Join authors Joanna Eleftheriou (This Way Back), Henry Hoke (Sticker), and Jennifer Niesslein (Dreadful Sorry) as they share their place-centered essays and memoirs, addressing questions of class, history, family, gender, and home. There is no place like it. In conversation with Jay Varner.
Watch the video from this event:
JAY VARNER: I’d like to welcome everybody on behalf of the Virginia Humanities, producer of the Virginia Festival of the Book. My name is Jay Varner. I’m a professor. I teach in the School of Writing and Technical Communication at James Madison University. And I’m also the co-host of Hidden Language, a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time, and discovering the unexpected ways those things can be told about.
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The title of this panel is The Emotional Pull of Home. The three authors with me on stage will read from and speak about their place-centered essays and memoirs, addressing questions of class, history, family, gender, and home. Home. There’s no place like it, right?
First, we will hear from Joanna Eleftheriou. Close? She is the author of This Way Back, an assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University, a contributing editor of Assay, and a faculty member at the Writing Workshops in Greece. Her essays, poems, and translations appear in Arts and Letters, Bellingham Review, and Chautauqua.
Next, we’ll hear from Henry Hoke. He is the author of five books of fiction, memoir, and poetry, most recently Sticker from Bloomsbury. Open Throat, a novel, is forthcoming in 2023 from FSG. He edits humor at The Offing and lives in New York City.
And finally, we’ll hear from Jennifer Niesslein. She is the author of Dreadful Sorry: Essays on an American Nostalgia, is the editor of two Full Grown People anthologies, and the author of one memoir. Originally from western Pennsylvania, she lives in Charlottesville.
I’ll give a brief introduction for each author, and they will then read a selection from their books. After we’ve heard from all three, I’ll lead everyone is discussion about home, place, and nostalgia, and we’ll save a few minutes for your questions at the end as well.
First up is Joanna. Going back to her ancestral homeland, a Greek American girl discovers she is a lesbian in love with God, so her questions about home and belonging are not easily answered. This Way Back dramatizes a childhood split between Queens, New York, and Cyprus, an island nation with a long colonial history and a culture to which she could never quite adjust.
The book avows a Greek-Cypriot-American lesbian’s existence by documenting its scenes: reenacting an 1829 mass suicide by jumping off a school stage onto gym mats at St. Nicholas, harvesting carobs on ancestral land, purchasing UNESCO-protected lace, marching in the island’s first gay pride parade, visiting Cyprus’s occupied north against a dying father’s wish, and pruning geraniums, cypress trees, and jasmine after her father grew too weak to lift the shears. While the author’s life binds the essays in This Way Back into what reads like a memoir, the book questions memoir’s conventional boundaries between the individual and her community, and between political and personal loss, the human and the environment, and the living and the dead.
In a starred review Kirkus Review called the book “a fine collection of essays on identity, at once wide ranging and site specific.” The writer Sonya Hoop said, “This Way Back offers a series of essays that both stand-alone from a larger narrative about immigration, bicultural identity, sexual orientation [indiscernible]. These lovely and moving essays are nostalgic, complex, and thoughtful, with sentences you underline and return to that will sear you with [indiscernible].” So welcome, Joanna.
JOANNA ELEFTHERIOU: Thank you. Thank you, Jay. Thank you to my co-panelists. Thank you to the Virginia Festival of the Book for putting this one. Thank you to everyone who came out here, and thank you to the livestream out there. This is a dream come true because I’ve long wanted to read in front of a live audience.
I was going to read for this panel an essay in the book called “Ithacas” because it talks very directly and explicitly about the [indiscernible]. But in light of the invasion by Russian military forces of Ukraine, I thought that the last essay in the book talked implicitly but I think in an emotional way that resonates with me, and I hope with you, about what it means to know that a country has been ravaged by an invasion. My parents planned to go on their honeymoon to Cyprus, and they canceled their honeymoon because warships turned up on the coast of Cyprus, parachuters fell from the sky, and they’re still there. I’m obviously—it’s been a while, as you can see from the existence of me. It’s been forty-eight years since then, and I hope that the troops that invade Ukraine leave a lot faster. This is called “Moonlight Elegy.”
In the village of Asgata, I used to run up in his mountains for an hour before dark. On days when the law prohibits hunters from shooting at the thrush and rabbits, I go out into the hills and run alone. Around and around itself a mountain takes you, up to its spine, a ridge of dips and peaks. And you can see the other side, the city spreading out toward water. On moonlit nights you can see the footprints of God scintillating on the sea. When I would return each evening, my father would ask me, “Did you see the moon?” As if anybody could miss the moon that showers light into a sky just turning navy.
Dusk settles but rocks and thorns remain visible in the growing dark. White light falls on my shoulders, the moon pencils sharp, black shadows on the earth. Bats flap by, then vanish. I run at night because of the moon, and I stay in the hills late because of the moon. I stare a little at the moon before rounding that last bend before the house.
But I would always ask him where it was, and he would point, and I would crane my neck and look because the raising of his weakened arm was his gift. As a father ages, a daughter learns how badly he wants to go on as before, though his children aren’t children and nothing is as before.
