Sunday, April 17, 2022

Μαρτυρία Μετανάστη Αντωνίου Ανωνύμου

“This work is about those forgotten women and men, immigrants, who labor in extraordinary effort, but who toil and eventually die in complete silence and anonymity. They are the voiceless, even as they have fed tens of millions of Americans…” 

Taso Lagos, “Cooking Greek, Becoming American: Forty Years at Seattle’s Continental Restaurant” (2022) 

Διαβάζω τις παραπάνω γραμμές και το αίσθημα αναγνώρισης με συνταράσσει.

Όταν τον Μάρτιο του 2020 το κόβιντ σήμαινε φάσμα θανάτου έθεσα στον εαυτό μου το εξής ερώτημα: τι ήταν αυτό που απόλυτα προέχει να αφήσω πίσω μου ως ύστατη παρακαταθήκη; Δεν υπήρξε η παραμικρή αμφιβολία για την απάντηση, όλη μου η ύπαρξη επέβαλλε να δώσει φωνή στην επταετή μου εμπειρία ως σερβιτόρου στην Αμερική, ενός (εξαντλητικού) επαγγέλματος που εξάσκησα από το 1985 μέχρι το 1992, παράλληλα με τις σπουδές μου, πρώτα στην Μηχανική Περιβάλλοντος και μετέπειτα στην Πολιτισμική Ανθρωπολογία. 

Η πιθανότητα «απόλυτης σιωπής» για αυτήν την πτυχή της μεταναστευτικής μου εμπειρίας που βαθιά με καθόρισε μου ήταν αδιανόητη. 

Το καλοκαίρι του 2020 άρχισα την επεξεργασία ενός τέτοιου αφηγήματος, όχι ακριβώς αυτοβιογραφίας, αλλά κάτι που θα ονομάζαμε auto-fiction. Όμως όχι για πολύ, επείγουσες υποχρεώσεις στο πανεπιστήμιο και αλλού  επέβαλλαν αναβολή. Οι προτεραιότητες είχαν αλλάξει, δεν υπήρχε άλλη επιλογή. Αυτή η εργασία πρέπει να περιμένει, άγνωστο μέχρι πότε. 

Αποφάσισα όμως να μοιραστώ ένα απόσπασμα υπό ανάπτυξη, ο τρόπος μου να συνεισφέρω στην συζήτηση για την «κουλτούρα του Ελληνοαμερικανικού εστιατορίου» που επιτέλους έχει αρχίσει! (καθώς και τις εργατικές καταβολές κάποιων από εμάς που τώρα βρισκόμαστε στο Αμερικανικό πανεπιστήμιο)

Μαρτυρία Μετανάστη Αντωνίου Ανωνύμου 

… Αυτή η έννοια του επιβεβλημένου-εντατικοποιημένου-πειθαρχημένου χρόνου μου επιτρέπει να συναντήσω, επίσης στην λογοτεχνία, κάποιους παλιούς αλλά διαφορετικού τύπου μετανάστες, αυτούς που αντί για απεργία την έκαναν με άλλη «επιχειρη-ματολογία». 

Το Middlesex ακόμη μια φορά φωτίζει τα ίχνη συγγένειας με εκείνους τότε, η λογοτεχνία κάτι σαν ηχώ αναγνώρισης ιστορικού χρονομέτρου: 

«Η σύντομη θητεία του παππού μου στη Βιομηχανία Μηχανημάτων Φορντ σημάδεψε τη μοναδική φορά που οποιοσδήποτε Στεφανίδης δούλεψε στην αυτοκινητοβιομηχανία. Αντί γι αυτοκίνητα, έμελλε να γίνουμε κατασκευαστές πιάτων με χάμπουργκερ και ελληνικές σαλάτες, βιομήχανοι της σπανακόπιτας και των ψημένων σάντουιτς με τυρί, τεχνοκράτες του ρυζόγαλου και της τάρτας με κρέμα μπανάνα. Γραμμή συναρμολόγησης ήταν για μας η ψησταριά». (Ευγενίδης, σ. 139) 

