whitened buildings with blue trim and Byzantine churches and countless cats, instead of the glorious statues of lions and gods and goddesses and the fragments of temples to Apollo, I want to show you this single photo from Greece, which I took outside the archaeological museum on the island of Delos. It’s of a rusted and clearly long-unused pay phone. Years of sun and wind and blowing sand have done their work on it. It’s a different kind of Greek ruin.

Ruth has been my inspiration and guide through the many years of our friendship in all kinds of ways, but maybe most keenly in her deep appreciation of travel--particularly the ways in which travel inspires her writing. Travel inspires my writing too, but I think the form that takes, for me, is different. Instead of imagining ancient worlds, charms and curses, mermaids and sultans and captive girls, I find myself--in the midst of all that beauty and history--looking at the two women (were they sisters? were they as sad as they seemed to me?) serving us breakfast in the hotel in Rome. The young man who sold ice cream and snacks on the small ferry boat, pedaling his bike furiously from the port, carrying a bucket for more ice during our stop on Mykonos. The beautiful French mother, with her two shy pre-teen daughters, at the pool on Naxos. Wondering what they had for breakfast, who was causing them pain or giving them joy, what they remembered fondly, what they wished they’d never done.

I don’t think my preoccupation with the present-day people around me when I travel comes from my being stuck in the present; I’m actually a very nostalgic person. That nostalgia keeps showing up in things I write lately. In fiction, it emerges in the mother-daughter relationships I keep including, with mothers remembering their own younger lives, and sort of understanding their daughters’ lives, but sort of not. That’s me thinking about my own daughter, I suppose. But I think it’s also me missing my own younger self.

In the piece I’m working on now, a mother and her college-age daughter take a trip much like the one we took last summer. Only in this case, they’re going to revisit scenes from a semester, and a follow-up summer, that the mother spent abroad thirty years before. She wants her daughter to consider studying in Rome; the daughter says she isn’t really interested in living in a dorm with other American students and studying that particular form of imperialism. On the island of Delos, while her mother tries to get her interested in the row of massive lion statues, glowing in the midday sun, the daughter snaps photos of a museum card that refers to the Athenians’ “overtly imperialist policy in the Aegean,” then the rusted pay phone. Later she posts both online with the caption, “Layers of human history . . . .”

The young man pedaling his bike away from the port will show up too, as will two middle-aged sisters serving breakfast in the little birreria next to a hotel called the Hotel Cinecittá in Rome (in reality, it was called the Hotel Fellini--but there really was a little birreria where we had breakfast, and it was filled with music stands and posters and books about Italian neo-realist cinema).

For a long time I haven’t wanted to admit how much the fiction I write has to do with me. My life, my preoccupations, my unanswered questions. But of course that’s what I’m doing, even when I try to imagine my way into the life of a sad and lonely Italian woman, or two Greek brothers who grew up on a farm on Naxos, or the American college girl who, one magical summer after a semester abroad in Rome, fell for the older brother.

But sometimes you need to leave home--to travel, observe, and take lots of photos--to recognize those preoccupations, those unanswered questions. And the people who will bring them to life.

Joyce Hinnefeld is the author of two novels, Stranger Here Below and In Hovering Flight, and a collection of short stories, Tell Me Everything and Other Stories. She is the Cohen Chair for English and Literature at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Learn more about her work at

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