When I lived in my parents’ house here as a teenager, my mother and father used to tell me that my running made them worry—it’s dark outside, the snakes don’t sleep, hunting dogs stray, you could trip and fall and nobody would find you until morning. My father quoted lines from Seferis, our favorite poet—
And now the new moon’s come up wrapped
In the arms of the old moon, with the beautiful island bleeding
The wounded, the calm, the strong island, the innocent
In cities, I can hardly see the sky. I live in an American city now, and night is only night, black patches of sky, dark trees turned yellow in electric light. No one sees the stripe of the galaxy, no one sees stars. One night though I was walking through a parking lot with friends and saw the moon between a hospital building and a school. Did you see the moon? I asked. Then apologized: I don’t mean to condescend, sound patronizing or say that you didn’t see—my father always asks me just that way.
Seferis, a diplomat for Greece all through the Metaxas dictatorship, the Nazi occupation, and the devastating civil war that followed, was a poet. He wrote by night of old tragedy and new horror. He stayed in the British resort at Platres when my father was sixteen and guerilla warfare against the crown was starting.
“The nightingales won’t let you sleep in Platres.”
What is Platres?
Who knows this island?
I lived my life hearing names for the first time;
New lands, new madnesses of men
Or of the gods.
My father carried letters, passed out pamphlets. Seferis knew that independence would not bring peace. Soon after Cyprus was a state, another war tore open the island. A new “solution” has been imminent ever since.
My father’s homeland is wounded by politics and drought. Our village draws water from its own underground vein, which is shared among many farmers and therefore weak by day. My father waters the apple trees, jasmine, and bougainvillea every night after sunset and every morning before dawn. He holds the hose over little moats around every tree and waits for each to fill. He forms a small sea around the roses, careful not to expose any roots. A hedge of rose-laurel divides our land from the neighbors’, and bright pink flowers bloom across the way.
When I return all sweaty from the hills, my father points to the moon just cresting over the horizon. It is red like blood, and I sometimes feel that he is pointing to a place of violence and torment that lives beyond our hills. When I run, I listen, half expecting to hear a wail, some sort of lament.
The violent sun has burnt blisters in the vulnerable skin of my father’s head. He lost all his hair at twenty but rarely wears a hat. His cheeks are fallen, his face drawn back against the skull; sadness and strength-sapping medication have turned his eyes upside-down crescents, softened and still. When he smiles, his mouth bends into the shape of a half moon.
When my father was just twenty-something, he already had a family and when he was still just twenty-something his first wife started dying slowly, yet so fast. Family and friends told my dad to hope and pray and he did. Sentenced to remain among the living, alone, my father lived. He married again.
I grew up in New York, while my father built up a school for Greek immigrants. In a photograph of my father holding a third baby, a son, his face shines circular and full. His smile faded after he brought us to the homeland—a grand adventure— where the delight of doing this great patriotic thing waned fast. My father hadn’t known what he would find when, with his children still young and his wife happy in America, he moved us all across the ocean to his old home.
He remembered honest people, slow-baked tile roofs, and houses built of stone. But we found sand and cinderblock, fake wood, and tin. His sisters in New York all said, “Stay here Andreas,” but my father said, My children have to know who they are. He wanted to build in Platres, in the highest mountains, away from the bustle and the coast and dry plains, where rivers gush and the garden won’t dry up in drought. But he had to be practical, so he built a house in the hills of his own village, close to the city and to the sea. We went to school there, learned poetry and history.
But the strain of an impossible ideal damaged our united brightness. The moving brought suspicions and tears into the fabric of our family, and a few years into the adventure he started to wear away that square of grass outside.
He would call me out to listen to the poet, point to the ground where I would sit beside his folding chair under a pine, with the thick scent of drying needles all around us. Few are the moonlit nights I’ve liked. His radio crackled, and we often lost the station but my father adjusted the antenna so that we could catch the end.
In Cyprus, you can’t keep track of your own heart’s mourning because there is your own loneliness, your pain: your family living somewhere else and breaking, and then there is your country, divided, without defense or hope.
Heart muscle tears like any other human thing; after years of perfect self-duplication, our cells can make a mistake. When our mother got cancer, though, and our father got heart disease in that same sixth year of life in Cyprus, they did not consider human bodies and the inevitable, inexorable transience of our lives—they blamed the new home, the island destination of our father’s choosing; they blamed the strain of a life so far from where they’d started.
On the night my mother came out of the doctor’s office clean, her lymph nodes clear, the cancer gone, my father’s voice shivered and his eyes flashed in the light of a street lamp, gleaming and wet—he said, Thank God—these children have to have a mother.
It was a night, there was a moon, we drove home.
Earlier that year a silent heart attack had scalloped out a flap in my father’s heart muscle, scar tissue that’s loose and open, like a bay. That little bay inside my father’s heart might draw blood and slow down. Then it might clot. The little clot would travel up to my father’s brain and kill him as it tried to squeeze through capillaries thin as hair. He takes blood thinner and looks at his life waning like a moon.
When he’s scratched by a thorn, blood trickles down his arm or leg for hours. To live, my father needs to work, training vines to splintering trellises, or planting bulbs for new flowers. He ties saplings to stakes and pulls up weeds and thistles from among the roses, always dodging the poisonous little caterpillars, which bite.
Guardian of the garden now, unable to teach high school history any longer, my father plays teacher at home: Did you see the moon rise? Some nights, the moon rises while my mother and brother and I are all done with running and with being outside. We watch television, grade papers, read.
