Bearing witness: Steven Heighton

A raft filled with refugees is met by volunteers at Lesvos

Neal McQueen Photography

He was on Efthalou beach with Hellenic Red Cross volunteers when several boats filled with refugees began to emerge from the darkness. Screams pierced the night air – an “uncanny cry,” he says – one that encapsulated many emotions all at once: fear, relief, excitement, joy.

“Then I realized the volunteers on the shore, all around me, were screaming, too,” Heighton says. “It’s like they were reaching out with their voices, as if they were afraid the rescue wasn’t going to work, this sense of ‘We have to pull them in.’ The voices were like lifelines linking up.”

It was in that moment, Heighton says, that he was overcome and his eyes filled, an intensity of emotion welling up, not unlike how one might feel while witnessing a birth. “It was a moment of real connection, between the volunteers and doctors on the shore, and the refugees who were coming in, submerged up to their waists in very cold water.”

A raft filled with refugees is met by volunteers at Lesvos. Photo: Neal McQueen Photography

It was also the beginning, for Heighton, of a month in his mother’s homeland. He was drawn there by a yearning to help during a crucial time, when thousands of refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan and Iraq, were arriving from Turkey almost every day, fleeing war, poverty, hardship. The situation was at a boiling point in 2015, with the EU unable to reach consensus on how to handle the influx of asylum seekers.

Arriving in late fall, Heighton threw himself – and was thrown – into situations he was professionally unqualified for, as a fiction writer and poet, but that he wholly wanted to experience, and had a strong compulsion to experience.

“[T]wenty-five years of triaging words and ideas,rarely seeing the effort’s human effect, have roused a hunger for embodiment, belonging, rooted usefulness,” the award-winning author writes in his acclaimed book, Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos, released this fall and shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction.

This latest book, a memoir, is a moving and gripping first-hand account of Heighton’s time on Lesvos, woven together with stories of his Greek ancestry and meditations on loss and belonging, the writing life, and waking to the world’s most pressing problems. He wanted to write it, not only to process what he’d been through in a deeper way, but to give readers what traditional journalistic reporting often can’t: the feeling of lived experience.

“If I’m going to affect people, it has to be directly through the emotions, by using the tools I have as a poet and fiction writer…I wanted to write through the senses so you can smell and hear and taste what I experienced,” says Heighton, speaking on a late September afternoon in the backyard of his Kingston apartment. “I think this approach creates more empathy and connection, and is more likely to impel people to action.”

Heighton’s own decision to act was spontaneous, made seemingly overnight, after a conversation with his grown daughter about - his desire to go and do something concrete to help. “Three nights ago on the phone with my daughter – nineteen and now living away from home – I’d mentioned my impulse and then thought: Let’s see you act for a change, not just pipe-dream and make principled noises; not just write about Mediterranean refugees in a novel, as I was then doing,” he writes in Reaching Mithymna, referencing his novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, published in 2017.

Heighton readily admits, as noted in the book but in conversation as well, that going out in the world to act is not his first inclination. He prefers a simple, hermitic life, holed up with his poems and his prose – offering political but not polemical stands in his books, and leaving the activism to others.

In his backyard, under the leafy greens, the surrounding trees on the cusp of shifting to crisper fall colours, we talk about this balance – the living and the writing, the action and the inaction, the reflection – and the trajectory of his writing life, from the early days at Queen’s to the present, with three decades of writing, dozens of publications, and many awards behind him, including the 2016 Governor General’s Award for Poetry for The Waking Comes Late.

In jeans, a beige V-neck sweater, and his trademark black leather biker jacket and brown fedora, Heighton shifts in his chair as he listens and talks. Shifting, perhaps, because of the chill in the air (he says he gets cold very quickly), or maybe the movement is also his body’s way of processing his thoughts, what he wants to say, the many layers in his thinking. He easily meanders in conversation, diving into the minutiae of etymology and translation, Jungian scholarship and the concept of disillusionment, as well as activism and Black Lives Matter, the pandemic, and songwriting, a practice he started while at Queen’s and recently returned to.

Obsessive when it comes to his writing, Heighton says that while immersed in a draft of a book, almost nothing will stop him from getting to the end. This makes him good at completing projects he’s started, but “No, I don’t think I balance work and life well at all,” he says, adding that, at points in his life, he likely should have been more attentive to the emotional lives of those around him.

So, his impulsive decision to fly to Greece and volunteer for a month was an important moment – an “aspiration to be more awake – aware, intentional, passionate, engaged …” The theme of waking, like the moment on the beach, courses through his memoir’s bass line. He was between drafts of The Nightingale novel, and he knew that if there was any moment for him to go, to allow himself to go, this was it.

