Lili Bita - Sister of Darkness. Reviewed by Rochelle Holt

(Dr. Holt’s work has appeared in countless anthologies, journals, and magazines. She has reviewed books for Curbstone for over a decade. She invented the poem-novel with the novel duet Valley of the Shadows & Surrender (2004) and Bloodli(n)es (2005).)

Born on the Greek island of Zante, Lili Bita has been known for many years as both an actress whose one-woman shows have toured worldwide and as a poet whose published volumes are passionate and sensuous in their acquiescence to the plentiful paradox that abounds in the life of any liberated woman. The multi-talented artist has now created a memoir that proves her again inimitably heroic and undaunted in her depiction of herself, a strong woman and a warrior who overcame the enmity of oppression.

This chilling and vibrant chronicle reads like a haunting gothic novel. We learn of her strict father on the island, the general who had commanded men and come home “scarred in body and soul…” We also learn of her mother, Eleni, who changed her daughter’s name from Angeliki (after her husband’s mother, an illiterate hard worker who stayed in the mountains) to Lili, her own favorite doll from childhood.

During Lili’s childhood, “respectable” Greek women never appeared on stage, wrote books, or traveled alone. But, Lili had a restless desire to do all three. Initially, Lili found inspiration in her Italian kindergarten teacher who used to sing for her students and produce their performances. Lili first conceived a plan to escape the island via the piano, which she played early on by sight-reading. The family then uprooted themselves to Athens because of her dream; however, when she didn’t win the coveted scholarship (second place!), she decided to seek fame on the stage.

The child grown to adulthood never saw anything noble in being a woman of the hearth. She wanted to set the world afire, and she did. However, the climb was tortuous and torturing which ironically began with her father’s urging that she attend a lecture by Tasos Revithis, a Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University.

The handsome Greek god became her nemesis. After one abortion paid for by an insistent Tasos, Lili refused to put herself through that anguish again. She lied to her family when she said she would be journeying to America as Tasos’ wife. Instead, she remained isolated in Munich for two years after giving birth to their first son, Philip.

When Tasos returned from his American trip, he concocted a wild scheme regarding how they’d eventually marry so that Lili could become a citizen but only after he married someone else. He explained that first he had to wed a wealthy Swiss-American woman who was infatuated with him. Taso casually said that in America, he’d divorce the woman and then send for Lili.

This eventually happened but in Emporia, Kansas, the heart of the Midwest, Lili felt the prairie as imprisoning as the island she’d left. Tasos’ verbal abuse expanded into physical cruelty as he wrongly and vehemently mistreated her in his zealous jealousy. He accused her of being unfaithful to him in Germany.

He’d already insulted her numerous times, even when Lili gave him a gift of her poems as a token of her devotion. “First a god dam actress, and now a writer! ... Decent women don’t write books,” he said.

When their second son Kimon was born and they relocated to Michigan, Lili was peremptorily married, but at what cost to a woman who’d been bruised and browbeaten. Tasos didn’t even believe Lili that Kimon was his son. Philip looked more like Tasos than Kimon. No matter the disdain and unkindness, Lili’s spirit remained amazingly resilient.

By the time they moved to New Haven, Connecticut, Tasos, amazingly enough, already had divorce papers ready to be enacted. Simultaneously, Lili needed money to return to Greece to visit her ailing parents and her brother Thomas. Nobody had yet seen her two sons. Tasos came up with a blackmail scheme regarding his own wife! He said he would let her go to Greece only if she agreed to a divorce.

When he later returned to Greece, also alone, he came with the divorce papers made final and the story that he’d married somebody else. However, his incredible plan was to retain Lili as his mistress, the “whore” he believed she was.

“Then I bolted out the door and into the night. I wanted to be swallowed by it. I wanted people to say, She was eaten by darkness. The black night devoured her.

Lili in her youth had insisted that she’d never be like her mother or friends, “wizened dolls in…miniature caskets,” because there was no escape from “the cocoon of motherhood.” She believed it would be better to be nothing like them, certainly not one of them, “their sister.” She thought it would be better to be “a sister of darkness.”

Ironically, her first physical escape from the island due to romance or youthful love led Lili exactly into that prophetic role as Tasos’ wife, a virtual non-entity, and a receptacle for his pleasure.

Short and pungent scenes within each section of the book – The Island; The City; Birth; America – seem like parts of an unbelievable Greek tragedy. When Lili takes on yet another job to survive in the college library, we learn how Yale University was no better than other conglomerates in less prestigious cities that still pay migrant pickers similar meager wages.

“Coping…limping from room to room. Cooking dinner, folding clothes. Teaching scales. Coping. The condition of being exactly where you are and what you are, and absolutely the reverse of who you are.”

To cope, Lili struggled always to find a way out of the darkness both in Greece and in America, surrounded by her family or isolated by an abusive husband with whom she had a bizarre love-hate relationship. She loved him because he was handsome, educated, and free. She believed she’d be able to become the actress and writer she envisioned in her youth. But Tasos was at heart typically “macho” in the worst sense, since he believed women were meant to be wife and mother only.

Thus, is it any wonder that the reader roots for Lili’s escape from such a stereotypical relationship? The book’s epilogue examines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. “Eurydice is the sister of darkness…Orpheus tells her that she is a prisoner, and in need of rescue…” Too often, women are taught the prince must rescue them for their lives to have purpose.

Readers know that Orpheus is told not to look back as he leads Eurydice out of the darkness; he does, and Eurydice vanishes. The myth never says what happened to her. “It is time for us to write our own endings for Eurydice. That is what this book has tried to do.”

Lili Bita’s Sister of Darkness is an illuminating portrait of an immigrant who sought to escape the confines of her culture. In between the island and her freedom, she became a wife and the mother of two sons despite the fact that she didn’t experience a genuine passion that would naturally allow her to grow and develop into her own creative person.

However, she became stronger for all her struggles and finally attained true freedom and a major long-lasting love as the creative partner of scholar and artist, Robert Zaller. Lili Bita has published more than a dozen volumes of fiction and verse. She’s performed classical and modern theater on three continents. She’s held residencies and offered master classes at leading American universities. Her work has been translated into several languages and widely anthologized.

Now, we have this long-awaited memoir, which is almost cinematic in its graphic and compelling depictions. You cannot put it down as you cheer for her to triumph against all adversity – the child becomes a woman who longs to be recognized and loved for her self and her achievements.

What Lili Bita has shared in her book helps all women (and probably many men!) who are still struggling with their conflicts while abused by oppressors in all countries. Lili Bita states: “I offer the book Sister of Darkness to all women and immigrants who have struggled toward the light.” This is a major literary testament, an astonishing accomplishment to be embraced by all who truly cherish freedom! Visit her web site for more info at