Queen’s alumnus Steven Heighton discusses ‘Reaching Mithymna’

Canadian author talks new memoir on aiding Syrian refugees

Canadian author volunteered on Lesvos for a month in Fall 2015.
Credit: 
Supplied by Steven Heighton

In the fall of 2015, Steven Heighton was midway through writing a fictional novel about Mediterranean refugees when the impulse struck him to take to Greece and actually do something about the crisis. 

Heighton is an award-winning poet, author, and now, memoirist. He attended Queen’s University from 1981-86, taking a Bachelor of Arts and Masters in English Language and Literature. His most recent work, Reaching Mithymna, is a chronicle of the 30 days he spent on the Greek island of Lesvos, assisting Syrian war refugees hoping to reach northern Europe. 
 
In an interview with The Journal, Heighton discussed the experience that led to the memoir. 
 
“I was between drafts of a novel called The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep,” he said. “The novel concerns fictional Mediterranean refugees but, in light of what was happening on the ground in Greece, my fictional project seemed a little paltry and frivolous to me, and I really felt like I wanted to do something concrete.”
 
So, in a burst of passion, Heighton packed up and left for Lesvos to become an active player in a crisis he’d been passively contemplating. 
 
“I realized it had been a long time since I acted directly in a political sense,” he said. “I’d certainly written a lot about political issues I felt passionate about but I hadn’t engaged directly and concretely, and I decided basically in the spur of the moment I would do it.”
 
Since help was—and still is—so urgently needed, Heighton was instantly accepted into the fold. 
 
“The refugee influx on the island had basically destroyed tourism and it was off-season anyway so it was easy to get there quickly. I did a little online research and discovered that they desperately needed volunteers and you could just arrive without having any affiliation [...] and start pitching in.” 
 
According to Heighton, that’s exactly what happened. 
 
“I ended up helping the first day I arrived when I was still jetlagged,” he said, describing his stressful first experience in which he was tasked with guiding refugees from the coast where they landed to a bus rendezvous.
 
“When you’re jetlagged there’s a sense of surreality about everything [...] I was leading this group of cold, hungry, scared people farther and farther into the darkness on the far side of the town, and I was trying to follow instructions, trying to remember the instructions, and thinking, I’m just guiding them into the middle of nowhere[...] so it was with increasing panic that I was leading them ever farther but I had to pretend I was confident.” 
 
Despite his fears, Heighton led them safely to the bus. But he says that level of chaos was characteristic of the volunteer experience as they were understaffed and underqualified to cope with the colossal humanitarian crisis arriving on their shores every day. 
 
“There were a lot of terrifying moments like that where I had this responsibility and was given a task for which I was woefully unqualified.” 
 
Heighton compared the experience to being a volunteer in a warzone, with the key difference being that the volunteers on Lesvos weren’t putting their lives on the line. 
 
“One of the things I feel a little bad about is I exercised the privilege of a volunteer in being able to walk away when I was ready to walk away,” Heighton said. 
 
Three years after he headed home, the memoir began to take shape in his mind. 
 
“I didn’t realize I’d end up writing this memoir...I thought, you know, I’m a writer, I’ll probably end up writing a short story or two and maybe an article about whatever I see there.” 
 
Along with the memoir, Heighton ended up writing a poem called “Christmas Work Detail, Samos,” a haunting depiction of what happens when two refugees who drowned at sea wash up onshore. 
 
“The poem is actually in the memoir,” he said. “There’s a kind of lead-in where I explain how I heard the story of someone helping to bury refugees, and then I wrote the poem—so I wrote the poem in first person but it’s actually describing another volunteer’s experience.”
 
Heighton never expected he’d fill a whole book with his 30 days on Lesvos, but he had a pressing political reason for doing so. 
 
“I looked over my notes [...]and I saw there was material there that I should explore. 
 
Maybe the main factor in my writing the book is that three years after I went to Lesvos, the crisis was still going on, and in fact it was a lot worse on the island because the refugees were no longer moving forward through the island to the mainland and then into Europe. Instead, they were trapped on the island mainly in a huge camp called Moria, which just burned to the ground three weeks ago.” 
 
While Heighton was certain he’d end up writing something about his time as a volunteer, the decision to make it a memoir—a first for him—was something he carefully considered.  
 
“I did consider writing the whole thing as fiction [...] that would give me freedom to change what happened and also to extrapolate and speculate. Instead, I decided to stick as closely as I could to what I actually experienced there, and I thought that would make for a more powerful book.”
 
Reaching Mithymna is a finalist for the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, which will be announced on Nov. 18. 
 
As a writer, Heighton considered it very important to immortalize his experience so that others may read it and know the extent of what’s going on as if they’d been there themselves. 
 
“I was pleased to rediscover some stories that I’d actually forgotten. In the act of writing a story based on the notes I had, other stories—stories that came between the stories I remembered—re-emerged [...] By writing, you can actually bring things back to memory.” 
 

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