Manifesting the Stories of Ourfa

By Melissa Hekkers

The last time I met Victoria in Cyprus was some years back when she was materialising an artistic intervention in an abandoned workshop in the old town of Nicosia, in which she revealed the pages of the diary she had written as a teenager as the 1974 war began to manifest itself in her realms.

Since then, I’ve followed her steps as a multifaceted artist. Her delicacy with words, her poignant attention to detail, her visual aesthetics, her insistent drive to record the past and almost innate aptitude of transcending it into the present.

This time around, we met to talk about her new book, her first published work entitled “The Seamstress of Ourfa” that was launched in Nicosia last week and in which she records the turbulent life of her own family. Brought up in Cyprus and of Armenian descent, Victoria’s mother’s side of the family moved to Cyprus in 1936 after escaping the Armenian genocide in Turkey. Having found temporary shelter in Syria’s Aleppo, the family continued their journey in search of a new homeland, which they eventually found in Cyprus.

“I grew up with all these stories… my grandmother was always telling me stories; I can’t even remember the first day that I heard any of these stories, it was part of everyday life,” says Victoria as she begins to reveal the notions behind the first book of a trilogy.

“She would sometimes be distressed and say things like ‘that day they came and I saw rivers of blood and heads on sticks… She would tell us things like that and so we never really questioned that there was this huge family story,” she adds as she affirms that the book is ultimately based on her grandmother’s stories, intertwined with history and realities of the strife of the Armenian community.

“I started transcribing my grandmother’s stories in 1989… I took the stories and started turning them into actual stories rather than mere facts… I did a lot of research and all I could find about Ourfa (her family’s home town in Armenia) was a description and a book,” reveals Victoria.

This is how Victoria began to visualise Ourfa through her grandmother’s stories and which in turn have materialised into a book which explores an array of subject matters.

“It’s a book about who your family is; all characters muse about this in the book,” admits Victoria. Yet there is also a heavy connotation about what home represents to each of us.

“What is home?” reiterates Victoria. “For people who are pushed in the diaspora, this is a very confusing question. There is an element of this metaphysical desire to know where you belong. And it’s in all of us,” adds Victoria. “Where is home is a theme as well as who your family is. Is it who you’ve left behind or who you’re going forward with?”

“As human beings everything we do is not original but it’s unique; that’s another theme in the book that’s explored through different characters doing the same thing,” says Victoria.

Delving into the intricacies of a community which has been on the move for generations, I prod into how Victoria dealt with the responsibility of representing her peoples through fiction.

“I do take a lot of responsibility because, for one, I’ve read a lot of stories about the Armenian genocide as part of my research and this is the first book that I’ve read and that I also wrote, that’s not about a family that was kicked out and survived the genocide; these are very important books because they detail the atrocities… But this is a book about the people who continued to live there and stayed there (Armenia)… There are still Armenians that have stayed there since the 1920s and more and more of them are coming out into the open. Some of them took on Muslim names, some of them married into Turkish families, some of them just went underground, and other Armenians just continued to live there without any problem. You think about how they continued to live there when everyone else was being kicked out. They’ve watched one and half million people walk past them to their death, and they didn’t kill them. Why?” reflects Victoria.

“I’m interested in this. I want to be a fly on the wall of what it was like to live there after everyone was kicked out. The main genocide was 1915 and there were systematic deportations at the time. Some people that were deported came back and I address all of these people. People that stayed or came back to find their homes,” she affirms.

‘The Seamstress of Ourfa’ is available from the Mouflon, Soloneion, MAM bookshops in Nicosia, Academic and General in Larnaca. It is also available online on amazon and it’s live on kindle. It is also available online from the Moufflon Books and Armida Books platform

About the author
Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss is half Armenian, half English, brought up in Nicosia on the island of Cyprus. She moved to London at eighteen and began her career as a dancer at the Raymond Revuebar, She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and spent twenty years as an actress, playing a slew of mad, bad, exotic foreigners on British television and performing in the West End, The Royal Court and European tours amongst others. After getting married she moved to LA, started a family, continued to work in voice-overs and wrote her first book, The Seamstress of Ourfa, the first in a trilogy beginning in the Ottoman Empire in 1895 and following four generations of women until the present day.
“A Flock of Birds” is her first film as writer/director/producer/DP. Based on a chapter from her book it is based on a family story with a fictional twist. Previously she produced, wrote and appeared in “Cyprus Summer 1974” a short documentary based on a diary she wrote during the coup and subsequent war that divided Cyprus, her home. It also details an exhibition staged in summer 2014, in which the diary was enlarged and displayed to the public.
She is currently working on another project, “Rest in Pieces”, a docudrama about death and what it means to be buried in a cemetery in no man’s land.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London