Όταν οι σημερινοί μετανάστες επιχειρηματίες λιτά λιτανεύουν λέξεις όπως γουόρk, harντ γουόρk, αυτήν την μεταβιομηχανική βιομηχανοποίηση του χρόνου αποδίδουν. Δεν είναι τυχαίο που οι σχετικά νεότερες καραβάνες της ξενιτιάς, αυτοί του 1960 και 1970, αυτούς που συναντήσαμε και συναναστραφήκαμε, ήταν άσσοι στην μεταφορά του σχετικού λεξιλογίου. «Κουρδισμένη η μέρα ανάλογα με τις αλλαγές φρουράς, υπακοή και υπομονή», δεν έπαυαν να επαναλαμβάνουν σαν μαγνητοφωνημένο διάταγμα, το δικό τους παράσημο επαγγελματικής ανόδου πειστήριο της αλήθειάς τους. «Οι συνήθειες των παλιών έγιναν και δικές μας, θα γίνουν και δικές σας» έλεγαν––και το αποδίδω πιστά στα ελληνοαγγλικά τους, «το habit τους θα γίνει και δικό σας habit», αποστήθιση μιας επικής μεταναστευτικής γενεαλογίας. 

Αλλαγή φρουράς! Εγώ προσωπικά περί στρατιωτικής ζωής δεν γνωρίζω, ανυπότακτος κηρύχθηκα (η ανωνυμία με επιτρέπει να εξομολογηθώ στην αστυνομία). Αλλά άμεσοι ήταν οι παραλληλισμοί μεταξύ της εμπειρίας τους στο στράτευμα και αυτής στην ξενιτιά. Αυτό από τον λαϊκό ποιητή της παρέας, καταγραμμένο: «Μεραρχία, κλίνατε προς τα δεξιά, έτοιμοι, εμπρός μαρς! Εμπρός για τον Mars, να ξεγλιστρήσουμε του γδάρτη March». Ακόμα και στο τσακίρ κέφι το φάντασμα του παρελθόντος χαριτολογώντας στοιχειώνει το παρόν. Τικ τακ, τίκι τίκι τακ, ο χρόνος ωρολογιακή βόμβα. Ο χρόνος που δημιουργεί την διάβαση προς το μεταναστευτικό όνειρο είναι ο παγερά επαναλαμβανόμενος χρόνος. Ο ρυθμισμένος χρόνος, ο σταματημένος στην κυκλικότητά του σε αέναη κίνηση. Έτοιμοι, εμπρός, αλτ· εμπρός αλτ!». Εμπρός march! 

Άλλοι πάλι, θυμάμαι, το έθεταν με ποδοσφαιρικούς όρους. «Και εκτός έδρας παίζετε, και το γήπεδο δεν γνωρίζετε, και με παίκτη λιγότερο παίζετε», μας νουθετούσαν. «Δουλέψτε, τρέξτε, αγωνιστείτε, βρείτε το σύστημα, να μπορέσετε να ποντάρετε διπλό για την έκπληξη». Δεκατριάρι στην πιάτσα λαϊκής κοινωνιολογίας τα λόγια τους. 

Σε μας απευθυνόταν, εμείς το ακροατήριο, οι μάρτυρες της μαρτυρίας τους. Με μας αισθανόταν μια κάποια συγγένεια, ένα νήμα αναγνώρισης με μας ήταν που τους διέτρεχε. Διότι εμείς βλέπετε δεν ήμασταν απλώς φοιτητές εξωτερικού. «Κάτι παραπάνω και συνάμα κάτι λιγότερο ήμασταν. Της ανάγκης διπλή ιδιότητα είχαμε, φοιτητές–εργάτες. Διπλά ωράρια, το σώμα να τσιρίζει ––εργάτες–φοιτητές /φοιτητές–εργάτες–– την γραμματική εργασίαςχωρίςανάπαυλα». Η ταξική μας θέση απαιτούσε διπλή τάξη, σε προστακτική. 

