She Came To Stay by Eleni Kyriacou, a gripping novel of friendship, secrets and lies
Eleni Kyriacou’s first novel, She Came to Stay, is a historical thriller that looks at Greek Cypriot migration to the UK in the aftermath of World War two. It touches on issues that many Cypriots had experienced when they took that quantum leap and moved to what was then called ‘I Xenidia’.
Theo: What brought you into writing?
Eleni: I always wanted to be a writer. I really enjoyed reading when I was a child, and later I thought about the jobs I could do. I considered teaching but realised it was writing that I loved, so I did a course in journalism at college, worked on magazines and eventually I went freelance. But I always had the notion of writing a book.
Theo: The main theme of your book is immigration, isn’t it?
Eleni: Yes, the story of my parents coming over from Cyprus provided the inspiration for my novel. My mother came here as a young woman, and I often thought it was a very brave thing to do at her age-she was in her mid-20s. Life could have so easily not turned out right.
Theo: Could you just expand on the last point about things not turning out right.
Eleni: In the book I show how people can sometimes fall in with the wrong crowd. There was also a lot of poverty at that time and people can do extreme things when they’re desperate. I think you’re very vulnerable when you turn up in a country and you don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture. My mum had a happy life, but one wrong move and it could have turned out differently. That’s what happens to Dina, my main character.
Theo: In the book what also comes across is that some people felt that if they didn’t go back to Cyprus with a suitcase full of money, that they were somehow a failure.
Eleni: I think the UK then was seen as a place of real opportunity and if you came from grinding rural poverty, you could lift yourself out of that. My aunty described it to me well when she said that in Cyprus, a young woman would have needed a good dowry to do well in life, whereas here everyone was in the same boat. So, yes, I think the intention was to make more of yourself than you could over there.
Theo: One of the characters in the book ended up making money illicitly, illegally…..
Eleni: Most people come here and work very hard and keep their head down. They want to make an honest living. And then you have people who don’t do that, as you have people like that in all ethnicities and nationalities. They think, God, there must be a quicker way. And one of my characters decides that gambling is the way to do that. And that doesn’t really work for him. I think some people wherever they go, they try to beat the system by doing things differently. It’s human nature.
Theo: You mentioned poverty as one of the challenges that Cypriots faced when they came over. What were the other ones?
Eleni: Language was a huge challenge. The main character in my book, Dina, was a seamstress and she worked with seamstresses who were of different nationalities, and I think that if that were your situation and you mixed with other Greeks in your community and non-English speakers, your opportunity for learning English was not really there.
You also have your social values. What you brought here from your own country versus the values this country has; how you want your children to behave, how you want to bring up your children.
Theo: Were there any challenges that Cypriot women specifically faced?
Eleni: There was definitely a conflict between wanting to assimilate and at the same time coming from a very patriarchal culture. That was huge. Obviously, then, women wouldn’t have seen it as a patriarchal culture, it was the culture that they were brought up with. What they saw here and what they were used to over there, there was a huge gap between the two. And every person had to decide where they fit in.
Theo: In practice, there was a lot of discrimination going on, wasn’t there. I mean the men would’ve been going out, would’ve had girlfriends, which women couldn’t do.
Eleni: Oh absolutely. That was definitely going on. If you were a Cypriot woman in 1950s London and you started to go out by yourself, maybe mix with non-Greeks, you were seen as abandoning your Greekness, of taking on English ways, and that was not necessarily seen as a good thing.
Theo: And the generation after that, I mean Cypriots who were born in this country. Have attitudes changed within this generation?
Eleni: I think things have changed. The longer we are here, the more we adapt, the more we lose that traditional, strict aspect of Greek values. I remember going back to Cyprus on a holiday when I was in my 20s and being surprised that my cousins there had more freedom to go out than I had here. So that was interesting. Over there, things had moved on whereas over here, things hadn’t moved on quite so quickly. It may well have changed now.
She Came To Stay, published by Hodder, is available in paperback, ebook and audio, from all bookshops. For further info, visit: elenikwriter.com