Ereikousa, 2014. Walking down the narrow streets of this small Ionian island, a man recently came across a couple speaking a language which was unknown to him. “What brings you to our little-known island?” he asked. “The cypress whispers,” said the friendly Polish couple in reference to the international best-seller “When the Cypress Whispers,” penned by Yvette Manessis-Corporon, whose story unfolds on Ereikousa, which is located off Corfu. Little did they know at the time that they were talking to the author’s uncle.
The daughter of Greek immigrants who emigrated to the United States, Manessis-Corporon is also an Emmy-winning journalist and author. “When the Cypress Whispers” is based on the life of her grandmother, “Yia-yia,” and her stories of the “magical” island during the German occupation.
Protagonist Daphne’s emotional journey to her native island and her unbreakable bond with her grandmother provides a platform for another story layer, that of Corfu’s Jewish community and their experiences during the Holocaust.
Issues regarding immigrants’ dual cultural identities and the power of tradition also lie at the heart of the novel, which is set against the backdrop of an “undiscovered paradise” that the author eagerly visited every summer during her childhood years. In her effort to share her six-year book-writing experience, the author recognizes that the most important lesson learnt throughout this particular literary journey was that “the richest stories can come from the most humble places.”
“Growing up, I looked at my Yia-yia as a loving woman who came from humble beginnings – like many women of her time, she was uneducated, provincial and poor. I saw her as a poor woman who was rich in love for her family… and also a fantastic cook,” said the author in an interview with Kathimerini. “I never stopped to think about her life, what she had been through and what she had sacrificed for the good of her family. I never stopped to think about the bravery she showed when she helped a Jewish family who were hiding from the Nazis or if she was ever scared or lonely after my Papou left for America and she was alone with two small children during wartime.”
Although the book is defined as a novel, the author concedes that, similarly to Daphne, she “grew up like many Greek Americans do, with one foot in each culture.” The book, says the author, is a lifetime mosaic carved out of “sacred memories, myths and relationships.”
Manessis-Corporon intended the novel to be a “love letter” to Greece, carrying the country’s culinary flavors while teaching its history and culture.
“Through movies, literature and culture, it is possible – and, I feel, necessary – to remind the world what the true essence of Greece is,” she said.
Through the novel the author seems to have seduced international audiences, while motivating some of them to visit Greece. This is reflected, on the one hand, in the book having reached best-seller status, as well as through a rise in visitors to Ereikousa over the summer, according to hotel owner Giorgos Katechis.
“I don’t know whether the book brought them to the island, but many tourists were carrying the novel in their hands,” he said. According to the hotelier, an event honoring the island for protecting the Jewish family referred to in the book is scheduled to take place next summer.
Meanwhile, the heroine’s bond with her grandmother comes across as impenetrable, spiritual and filled with magic. The powerful female role model is reflected in Yia-yia’s voice as she leads Daphne along each step through the cypress whispers. According to Greek mythology, priestesses and priests at the oracle of Dodoni interpreted the rustling of leaves to determine the right action. The connection is not coincidental in this case given the author’s own ties to Greek mythology.
While her American friends were lulled to sleep as children with tales of Cinderella and Snow White, Manessis-Corporon’s bedtime stories were the myths of Persephone, Arachne and Iphigenia, among others. Eventually, she came to see her own life reflected in the myths of Persephone and Demeter.
“Like Persephone and Demeter, I felt most alive during those summer months I spent in Greece with my family – and I spent the long winter months counting the days until I could return to their warm embrace,” she said.
“While we may not believe that the Olympic gods exist anymore, the life lessons in myths still resonate today just as they did in ancient times. I think we’ve always needed these stories to entertain, educate and inform us.”
“When the Cypress Whispers” is available in 14 languages. The book was recently published in Greek by Psichogios Editions.