Marianne Micros is the author of two volumes of poetry, Upstairs Over the Ice Cream (Ergo) and Seventeen Trees (Guernica). Her poems and short fiction have been published in various anthologies and journals, and her suite of poems, Demeter’s Daughters, was shortlisted for the Gwendolyn MacEwen poetry competition in 2015 and published in Exile: The Literary Quarterly. In her new anthology of short fiction, Eye (Guernica), she explores the mythology, folklore, Greek customs, and old-world cultures that have fascinated her all her life. She explored some of these issues in a written exchange with Jeremy Luke Hill.
Jeremy Luke Hill: The “eye” of the title references “the evil eye” that appears in various traditions of folklore and that plays a central role in many of the collection’s stories. What encouraged you to work through this particular image?
Marianne Micros: The tradition of the evil eye is of great interest to me since I grew up in a family that followed the customs surrounding that belief. Evil-eye medallions were pinned to babies to protect them: it was thought that people who admired them could, even accidentally, cast the evil eye on them, causing illness or even death. People would spit three times and utter certain words to protect or cure people endangered by the evil eye.
Still found in parts of Greece are wise women, natural healers who still follow those old traditions — strong women whose abilities were doubted by modern civilizations and suppressed by patriarchal societies and religions. On one occasion when I was living in Greece, I was cured of a long-standing cough by women who did the spell to reverse the effects of the “eye.”
The “eye” signifies people’s fears, their relationships to each other, and their attempts to protect themselves. My stories highlight the old beliefs, and also the way they sometimes continue in later generations. The “eye” also has symbolic meanings, relating to the importance of sight, vision, the power of thoughts, and the power of words.
JLH: Several of the stories explore mother-daughter relationships, usually with the father absent, even apparently from the conception at times. Talk a little bit about what you were trying to express through these strictly maternal relationships.
MM: One reason I write about these relationships is that I am the mother of two daughters, and also that I was very close to my own mother, finding it difficult to separate from her in order to grow up. The Persephone myth – her abduction to the underworld and her mother’s bargaining to bring her back – permeates many of my poems, as well as lying beneath the surface of some of my stories. Because I was a single mother for several years, I have experienced the difficulties of raising a child without a husband but with the help of mother and grandmother. The close relationship between mother and daughter can be energizing and consoling, or stifling and controlling. This is also true with mothers and sons: one of my stories, “The Changeling’s Brother,” is about a controlling relationship between a mother and her sons. So, definitely, motherhood is a strong theme in my works.
My stories highlight women of various ages and experiences: young women entering adulthood, sometimes fearfully, sometimes joyfully; daughters who miss their mothers; mothers who experience feelings of great loss when their children grow up. Several of my protagonists tend to follow their mothers’ roles as healers and midwifes, even if they are resistant to doing so. In my stories set in more recent times, however, women who have lost the connection with mothers or with the past seem to be searching for something they cannot find. I guess that part of what I am trying to express is the joys and pains of girls growing up, becoming women, becoming mothers themselves, and growing old.
JLH: There is a tense (but somehow balanced?) relationship beween the Greek Orthodox church and Paganism throughout the stories, in one instance represented by a new church being built atop the mostly hidden ruins of an ancient Greek temple. Could you work through the implications of that image a little bit further?
MM: This story is a true one and demonstrates the dilemma of people caught between the ancient, pagan society and the later Christian one; between the church and the government. Priests are highly respected authority figures, but tension sometimes exists between the laws of the church and the laws of the country. I longed to see the remains of an ancient culture underneath the church but also was concerned about the possibility that the villagers would be punished and also about the way tourism could ruin lives in a village that is still traditional today.
JLH: There is something of this tension in many of the women also, who are Mary figures insofar as they are sometimes said to have immaculately conceived their children, but they produce no messiah sons. Instead they produce daughters who usually take on the same role as their mothers, generation on generation. How deliberately are you reimagining the traditional figure of Mary here?
