I have a secret to share, one that I’ve been keeping locked deep inside my whole life. Are you ready? Here it comes. I didn’t grow up in a house full of books. We had encyclopedias and a couple of Greek mythology coffee table books, but not novels. But my mother always encouraged reading, and last month, when I learned Dive Smack, my debut novel, was Fall 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection, she was the first person I called. And here’s why.
opens in a new window Not growing up with books isn’t my big secret. My big secret is that my mom can’t read.
When I say this to friends who have asked if my mom ever recommends or shares books with me, I’ve silenced whole conversations. Almost like it’s a taboo. But it’s not. It shouldn’t be, because literacy is something that warrants discussion, as well as solution.
In the 1970s, there was show on television called The Electric Company that aired beside Sesame Street. Do you know of or remember it? Two people would pronounce words phonetically in silhouette and the display graphics would illustrate the meaning of the word. I should have realized that my mom couldn’t read. She would watch with my sisters and me, pronouncing each word carefully, sometimes repeatedly for a few minutes, but I was too young to understand. I thought she was merely trying to learn how to speak English correctly.
My mom came to the U.S. a few years after fleeing the tragedies of the Greek Civil War, which took place from 1946 to 1949 between the Greek Government Army (backed by the United Kingdom and the United States) and the Democratic Army of Greece (the military branch of the Greek Communist Party). It’s considered the first proxy war of the Cold War, a highly polarized struggle between left and right ideologies. My mother’s family traveled on foot from Albania to Greece. She crossed a rapid river to get to their original hometown of Ioannina at the tender age of four, dark blonde hair plaited, carrying what she could to help ease the load.
During a recent phone call, an interview on the subject, she told me she got lost during that pilgrimage and made it all the way back to a gated entrance to Albania before my grandparents found her. She was gone for hours and became ill, suffering from chronic bronchitis thereafter, which prevented her from attending school as much as her siblings and her peers. She came to the United States when she was twelve and had to help her family so her parents could work and she never returned to school. Because of this, she has a fifth-grade education and a third-grade reading level.
But here’s the thing. My mother is the hardest-working woman I know. She is my role model for excellence and perseverance. When I was young, she worked in pizza places owned by Greek friends who offered her jobs, then pharmaceutical companies where she worked on production lines, early shift, late shift, whatever was needed to help her own family. She is whip-smart, which made me realize how often people confuse intelligence and education. My mother is the brightest, most street-smart woman I know. A wiz with numbers and finances because they’re universal, and a fierce protector who would do anything for her daughters, because she understood suffering. She understood being singled out and bullied for being different. And she understood wanting to fit in, but also not wanting to either.
And so, I didn’t grow up in a house full of books, like I’ve heard so many other authors say on panels. And yet, if it weren’t for my mother encouraging me to read, especially because she couldn’t, and if it weren’t for the librarians she steered me toward at school, I may have never developed a love for reading at all, let alone writing.
Once you read Dive Smack, I hope you’ll see within the pages that the entire plot pivots around what happened in the past to the protagonist’s mom. It’s not an immigration story; I certainly have one of those to tell, and I’m currently working on the research that comes from some of what I’ve told you today. But Dive Smack is a story about a mother and her son, and the importance of finding out about your family’s history, because you never know what you’ll learn.
In my own search, I learned my mother really is the rock star I always believed her to be, and that if you have a dream you should work hard to achieve it. When Tor Teen decided to publish my debut novel and my book was selected by The Junior Library Guild, I finally, truly understood, the value of struggling and working hard for a dream. And that’s why my mother, who will be thrilled to learn there is also an audiobook, was the first person I told.