“Those Who Became One with the Earth”:
An Interview with Georgia Skopouli
Special to the Hellenic News of America
Georgia Skopouli is the author of five books, including the one I sat down with her this summer to discuss, Those Who Became One with the Earth: Sixty-Eight Epirot Women Talk About Their Lives. It is a unique book in Greek letters, the collective portrait of a remarkable group of women. Our conversation took place took place over three sessions in July 2016 on the beautiful island of Iraklia, with strong Greek coffee in front of us and a breeze gently lifting the edges of my notebook. Georgia Skopouli is a tall, impressive woman, with red hair and striking blue eyes. She read my first question before I could ask it:
GEORGIA: Yes, we have quite a few blue-eyed people in my part of Epiros, descended I’m sure from the times of Alexander the Great. Warriors, you know. They still come from Epiros.
LILI: Yes, I know about that. My father was also from Epiros, and, speaking of Alexander, he was a general too.
GEORGIA: That explains then why we were fated to meet.
LILI: That, and your remarkable book, which I understand is now in its third edition.
GEORGIA: It was a great labor, but a labor of love. And the credit belongs entirely to the women themselves, every one with an extraordinary story to tell. They come from the hardest earth in Greece, and they have mixed their blood with it in more ways than one. But, I have a question for you. What provoked your own interest in this subject?
LILI: My father was from Kalarytes, a small village in the Tzoumerka area on the slopes of Pindos. I was born in Zakynthos myself, but I heard many stories from him as a child about the poverty and hardship of life in the mountains. So, when I first saw your book and the pictures of the women in their black mantilles in it, I felt I already knew them. I saw them lifting their hoes in the field, ready to strike down at the hard earth. Can you tell us something about them?
GEORGIA: They were of a generation that were born to the earth and lived and died with it. The youngest of them was fifty-eight, and the oldest ninety-five. No one bothered to educate them; none of them could read or write. Nor had anyone ever been interested in what they might have to say. So it never occurred to them to speak about their lives, even to articulate them to themselves. But it was all inside them. The challenge was to get them to find the words for everything locked up in them, and give them the confidence to speak. That was nine-tenths of the problem. The rest was easy.
LILI: But what brought you to these women yourself? What inspired you to undertake such an enormous task?
GEORGIA: It began when I found myself in a village outside of Ioannina called Elousa, at an election rally at the beginning of March 2002. There were about fifteen women ranged in front of me, their hands resting on their knees. The hands fascinated me; they were all terribly worn and callused, as if from a long and savage battle. They sat together, dressed in their black, apart from the men. Of course it was only the politicians, the men, who did the speaking. And I wondered, who would speak for these women? Anyone? And what would they have to say? Because it was obvious that these women would never speak up for themselves, not to say a single word. The impression of those women stayed with me, and a few days later, when I went back to the village, I found some of the ones I’d seen. I got some of them to speak a little about themselves, and I wrote up a short article in a newspaper, New Struggles, that appeared on March 8, which happens as you may know to be International Women’s Day—a day none of those women had ever heard of, of course, or I’m sure even imagined. That was the beginning of the book, because I knew I’d only scratched the surface of what these women had to say. And I knew they had to be heard.
LILI: How did you proceed?
GEORGIA: I was working at the time on a book of interviews with people in Epiros who were prominent in the arts. It occurred to me that I should expand my perspective to include some of the women I’d just met, even though they were unlettered. Because, from what they had to say, I realized that they were artists of life. So I had to expand my own vision, and the scope of my book. These women had to be part of it.
LILI: Was that very difficult?
GEORGIA: Yes and no. Because my family was of peasant stock itself, and I had some experience of that life. I decided to go back to my own village, where I knew some people more intimately, and start with that. When I collected their stories, I went to other villages, and finally I conceived the idea of not just interspersing the stories of peasant women with those of others whose art was conscious and educated, but making a kind of history of Epiros itself through their experience. So I published a first book, called But You Have Something to Say, which was still a mixture, but then I decided to concentrate just on the women. They call it social history, but I was after something more immediate than that. I didn’t want to describe my women; I wanted them to describe themselves. It’s the history that lies behind wars and great events, that goes on day by day and without which everything that’s usually called history would simply stop.
LILI: You’ve mentioned your own family. Tell me more about your background.