In a stirring moment in Reaching Mithymna, while relating the circumstances around his mother’s death in 2001, soon after the World Trade Center attacks, he writes: “Sooner or later something is going to jar you out of your slumber, if only for an hour. The question is, what are you going to do when it happens?

On Lesvos, in the town of Mithymna, Heighton worked with a small organization that supported (and continues to support) refugees as they landed on the island and stayed, some indefinitely, in one of two camps, the smaller OXY camp and the hugely overpopulated Moria (now non-existent after a large fire destroyed it this past September, displacing thousands).

In Reaching Mithymna, he describes in detail his anxiety and bewilderment upon arrival, landing on Lesvos and right away working with other volunteers on the beaches and in the OXY camp, feeling very much the rookie. (In reality, it was “rookies leading rookies,” Heighton notes, with many volunteers having only been there a few days themselves and equally baffled but somewhat acclimatized as they leapt into the necessary duties.)

On his first night, Heighton becomes the de facto customs officer, receiving refugees’ passports and registering them on the island. Later that same night, he is asked to lead refugees in complete darkness from Efthalou beach to the other side of Mithymna, about two and a half kilometres away, where a bus waits to take them to Moria. The journey, which he has not yet made himself, let alone with dozens of refugees relying on him, elevates Heighton’s angst, and he writes, honestly, probing his own weaknesses and his ability to be of use on Lesvos:

“When you’re trying to follow rough directions, the anxiety that you might have missed a turn or overshot your goal slows time to a quantum crawl. A ten-minute walk, especially in the dark, can seem like an hour as you scan both sides of the road with fading confidence. … Idiot, why didn’t you just listen carefully for once in your life?”

And then:

“Finally – just as I start talking to myself, ‘Right, of course, you would screw up already, you would lead sixty freezing survivors into the middle of nowhere’ – in the darkness ahead a large object erupts into life with a terrifying roar. The bus’s windows and acetylene-white, red and yellow headlights, sidelights, rooflights all ignite like a festooned Christmas pavilion, or the mothership ready to lift off. Cries of relief and joy surge up behind me and I exhale, ‘Thank God.’”

In this way, by placing himself fully in the story, Heighton brings to light many of the difficulties he and other volunteers faced on Lesvos, and many issues surrounding humanitarian work in general. Navigating individual egos – his own and others’ – certainly plays into the narrative, but Heighton also skilfully manoeuvres around the issue of “what is helping, what is hurting” when it comes to humanitarian work and the divide between non-governmental organizations and smaller outfits, like the group he worked with.

He also deftly weaves in the camaraderie among the volunteers, many becoming friends, and his interactions with Greek locals, including perspectives on the struggles they faced, with refugees pouring in at a time when Greece itself was in economic turmoil, and Lesvos reeling from the loss of tourism dollars.

At the heart of the story, though, is that yearning for connection, the link to the refugees and their stories, their strength and resilience as they persevered through terrifying events and endless uncertainty on their way, hopefully, to a better life.

In the book, while playing soccer with refugee children, Heighton is struck by the fact that the children “have just crossed the border straits on a dinghy steered by a refugee who might never have seen the sea before. The kids’ resiliency may have more to do with ignorance than youth; they have no idea what they’ve just survived …”

Heighton spends a couple of hours playing with the children, the kids sending goal upon goal into his net, before the Syrian refugees begin boarding a bus (to begin a journey that will hopefully take them to a new home in northern Europe), and the children have to leave. One of the stars of the game, a ten-year-old boy, watches Heighton from the bus window, and then makes his way to the door to offer Heighton a heart-shaped balloon just given to him by volunteers.

“Again imitating the Muslims who’ve thanked me for one thing or another, I put my left hand over my heart (should it be my right?) and accept the gift. ‘Shukhran,’ I say. He turns and runs back to the juddering bus, his mother in the doorway beckoning as she happily scolds him. Come, my love, hurry!

Heighton grew up in Etobicoke, Ontario, and says he was a “proto-intellectual,” always more interested in pursuits of the mind (like etymology) than the stock activities of the popular crowd. But he grew tired of being excluded, picked on, and he began to produce a persona that was less true to himself in order to fit in.

When I grew up, boys just basically acted stupid, because that was cool, you had to act like a jock,” Heighton says. “I started faking it, and if you fake it really well, that fakery starts finding its way into your personal self, your character, not just your persona.”

In Reaching Mithymna, he reflects on this duality within him. Responding to another volunteer, Alice, who comments that he so easily connects with others, “talking and laughing with them constantly,” Heighton says:

“‘That’s just careful image management,’… Alice operates on a vulnerably earnest level, that of the unselfconscious keener, what I am myself at heart. The persona she has observed – the sanguine sociability, facetious self-mockery, steady eye contact – has taken years to cultivate and will never feel fully natural. How I respect the authenticity of the unprotected nerd, a being I lacked the courage to remain.”