For years, my father tried to correct my mother’s habit of missing moonrise, of missing everything there was to relish in the homeland. He would call to my mother by name: “Georgia, come and see the moon.” We love the inside of the house too much, he says. An air of resignation, almost sneering but too tired for sneering, colors these calls to see the moon rise. He’s impatient, resigned to my mother’s nonplussed attitude and yet eager to indict it, and condemn her ingratitude as if the Lord were hosting a banquet, and the moonshine were his party. We won’t appreciate the beauty of a young moon in an evening sky when it is tiny, a puncture in the blue-black emptiness. We’ve already marveled at the milky band that straps around our sky, that band of stars that looks like a long, narrow cloud. We ignore the planets Venus and Mars with their distinct, tremorless glow. We won’t look at the hovering constellations, the cross, the bear.
But on the nights when we do at last answer his command, we sit outside with my father and we all talk through the rising display. We look up, across to the horizon where he points. And for a dozen minutes, we find something to discuss—politics, the prospect of rain or more heat. Each night brings a subtly new shade of glowing crimson. And then the sphere starts to look like hot iron or like raw flesh, open for surgery. I’ve never found the right words for the wonder of it, and if I think too hard I feel fear; if one of us gasps, then my father looks glad— we have at last grasped the secret of the nighttime, this awful beauty.
All of us delight a little in the moon, its glow like glass, its craters dark. The blazing rock of light spins into shadow so soon. And as the moon falls through the sky and fades into morning or blackens into more night, I know this truth. My dad, my lonesome father, will look with me tonight at the fading moon with this same thrill, this strange longing, and this, our nighttime knowledge that sun and moon will go on—even as our own small lives run out of light.
JAY VARNER: Thank you. Gorgeous. Henry Hoke. Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things. Stickers adorn our first memories, dot our books and our walls, are stuck annoyingly on fruit, and accompany us into adulthood to announce our beliefs from car bumpers. They hold surprising power in their ability to define and provoke and hold a strange, steadfast presence in our age of fading physical media. Henry Hoke employs a constellation of stickers to explore queer boyhood, parental disability, and ancestral violence. A memoir in twenty stickers, Sticker is set against the backdrop of encroaching neo-fascist presence in Hoke’s hometown right here of Charlottesville, which results of course in the fatal terrorist attack of August 12th and its national aftermath.
Publishers Weekly called the book a unique perspective on one of the most infamous cities in recent American history, which I think we’ll probably talk about later. The Southern Review of Books said, “Hoke’s latest work of genius is a trove of Millennial nostalgia. Blunt and honest, Sticker is a collection worth keeping.” And Jocelyn Nicole Johnson said, “Funny, nostalgic, and weird in the best possible way, Henry Hoke’s Sticker weaves evocative personal moments with hometown lore and racial reckoning, all while making you want to dig up your old high school sticker collection—the puffy, the glowy, and especially the scratch and sniff.”
HENRY HOKE: Thanks, everyone. It’s wonderful to be here in person. I grew up here. And this will be a little bit about that and a little bit about where I call home now, New York. I don’t [indiscernible] that I will be talking about extensively, but it’s more sort of blessed by its neon glow because the sign is installed [indiscernible] in the door, so. The sticker is a pink circle.
The first time I entered the video store there was sperm on the TV. Chattering white tadpoles swarmed through a glowing pink tunnel, “I Get Around” by The Beach Boys blasting. A single sperm with the voice of Bruce Willis wiggled its way through the outer layer of an egg. I had no idea what I was getting into.
My parents set me loose to comb the kids’ section. I couldn’t watch the same three movies they’d taped—Spaceballs, Superman II, and Claymation Christmas—over and over again anymore. I’d already memorized every static-filled commercial break.
If a video store in the 90s was a scratch-and-sniff it’d smell like a kid in a candy shop.
I chose The Last Unicorn and that became my go-to. I’d rent it every week and pop it in the VHS player, sitting rapt like the experience was brand new. If it was rented out before we got there, I’d get jealous of the person who’d deprived me of my ritual, wonder who were they and how dare they.
As I grew, the video store grew with me, and together we crested the peak of home entertainment. The store changed ownership and moved to a new location, a second floor up a flight of carpeted stairs. For ease, the clerks left a wicker basket on a rope inside the door for video return, and they’d pulley it up to the counter above, like maidens in a tower. I needed to be one of these maidens. I stopped wanting to drive a taxi for a living and started wanting to work in a video store. I was 9. It’s still all I want to do.
Ten years later, my dream came true. I returned home from my freshman year of film school in New York and applied. The video store was looking to hire more clerks to help with the transition from VHS to DVD. The owner snapped me up. He was a bighearted no-bullshitter from Queens with a close-cropped Shi-tzu and a house plastered floor-to-ceiling in Broadway posters. His magnificence spilled out into the store and we employees helped make it all to his liking. We painted stars and film reels and yellow brick roads on the floor. We tacked up cardboard standees and lobby cards. Old movie paraphernalia dripped from every wall, a rainforest of obsolescence.
We trafficked in the tangible. We touched every new release that came through the door, cracking their cases like oysters and giving them new shells, plastic on plastic on plastic. We blessed each with a circular sticker, color-coded for the geographic section where they belonged: blue for America, red for Europe, pink for Asia and Oceania. We slid the newly stickered DVDs alongside their flabby VHS doppelgangers, peopling the documentary section, the television section, the gay & lesbian section, the theater section and the independent section, which were also the gay & lesbian sections.
I came in early every morning to open up. I savored the thud of tapes falling through the after-hours return slot and onto the floor, stickers like confetti. I rented porn to my former teachers, picked out TV shows for a dying friend to binge. A local rock musician in her third trimester dressed me down for a bad recommendation. My shrink made small talk and tried to lie to her son about how she knew me. There was a deep intimacy between us all, because I held their rental history at my fingertips. Every title they’d taken home was logged in our computer system, and I could call it up with a simple click. Surveillance masquerading as care. I reminded our elderly customers which murder mysteries they’d already checked out, sitting regal at my desk, enforcing the late fees which paid my salary. It was the best and only job. I shed all ambition, because I could.
