Lili Bita – Sister of Darkness. City Suburban News

(“An Immigrant’s Story: Lili Bita’s Sister of Darkness” in City Suburban News, April 12–18, 2006.)

Philadelphia-area author, actress, and musician, Lili Bita is a contemporary cultural ambassador. The brilliant interpretations of Greek culture and history in her acclaimed one-woman shows, “The Greek Woman Through the Ages” and “Freedom or Death,” have brought the legacy of Hellenism around the world. Her own poetry and fiction have won praise from such figures as Nikos Kazantzakis, Anais Nin, and Kenneth Rexroth. Tasos Athanasiadis, the former director of the Greek National Theater, calls her “among the most talented women of her generation.” Now, Lili Bita’s long-awaited memoir, Sister of Darkness, has appeared from Boston’s Somerset Hall Press. In it, she tells the story of her birth and childhood on the idyllic island of Zakynthos, a childhood shattered first by the Italian and German occupation, then by civil war, and finally by the great earthquake that destroyed the island and its centuries-old culture. “Zakynthos was the most beautiful of islands,” Lili says. “I knew from an early age that I would have to leave it, but also that I would always carry it with me. And I have.”

The daughter of a Greek army general from Epirus and a Zakynthian painter and poet, Lili calls her heritage “a marriage of island and earth.” “But I needed the sky, too,” she recalls. “And though the sky over Zakynthos was very beautiful, I knew it would always be the same sky. I needed more stars than it could hold.” Moving to Athens at the age of sixteen to study music and theater, and to launch a literary career – unheard-of ambitions in a girl of her time and place, for whom marriage and children was the only permissible destiny – Lili plunged into the excitement of the capital, meeting some of the most renowned figures of the time while blossoming into her own womanhood. “Yes, it was very exciting,” Lili says. “It all came in a rush – the first applause, the first reviews, even a note from Kazantzakis, who read my stories and encouraged me to go on. But it was also a struggle – we were very poor, we had no connections, and I soon discovered what favors men wanted in return for their own. In the end, this was a trap, too.”

At this point in her life, Lili met a brilliant young Greek academic, already established in America. His promises took her to the New World, where she brought him their first child, born in Munich. “I had my doubts about ‘Tasos’” – the name she gives him in the book – “but there was no other way for me to reach America. In Zakynthos, I believed that my destiny lay in Athens. When I got there, I realized I would have to find it across the ocean. Whatever I was going to become, whatever I could achieve, would be in America. It was very painful to leave Greece, to leave everything I loved and everyone who loved me. But I had no choice.”

What frustrated Lili was a culture that offered no scope for a woman of talent and independence. “I was always a feminist, even before I heard the term,” she says. “I believed our talents were given us to be used, and I could never understand why those of half the human race weren’t valued. I dreamed America would be different. But, with Tasos, I brought Greece with me. He was my punishment for the crime of being myself.” Violently jealous and abusive, “Tasos” isolated Lili in the succession of small towns where his peripatetic career took him, stifling her creativity, confiscating the money she earned, and threatening her with deportation if she disobeyed his slightest wish. Marriage was followed by divorce, but she remained captive and dependent. “I wasn’t ‘pure’ enough for Tasos,” Lili says. “Though he bragged about all the girls he’d debauched, the one he married had to be innocent. The younger generation probably has a hard time believing the obsession with virginity in traditional Mediterranean cultures, but it was all too real. Women were still property there, and virginity was the seal of unspoiled goods. I know grown women who had themselves sutured to fool their husbands.”

But didn’t America offer freedom from such customs? Lili laughs. “Oh, certainly, and you could have discreet affairs in Rome or Athens, too. But put someone down in the middle of a prairie who hardly spoke the language, who had no friends or relatives and no notion of her legal rights. Then put her at the mercy of a man who used his fists and his belt and threatened to separate her from her children if she dared to seek help or confide in anyone. How many immigrant women have been in my situation, alone and defenseless? How many still are, if not Swedish or German, Greek or Italian, then Russian or Asian or Hispanic? If I can reach a single one of them, I’ll feel my book is a success.”

But how did Lili manage to free herself? “I think,” she says, “you have to get to a point where you must decide whether you are going to survive or not. I don’t mean physically, though that’s an issue too sometimes, but morally. And when you get there, you find the courage you need.” Sister of Darkness ends with that moment of courage. But why didn’t Lili go on to tell the story of all she has achieved since? “Perhaps I will,” she says. “And I am working on a sequel memoir, the story of my son Philip. But success is never as interesting as struggle, and my own moment of liberation seemed the right place to stop. It was my story at that point, but also the story of many others who have never told theirs.”

Despite the difficulty of her journey – Nuala O’Faolain, the best-selling Irish author, has called it “an unforgettable tale of madness and endurance” – Lili feels strongly that her book’s message is a positive one. “Oh, definitely,” she says. “It’s a book not only with a happy ending, but a triumphant one. I feel I’m a much stronger person not only for having survived my experience, but for having written about it. I hope my story will strengthen and empower everyone who reads it.”

Today, Lili lives in Bala Cynwyd with her husband, Robert Zaller, professor of history at Drexel University. She looks forward to taking her book on tour to New York, Boston, Miami, and elsewhere. What the legendary diarist Anais Nin once wrote of her remains true: “Her words are strong, body and soul in balance. Her vision is direct, unifying and complete.”