Saturday, September 22, 2012

Embracing the Humanities and the Arts: A Cultural Renaissance in Greek America?

Essay for Greek Ethos, a Community Publication in Columbus, Ohio
Yiorgos Anagnostou (Issue 15, Fall 2012)


How do we celebrate a community’s anniversary? Anniversaries are certainly occasions for reflection, inviting thinking about the past through the lens of the present. How has a community changed? Anniversaries call us to consider the possibilities imagined in the past and the achievements realized in the present.

To approach Greek America from this angle will illuminate constancy and change: The longevity but also adaptability of its institutions; the retention of a hyphenated identity more than a century since the era of mass Greek immigration; the struggle to slow the tide of language loss; the interest to understand how the next generation connects with their Greek and American affiliations; the effort to preserve the past.

Still, anniversaries call for an alternative, even if neglected, line of inquiry: To chart new developments, and ponder on their significance. They could serve as milestones, in other words, to contemplate future directions for a community.

A single, yet powerful, development makes this kind of exploration worthwhile. A considerable sector of the Greek-American “next generation” (second, third, and beyond) embraces the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences, to produce fascinating accounts about identity and history. If the immigrant generation, understandably, adopted by and large a pragmatic view on education as a means for mobility, the offspring, many entrenched in the middle class, turn to creative pursuits. It is of interest to chart this landscape and imagine its future potential as a way of celebrating this anniversary.

Greek American studies presents itself as a promising point of departure for this discussion. The increasing output of scholarly work on Greek America has prompted the initiative to compile this corpus and make it available to the public. The result is a web resource, The Greek American Studies Resource Portal. If you are interested in learning about the experience of Greek-American youth visiting or settling in Greece, Greek immigrant women, or the history of Greek Orthodox liturgical music in the U.S., the Portal helps you locate informed analysis about all aspects of the Greek-American experience. Established under the umbrella of Modern Greek Studies Association, it is available at http://mgsa.org/Resources/port.html.

The Portal does not merely feature scholarly work. It includes all kinds of Greek-American writings and performances produced outside the academy. It makes a point to list the latest work by comedians, novelists, amateur historians, filmmakers, bloggers, artists, documentary makers, and autobiographers, among others. For those who appreciate Greek America’s letters, enjoy its popular culture, or wish to start exploring this terrain, the Portal is an ideal resource for navigation. The site is updated twice annually.

I wish to draw attention to a particular development that stands out in the midst of this vibrant scene. In what could be seen as a promising literary trajectory, a new generation of authors writes about Greek America or Greece, earning great acclaim both in the United States and Greece. An early example of this trend is George Pelecanos’ highly praised crime fiction. Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Tryfon Tolides won the prestigious 1998 Yale Younger Poets prize. Most recently, Natalie Bakopoulos’s The Green Shore enjoys critical attention in both sides of the Atlantic. A new anthology of Greek-American poetry is now available (http://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/7516863), and a young Greek Californian is about to launch the Voices of Hellenism Project, a web literary venue (www.voicesofhellenism.org/index.html). Universities now hold readings of Greek-American Poetry.

We are witnessing an explosion of literary and scholarly interest in Greek America. Is this a lasting phenomenon, a cultural renaissance of sorts with some enduring power? Or is it merely the climax of fleeting fireworks to only dissipate once they dazzle us? History teaches against predictions. Who would have expected during the era of 100% Americanism, in the 1920s, that ethnic festivals would be the mainstay of American society in the 1990s and beyond? The longevity of cultural and artistic achievements depends not only on the energy and commitment of the individuals who make them happen but on a variety of factors, including supporting audiences and institutions. The future does not just happen, we have a saying in steering the direction of its happening.

It is the fragility of this process that makes the following question urgent: What is the place of Greek-American arts and letters in our lives? There is no way to tell without discussing these issues with Greek Americans themselves; without eliciting their point of view. But one thing is for certain. The visibility of arts and the letters leaves its stamp in national culture, adding yet another layer in the ways we imagine our future as Greek Americans.

The arts and scholarship are arduous endeavors, laborious pursuits that require perseverance and long-term commitment. In supporting them a reader extends one of the most precious gifts that the community of artists and scholars longs for: An audience that participates in the unfolding conversation of what it means to be a Greek American in the twentieth first century. 


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