You are here

Colonial and Postcolonial Cyprus: Transportal Literatures of Empire, Nationalism, and Sectarianism by Daniele Nunziata

Reviewed by Annika Coralia Demosthenous, Independent Researcher

Colonial and Postcolonial Cyprus: Transportal Literatures of Empire, Nationalism and Sectarianism, Daniele Nunziata. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. Price: £47.99. ISBN 978-3-030-58236-4.


Cyprus is an island with a history of divisions—cultural, political, and linguistic—often exacerbated by the interference of more powerful nations acting in their own interest. A British colony until 1960, it experienced a brief period of independence characterised by outside involvement by Turkey, Greece, and Britain, culminating in an attempted coup orchestrated by Greek right-wing actors in 1974. This led to the controversial occupation of the north of the island by Turkey. Within this context, literary productions from and about the island are often consumed and studied within exclusive categories defined by language or ethnicity, ignoring potential cultural currents which transcend borders.

            In Colonial and Postcolonial Cyprus: Transportal Literatures of Empire, Nationalism and Sectarianism, Daniele Nunziata breaks Cypriot literature out of its linguistic silos to trace the genealogy of a variety of common themes across borders, including preoccupations with historiography, isolation, and the concept of home. He highlights the cultural diversity of the island, treating Armenian-, Maronite-, Greek-, and Turkish-speaking Cypriots as equal stakeholders in the production of the island’s culture. He brings together diverse authors by looking at them through the lens of what he calls ‘transportal’ writing, examining the various ways in which works both explore and enact transportation across borders. The concept of ‘transportal literatures’ is rooted in an examination of travel writing, beginning with the representation of the island through the eyes of travel writers from Britain, who, Nunziata argues, formed an integral part of the project of colonialism. This is followed by an analysis of Cypriot works from a variety of linguistic contexts which reclaim the island through their authors’ evocation of the landscape, writing back to the culturally-dominant works of British writers.

            Nunziata explains that he coined the term transportal to help make sense of the postcolonial legacy of trauma and division in Cypriot literature. Cyprus’ postcolonial condition is complicated by the multiplicity of its ‘centre-periphery’ relationships: Greece and Turkey exert real economic and cultural influences on the south and north of the island respectively, while the dominance of British culture as a result of colonialism persists through the supremacy of British education on the island. Consequently, he argues that while postcolonial theory is useful in decoding the cultural complexities of Cyprus, it requires a nuanced approach that takes into account the uniqueness of Cyprus’ circumstances. Nunziata draws connections between the Cypriot experience and the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Frantz Fanon, and others, making a convincing case for the relevance of postcolonial theories to understanding Cypriot literature.

            The first chapter has three functions: it establishes a global genealogy of travel writing beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh; it positions Cyprus in its geopolitical context through a historical overview; and it outlines a range of relevant concepts from postcolonial theory. These include Said’s concept of Orientalism and Spivak’s theory of the Subaltern. Nunziata describes Cyprus as a ‘strategic gateway or portal through which military and cultural paradigms are exchanged’ (3), outlining a diachronic sequence of geopolitical tensions that have been centred on Cyprus and the waters around it. He suggests that Cyprus is imagined from the outside as one of two diametrically opposed images: an idyllic tourist destination or a convenient ammunition dump. This sets the scene for an exploration of contrary views of the island through the eyes of a range of locals and visitors, who have recorded their experience in a range of ‘transportal’ literary productions. Nunziata argues that travel writing is particularly important for the emergence of an authentic Cypriot identity, as the novel, traditionally considered the apex of national literatures, does not allow for the true expression of Cyprus’ cultural heterogeneity, since a single narrator cannot encompass all perspectives.

