“My Country is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou (2021 Ignyte Awards)

“My Country is a Ghost” can be read online at Uncanny Magazine.

Eugenia Triantafyllou’s story takes place in a world where people are typically accompanied by the ghosts of departed loved ones, a phenomenon that is accepted as entirely natural. There are, however, boundaries that prevent ghosts from travelling out of the country where they died. Whether these boundaries are spiritual or merely bureaucratic is unclear, but either way, protagonist Niovi runs into trouble when trying to cross the border with her mother’s spirit:

When Niovi tried to smuggle her mother’s ghost into the new country, she found herself being passed from one security officer to another, detailing her mother’s place and date of death over and over again.
“Are you carrying a ghost with you, ma’am?” asked the woman in the security vest. Her nametag read Stella. Her lips were pressed in a tight line as she pointed at the ghost during the screening, tucked inside a necklace. She took away Niovi’s necklace and left only her phone.
“If she didn’t die here, I am afraid she cannot follow you,” the woman said. Her voice was even, a sign she had done this many times before. Niovi resented the woman at that moment. She still had a ghost waiting for her to come home, comforting her when she felt sad, giving advice when needed. But she was still taking Niovi’s ghost away.

Faced with the prospect of going back to her homeland to continue her dreary existence on unemployment benefits, and separating from her mother’s ghost so that she can emigrate, Niovi reluctantly chooses the latter. She successfully arrives in her new homeland but immediately finds herself a misfit: she is one of the few citizens not to be accompanied by a single ghost, “an oddity among people cloaked in spirits that followed their every step.”

The usage of ghosts as a metaphor for memory is nothing new, but in most stories a ghost and the place in which it is rooted will be distinct. In Triantafyllou’s story, location is transferred to the ghost’s symbolic baggage. We never see Niovi’s homeland of Greece, but we see clearly what it means to her: the ghost of her mother encapsulates her childhood memories, her heritage and culture, her family ties – all that she has left behind to start her new life.

The immigrant experience is central to “My Country is a Ghost”, and is depicted partly through the symbolism of ghosts and partly through more direct means. Niovi gets a job at a Greek restaurant, becoming one of the few actual Greeks in the staff. She befriends Remi, a third-generation Greek immigrant whose grandparents died in the new country; Niovi feels envy at how, unlike her, he has ghosts as companions. The only ghosts that Niovi has been able to keep hold of are those In her memories, where her parents are accompanied by the ghosts of their own dearly departed – the weight of generations that she has been forced to throw off. Intriguingly, we are never told exactly what country Niovi’ has emigrated to: her new home is defined by what it lacks for her rather than what it offers her.

Throughout the story, Triantafyllou shows an inventive touch in handling her ghosts, including background moments that transform this haunted landscape from a bundle of symbols to a fantasy world with a life of its own. People who lack ghosts are seen “huddled together in small groups, shielding themselves against the unwelcome stares or, perhaps, against their own loss.” Contrasting with them are the ghosts that lack people, arising from the collective memory of the populace rather than any particular individual – the old general who haunts his own statue; the street musician who strums melancholy tunes on her ghostly guitar. We are also told that ghosts vary from country to country:

Ghosts were made of stories. It was the way they chose to tell them that was different. In this country ghosts seemed more like shadows to her. They were calm, less opinionated. Their stories were made of stares and slight nods, sometimes a pat on the back.
In Greece the ghosts were louder, their disapproval mattered, their whispers were sought out and their stories carried memories her people would not have remembered otherwise.

Uniting the motif of ghosts and the theme of Niovi’s cultural separation is the Saturday of Souls, an Eastern Orthodox custom in which food is laid out for the deceased. The entire narrative of “My Country is a Ghost” is structured around the run-up to this event, so that when the Saturday of Souls finally takes palace, the story ties together its emotional and thematic strands: Niovi’s realisation of exactly what role the memory of her mother should play in her life; the cementing of her relationship with Remi; and the climax to her attempts to adjust to her new country. All of this brings Triantafyllou’s tale to a conclusion that satisfies in terms of both feeling and structure.

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