Annie Liontas, a local author, has a lot going on right now.
Her debut novel, “Let Me Explain You,” was released in July; she’s busy at her day job as a curriculum specialist at Philadelphia Futures; and she’s preparing for the release of an anthology she edited about writers and their mentors called “A Manner of Being.”
Liontas is also planning a Sept. 17 reading at Tattooed Mom, 530 South St. It’s part of the TireFire reading series that she and fellow writer Sarah Rose Etter have been organizing together for the past few years. They’ve got something special in mind.
“This is going to be our blow-out reading,” Liontas said.
Usually the organizers focus the attention on their guests, but they’re making an exception and reading from their work.
“This will be our first time, just to celebrate our time from there,” she added.
Hearing Liontas read from “Let Me Explain You” will be a treat. The novel is serious, heartbreaking and also funny. Stavros Stavros “Steve” Mavrakis is a central character. He’s an immigrant who arrived in America with nothing and now owns two successful diners.
Stavros may have mastered his business, but his English is still a work in progress. He omits words, garbles tenses and translates Greek idioms into broken English.
“It is a good rule to follow that, if the mustache is weak, so will be the man,” he writes to his youngest daughter, Ruby, offering unsolicited advice about choosing a mate. “Look at your father’s mustache, which it is a fist!”
English isn’t Stavros’ only problem. His relationships with the women in his life are in shambles. After years of acting like a blustering, domineering patriarch, he’s alienated his oldest daughters, Stavroula and Litza, not to mention his two ex-wives.
When the novel begins, Stavros believes he’s had a premonition of his death and is trying to set things straight. He fires off an email to his daughters and his ex that begins, “Let me explain you something.” The situation quickly dissolves from there.
Liontas’ novel has a welcome comic sensibility, and that humor allows her to tackle difficult subjects. Addiction, divorce, exile, immigration and sexual identity are never far from the surface. And although Stavros is a memorable character, the women quickly emerge from his shadow.
“This is a book about resilience,” Liontas said, “particularly about the resilience and survival of the young women in this family, how they really fight for their own identities and place in the world.”
Liontas’ female characters are fighting for their identities, especially, Stavroula and Litza. Stavroula is an accomplished chef whose emotional life has been stunted by her father’s expectations and his forceful personality. And Litza, the middle child, harbors a bitterness towards her father that, when not dulled by pills, erupts in angry, destructive outbursts.
According to Liontas, early drafts of the novel were much darker. Feedback from trusted readers led her to shift its tone.
“I learned from a great teacher the idea that we, as writers, have to represent joy as well as pain,” she said.
“Once I understood that I could translate that joy and humor into writing, it opened up an entire door and it breathed life into the book that just hadn’t been there before. And it made everybody a little forgiving and forgiven in the book, including Stavros, who is still maddening.”
Of all the characters, Stavroula may be of particular interest to PGN readers. When the novel opens, the 31-year-old has found professional success as chef, but she has yet to embrace her sexuality. Although she has a huge crush on a woman named July, Stavroula has barely acknowledged that she’s a lesbian.
In his original email, Stavros notes Stavroula’s short hair and urges her to let it grow out. “There is a way to be for the normal society, and you are not it,” he tells her, unintentionally nudging Stavroula towards accepting a crucial part of herself that she’s been keeping at arm’s length.
Having grown up in an immigrant household with a domineering father, Stavroula’s situation is understandable.
“Part of her struggle in this book is coming to terms with her identity in a family and in a culture that really can’t acknowledge that. Can’t see it, can’t acknowledge that, doesn’t believe in it. And that’s enough of a battle,” Liontas said.
It would be unfair to reveal how the novel turns out. But it is safe to say that the women in this book slowly begin to let their voices be heard. Rather than allowing Stavros to explain them, over the course of 340 pages, Stavroula, Litza and Marina explain themselves, in their own words.
To learn more about Liontas’ writing and her upcoming readings, visit www.annieliontas.com.