The Songbirds author describes hitting an emotional low after the success of The Beekeeper of Aleppo and why she based her new novel on domestic workers’ struggles
When The Beekeeper of Aleppo hit the bestseller charts, its author Christy Lefteri should have been ecstatic. Her second novel was a culmination of hard work and long-held dreams. It was lauded by critics and was finding a wide and hugely appreciative audienc, selling more than half-a-million copies. Yet she found herself hitting an emotional low.
“When the book came out I should have been like, ‘Oh god, this is amazing, I’m going to enjoy every moment’ — I felt completely overwhelmed, and it’s actually a point where I thought, ‘Something’s not right here. I’m going to go see a psychiatrist’,” she says.
“I started medication; I calmed down and settled a little in myself. The funny thing was, I knew I should have been happy, but I was really not all right, and then I was feeling worse thinking, ‘Does this mean I’m not grateful [for the book’s success]? I think if anything, I was too grateful.”
But scratch the surface, and Lefteri’s spell of depression, even amid her huge literary success, is easily explained.
“I hadn’t dealt with my own grieving processes from the breakdown of my marriage, and my mum’s death, and I’d gotten myself into an awful relationship,” she says. “I also hadn’t fully processed my experiences in Greece.”
Lefteri wrote The Beekeeper of Aleppo — the tale of a couple who are forced to leave war-torn Syria and undertake a horrendous journey to find a new life — after volunteering in a migrant camp in Athens. In 2016, she was visiting her Cypriot family, and looked out towards the Syrian coast. The calmness and beauty of the Cypriot beach was at jarring odds with the war across the sea, just a quick boat ride away. Lefteri spent the next two summers volunteering at a Unicef-supported refugee camp in Athens. Her experiences, and conversations with dozens of Syrians at the camp, would form the backbone of her bestseller.
Many of the people she met there linger in her mind. “There was one woman who couldn’t breastfeed, she was in such an awful place. I’ll never forget her,” Lefteri recalls. “You could just see all the emotions in her face. We would just sit with her and give her tea and biscuits, and eventually, she was able to breastfeed. I put that story into Beekeeper. I will never forget those people and I don’t know where they are now.
“I cried so much when I was writing [Beekeeper]. My heart was so heavy and I think because of the stuff going on in my own life, I think I wrote that book quite desperately. I remember thinking, ‘I’m so emotional about this, but I’ve got to take these emotions and create a story’. It was almost like I was sculpting something really from my heart, but having to pause and go, ‘I’m not just going to let this all bust out. I want to create something with it’. It sounds a bit corny, but my heart was really open writing that book, and people just connected with it.”
In her third novel, Lefteri has turned her social acumen from the displaced refugee to the economic migrant. Songbirds centres on the disappearance of a domestic worker, Nisha, in Cyprus. With the police writing her off as just another runaway worker, her employer Petra, herself dealing with a number of personal problems, undertakes the investigation. Petra eventually meets other maids in the neighbourhood who reveal the dark underbelly of life as a migrant domestic worker.
Songbirds bears the hallmarks of its predecessor, in that there is clear-eyed compassion baked into the story, and a potent social message in the lyrical prose. The story came to Lefteri after she heard of the real-life case of five foreign domestic workers and two children that suddenly went missing in Cyprus.
“The police didn’t search for them because they said, ‘Well, they’re foreign, they’ve probably escaped’,” Lefteri says. “Eventually, a couple of tourists from Germany were walking around the old town of Nicosia, and they saw this sort of well, and found a dead body, and it was one of those women. So the police were then forced to launch an investigation to see if they could find the other women,
“Eventually, they were all found. I was just struck by the apathy. But what made me write the stories was the fact that I was saddened by it, but not necessarily shocked.”
On a visit to friends in Cyrpus, Lefteri met their domestic worker in the family kitchen. “One morning she insisted on making me toast and tea, and I was like, ‘This is all lovely, but please stop calling me madam and let me make you breakfast… I’m just here relaxing and you’ll be working all day’. We had a bit of a laugh about it, and from that we became friends.
“I learned that she had to leave Sri Lanka because her husband, who was the love of her life, died in a farming accident. Her daughters were one, two and three at the time and she couldn’t survive financially, so she decided to leave her daughters with her mother-in-law and come to Cyprus. She was basically having a parenting relationship with them through the [phone] screen, and I got to witness and experience and understand that.
“Around the same time, I went to a cousin’s house for a barbecue, and all the women are chatting, drinking wine, going, ‘Well, mine [domestic worker] speaks English, what about yours?’ It was just this shocking way of talking about their domestic help. They didn’t really understand the sacrifices that these women that were working for them had made. It’s like they didn’t really see them as full individuals.
“Even my very liberal family members would say things like, ‘Well, you know domestic workers don’t have any roots. They don’t know how to settle anywhere’. They’re not bad people, but they aren’t truly opening their eyes to think, ‘Well, who is this person sharing my house and raising my children?’ So then I felt, ‘Why don’t I use my experience of meeting my friend and my experience of meeting these other women?’”
Lefteri’s childhood experiences, growing up in the UK as the daughter of Cypriot refugees, has long informed her writing. Her father was a commanding officer in the Cypriot war in 1974 and she was born a few years after her parents moved to London. As she grew up, her family rarely spoke about their time in Cyprus.
“I was really interested in intergenerational trauma, and how it can transfer from one generation to the other, especially when it’s not spoken about in the home,” she says. “I was writing an article about this and I told my father, and he said, ‘The reason I didn’t speak about the war is because I wanted to protect you from it’. Suddenly, he opened up about all this stuff I’d never heard before. He said that even 40 or so years later after the war, he still thinks about it on a weekly basis. As a child, I was absorbing, and not realising that I was.”
Lefteri is writing her fourth book; this time, she hopes to take a look at climate change and the environment. “It’s something I’ve had in my mind for years, after seeing the fires in Athens [the Attica wildfires of 2018],” she says. “I just remember looking out the window and wondering about that sense of vulnerability, and knowing that the fires were coming this way. I imagined how scared people must have been feeling.”
Given Lefteri’s gift for empathy and imagination, it seems likely to be every bit as thought-provoking as her other work.
Christy Lefteri will discuss her new novel, Songbirds, at 8pm on Friday, July 16 in an online event for the West Cork Literary Festival. Full booking details on http://westcorkmusic.ie/lfprogramme.Songbirds is released by Manilla Press and is out now