Για να ακριβολογήσω, σερβιτόροι-φοιτητές είμασταν, φοιτητές φτωχαδάκια. Είτε η αποτυχία στις Πανελλαδικές, είτε η δραπέτευση από καταστάσεις ανομολόγητες, είτε η φτώχεια και άλλα κάτεργα της Ελληνικής κοινωνίας μας έφεραν μαζί. Ελιγμός φυγής από τον σιδερένιο κλοιό της οικογένειας για κάποιους, κατεργαραίοι όπου φύγει-φύγει. Κάποιοι, μια οξεία μειονότητα (όπως αποδείχθηκε), είχαν διακρίνει τα σύννεφα-καταιγίδες του λαϊκισμού στην ελλάδα να μαυρίζουν το αριστερό όνειρο. Για μερικούς, το σπανιότατο είδος στην πιάτσα μας––«φοιτητής στις ανθρωπιστικές επιστήμες»––αιτία εξόδου η ασφυκτική συντηρητικότητα της Ελληνικής φιλολογίας, δεν κουραζόταν να επαναλαμβάνουν. (αυτό, με πήρε πολύ καιρό και αρκετά διαβάσματα να το καταλάβω.) Αλλά για μας, η φτώχια, φρένο και ώθηση ταυτόχρονα, να το ξαναπώ. Τα κάτι που έστελναν οι γονείς, όταν μπορούσαν, όσο άντεχαν, αν ήταν δυνατόν, δεν αρκούσαν παρά για τα μεθύσια του σαββατοκύριακου· για την εβδομαδιαία σωτήρια κάθαρση. Η δραχμή τότε ψίχουλα ήταν, τα δίδακτρα υπέρογκα σε δολάρια. Σερβιτόροι σε ελληνικό εστιατόριο, φυσικά. Χωρίς άδεια εργασίας, πού αλλού; Καταφύγιο στους ομοεθνείς, στα όμοια. «Βάρος στους ώμους και ο δίσκος σουβλάκια φορτωμένος, και το σουβλερό ρίσκο της παρανομίας του συνεχής υπενθύμιση στο σώμα». 

Εξάρτιση από μια και μοναδική αγορά εργασίας σήμαινε ένα σημαντικό «δεν». Δεν σε εκθετική επανάληψη. Δεν τολμάς ρότα προς Ελλάδα τα καλοκαίρια, ακόμα κι αν έχεις την πολυτέλεια να καλύψεις τα αεροπορικά. Δεν ρωτάς τον εαυτό σου πως αισθάνεται απλώς παπαγαλίζεις, δεν πάω, δεν το διακινδυνεύω, δεν το ρισκάρω πρέπει να πεις να τον πείσεις, η παρουσία σου στο μαγαζί μεσοκαλόκαιρο ξόρκι μη τυχόν και κάποιος νεοφερμένος αρπάξει την θέση εργασίας στην περίπτωση που εσύ με φραπέ αφρών Αιγαίου θα υπνωτιζόσουνα. Μιλάμε για στρίμωγμα ζήτησης αγαπητή μου αναγνώστρια. Συνωστισμός. «Ήταν και αυτοί που είχαν κηρυχθεί ανυπότακτοι, μεταπτυχιακοί κυρίως, ακάλυπτοι (ποιος θα χαρτογραφήσει το Γ.Ο.Κ. της παράνομης παραμονής;) από υποτροφίες τα καλοκαίρια. Εσωτερικός ανταγωνισμός στην συρρικνωμένη αγορά εργασίας. Μελίσσι τα δυο Greek restaurant της πόλης μας, σμήνη οι μνηστήρες μεταφοράς μπακλαβά, ταξιαρχίες οι παράνομοι εργάτες». Ρωτήστε τριγύρω να εξακριβώσετε αν το θεωρείτε απαραίτητο, αν το εξομολογηθούν βέβαια οι ερωτώμενοι, ίσως ανώνυμα, σε ερμητικά σφραγισμένα υπόγεια σαπίζουν τα μυστικά. Για τα παλιά, τα εξομολογήθηκε το συναξάρι του Κορδοπάτη. Δεν αμέλησε να μας υπενθυμίσει και ο Καζάν τον έλληνα μετανάστη με πλαστογραφημένη ταυτότητα στο Αμέρικα Αμέρικα. …. 