GEORGIA: I was born in Pedini, which is just outside Ioannina. I lived there until I was eighteen, when I graduated from Lykio, which is more or less the Greek equivalent of high school. I also worked, helping my parents in the fields. And I was an athlete, a runner. I had all sorts of ambitions, but, as you know, such things were not encouraged in girls. I wanted to become a journalist, but my father wouldn’t let me. I was reading Orianna Fallaci’s book about Vietnam, and that influenced me. It probably influenced my father too, because he didn’t want me hopping all over the world. Finally, I persuaded him to let me study in Athens. I became an assistant microbiologist, and worked for ten years in different hospitals. I married in Athens—my dear husband, Yannis—and had two children. Finally, in 1982, I went back to Ioannina. I’d never given up my ambition to be a journalist, and now I finally pursued it. I began writing for local papers, and the articles slowly became books. So it was no accident that I discovered the women of Epiros. I was looking for them all along. I was one of them myself.
LILI: You’ve written five books now. Can you tell us something about each of them?
GEORGIA: I’ve mentioned the first two, the books of interviews. The one about the women was the most difficult, of course. I didn’t really have any experience with the kind of interviewing where you have to dig for the stories of women who don’t realize they have any to tell. I had to go by instinct, instinct and empathy. The main thing is to win trust, and you win trust by showing respect. You have to feel it, too, to show it. Any kind of insincerity, any kind of superiority, is fatal. But these women genuinely humbled me, and even if they didn’t understand what we ordinarily mean by respect—because they’d rarely if ever been shown it—they did understand someone who could approach them, woman to woman, and find their language. Each woman represented a different challenge. There was no such thing as an interviewer with her “subject.” There had to be two women, sharing experience, finding their way to common ground.
LILI: And your later books?
GEORGIA: My next book was called The Doctor. The subject was my uncle, Nikos Skopoulis. He was a tremendously admirable person, who ministered to the poor, never charged them for his services, and provided medicine for them at his own expense. For years he went to the villages around Ioannina, setting up clinics. There were always lines of people waiting at his door. His specialty was pediatrics, but he treated people of all ages. And he treated not only the body but the soul. Eventually he went into politics to extend care beyond what he could offer by himself. He was twice elected to Parliament, and people of all parties, all social levels, respected him.
LILI: And after that?
GEORGIA: I went back to interviews, because I always hungered for stories. My fourth book is In History’s Shadows. This time I was interested in men. I chose sixty-two of them, from all walks of life, who had lived through World War II and the civil war. I wanted to know the fighting man’s experience of war, and of course those struggles were very bitter, very tragic. There were harrowing stories. War bears down on everyone, of course, and women fight too. But war is an affair of men, because they start and prosecute them. If you want to understand war, you must speak to men. But, after that, I went back to women, in a book called Those Who Lived in the World.
LILI: What was your subject there?
GEORGIA: Well, I’ve always been interested in the great upheavals of our time. And one of the biggest has been the collapse of socialism and the capitalism that has replaced it. Socialism wasn’t just a set of institutions, but a way of life. People devoted themselves to it, believed in it, sacrificed themselves for it. And suddenly, it was gone. I interviewed twenty-three women for this project, most of them educated and with positions in their own countries—I’m talking about the countries of Eastern Europe. As you know, there’s been a great influx of people from these countries into Greece. Most of them have had to adapt to essentially menial labor, as cooks, cleaning women, or caretakers for old people. These people have no unions, no political parties. They aren’t citizens, they haven’t got civil rights. They’re at the mercy of the system, and they have to be grateful for whatever crumbs it gives them. I wanted to know what their situation must be, not only materially but emotionally and morally.
LILI: So you have always been interested in questions of personal suffering and social justice.
GEORGIA: Yes, because these are the voices that need to be heard, and they are the ones that are always repressed.
LILI: Now that a new edition of Those Who Became One with the Earth has appeared, is there anything more you’d like to say about this particular book? Because it seems to me it may be your favorite of all your books.
GEORGIA: Yes, it’s the one that taught me the most, and brought me closest to my own roots. You know, through everything, through war and poverty, through all the horrors of history, no one ever thought about these women. Neither God nor government. Yet, they kept their pride and dignity, and with that they managed to survive. And now they have their voice, not only through my book but of the story of one of them, Vasilo, that was adapted for the stage by a theater group from Preveza under the direction of a remarkably sensitive woman, Lili Sakka. Lili staged the story in the style of Greek tragedy, and that was the perfect form to do it justice. Then another actress from Crete, Marinella Blachaki, created a scenario from the stories of seven of the women. That, too, was amazing. And now I’m so thankful to you, because with you their story will come to America too.
LILI: The honor has been mine.