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Sister of Darkness, A Memoir by Lili Bita with Robert Zaller

Rosemary Petracca Capello for Per Contra Reviews

Lili Bita is a poet, actress and musician, and these three talents combine in Sister of Darkness, A Memoir. The poet in her is evident in the selection, candor and strength of her words; the actress, in the dramatic presentation of the action; and the musician, in the tempo. 

Her memoir is off to a fine start as the scene is set through a stunning description of the village at midnight on the island of Zakynthos. It moves on to the bedroom of her parents, where Eleni is in the throes of labor as Yorgos sleeps nearby. Yorgos is awakened; the midwife is sent for; the labor intensifies. Lili is born. But the chapter that begins so beautifully ends on a discordant note. ". . . Constantina the cleaning woman arrived to begin the chores of the day. No one needed to tell her the news. 'I could hear her two miles away,' she rasped in her country accent. 'I knew right away she was a girl. Another spawn of the devil!'"

So began the conflict that would engage Lili Bita as she grew older. On the island, the only option open to a woman was marriage and subjection to a husband with no hope of having a career of her own. Therefore, Bita's talents, energy and quest for freedom would eventually lead her away from the constraints of her native island. 

After the chapter relating her birth, the rest of the memoir is written in the first person. The baby rebels early. At her baptism, "I kicked and screamed for my life, but no one helped me." In her later teen years, she struggled to maintain her identity. Help from her family sometimes came, but only after she did much kicking and screaming. To others who offered assistance, she paid a heavy price. 

Nevertheless, her very early years were happily spent. "In my child's world, the island was the beginning and end of all fairy-tales, of the exotic princes and princesses in my story books, of the stars I connected with my finger in the night sky. The things I learned did not disappear into the everyday but remained magical, and the island itself was enchanted."

Although she had a poetic streak, her mother Eleni was a typical housewife and stern mother who solemnly repeated her "litany of commandments." She passed on the folklore of the island. Her father Yorgos was a general, a man held in esteem on Zakynthos, as he was Commandant of the island. He comes across as a strong man who is sometimes gruff, but gentle and loving with young Lili. A certain drama surrounds his position; the uniform he wears, the ceremonies over which he presides. She is both parents' child, but particularly her father's.

Other main characters in the memoir are Lili's brother, Thomas, who is four years her senior, and Kiki, a widow who comes to live with the family and works in their household.

Very young when World War II broke out, she recalls those unsettling times. First, her island was occupied by the Italian army; then, by the German army; and finally by fellow Greeks during the ensuing Civil War. Her family was left to fend for itself in the midst of this chaos, as her father had been sent off to war elsewhere. Kiki's common sense often saved the day. When the wars ended and Yorgos returned, he was a sick and broken man, forced to retire from his position. This caused the family's fortune to take a drastic turn.

Lili Bita was a precocious child who matured early, and in a striking chapter she describes her initiation into womanhood at the age of eleven via her first period. But then, every chapter is striking. In her formative years she was introduced to the culture that nourished her ambitions. The turning point in her life came when she finagled a way to get her father to approve her moving to Athens so that she could study music at the academy. While still a teenager, her first book of poetry was published, she graduated from the academy winning second prize in its piano competition, and appeared in many theatrical productions.

The immigration laws were restrictive at the time Bita decided that she needed to come to America in order to be truly free. She met Tasos, a professor and distinguished scholar. After attending one of his lectures, she was smitten. Their son Philip was born in Munich; eventually, she joined Tasos in America and they married. A second son, Timon, was born. Now in America, she was bound to a violent husband and still not free. Her frank account of their life together is strong and revealing. All this time, her family, still living in Greece, was unaware of her relationship with Tasos and the births of her two children.

It is hard to believe that this memoir covers not much more than a mere two decades of a life. In the ensuing years, Lili Bita went on to write ten books of poetry, two books of short fiction, a novella, two volumes of translations and several plays. Her work has been translated into five languages. Moreover, she continues to teach piano and appear in theatrical works. As for her personal struggles, those who have read "Sister of Darkness" are asking, "What happens next? Bring on the sequel!" Those who have not read "Sister of Darkness" are urged to do so.

Lili Bita, with Robert Zaller, Sister of Darkness, A Memoir, Boston Massachusetts: Somerset Hall Press, 2005, 285 pages, $16.95.