Cabbagetowner’s ‘hairy Greek story’ inspired by hairdresser

Carolyn Taylor-Watts—

My book Helena: An Odyssey is an historical saga about descendants of ancient Greeks knocked about by a cruel Fate as they struggle to reclaim a Helena-cover-14-10-14-Front-Page-Onlysupposedly glorious past, it is also very much a story about hair.  I chose a hairdresser as a heroine because Helena is supposed to be striving to redeem the family’s honour and a hairdresser protagonist is unusual, maybe unique.

But think about this: Hair, especially long hair, is related throughout history to the Divine; imbued with the power and potency of the gods. Think of Hades, Apollo, Samson and Delilah. All the Sun Gods from India to Ireland.

Think about women’s hair: some think of it as glorious, others, shameful. Because it is considered a major item in a woman’s seductive armory, all the world’s major religions insist it must be covered. As well, more than any decoration, make-up or beautiful dress, what we believe about hair, what we do with it, is the most easily identifiable marker of how we perceive ourselves, even whether we care much about ourselves.

It is the quickest way to announce or alter our identity. Mood, and even character, can be interpreted from it. Such is the power of hair.

I left my native New Zealand several decades ago to live in the Distillery District and Cabbagetown and was asked why I chose to set my historical novel in an era and in countries I don’t know. Isn’t an author supposed to write about what she knows?

I believe there is a whole world of other things to learn. You can get to know anything you want. Something happened the day I walked into The Hair Lift salon on Parliament Street. Kiki Kostakyriakos, the salon’s flamboyant owner, sang while she cut clients’ hair, danced to Greek music as she walked past the washbasins.

There is more to this place than hair, I thought, and flopped into her chair. Over the years, having learned a little about the history of her forebears, I begged her to tell me the rest, about what precipitated their flight from Turkey, to Greece, to Toronto.

Author Carolyn Taylor-Watts launches her novel in the hair salon that inspired her.

Carolyn Taylor-Watts launches her novel in the hair salon that inspired her.

Patiently Kiki recounted the fragments she knew and over the years I built fictional characters, descendants of ancient Greeks who would suffer during Greco-Turkish wars. Who would be forced out of Turkey into a poor part of Greece after the burning of glittering Smyrna. Fate would toss them from from poverty, to riches, back to poverty.

A great story already, I thought, but I wanted more, and so patriarch Yiannis was born. Obsessed with reclaiming old wealth and honour, he burdened his descendants with restoring it.

Helena: An Odyssey has been endorsed by British, Turkish and local Toronto authors as:

  • “A big, colourful and emotional roller coaster – a true odyssey – and one with an epic historical backdrop.”
  • “A moving family saga …the intimacy of the story telling a poignant counterpoint to the turbulence of historical events that frame this compelling novel.”
  • “A beautifully written epic story that .will grab you from the first page. Finely drawn characters and a large, sweeping storyline will pull you into a touching story that has emotional heft and substance.”