MM: This is a wonderful question and I am glad that you saw these nuances in many of the stories. The figure of the Virgin Mary permeates Greek culture, and her feast day on August 15th is one of the biggest holidays in Greece. My grandmother prayed every night to her icon of the Virgin Mary, in front of which she kept a light burning at all times.
The prizing of virginity has been a major theme throughout Christianity. Young women in several of my stories fear sexuality, especially when society and the church find virginity such a pure and exalted state. Also, I have written of women who are shunned for having children out of wedlock. For women, having a female sacred figure to pray to brings comfort and is more personal than worshipping a father god. The Virgin Mary can be a friend and a mother — but sometimes someone to defy.
In my story “Thirteen,” young girls wish to have immaculate conceptions. Christy dreams that her mother is the Virgin Mary and that she herself is the baby Jesus. She writes a story in which a woman who has not had relations with men receives a baby from God. Daughters follow their mothers in attempting to understand the mysteries of sexuality and motherhood but sometimes rebel against them and their beliefs.
Some stories express sympathy for the Virgin Mary as a mother, as a human being. Even having a son who will come back to life for a time and who is a Messiah means loss of that son on a human level. The first time I saw Michelangelos’ sculpture the Pieta was at a World’s Fair in New York City. Now you can only see it from a distance and behind windows and barricades. But at the World’s Fair we were taken on a moving sidewalk that led us past the sculpture, giving us a close-up view. When I came out of that passage, I was weeping. You can see the anguish on Mary’s face as she holds her dead son – as if he is a baby. So, though he was someone conceived for greatness and salvation and self-sacrifice, he was also a son.
The Virgin Mary, then, is a very complex figure – human and motherly; pure and divine. I try to show those conflicting characteristics in the figure of the Virgin and in women’s responses to her.
JLH: The protagonists of the stories are often wise women – midwives, herbalists, banishers of the evil eye. The stories leave ambiguous whether the magics they practice are “real”, and sometimes imply that they are “real” only within a certain cultural heritage, one that is gradually being lost. What “magic” do you see being lost with the passing of these traditional cultures.
MM: Much of the underlying meaning of the stories is about the loss of the belief in those old ways – and consequently in the power of women who have ways of healing outside of modern professional medical practices. Is the magic “real”? Perhaps. This manner of healing is consoling, optimistic, spiritual, accessible. I think it existed everywhere at one time and was beneficial. It may not “heal” all diseases but has a role in helping people and in binding the community together. But then, just as happened with witches and wise old women in England and other cultures, these women were considered evil or foolish – and people were conditioned to think that the idea of something “magical” was crazy. My story “paved” shows the loss of belief but also tells of a courageous woman who is still proud of her role. So, yes, something has been lost that is human, personal, and fulfilling – and as a consequence the power and the strength of women healers are denigrated.
JLH: Some of the later stories in the volume are very different in style and content that the earlier wise woman stories, though many of the themes remain the same. Why did you choose to include some that were closely linked and then others that were quite different?
MM: I wanted variety in the stories to show that some of the same tensions exist today, perhaps in all cultures. The human emotions and experiences are eternal and universal. Yes, the themes are similar in many of the stories – magic, loss of belief, people caught between belief systems, struggles of women, family relations, etc. The stories further on in the book show the continuation of certain “superstitions” in the present day, the meaning and relevance of ancient myths in our modern, or post-modern, era, the magic that is still present today.
JLH: Your biographical statement on the back of the book says that you’re working both on a volume of poetry and on another collection of stories. Can you talk a little bit about these upcoming projects?
MM: I am compiling some of my poems into a book entitled The Aphrodite Suite and am now organizing and revising. I also continue to write stories, most on somewhat magical themes. I hope to be working toward a book of those stories as well. I guess, in the end, I still believe in magic, or want to believe.
Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Vocamus Press, a micro-press in Guelph, Ontario. He has written a collection of poetry and short prose called Island Pieces, along with several chapbooks and broadsheets. His writing has appeared in The Bull Calf, CV2, EVENT Magazine, Free Fall, The Goose, HA&L, paperplates, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Rusty Toque, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.