At Queen’s, while studying English, Heighton connected with a solid group of politically engaged, artistic students, including fellow author Russell Smith, and found his footing amidst the issues of the day. (He helped initiate student efforts to demand Queen’s divestment from apartheid-era South Africa.)

Heighton wrote some of his first book of poetry, Stalin’s Carnival, while sitting in Professor Leslie Monkman’s graduate seminars – “his teaching got me so interested in writing poems,” he says – and he also began writing songs, and performed in the Quiet Pub (now the Queen’s Pub) in the John Deutsch University Centre with Mary Huggard, Artsci’85, Ed’86, and Lynne Wilson, Artsci’85. Heighton has now come full circle, writing songs again and currently recording an album with the help of musician and producer Hugh Christopher Brown of Wolfe Island Records.

That early illusion of himself, essentially fabricated in order to survive, did affect his writing, he says, up until a certain point. “It’s complicated, though, because I think I always wrote the books and poems I needed to write. Still, I think there was something a bit mannered about the things I wrote up until the age of 40. On some level, I always had one eye on the world and what it expected from me and that slightly distorted and disfigured what I wrote,” Heighton says.

“With Afterlands (2005) – which is this long and counterintuitively shaped novel – I was finally doing what I really wanted to do. And my poetry got better – I got back to etymologies, for one thing – and as a poet, that’s essential, you have to go back to the roots of words.”

In another (slim) book he has released this fall, The Virtues of Disillusionment, written as a lecture for his (digital) writer-in-residence position at Athabasca University, Heighton examines the benefits of disillusionment, how it helps shape you into your true self. He sets out to prove that disillusionment is actually a positive thing – with the double-negative in the word itself (the dis, plus the idea that illusion is generally construed as a negative) creating a positive, applying a mathematical analogy to the construction of language.

Probing his own writing life, as well as the work of other artists, writers, and thinkers – including Sylvia Plath, S.N. Goenka, Leonard Cohen, Tolstoy, and Thich Nhat Hanh – Heighton lays the path for a better, more luminous life, one that is not dictated by the taut reins of ego:

“It’s Ego, ever-uncertain, that makes you stick with what you know and repeat the same social and psychic strategies, useful or not. It’s Ego that compels you to seek approval … Ego wants its fruit now – and wants credit for planting the tree. While the nightmind scribbles odes to the earth and its cycles, Ego snaps a selfie and asks, Does this make me look old?”

This all leads, in conversation, to what defines success – or if that even exists – for Heighton, now 59, plenty of external “successes” behind him. In response, he talks about Jungian scholar James Hollis’s thoughts on “the end of ambition,” how the first half of life is often spent seeking success and being ambitious, strengthening your ego enough so that later you can face the fact that the notion of pursuable happiness is an illusion. “If you can’t face that, it can destroy you, but once you realize that it’s all an illusion, that’s when you can start living just for the work … living for the things that really give you joy.

The words ‘career’ and ‘success’ start to ring hollow in the second half of life if you’ve embraced disillusionment. You realize that what you used to think of as success is not going to bring you happiness ... Happiness is something that simply arises when you’re not seeking it, a by-product of a life lived right.”

Shortly after arriving on Lesvos, Heighton stumbled upon a piece of history he had learned at one time or another, but had since forgotten. In a restaurant in Skala Sykamineas, where a long-dead mulberry tree shoots through the floor and out an opening in the roof, Heighton reads a plaque honouring author Stratis Myrivilis, who wrote his best-known novel at a table under the tree after serving in the Greek army’s campaign in Turkey in 1922.

“The plaque doesn’t mention that after the Greek defeat, countless boatloads of Asian Greek civilians had to flee with him and the army across the straits to Lesvos – the very vector that current refugees are following almost a century later. … only now does it strike me that along with those refugees must have come relations of my own: some with the name Afaganis, ‘from Afghanistan,’ and some bearing my grandmother’s surname, Smyrlis, ‘of Smyrna,’ a city across the straits and now called Izmir – the chief staging point for the current wave of human traffickers and asylum seekers.”

Seeing the plaque was a shock to Heighton, a sudden realization, in part, of what led him to Lesvos. Sometimes, it is the things you don’t know that you know – but which the subconscious knows – that take hold and lead you, he says.

Like the voices on the beach, lifelines linking up, echoes of his own past, his own ancestors, pulled him halfway across the world – to be useful and to bear witness to a crisis of profound proportions.

Editor's note: Steven Heighton died on April 19, 2022, at the age of 60.

Steven Heighton. Photo: Mark Raynes Roberts

Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos is published in Canada by Biblioasis.

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