‘Beekeeper of Aleppo’ author Christy Lefteri discusses Aspen Words prize-winning novel, community read
IF YOU GO …
What: Virtual Community Book Club
When: Thursday, July 23, 5 p.m.
Where: aspenwords.org; registration required
How much: Free
What: Author Talk with Christy Lefteri
When: Thursday, July 30, noon
Where: aspenwords.org; registration required
How much: Free
Novelist Christy Lefteri wrote “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” as a way to channel and process how distressed she felt after working in an Athens refugee center at the height of the global migration crisis, an experience informed by her life as the daughter of Cypriot refugees.
“I wrote the book, because I was so overwhelmed with emotion,” Lefteri recalled in a recent video chat interview from home in London. “But as I was writing it, I also had the sense that I wished that the book would reach people.”
Published last year, it has indeed reached countless people and shared the refugee experience with a global readership and, in April, it won the 2020 Aspen Words Literary Prize.
This month, Aspen Words and the Pitkin County Library began distributing 280 free copies of the book to locals for the summer’s Community Read event.
Virtual activations for the valleywide reading initiative include a community book club online Thursday (July 23) and a talk by Lefteri with Syrian refugee Qataiba Iblbi and Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur on July 30.
The library and the nonprofit adapted their plans for the summer-long Community Read and its many in-person components due to public health restrictions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
Aspen Words bestowed the award upon Lefteri in a virtual ceremony in mid-April. During the video call when Lefteri learned she’d won, the author was genuinely surprised, grateful and literally speechless — she had thought the Zoom call with Words was to go over logistics for prize finalists. Her reaction at the streaming event offered a much-needed injection of joy into the literary community, coming in the doldrums of the shutdown of public life in Aspen and around the world.
Her reaction resulted from genuine surprise, Lefteri recalled, and also from being overwhelmed by the meaning of the award, which seeks to recognize a work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature.
“You could see how much it meant to me, how deeply it meant something to me,” Lefteri said in July, recalling her surprise at winning. “This award in particular is really important to me. It’s one of the most special awards I could have won because of what it represents.”
“The Beekeeper of Aleppo” was born out of Lefteri’s time working as a volunteer at a UNICEF-supported refugee center for women and children in Athens in 2016 and 2017. The stories she heard from refugees flooded into her mind when she realized she’d won the prize, she recalled.
“All these children and people I met were just trying to reach a place of safety, and borders were closing and people weren’t welcoming them,” she recalled. “I think winning the award reminded me of all that, and it brought a warmth to my heart that people recognized what I felt and what I saw, and that people cared as well.”
Lefteri followed past winners Mohsin Hamid in 2018 for “Exit West,” also about the global refugee crisis, and Tayari Jones last year for “An American Marriage,” about institutional racism.
Lefteri’s novel follows the Syrian couple Nuri and Afra — the titular beekeeper and his artist wife, blinded from an explosion during the war — along two timelines on each side of the refugees’ journey. One timeline starts in Aleppo and centers on their decision to flee, the other in England where they are seeking asylum and battling trauma from the civil war and the journey to safety.
Lefteri’s true subject here may be trauma, and post-traumatic stress, which she depicts in all its messiness, complexity and contradiction. This is not a current events novel or a political novel, though its sensitively drawn portrait of human beings in the refugee crisis contrasts the cold statistics we read and the dehumanizing rhetoric we hear from some politicians.
A handful of elements of her novel came directly from her experience growing up as the daughter of refugees and working with contemporary refugees in Greece. She did spend time among the bees of a Syrian beekeeper in northern England, for instance. And she did assist a mother who gave birth in transit and could not physically breast feed her son, which makes its way into the narrative. She did hear the story of a Kurdish man who filled a journal with stories about his dead girlfriend, only to have it burned by Turkish soldiers.
But the book is a work of imagination, with Lefteri’s experiences undergirding the narrative’s essential truths.
Lefteri’s father’s “jumpy” demeanor, for instance, and how he passed his traumas on to her though she was born after he survived the war.
“I think I became quiet,” she said, “like I was always kind of ready for disaster somehow. All these things were part of me and then when I went to Athens.”
Lefteri, in a deft and poetic touch to “Beekeeper,” links the two timelines throughout the narrative by ending England-based sections with an unpunctuated line break that leads directly into the next chapter, and into the past, with a shared word that transports Nuri from the present.
Early drafts of the book had been structured linearly, Lefteri said.
“I knew that it wasn’t right,” she recalled. “I thought, the point of the story isn’t ‘Do they get to the U.K.?’ The point of the story is, ‘Do they learn to love each other again? And can they overcome their traumas, so that they’re not so absolutely broken by them?’”
With her central questions clear, the emotional arc of her characters took precedent and the physical journey — Syria, Turkey, Greece, Britain — jumbled in the process.
People at the Faros Hope Center, where she worked in Athens, read the book during a communal reading project similar to the local one, and it has been distributed at refugee camps as well. Lefteri is particularly excited about the novel’s recent publication in Arabic, which will allow more people like Nuri and Afra to read it.
Lefteri is well into writing a new novel, which she calls “slightly over halfway” written at 45,000 words. Inspired by true events, she said the book is set on Cyprus and centers on the abuse of domestic workers and the illegal poaching of endangered migrating songbirds.
The pandemic has been trying, Lefteri said. An uncle and a childhood friend of hers have died of COVID-19. But staying home for these months also has fed her service-based work.
“The quiet and the stillness gave me time to think,” she said.
Being unable to be hugged or be in close contact with loved ones — she’d only seen her brother, who lives nearby in London, via video chat — deepened her empathy for refugees and migrants separated from families for long periods, and people like the characters in her new book who spend years away from their children.
“It made me think a lot about what these women might have felt like, to not be able to hold to hug, to touch the people that you love, to have relationships with your children through the iPad,” she explained.
The stay-at-home period also has deepened her belief in literature. In her acceptance speech for the Aspen Words price, delivered via Zoom, she spoke of books as an engine for hope and empathy in both the refugee crisis and the ongoing public health crisis: “Literature fills the distance. It is a bridge. It connects people everywhere. We can reach people across oceans and borders and time. And though we cannot physically extend a hand through the pages of a book, we can express that we understand.”
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