I got my education after closing, using my free rentals to stockpile films and tear through them on my laptop in my childhood bedroom. I learned more in a sleepless evening than in four years of film school—learned Jarman and Fassbinder and Priscilla Queen of the Desert; learned Charles Burnett and Double D Nurses in Love and The Czech is in the Male; learned Araki and Ozu and Paris is Burning; learned Lizzie Borden. A barely-audible bootleg VHS of Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story—his tragic biopic told with barbie dolls—became The Last Unicorn of my adulthood.
The first time I entered what would become my New York video store, I noticed a clipping from The Onion taped up behind the counter: “Film-School Graduate Goes Straight to Video Store Job.” I was there to open an account; the next disc of a show was taking too long to arrive in the mail from Netflix. I had just graduated with a degree in film and TV production. I asked the clerk for an application.
If a video store in the 2000s was a scratch-and-sniff it’d smell like a collapsing star.
The next week, they hired me and handed me a gun. The gun was full of stickers—it printed numbers on them so I could fire prices onto our retail DVDs. The New York video store was spartan, functional: one large room with troughs where our card catalog was filed with paper advertisements for the tapes and DVDs, and the actual inventory kept in the back, on rows of steel library stacks. Beyond the stacks the building went deeper, to the office where our boss hung out, and stairs down to what we called the murder basement, where lord knows what was stored.
It was different being a clerk in New York. We worked among the stars. We could have 30-minute conversations about Czech cinema with the Bond villain who crushes men to death with her thighs, or get a private serenade from Björk and her daughter. In my hometown store there was no upward mobility, but in New York some of us would ascend. One day I’d watch the lowkey couch-surfer sing on a jumbotron as his band headlined the Hollywood Bowl. I’d watch the hyperactive high schooler win the Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture comedy or musical. I didn’t have their momentum. I was already where I had hoped to be.
My paradise was shaken by a confrontation with a shoplifter. I saw him slyly knock down some shrink-wrapped DVDs and tuck them in his jacket, and I rushed to the door to call him out. The day manager—a masterclass in unpleasantness—didn’t have my back. She sat at the desk ignoring the situation. The shoplifter denied everything, spat at me and rushed away. I retreated to the cramped bathroom and had a panic attack. I sat on the toilet and realized I was still holding my pricing gun. I used it to sticker the front of my shirt, shooting one after another onto my chest, marking myself down. If my phone at the time could have taken video, I would have recorded it.
When I left at the end of some shift, I noticed a man loitering on the bench out front, smoking a long cigarette, as if in wait. He was old but dressed young, in a weathered flat cap and a baggy button-up. I crossed the street, stopped and turned around, saw him shuffle inside the store, watched through the bright window as he stepped behind the counter, opened the cash register, removed a few twenties, and walked back outside.
The following day, he was behind the counter when I showed up. We were introduced. This was Paul. He’d worked at the store since before I was born. He smelled like wet newspapers and seemed to melt into the walls. I heard more about him when he wasn’t present.
In younger days, he was a hugely influential music critic. He introduced Dylan to folk music via his magazine and his record collection, was briefly Bowie’s publicist, and had saved Warren Zevon’s life by getting him to sober up while writing a profile for Rolling Stone. His celebrity-scraping career was in the past. “I don’t really want a job anymore where you have to think,” he’d said to an interviewer in 2000. Amen. Paul was the inverse of my co-workers who were on a path to stardom. He’d come back down to earth. The fridge of his apartment on the Upper East Side was stocked only with Cokes and Reese’s peanut butter cups. A few times a week he would trek down to the store and simply hang around, not working, just being. A fading dream of an employee, a projection of my possible future, the ultimate clerk.
He would sneak money from the register or from the cashbox in the office when he thought no one was watching. I don’t know why I was always watching, but I assumed this was his back-pay, compensation for being a human talisman, sustained and protected from death by the video store, another entity on its way out. When I casually mentioned Paul’s skimming to the boss, he acted surprised. From then on there was a code to open the register, and the cashbox was hidden. I watched Paul fumble with the locks, search the office in vain. I was working longer and longer hours, pulling full day-to-night double shifts, trying to become a permanent fixture. The boss took pity on me, asked if I was okay, opened the register and gave me hundreds of dollars. He thought I must have been catastrophically hard up for cash. In actuality I had just been introduced to the extent of my generational wealth. A check had arrived—dividends from a family partnership—that covered my entire year’s rent. I was given control of six-figure stock holdings. My work frenzy was avoidance—an attempt to do nothing different, to accelerate the sameness. I gave Paul my unearned cash bonus and decided to quit.
On my final shift, at closing time, two irregular customers dawdled too long. To give them the hint, I turned up my music so loud it shook the window glass. The customers approached and said, “Can you turn it down?” And I said, “We’re closed,” and they said, “Can you turn it down?” and I turned it up and they stormed out and I was God.
Paul died a month later. His body went undiscovered for weeks.