Κάπως έτσι λοιπόν επιταχύνθηκε η επιστράτευσή μας στην «βιομηχανία σπανακόπιτας» και στους «τεχνοκράτες ρυζόγαλου» εργασία σερβίρισμα στον ελεύθερο χρόνο της μεσαίας τάξης, στα ραντεβού, στα τελετουργικά φλερτάκια τους άγρυπνη υπηρεσία εμείς, ορίστε φιλετάκια από εδώ, ελληνικά παϊδάκια από εκεί, περιστροφική αντλία σαγανάκι-όπα! all around Τρύπες παντού, στις γνώσεις μας, στα Αγγλικά μας, στην τσέπη μας, στις σόλες των παπουτσιών μας, κι όμως άψογη η νεοαποκτηθείσα ευγένεια. “Can I get you anything else? Thanks for coming, have a good night!” 

Μαρσάρει στην πηχτή νύχτα ο πελάτης με την καλλονή, ρυθμός sirtaki επιτάχυνση, σκύβουμε κι εμείς στα κιτάπια μας να μετράμε δολάριο με δολάριο τα υγρά φιλοδωρήματα, με τρυφερότητα, αξίζει να αναφερθεί, με μια τόση μα τόση τρυφερότητα που μόνο ένα κορμάκι πνιγμένο στον ιδρώτα προσκαλεί… 

Γιώργος Αναγνώστου
Καλοκαίρι 2020

Sunday, April 10, 2022

A Posthumous Letter to Dan Georgakas

Read in the event “The Life, Times and Works of Dan Georgakas,” Panel Discussion. Organized by EMBCA



Talk starts at about 1:43'
Dear Dan, 

It is now more than four months since the news of your passing. Despite your age, I was in disbelief when I found out. I supposed you would be with us forever. 

Once the news of your death sunk in, I made it my habit to revisit your work, rereading your scholarship, about Greek American studies mostly, a subject that was dear to you. I also reread excerpts from your memoir, some poems, and listened to some of your interviews. I plan to study your seminal work, “Detroit I do Mind.” 

As I reread your work, I try to take the measure of what you have left us, our inheritance. And I grapple with the question, what to do with this inheritance? What should each of us individually, and all of us collectively, do with what you have left us? What is our responsibility to your work? 

As I reread your work, I realize, more than ever, how much the immigrant past mattered to you. You cared about the past, you wanted to direct our attention to it, particularly those aspects that have been neglected, or forgotten, discarded as irrelevant, or tossed aside as uncomfortable. You wanted us to know about the working class; the exploitations that it suffered, its involvement in the labor movement for a better America. You wanted us to understand the power of racism, in an interview, in 2018, you called it “the cancer of American society”; you wanted us to understand how it shaped our place and the place of others in the United States. You also wrote about women from a unique angle; unconventional, creative, bold Greek American women in the 1960s. Your poetry also spoke about the experience of young Greek immigrant widows, who had no other options but marry much older men. 

You wanted us to understand the past, to grasp its complexities, to note its contradictions. You were a historian committed to documentation and determined to speak historical truths, even if those truths were taboo and made some in the community uncomfortable. It was, you felt, your responsibility, the right thing to do, the ethical thing to do. You had no patience with sugarcoating of the past. You witnessed it and you knew how unfair––one might say how violent––it is to try to cut the past down to size, to fit idealizations and serve triumphalism. 

As a historian and a person who eye-witnessed immigrant life you knew better than to simplify immigrant lives. You refused to caricature Greek Americans. You knew that immigrants struggled, worked hard, enjoyed some success, experienced failures. That is why you were impatient with the narrative of struggle and success. Life is not a linear highway leading to the Eldorado of the American Dream. Your perspective, your words, resonate with me deeply. I started my life as a working-class immigrant who achieved some things but failed in others. It is refreshing––viscerally refreshing––to hear you speak about the humanity of Greek Americans. To recognize their limits, their failings; which is to say, their humanity. In this you are in good company with Helen Papanikolas and Harry Mark Petrakis who also eye-witnessed much of twentieth century Greek America and did the same 

This passion of yours to humanize Greek Americans connects to another passion of yours: to develop Greek American studies. You saw academic research as a venue to understand Greek America’s complexity. You recognized it as one of the few remaining venues–– along with literature, poetry, and film––to learn, to reflect, to speak about difficult topics and new ideas. This is the reason you never tired of advocating Greek American studies. You saw the value of high quality, committed, rigorous Greek American research. You were calling for its institutional growth for a long time. 

