VOLUME 1 NUMBER 1
Lili Bita Talks About Her New Memoir,
“Sister of Darkness”
Lili “Angelika” Bita is well known for her one-woman plays such as The Greek Woman Through the Ages and Freedom or Death, which have been performed on numerous stages on three continents. A multi-faceted and highly talented artist, pianist, performance artist, actor, poet and writer, Bita says, “Passion enlivens all that I do.”
Her work has been most influenced by Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote Zorba the Greek. Another great influence is her native country, Greece. The stark beauty, especially of her birth island, Zakinthos, is an integral part of her being.
Anais Nin, author and diarist, said of her, “Lili Bita transcends the individual woman…Life and myth are lived simultaneously.” Stanley Burnshaw, author of The Seamless Web, called her, “A bold and passionate writer.” Tasos Athanassiadis, former director, Greek National Theater praised her extraordinary talents.
Those who know her more intimately are aware that Bita has led a complex, difficult, and dangerous life. Now she has allowed us to enter the world that still vibrates in her head with her memoir, Sister of Darkness, published in 2005 by Somerset Hall Press.
Sister of Darkness reads like a gorgeous, lush lyrical poem, but Bita leads us through a labyrinth into deep chasms of physical and emotional brutality, offering few roads out. Each segment of her book with its precise and unvarnished images hits us hard, making us all the more engaged when Bita finally emerges into daylight.
Bita admits it was excruciatingly painful to write her memoir and that it didn’t provide a catharsis for her as some memoirs have done for other authors. What brings her satisfaction, though, is knowing that she might give courage to women in abusive situations.
“Initially,” says Bita, “I wondered how my book, which speaks openly about oppression, superstition, and the patriarchy, would be received in the Greek community since I write candidly about the plight of women in Greek society.”
After making inquiries among her friends, the unanimous opinion came back with resounding applause. Her husband, Robert, who assisted in the translation, empathized with his wife’s journey as she relived the years of rejection and punishment as she sought to become an independent woman in a society that had strict rules and regulations for her behavior.
“During the years I grew up in Greece,” says Bita, “women dared not aspire to be on the stage, travel alone, or write books. They were considered loose if they didn’t follow the rules of subservience and obedience set out for them.”
Bita’s defiance of the mores of that world placed a burden on her, which nearly destroyed her life. The possibility of finding a “good” man to marry diminished greatly each time she revealed her ambitions or expressed her talents.
“After marriage women were expected to submerge their personalities and totally devote themselves to their husbands.” says Bita. “As an adult, I went to my brother to seek his advice about divorcing my abusive first husband and was told that if I left, no self-respecting man would ever enter my house not a priest, a doctor, or lawyer no man ever, for any reason.
“Growing up in Greece as a female, my life was set out for me from the moment of my birth. I wasn’t even allowed to go to school. Teachers came to my home to tutor me.”
The choice of Lili’s teachers was deliberate. The males, especially, were unattractive. Although Bita’s mother was a talented painter and writer before her marriage, “My mother’s life consisted of going to church, being obedient to her husband and performing domestic tasks. Growing up, I did not see physical abuse in my home. But rather a wearing down of self-confidence for the women.
“Like the Chinese water torture, drop-by-drop,” she adds. ‘My mother’s will and personality disintegrated. She once told me that a man in the house is a devil behind the door. This inspired me to want more, to not be trapped in a dead-end existence. Forever afterward, I have hated domestic chores.”
Sister of Darkness begins in Bita’s birthplace, Zakinthos. “If I had chosen to be obedient to the repressive rules set forth for all Greek women of the time, I could have stayed in a controlled, secure environment,” she says. “Because I chose to rebel, to be free and live an independent life, I stepped into hell. Even my parents and extended family found me bizarre, perhaps sick or even evil.”
Bita learned the piano and French because those were the qualities needed to capture a husband of means, be it doctor, lawyer or businessman. But the rebellious, intelligent woman could not be kept down.
“As the Greek daughter of an army general in a traditional household where women were virtual prisoners, I spent my early years asking why I could not demonstrate my feelings,” she says.
“At eight, I was taken to see a dress rehearsal of the opera, Madame Butterfly, and when the velvet curtain parted I felt myself lifted to the center of the stage, raised by the luminous hands of the footlights, again reciting my poem. I wanted to cry out and express my feelings about the beautiful spectacle, but I knew I must not speak or move out of turn or I’d never be taken to the opera again.”
At sixteen, Bita managed to go to Athens to study music at the Conservatory and also graduated from the Art School of Athens. Astonishingly, she also published a book of short stories, Step of the Earth. These accomplishments were unique for a girl at that time and place. The excitement and dazzle of Athens enthralled her, yet meeting important people at such a young age, trying to develop her own talents while blossoming into womanhood, took a toll on her.
Bita, with her thick black hair, large eyes, and porcelain skin, learned early in life what men wanted from her and how to advance herself with them. “To return to my beautiful island and be trapped into a stifling, intellectual death was not an option,” she says. “And this cut deeply into my soul.”
At about this time, Bita met a brilliant young Greek academic with ties in America. She became pregnant and delivered their first child in Munich, Germany. Although there were things about “Tasos” (the name she gives him in the book) that disturbed her, she saw their relationship as an opportunity to get to America where she thought she’d find her destiny. After a long separation, her husband sent for her and their son Philip. “When we finally arrived at our new home, Tasos immediately began to abuse me,” she says. “Falsely accusing me of sleeping with other men.”
The violent outbursts and beatings continued for a number of years even after the birth of their second son, Kimon. Bita was penniless and dependent. “But,” she says. “I stayed because Tasos was the punishment for the crime of being myself.”
Her life in the United States didn’t offer much brightness except in her love for her children. She followed her husband to a series of small towns and finally landed in Kansas. “Where I had to watch my every move so as not to agitate him or the strangers in a place alien to me,” she says.
A bright light came when she managed, after much wrangling, to convince Tasos to allow her to perform in a play written by a Greek writer, Angelos Terzakis, entitled Theophano. The English translation became titled Homer on the Prairie. Bita was perfect for the title role of a Byzantine empress, but had a language problem. After immersing herself in the English language, she mastered the part. But her breather from the awful repression at home only lasted a short time.
Even though every area of life had been cut off, Bita still had the memories of her Greek world, the beauty and the myths. That part of her life was imbedded in her and she cherished it. “This is what finally allowed me to leave,” she says.
At the end of the memoir, Tasos announces he’s taken another wife who was a virgin when he met her, but tells Bita that he wants her to stay and be his mistress. With her two young children in tow, Bita finally leaves.
Currently, Bita is writing another memoir about her life after Tasos. The memoir centers on her son, Philip, who died tragically, and has the working title, The Hang Glider.
Now living in the Main Line of Philadelphia with her husband, Robert Zaller, professor of history at Drexel University, Bita has found a safe place to continue her work. She calls her husband a kindred spirit and says that they are bound together by their love of literature.
Nuala O’Faolain, a best-selling Irish author called Sister of Darkness, “an unforgettable tale of madness and endurance.” It is both. Madness lies in thinking that women can be owned like chattel, a notion still prevalent worldwide. “My heart breaks for the women in the world who are demonized by men who want to take away their sexuality, who want to possess them,” says Bita.
What sustains Bita through her writing process is her deep intelligence, her artistry, her love for her children, her devoted husband, and her imagination, which got her through many terrible years.
“If, by mining the inner landscape of my life, I have helped just one abused and oppressed woman anywhere in the world, I have accomplished what I set out to do. That for me is the true success of the book.”
Visit Lili Bita’s website at LiliBita.com.