In the summer of 2007, the same month that the New York video store closed—sold off and refurbished into a boutique, the murder basement converted into a glitzy lower floor—I walked the property of my aunt and uncle’s new vineyard in Sonoma. They showed me the plot of land where they were going to build a house. My uncle was on the Netflix Board of Directors. He told me that the company was starting to produce original content. The aggregator tracking every subscriber’s streaming activity had shown Netflix that people mostly viewed British TV dramas, movies directed by David Fincher, and movies starring Kevin Spacey. In response, they’d acquired the rights to remake a British TV drama, hired David Fincher to direct, and hired Kevin Spacey to star. A perfect formula. We stared down into the valley that would soon be a septic system.
The Charlottesville video store of my youth clung to life for seven more years. I popped in to catch up whenever I was in town to holiday or teach, checking out stacks of titles to screen for my class, supporting their survival campaign, a David to the Goliath of streaming giants. The Last Video Store.
If the Last Video Store was a scratch-and-sniff it’d smell like an aging wolf that’s left its pack to go and lie down and rot alone.
The fate of the store’s collection was the final sticking point, and when the UVA library struck a deal to acquire around 10,000 titles, the man from Queens held a sell-off of redundant inventory. I darted straight to the bootleg of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, couldn’t believe my luck that it was still on the shelf. I brought it home, left the sticker on. I didn’t even own a VHS player anymore. I found a high-definition version on YouTube, and held the physical version in my arms as I watched. I missed stickering until my fingers ached, missed standing around eating jars of dry-roasted peanuts and talking about movies all fucking day. I missed being a dying breed, an aorta of Charlottesville culture. Our function clogged, slowed and stopped, and with us passed the era. Too late and too soon.
JAY VARNER: Thank you. That was excellent. Jennifer Niesslein. What does it mean to be nostalgic for the American past? The feeling has been co-opted by the far right and associated with violent periods from our country’s history, when white supremacy was even more dominant today. Can a liberal white woman still be sentimental about her childhood, her European immigrant family history, her working class upbringing? In Dreadful Sorry, she explores her nostalgic problem with race and curiosity. The essays recount her thoughts upon rewatching Little Women with her sisters and mother, her hand-to-mouth childhood, the effect of being not the right kind of white [indiscernible] Polish immigrant ancestors in the US and her own family’s racism. Niesslein weaves together personal, instructional questions of class, likeness, history, and family with humor and charisma.
The Chicago Review of Books called it “a breezy and charm-filled book” and author Deesha Philyaw said, “In this time of reckoning around race, the past, the present, and the future, Niesslein looks inward, and the result is a candid, unflinching, deeply personal meditation on whiteness, family, and history. These essays are revelatory, raw, and real, everything good storytelling should be.”
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN: Thanks, everybody. I’m going to read from the first essay in the book. It’s about my great-great-grandmother. Straight up on the maternal side. So this is my grandmother’s grandma. And the essay is called “Before We Were Good White.”
“That’s where they found her body.”
I nose the rented minivan onto the side of the narrow road, and Gram and I get out. It’s a lovely little grassy patch that slopes down to a sun-dappled creek. Or crick, as we call it.
“She had one arm raised above her head, “Gram says, “like someone dragged her there.”
When I think of western Pennsylvania fondly, it’s summer that I’m remembering: the greens of the trees and grass, the bursts of neon yellow from lightning bugs, the red tomatoes from the garden up on the windowsill. Pennsylvania is, in the winter, frankly depressing—the grim black-and-white tableau—with the black mountains, the stark white snow, the clumps of gray frozen along the turnpike. It’s a place where coal mines have made their mark, and slate piles still stand.
When she died on January 22, 1932, it was cold and the forecast had called for rain. It’s likely her body was found soaked, her long skirts muddied and maybe bloodied. I imagine the creek’s waters rising toward that arm.
She’s my Gram’s grandmother, my great-great grandmother. Growing up, I only knew three things about her: The legend was that her husband, a coal miner like so many other Polish immigrants, was in frail health, and as a result, she took up bootlegging—and was successful at it enough to own three houses. Her fourth child, her youngest, was rumored to be of mixed race. And she was murdered.
How could I resist mythologizing her? On those barest of bones, I pressed on flesh that reflected the fantasy of who I’d be if my back were against the wall. A badass! A proto-feminist! An outlaw! A woman who landed on her feet when times got tough! Myths, of course, always represent the imagination of the mythmaker. I didn’t even know her first name or what she looked like, but I was eager to find a woman in my lineage who didn’t play by the rules.
Mom told me that Gram didn’t like to talk about her, so when I was a kid, I didn’t dare broach the subject. She was a warm grandmother and doted on us, asking me and my sisters to sing songs on their breezy porch, teaching us Scrabble and Boggle, and rewarding us with small gifts. But there unspoken rules to be followed, enforced by the time-honored code of passive aggression. We—especially as girls—were to appear “neat” (a massive compliment in Gram’s eyes), not bicker, attend church regularly, and excel in school. Gram didn’t smoke or drink or swear. The most outrageous thing she did on a regular basis was to wiggle out of her bra while driving, twirl it on her index finger, and then fling it into the back seat of her Cadillac.
Sometimes in my twenties, Gram and I became friends. She’d loosened up by then; she’d occasionally have a glass of pink wine when her son-in-law encouraged her, and she let my boyfriend and me sleep in the same bed when we visited. When I became a mother, we grew closer, swapping tales of motherhood, then and now. (If only for the accessibility of washing machines, now is better.) In recalling the hard times, Gram reverts to the second person.
In my thirties, I felt close enough to Gram to ask directly about her grandmother. What happened? We talked, and over the course of several years, I pieced together the memories and legends with possibly the only person alive who actually knew her.