            Chapter 2 details the production of an Orientalist image of Cyprus through travelogues by British visitors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, contextualising these as part of the British imperial project of objectifying Cyprus and fetishising Cypriots in order to justify Britain’s colonial possession of the island. The chapter covers a heterogenous group of writers, including members of the colonial establishment Sir Samuel White Baker and William Hepworth Dixon, British female travellers Esmé Scott-Stevenson, Annie Brassey, and Agnes Smith, as well as Lawrence Durrell, whose travelogue Bitter Lemons (1957) elicited strong responses from a range of Cypriot writers. Nunziata argues that women writers occupied a liminal position which enabled them to sympathise with Cypriot people under colonial rule, as they also experienced a position of inferiority in the gendered power structure of Empire. Male writers, on the other hand, used their writing to further the British colonial project by packaging the island in terms comprehensible to their readers and presenting it as a ‘literary terra nullius’ (24), silencing the voices of Cypriot people. The range of authors and periods covered in the chapter serves to demonstrate that this silencing is pervasive within the structure of colonialist cultural production, regardless of authorial intent: whilst women writers felt sympathy for the Cypriot people they encountered, their narrativisations of them were no less exploitative. This is reminiscent of Fanon’s argument, put forward in The Wretched of the Earth (1963), that independent culture cannot evolve under oppressive rule.

            Nunziata describes the emergence of a post-independence Cypriot identity in Chapter 3, focusing on direct ‘writing back’ to British imperial narratives. In particular, he examines Costas Montis’ Closed Doors: An Answer to Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell (1964) and Taner Baybars’ Plucked in a Far-Off Land (1970), both responses to Durrell’s travelogue. Nunziata argues that these travelogues work to counter colonialist discourse as did novels like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). However, he contends that the travelogue is more suited to the fragmentary and multivalent nature of Cypriot identity.

            Chapter 4 consists of a comparative reading of liminal works which cross the buffer zone: Yiannis Papadakis’ Echoes from the Dead Zone (2005), an account of the author’s visit to Northern Cyprus; Nora Nadjarian’s short story collection Ledra Street (2006); and Aydın Mehmet Ali’s Forbidden Zone (2013), also a collection of short stories. Nunziata traces the authors’ attempts to resist ethnocentric narratives and dominant discourses of an artificially monocultural environment in Cyprus, revealing the potential for a wider cultural conversation finding common ground after trauma. The analysis leaves the distinct impression that nationalism and intercommunal conflict have pernicious consequences for everyone involved. Papadakis, Nadjarian, and Ali all present images of Cypriot citizens forgiving of each other, who recognise that they have a shared experience of victimhood regardless of their linguistic, cultural, or political identifications.

            The intersectionality of the colonial experience is examined in Chapter 5, through a close reading of the above-mentioned short story collections by Ali and Nadjarian, as well as a poetry anthology by Neşe Yaşın translated from Turkish into English, Rose Falling Into Night (2017). Nunziata suggests rethinking Spivak’s concept of ‘translation as reading’ to include ‘translation as writing’, given the complexities inherent in identifying one’s ‘mother tongue’ in Cyprus (259). He argues that because the standard versions of Greek and Turkish dominant in publications on the island are already a significant departure from the authors’ true native languages—Cypriot Greek, Cypriot Turkish, and Armenian—writing in English is empowering for them, as it allows them to transcend divisions and is no more alien than any of the other print languages on the island.

            Through the concept of ‘transportal literatures’, Nunziata draws together disparate strains of Cypriot literature traditionally read in separate silos, making a case for a shared intercommunal culture. The very thorough diachronic discussion of a broad range of ‘transportal’ texts from and about the island makes a compelling case that the similarities between residents outweigh their differences, eroding the nationalist mythologies prevalent on the island.

            The structure of the book can make it challenging for readers without much prior knowledge of Cyprus, as the chapters are dense and connections between them are often not explicitly pointed out. For example, Chapters 2 and 5 begin with discussions of idealised images of femininity which erase and silence real women, the former alluding to a representation of Cyprus as a woman in a Punch cartoon from 1878, the latter to the representation of two women in the Nicosia Liberty Monument. An explicit reference to Chapter 2 when the discussion of idealised femininity is reprised in Chapter 5 could enrich the analysis of this concept.

            Overall, this is a book that challenges entrenched ethnocentric views about Cypriot identity, making a strong case for the existence of a common multivalent, multilingual culture on the island. In this time of continued tension on the island, exacerbated by external pressures such as the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a timely read that promotes the kind of cross-cultural healing that could help Cypriots prevail against adversity.