But this call remains unheeded. Our institutions have not taken the necessary initiatives. At least, not yet. In our conversations we often pondered this question: Why is it that Greek Americans, who take such a great pride in their educational achievements, do not invest in Greek American humanities and social science? Why are the names of our poets, novelists, and labor heroes unknown? Do we know who George Economou was and why his work matters? Do we know why Louis Tikas was murdered? Do we know about the work of Nikos Petropoulos and why it is important? Do we know what a Greek American author meant when she wrote of her family’s “heritage of fear”? Do we know what Dan meant when he was referring to the ethnic “third eye” and its significance? 

Dear Dan, I read the praises of your person in Greek American obituaries. There is exaltation about your contributions to secular Greek American Hellenism, praise for promoting Greek American studies. I wonder what your feelings and thoughts would have been had you read this overwhelming approval. Perhaps you would have cracked your wry, knowing signature smile. Perhaps you would have said, “nice words, but will action follow”? 

You have left us with a legacy of many words and actions, Dan. The question we should be asking, I believe, is what we do with what you have left us. Do we know, as a community, what we have inherited from you? 

I am thinking a great deal about your non-academic intellectual work, your work as an editor of the American Journal of Contemporary Hellenic Issues, for example. Your numerous talks sponsored by Greek American organizations and communities. I am trying to understand your major shift, as I see it, from radical politics in the 1960s and 1970s to a kind of mainstream cultural activism in Greek America in the post-junta years. During our interview, in 2019, when I last saw you in person, I got the feeling that you wanted to bring change by working from within, as an insider. And you accomplished much. You managed to feature Greek American poetry in a Greek American policy journal! You published essays by Greek American college students. You kept inviting me to submit work for broad, non-academic audiences. You wanted, it seems to me, to gradually open up Greek American institutions to the humanities and social sciences. But I wish you were here with us to disclose, did you feel there were limits to what one could or could not say in these settings? Was there something radical you felt the need to say, but for some reason you didn’t? 

This question preoccupies me, and I believe it was on your mind too: is there room in Greek America for an inclusive, open dialogue which includes critical self-reflection? At some point in your life, you were struggling for a Greek American success––an alternative success––we rarely if ever talk about. Success in sustaining an exciting and yes agonistic conversation about Greek American issues, the ways we represent the Greek American past, the kind of cultural policy we practice, the Greek American future. It seems that we need to harvest our best democratic impulses to make this happen. 

Dan, it is time to bid farewell. This is my second farewell, the first was my tribute to your work in the journal Ergon. Dan, you kept working––working until your very last days––to enrich our understanding of Greek America. You spoke about taboo topics, you insisted that academics should also learn to speak for a broad Greek American audience, you advocated that we create spaces––journals, blogs, webinars––to foster an exciting Greek American conversation. This is the inheritance I embrace, and feel the responsibility to keep alive. 

I do not believe the journey ahead will be easy. After all, we have been building these spaces of learning for some time now. We have been building it, but will people come? What will it take for people and organizations to support our projects? 

Dear Dan Georgakas, son of Detroit, of New York City, of Anatolia and the Peloponnese; Dan of Cineaste, of “Detroit I do Mind Dying,” of Black Mask, of anti-junta activism: We will not only remember you; we will keep you informed of our news. We don’t know what the news will be. That depends on us. 

Αιωνία η μνήμη. 

Υiorgos Anagnostou 
April 10, 2022.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Bicentenary and Contemporary Greek Identity in Relation to Interethnic Encounters

For my contribution to the conversation about the bicentenary, I have been discussing a host of narratives which connect the Greek revolution with the making of contemporary Greek identity in relation to historically disenfranchised populations. My initial sample of narratives included both Greece and the diaspora (see my presentation at the Yale conference on the Greek Revolution and the Diaspora here). 

But as I turn my talk into a book chapter, and in the interest of space, I focus exclusively on the diaspora component. Still, the section on Greece belongs to the broader problematic of the paper, namely bicentenary narratives which place the making of Greek civic identities in the context of interethnic encounters and in relation to people not historically connected with the revolution. 

