Between The Lines

How Annie Liontas Came to Write Let Me Explain You

Let Me Explain You came to me in a flash: I remember running up the stairs of my aunt’s house—where I was living temporarily, struggling to find work, relationship on the rocks, health a bit compromised—and finding the thread of the story that would become the novel. A Greek father believes he is dying and sends a letter to his daughters telling them how they are failing at life.

But, of course, the story is much older than that.

Let Me Explain You is an immigrant narrative, one that tries to understand how the experience of relocation impacts multiple generations. You could say that every major character in this novel is a portrait of xenitia, a Greek word that suggests the foreigner’s lonely exile. The immigrant novel might be defined as a narrative that gives everybody voice. Let Me Explain You is a work of translation, with characters saying over and over what they mean, what they are, what they were, to get at what they’ve lost.

In some ways, this novel reimagines my own origin story. What emerged first was the voice of the narcissistic patriarch, but it wasn’t until I worked with George Saunders at Syracuse University, where I wrote the first draft of the novel in its entirety, that I began to understand Stavros—Stavros as a whole person (a person of joy and cruelty, humor and homesickness). I am grateful to have had the privilege of working with an incredible cohort of talented writers at Syracuse, who helped me understand how to get closer to the complexities of people. All of the characters in this novel insist on defining themselves—anytime they did something that surprised me, I knew I was on the right track. Marina, the cook, let it be said, was a gift from God. She embodies loss and dislocation, as well as the immigrant’s resourcefulness and ability to survive, adapt, and reinvent.

What I struggled with most in writing Let Me Explain You is: Whose story is it? Who does this belong to? My mentor Arthur Flowers posed that question many times, and I realized that I could not answer it, and that the answer is part of the book. I bet that Stavros Stavros would want the book to belong to him: many readers, in fact, want it to be all his. But a book that is all Stavros Stavros is a book about the colonist. A book about Stavros Stavros is all thunder, no rain. I wanted to hear from those who have to fight to make their voices heard. Toni Morrison says that if you don’t see the story you want to read in the world, then you might have to write it. I hope that Let Me Explain You is one of those books that helps translate the particular inheritance of the children—especially the daughters—of fiercely proud immigrant patriarchs.

Let Me Explain You

Let Me Explain You

By Annie Liontas