I told Gram I’d do some research. “Be careful,” she said. “There are some people in the family you don’t want to talk to.”
This was code. Not every relative had become respectable.
When someone is a myth, it’s easy to forget she was also a person. Her name was Anna Dec Fisher. She and my great-great-grandfather John emigrated from Poland. Her first name was sometimes “Annie,” and their last name wasn’t really Fisher. According to census records, their true last name might have been Ezoeske, Jezorski, or Yozarski. They spoke Polish, and a few fragments of their language still run in my family. “Zakzi mash” means “Shut your mouth. “Tucki zimno” means “It’s cold.” We, the descendants, have bastardized the foreign phrases to accommodate our American tongues.
John and Annie immigrated in 1901, a time when the United States was still figuring out how to sort new waves of immigrants into the racial categories it had constructed. Poles were technically white, placing them above some races, but not the right kind of white. Or maybe the right kind of certain interests. Bluntly put, Poles were considered by WASP America as strong and hardworking—a perfect fit for manual labor—but stupid. Ralph Waldo Emerson approvingly wrote in 1852, “Our idea certainly of Poles and Hungarians is little better than of horses recently humanized.” Oh Ralphie, go shoot your eye out.
A US Steel Corporation want ad from 1909 read in part, “Syrians, Poles, and Romanians preferred.”
Annie wasn’t stupid; she was just new. It’s unclear if she and John landed in the US together, but they came from different parts of what was Poland, which didn’t technically exist as a country in 1901. John was from Galicia, the poorest region in Europe at the time, then in Austria Poland. Annie came from Russia Poland. They started off their new lives together in Ohio, where their first child Mary was born, followed by Helen, my great-grandmother, and Walter. By 1910, they were in Walkertown, a small town in West Pike Run Township, Pennsylvania. John worked as a coal miner. It’s where their last child, Adam, would be born.
The first photo I saw of Annie was one that my distant cousin Nicole shared with me. It’s a family photo from before Adam was born. Annie is standing one hand on her hip, the other holding Helen’s hand. Her hair is styled in one of those froofy buns popular around the turn of the century. She wears a bowtie on her puffy white shirt and a full-length skirt.
By the April 1920 census, they already owned their own home free of a mortgage. In January that year, the government had enacted the Eighteenth Amendment, also known as Prohibition. At some point, Annie and John started breaking the new law. I started finding more artifacts, and the myth of Annie started breaking down. A different picture of her emerged from the bath of historical documents and the context of her life. And that picture of Annie’s life and how she spent it would haunt my family all the way down to my own upraising.
“My dad said everyone did it,” Mom told me, referring to the Prohibition Era law.
“Yes,” I said, “but not everyone went to jail for it.”
And I’m going to leave you with a little cliffhanger there. It’s a long essay, so.
JAY VARNER: Thank you. That was excellent. I want to start by kind of exploring where each of these books came from—how they came into the world. Joanna, your book was published by West Virginia University Press, and it’s part of a series called In Place. And for those who aren’t familiar with this, In Place seeks to explore the complexity and richness of place by exploring lives, history, and landscapes. How did you conceive of this book, and how did it find its home there in that series?
JOANNA ELEFTHERIOU: Thanks for the question. Thanks again to the audience for being here. It was a pretty long process. The first essay in the book, called “The Other Side,” was written—I wrote it for—a lot of it is homework. I tell my students, guess what, your homework turns into a book. It was for a writing workshop in 2005. And I wrote about an essay a year for classes and because I wanted to.
And in 2008, I did a master’s thesis and put together about a quarter of the book. And I did a PhD in creative writing, so about half of what became the book was my creative dissertation. And I wrote a couple of other essays afterwards.
Then a friend read it and suggested I turn it into a memoir, which for me is quite different because the voice knows everything that happened and guides the reader along sort of into the story of my life. And I didn’t like that, and I went back to the essay collection. And sort of informed by that, decided that I really liked it as an essay collection. The narrating voice and presence of each essay only knowing what the person sort of in that essay knows. And together it can make something more complicated, I think, for readers to understand, and allows—the form that I returned to allows the themes to be the most important thing.
And I had been told to read Jessie Donaldson’s On Homesickness by like four different people. And finally—and it’s in the series. And finally started thinking about that as a good home for the book. Then a friend said—the same friend that had told me to turn it into a memoir and I told her I don’t like it as a memoir—was like, “Hey, you should think about this series. Send it to them.” And they loved it, and it was a really good match.
JAY VARNER: Henry, Stickers is part of Bloomsbury’s kind of Object Lesson series. And again, [indiscernible]. They’re very concise books that are designed to be in the lives of ordinary things. And kind of the same question, I mean, the chicken or the egg. But how did the concept of this book develop? Did it develop out of that series or kind of independent?
HENRY HOKE: I mean, it was closely tied in the series. I’d read a few of the books and loved them. It started relatively recently, in 2016 or 2015. And [indiscernible] because they really do—a different author writes each one, and their voice just emerges so wonderfully as they engage really in depth. A book of essays about an object, whether it’s egg or a hood or a cigarette lighter.