I am sharing this component here: 

An essay by Dimitris Christopoulos (2021) brings the Greek revolution and the making of a Greek civic identity today in conversation. The author singles out the first provisional revolutionary constitution––voted by the national assembly of Epidaurus on January 1, 1822––as a prism to reflect on citizenship practices in modern Greece. As the “most robust birth-right citizenship [jus soli] law Greece has ever known,” he writes, the Epidaurus constitution calls to “reexamine Greece’s version of ‘we the people’” in the context of the country’s multiethnic present. Do we consider the children of the immigrants “members of the Greek nation”? he asks. “Do we want them in our polity? … who do we want to be, after all?” 

Christopoulos reminds us that a revolution “confronts the primary political question of power”: “who has power, who claims power, who questions power, who gains power. It defines those we want, those we expel, those we tolerate, those we prefer, those with whom we proceed and those we leave behind.” 

This position recognizes that identity is more than an act of defining the self; it implicitly or explicitly positions the self in relation to others. As John Gillis’s (1994) statement in the epigraph indicates, “every assertion of identity involves a choice that affects not just ourselves but others” (5). 

Two hundred years since the revolution, the question of Greek civic identity is raised once again with urgency in view that since the 1990s, at least, Greece has become the destination of waves of immigrants. The reigning jus sanguine (the right of blood) at the time presented a legal barrier for conferring citizenship rights to immigrant children born in Greece and consequently a roadblock for their social integration and mobility. It is upon the Greek state’s power to legislate, and the Greek people’s power to decide about the place of non-ethnically Greek demographics such as immigrants, refugees, and their children in the polity. 

The birthright legal principle of the revolutionary era¬¬––whose cycle ended in 1835––presents a legacy, Christopoulos advocates, to be adopted and adjusted (1) to the current circumstances of multiethnic Greece. And while in fact the legal framework has been shifting since 2015 toward an inclusive jus soli ideology, the place of naturalized immigrants and their children in the nation is still contested. 

Will those immigrants who are conferred the legal right of citizenship be rendered as equally Greek in the national imaginary? The question requires further reflection about the necessary political arrangements and cultural mechanisms toward this inclusion. It also calls for investigation about how certain intersections between civic and cultural Greek identities might facilitate the process of inclusion.

Yiorgos Anagnostou 
October 2021. 

Note 

1. For the ideological and pragmatic motivations regarding the criteria for citizenship in the provisional constitutions during the revolution see E. Vogli, «The Greek War of Independence and the Emergence of a Modern Nation-state in Southeastern Europe (1821-1827)», στο Plamen Mitev et al (επιμ.), Empires and Peninsulas: Southeastern Europe Between Karlowitz and the Peace of Adrianople, 1699-1829 (Berlin 2010: LIT Verlag), σ. 194–195]. 

Works Cited 

Christopoulos, Dimitris, «Giannis Antetokounmpo and 200 Years of Greek Revolution», OpenDemocracy, 8 March 2021, [accessed June 10, 2021].

Gillis, John, «Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship», στο John R. Gillis (επιμ.), Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton 1994: Princeton University Press): 3–24.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Neglected Books


I am rereading with great interest Yiorgos Kalogeras' «Εθνοτικές γεωγραφίες: Κοινωνικο-πολιτισμικές ταυτίσεις μίας μετανάστευσης» (2007), an important book about various facets of Greek America. This is how it is described by the publisher:

«Το βιβλίο "Εθνοτικές γεωγραφίες" αποτελεί καρπό έρευνας, συγγραφής και επανασυγγραφής μίας δεκαπενταετίας. Τα επιμέρους κεφάλαια επικεντρώνονται κατά κύριο λόγο στην πρόσληψη και κατανόηση της ταυτότητας που οι Έλληνες μετανάστες στις ΗΠΑ και οι απόγονοι τους προβάλλουν στα κείμενα τους. Ο συγγραφέας εξετάζει λογοτεχνικά, ιστορικά, ανθρωπολογικά και κινηματογραφικά έργα, αναλύει γνωστά και καθιερωμένα από την κριτική κείμενα όπως το "Αμέρικα-Αμέρικα" του Kazan ή την "Ελένη" του Gage, αλλά και ανασύρει από τη λήθη άγνωστες μορφές του ελληνισμού της Αμερικής που σημάδεψαν την εποχή τους όπως η δημοσιογράφος Δήμητρα Βακά».