So, they basically have open pitches sometimes, and one of the editors, Chris Schaffer, is in New Orleans. My idea was to write three essays, and the book would be Disc, and I would write one on laser discs and CDs and DVDs. And you all just experienced the DVD one, which was the first thing I was thinking of writing. And Schaffer was like, you know, I like your voice, but disc is taken. We’ve got Compact Disc that’s coming out. It was like great. But I’m really grateful because that was the case because I think that was so chiefly about physical media and [indiscernible] that I was sort of exploring. But this was 2019 when I was doing this, and of course I’d been thinking about my hometown, which is Charlottesville where we are right now, so much because of the events of August 12th and 11th and everything that happened and how the consciousness of the world had really shifted toward what had gone on here and what does go on here. And I was like, well, they don’t know everything, but they do know a lot. So I was really interested in exploring my hometown. And it also gave me the opportunity when I thought, okay, sticker. Because now I can write twenty essays. So I did twenty stickers.
So really it was an evolving engagement with their constraint, which just exploring an object in depth. And it was really the perfect form for me to do that. And once I pitched that idea, I got signed, and I was excited to write it. And then COVID happened, and I had a lot of time, so. I did not bring the pandemic into the book for one second. I just had to keep it out. That was the hardest thing, to not write about the ongoing moment and keep it—like the book ends in 2019. Okay, nothing else happened ever for the rest of time. That’s how I had to write it.
JAY VARNER: Great. That’s great. Jennifer, you’re with Belt Publishing, which if you’re not familiar with, they’re based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and they often publish books [indiscernible] subjects and especially with like urbanism and history, the Rust Belt of the Midwest, its writers, and so forth. How about you? How did that come to be?
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN: Well, I found out about Belt because I really enjoyed the publisher [indiscernible] newsletter, and it’s from a small press. And I am an editor mostly. That’s what I spent my career doing, and started out with a friend, publishing Brainchild Magazine. It’s a literary magazine about motherhood. And I edit now at Full Grown People. So my heart is always sort of with the indie publishers. And it made me want to work with Belt.
I hadn’t been thinking super hard about writing another book. I’d write another book that came out fifteen years ago. So, I was busy. I was doing a little freelance stuff. And then it was sort of—my theme was invisible mostly because I am such a nostalgic person. But yeah, I wrote something up, and she sent it.
JAY VARNER: That’s excellent. You mentioned nostalgia. Nostalgia is such a part of all three of these books. Joanna, you said you were born with nostalgia in your blood. You give us some of the etymology of where nostalgia comes from. And Jennifer, you write very eloquently about nostalgia as well. You say it encourages us to look to the past, always accumulating memories that make the present so much richer.
And Henry, one of my favorite chapters in your book is “Are You Triggered?” where you recount some of that fight to remove the Confederate statues, which were not far from where we’re sitting right now. And those statues, of course, were put up under the guise of supposed nostalgia or whatever, but were obviously just meant to kind of further white supremacist ideology.
So, how did nostalgia and all the complexities that come with nostalgia influence how and why you told these stories? And I’ll let any of you take that, whoever would like to talk.
JOANNA ELEFTHERIOU: Thanks for the question. So, as Jay said, the essay “Ithaca” is in sort of the middle of the book. It looks at the etymology because, especially if you—I don’t know if there’s any Greek speakers in the audience. You hear—like when people explain what a word means, you’re like, yeah, I can tell because of the two parts of the word. The language hasn’t changed very much in the three thousand years. So, [speaking Greek] continues to be the word for to arrive at home. And [speaking Greek], if you take analgesics, it’s also like nostalgia is the pain of wishing you could achieve the arrival home. And the reason several classes of mine have told me that I remind them of the grandfather [indiscernible] naturally, I guess. So, analgesic from against sort of the pain, right?
So I say though, because what I witnessed—my youth was witnessing my father do the thing that all Greek Americans—and I’m sure there’s a Greek American in the audience, but you probably have at least a friend or two are Greek American, and they—what I say in “Ithaca” is they cling to the idea of home with a special tenacity. Like reading Jennifer’s story of like the northern Europeans, they remember the old country. But Greeks hang on to the idea of the landscape and long for it just with an intensity that differs. But they don’t actually go—very few of them actually go back. And my dad sort of broke the taboo, and he actually went back and sort of destroyed the illusion that all of us who long for a place, whether it’s across the ocean or a small town—it symbolizes—what it symbolizes and what I’m getting at in the essay that I read as well—for my dad, it symbolized the time before he experienced the traumatic loss of his first wife in his twenties. But all of us remember home as the time before we realized how hard life actually is. Those of us who were blessed with a childhood that was fairly free of really devastating situations can remember it that way.
So, my thinking about nostalgia was formed by watching my father actually achieve the homecoming that everybody fetishizes or idealizes. And he was in pain because he actually did it. He tried going home, and it didn’t work. And that’s why [indiscernible] origin of the title. And it would take too much time now. But sort of like This Way Back plays on one origin of the title, and then another one, which is like which way is back. It’s sort of the question that I had, that the book raises and doesn’t answer. What does it mean to—is it possible to go back? What does it mean to go back?
And one last thing. The book asserts that you can’t go home, but there is allusions to the Hampton Roads, where I spent a really beautiful time in my mid-twenties. And I didn’t think I would ever come back here, but a teaching job opened up in creative nonfiction in Newport News, and I went back.
JAY VARNER: Thank you.
HENRY HOKE: Nostalgia, right? Yeah. I think, yeah, just the object, exploring stickers. I can’t imagine any of the stickers without being overcome with waves of nostalgia. I think I’m certainly like a nostalgia addict in a way, and I think what this book is really reckoning with is what that means and what the comfort is of that, what the [indiscernible] of that.