Εθνοτικές γεωγραφίες is often cited in theoretically-oriented publications in Greek. It asks hard questions about Greek American institutions, and engages critically with canonical texts. But as far as I can tell, it has not been reviewed in U.S. journals specializing in Greek America and diaspora. I cannot help but wonder why.


Monday, November 1, 2021

Epitaphios: A Poem, a Song, a Dirge (Writing for the local community)



The story of the poem “Epitaphios” starts with a newspaper photograph depicting a mother lamenting over the body of her dead son, killed during a peaceful protest by tobacco workers, in May 1936, in Thessaloniki. The victim was one among a total of twelve dead workers in a strike “drowned in blood by the dictatorial government” at the time.

When poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) saw this dramatic image, moved he rendered it in poetry. Initially entitled “The Dirge” (Miroloi), it was published the same year in a leftist newspaper. It was later expanded to 324 lines and renamed “Epitaphios.” 

This is the opening two couplets: 

My son, flesh of my flesh, dear heart of my heart, / little bird in the poor courtyard, blossom in my desert, How is it that your eyes are closed and you do not see me cry, / and you do not stir or hear my bitter words? 

The final form of the poem consists of twenty stanzas of eight rhymed couplets (with some exceptions). The fifteen-syllable meter and the rhyming are unfortunately sacrificed in its rendering into English. Bilingual readers will readily recognize the loss in the translation: 

Στη στράτα εδώ καταμεσίς τ’ άσπρα μαλλιά μου λύνω / και σου σκεπάζω της μορφής το μαραμένο κρίνο. 

Here in the middle of the street I let down my white hair / and cover the wilted lily of your form. 

The poem has an interesting music life. Musician Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) composed eight songs based on selective verses in 1958, and soon later Manos Hadjidakis (1925-1994), another prominent composer, arranged the same music for recital-hall performance. 

“Epitaphios” is a lamentation, a public expression of intense grief, which is put into music and sung, something which is not unusual in Greek religious and social life. An ancient tradition, lamentations express heightened grief, not only about the loss of human life but also social and political crises. There are folk lamentation-songs, for example, about the fall of Constantinople. Early in the 20th century, the experience of emigration––xenitia––generated folk songs about a family member venturing into an uncertain, dangerous future. There is also a rich tradition––now vanishing––of dramatic performances of ritual laments in rural Greece, particularly the regions of Mani, Epirus, and Crete. Laments are about shared grief and collective participation in its experience. 

Significantly, “Epitaphios” draws from both the religious and folk traditions of lamentations. It draws recurrent motifs and images such as lavish praise for the deceased and incredulity in the case of untimely death. These motifs heighten the emotional involvement of the participants. Greek Orthodox readers will recognize the connection between the title of the poem–– “Epitaphios”––and the ecclesiastical tradition, as it obviously evokes the lament “Epitaphios Thrinos,” the dirge of the Virgin Mary and the mourning women at the tomb of the crucified Christ. The poem draws from several images and themes in Mary’s lamentations. They share, for example, the theme of unjust death. Christ is crucified “as a criminal among criminals” (stasis 1.8), and is “unjustly condemned” (1.56), just as the dead laborer is killed unjustly “for demanding adequate wages for his work”: My son, what wrong did you commit? From unjust men / you sought payment for your own labors. Or, if “with his physical beauty Christ beautifies the natural world” (stasis 1.9), the son’s beauty is lavished by the grief-stricken mother: Eyebrow, smooth as braided silk and drawn with a fine pen, / an arch where my glance would perch and rest 

The poem also builds on folk imagery, such as the metaphor of bird (“pouli”), a term of endearment with which mothers frequently address their male children: “The dead boy is a frail bird who has flown from the cage”; “his hands are folded like the wings of a sick bird.” In the example of “Epitaphios” modern poetry interfaces with ecclesiastical and folk traditions. Secular lamentations may be disappearing in Greece, but they acquire a new “life” in poetry and musical compositions. But this does not happen without controversy. 

“Epitaphios” has been stigmatized “as dangerous and blasphemous,” and was included in a public book-burning event by the dictatorship of John Metaxas (1936-1940). For the Greek left, in contrast, it is a “slogan song.” It was performed, for example, outside a Salonica hospital in 1963 to mournfully protest the assassination of parliamentary deputy and pacifist Grigoris Lambrakis. Poetry and politics are often interwoven in Greece, and “Epitaphios” is not an exception. 