Yeah, and I think so much about this idea of—my parents still live in Charlottesville and I come home all the time. And I’ve experienced it over many eras. And I worked at UVA many summers, teaching. So I just have a whole—I have just an evolving relationship with my hometown, and that’s really what’s present here. I think also [indiscernible] scratch-and-sniff ideas. It’s like the chapter that’s explicitly about nostalgia is called “Blueberry,” and it’s about the scratch-and-sniff itself, like how they invented them and what they meant to me. But in every chapter, as you heard in the one I read, I’m imagining what a sticker would smell like if it was a scratch-and-sniff. And in doing so, I’m getting into that sensorial memory space, but from this sort of—that’s my way of looking from now back to these moments. Whereas when I’m writing them, I’m really trying to immerse myself like I’m a kid right now. And at that moment, I should have reckoned with—like I guess I’m really trying to explore these spaces without the retrospect. But it really shifts—and I think that’s what’s important about nostalgia. I think certainly way more than the idea of like recreating the systems is to see, okay, the reason is that this is nostalgia is because it’s fantastical. It’s imagined and structured to be that way, right? It’s structured to be like a dreamy past that didn’t exist for really anyone but certainly not people who were being oppressed by certainly my ancestors. And that’s something I explore.
So yeah, I think it’s just such an interesting topic because it is—like it’s fantastical, but it’s inherent. Like we are a community. Like we’re going to connect with that because we all come from somewhere, and we all look back on it. And it wasn’t what we thought it was, ever, and it won’t be when we go back. I mean, it’s a lot to explore and take on.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN: Yeah, and I think nostalgia can be used for both good and evil because there’s something about nostalgia that unites us in some ways. Like my sisters and I feel—and my mom—feel united by a certain way we imagine what our childhood was like. My dad doesn’t feel that way. I mean, our memories don’t have to match. But we’re blinded by that. And when you get to larger groups where people are drawn to this nostalgic idea of white men come first because that’s the way it always has been, that’s a terrible regressive way of nostalgia in people, and you see what happens.
JAY VARNER: Well said. We have a few minutes left. I wanted to turn it over to you all. I have many more questions, as I always do, about these books, but I wondered if anyone in the audience had any questions that you wanted to ask. Anybody want to step forward, raise a hand?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So where—which video store was it?
HENRY HOKE: So, it was called Sneak Reviews. Give it up for Sneak Reviews. And yeah, and I did discover that the neon sign from it is on display [indiscernible], if you want to go bask in the glow of it. I tend to go visit it. It provided that home for me.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: And UVA school is right there, where they do programming.
HENRY HOKE: Oh, yeah, the archive from video store. They had a lot of really great old stuff. I mean, some bootleg stuff. But all of it—a lot of it is in the Clemens Library, the media library at UVA. And some of it is under construction. Or no, it’s finished. I don’t know. My dad doesn’t know anymore because he’s retired. He used to be all over that, but yeah, support Sneak Reviews in the archives.
JAY VARNER: Any other questions people would like to ask?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I want to ask you a question because I’m from Pennsylvania, and there seems to be a difference between nostalgia, which is longing for the past, and Pennsylvania, which is very resistant to any change.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN: Yeah, they haven’t changed the music that they play at the radio stations. They haven’t changed it since 1983 when I left.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, but I think those are two different things. It’s also Trump’s people come from there. We know that.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN: Well, all sorts of people come from there, though.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But it’s also a very friendly place.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN: Yeah, it is, and I think it’s a place that values tradition. I think there’s a lot of sort of ethnic groups that I don’t see in Virginia. You can’t get like cabbage at the Slovak Club down here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: As a kid—I was like fifteen—I bicycled across to New York, and I go from town to town, and there’s three of us, and they’d always be really, really sweet because we were kids, you know? But they’d also say to me, “The next town is full of those Poles.” They didn’t use that word; they used a different one. And then the next town I’d go on, they’d say, “The next town is full of those Italians.” No matter where you went.
JAY VARNER: I’m also a [indiscernible] Pennsylvanian, so I’m from there as well. I think we have time if you want to ask one more question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well I just want to say that—you were talking about the nostalgia in Greece, but I think the Irish are the same way. All of them want to go back to that island and just because it is an island and it’s beautiful and you hear so many stories and songs. I just wanted to add that.
JAY VARNER: Well, I see you’ve got the St. Patrick’s shirt on. Well, Eudora Welty has a pretty famous line: “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” And I think each of these books here are so rooted in place, rooted in kind of the duality of our lives, rooted in trying to figure out who we are and what does it mean and where do we come from. Each of these authors, they’ll be available in the back. There’s lots of books back there. Please check them out. I think they’d be happy to sign them; I’m not sure.
Thank you all for coming. This was a great turnout. And thank you.
““Intimate and a touch mournful, most powerfully so when [Eleftheriou] writes about her sexuality. . . . These essays reveal an impassioned and hard-fought sense of self and place.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Hoke’s keenly constructed memoir-in-essays is really a memoir-in-stickers, from the glow-in-the-dark stars and coveted Lisa Frank unicorns of childhood to a Pixies decal from his teenage years. The book also peels back the complicated notoriety of the author’s hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia, juxtaposing Dave Matthews’ fire dancer emblem against a truck emblazoned with the words “Are You Triggered?” on its back window heralding the infamous white supremacist march.” ―Electric Lit
“In this time of reckoning around race, the past, the present, and the future, Niesslein looks inward, and the result is a candid, unflinching, deeply personal meditation on whiteness, family, and history. These essays are revelatory, raw, and real, everything good storytelling should be.” —Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
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