Yiorgos Anagnostou 

Credits for the translation and analysis: Rick M. Newton

Sunday, June 27, 2021

From the Point of View of College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies? [Food, connections with cultural identity, Greek Orthodoxy, and Greece]


"When thinking about important topics to study under the realm of Greek America, one that is significant to me is the study of the Greek food in America, particularly how it is a way for Americanized and later generations of Greek Americans to retain aspects of their culture as well as their religion. As a 3rd generation Greek American, food is the most common way I connect with the culture of my mother and grandparents. My yiayia makes delicious dishes, heavily influenced by the food she ate growing up and the food made by other Greek Americans she is friends with. She attempts to pass on her recipes to her children and grandchildren, but this is sometimes difficult because “a cup of flour” to her is flour filled to the brim of her favorite mug. Nevertheless, eating and enjoying these dishes brings us together and makes us feel Greek without being in Greece. This topic is an important one to study because, just like it is for me, for many it is a way to connect with the culture of their ancestors in a country across the ocean. It would be interesting to study how food connects later-generation Greek Americans to their heritage.

The topic is also relevant because Greek food is heavily influenced by the Orthodox religion that is common in Greece. There are many fasting and feasting days in the liturgical calendar that require certain foods be eaten. For example, many Orthodox Christians avoid eating most meat and animal products during the forty days leading up to Easter. This means there are many meals and cookies that are made specifically during this period of time. Then, on Easter, a popular meal is roast lamb, supposedly representing Jesus as “the lamb of God.” Greek recipes like this not only tie Greek Americans to Greece but also tie them to the Orthodox religion. To study the connection Greek food has to religion in America, I would ask if later generation Greek Americans still hold these connections; do they know that recipes like lentil soup are often made during the Lenten season? Do they feel a connection to the Orthodox Church through these meals?

Lastly, a question I would ask you in particular is what are the best ways that later generation Greek Americans can keep aspects of their Greek culture? Since I am half Greek and a second-generation American, how can my future children stay connected to this culture that will only be a sliver of their heritage?"


[My note: Given the centrality of Greek food in Greek American family, social and public life, it is astonishing––isn't it––that there is no systematic scholarship on food cultures in Greek America]




Saturday, June 26, 2021

From the Point of View of College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies (Redefining Greek American identity among the youth, intergenerational cultural distance)


Something that fascinated me is how the younger Greek Americans are redefining their identity nowadays. I think the older generations are noticing a change or general trend of perhaps different priorities or emphasis on other aspects of Greek culture than what they would like. I have been noticing in the Greek community, in St. Louis (my hometown), that the older generations are expecting a lot more from the younger generation Greek Americans as far as the language and religion aspect of being Greek. However, I don’t think the youth has fully embraced their Greek heritage as their grandparents or older generations would want. I think this tension can cause distance between these generations which I have seen with my peers personally. Thus, it would be important to explore how young Greek Americans are defining being a Greek American in today’s society. I personally think this may help the two points of view understand each other better and may show which direction Greek Americans are headed as far as preserving Hellenism in the future. Some specific questions would be what do the youth want to take away from their Greek American community socially and religiously? How do they plan to (if they want to) maintain their Greek background? I also wonder how Greek Americans connect with other Greek Americans whether this is through the Greek community or in school/college. It would also be interesting to find out what specific Greek traditions they will continue if they had any growing up in their household. I feel like as if right now there may not be a general consensus for these questions, but it's still worth it to explore.

2) Ask these scholars a question of your own choice. Please be creative and insightful, devote some time thinking seriously the questions you will be asking.

My grandparents, parents, and other members of my Parish in St. Louis fear that there will be a loss of Greek culture, at least the aspects that were highlighted by Greek immigrants that came to the United States. I personally can see their point as younger generations are redefining what it means to be a Greek American. I know that there are multiple factors as to why this can happen. I was wondering if scholars believe that a loss of some aspects of Greek culture (if not all) is inevitable based on what we know today. I know it can be challenging to predict this, but it would be interesting if there was any research or statistics that supported one way or another. Going off that question, I am curious to know if scholars believe there is a way to potentially change that outcome, if the data supports that the loss of Greek culture and traditions is inevitable.