Friday, December 17, 2010

Greek Transnational Worlds – Academic Research

The Historical Society group, Grafton NSW

Title: Narratives of Belonging on the Internet: Greek Diaspora Community Websites

Author: Chryssanthopoulou, Vassiliki

Abstract: " and are two websites created and maintained by members of two greek-Australian ethno-regional diaspora communities, namely the Kytherians and the Castellorizians of Australia. The sites include information on Kythera and Castellorizo, their history and culture, instructions on how to create family trees, etc., all of which is interactively shared among users of the websites. The sites also include personal blogs, newsletters, questionnaires and petitions to improve quality of life on the two islands, Kythera and Castellorizo. Narratives, mostly written, but also visual, form a large part of these websites, covering various areas of folk culture and tradition, such as local history, social life (festivals and rituals, traditional skills and professions), local stories and jokes, people’s memories, material culture and songs. By analyzing a number of these narratives, I attempt to discuss the role and the importance of diaspora community websites in: 1. providing space for the collection, preservation, development and sharing among their member-users, of material pertaining to the folklore and ethnography of these communities; and 2. contributing in this way to the forging, maintenance and negotiation of a powerful and real – albeit virtually manifested – sense of origin and belonging among their users."

Presented in the 16th Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, Narratives Across Space and Time: Transmissions and Adaptations, June 21-27, 2009. Athens.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Greece–Germany: Transnational Identities

"Στις 21 Ιουλίου 1974 ο Στέφανος Υψηλάντης σε ηλικία τεσσάρων ετών απάγεται από ένα ζευγάρι Γερμανών με το κοινότοπο όνομα Σουλτς σε ένα παραλιακό χωριό του Κορινθιακού. Τους θυμίζει τον χαμένο γιο τους.

Ο Στέφανος θα ζήσει έως τα 11 του χρόνια ως Μίχαελ Σουλτς στο Βερολίνο, ενσωματωμένος εν μέρει στη γερμανική κοινωνία. Μια παρατηρητική ελληνίδα φοιτήτρια θα αναγνωρίσει στο πρόσωπό του το χαμένο παιδί, θα το καταγγείλει και έτσι ο Μίχαελ θα γυρίσει στην Ελλάδα και θα γίνει και πάλι Στέφανος. Για αυτόν θα αρχίσει μια νέα πορεία ενσωμάτωσης σε μια κοινωνία και σε μια οικογένεια, πατέρας, μητέρα και δύο αδελφές, από την οποία θυμάται ελάχιστα. Μεγαλώνοντας θα γίνει καθηγητής και κάποια στιγμή θα πάει να ζήσει στο Βερολίνο αναζητώντας το γερμανικό του πρόσωπο, τους Σουλτς και ό,τι έζησε μεταξύ 4 και 11 ετών σε εκείνο τον τόπο.

Εκεί θα συνδεθεί με τη Σεσίλια, αλλά θα επιστρέψει στην Ελλάδα. Ολα αυτά τα χρόνια ο Στέφανος είναι ένα σιωπηλό άτομο. Προσπαθεί να ανακαλύψει ποιος είναι, αν είναι περισσότερο Γερμανός ή Ελληνας. Μοιάζει να ζει χωρίς κίνητρο ή να θέλει να σβήσει το ίχνος του. Αισθάνεται ότι δεν είναι λειτουργικό κομμάτι κανενός πράγματος, ότι ζει σε μια ζωή όπου δεν υπάρχει θέση για αυτόν. Μυθιστόρημα που εξερευνά την ταυτότητα του προσώπου σε μια εποχή πολυπολιτισμική, κάτι που ζουν ίσως νεότερα παιδιά που αναγκάζονται να εκπατριστούν για σπουδές ή οι οικονομικοί μετανάστες. Το ενδιαφέρον είναι η διαπραγμάτευση του θέματος που γίνεται μέσα από τις φωνές διαφόρων ηρώων που προσπαθούν να φωτίσουν τη σκοτεινιά του Στέφανου, αλλά και η αφήγηση που παραμένει σφικτή ως το τέλος χωρίς να χάνει τη γοητεία των σκέψεων και των λέξεων."

Quoted from VimaonLine,

"In a Strange Land" – An Anthology of Greek Australian Songs and Music

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

“When Greeks and Turks Met”: Cultures in Dialogue, Nationalisms in Conflict

Review of Demetra Vaka's “The Unveiled Ladies of Istanbul (Stamboul).” Gorgias Press (2005 [orig. 1923]).

By Yiorgos Anagnostou

“It was early in April, so early in the morning that the old city of Stamboul was turning over its bed for yet another snooze, when the Oriental Express puffed into the Sirkedji Station.” This is how “The Unveiled Ladies of Istanbul” stages the return of Demetra Vaka, an ethnic Greek, to her natal city of Istanbul. Twenty-seven years since her emigration to America in 1894, and 20 years after her first homecoming in 1901, the author revisited the place of her childhood when she counted Muslim girls as intimate friends, and the Sultan commanded the political loyalty of the empire’s subjects.

When the Oriental Express puffed into Istanbul’s railway station, Vaka was about to be confronted with a reality of a different order. Turkey was caught in a raging war, the empire was crumbling in the mist of competing nationalisms, and Istanbul, occupied by the allies, was a city in political and cultural unrest. Vaka, by then an accomplished American correspondent, set out to investigate and report this profound transformation. More than 80 years since its original publication, the book is now brought back into circulation by Gorgias Press.

It should not be surprising that Vaka (1877-1946) was given this particular assignment. Born and raised in Istanbul, and having developed her craft as a writer in the United States, she was seen as the ideal insider/outsider to access Turkey and report to an American public craving stories and information about the Orient. Vaka’s numerous writings about life and politics in the Balkans and the Orient had already established her as a knowledgeable author capable of narrating the cultures of these regions for the pleasures and interests of Western audiences. Her popular romances often exploited the Orient as an exotic place staging the sexual escapades of American women travelers. Such themes resonated back home among women of the growing middle class hungry for the exotic and new social roles beyond traditional domesticity. She enjoyed great popularity. Her travelogue “The Heart of the Balkans” (1917), for example, was read widely. Major popular magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Delineator and The Century featured her essays and reports. The fact that a mainstream publishing house no less than Houghton and Mifflin published her books speaks volumes about the value accorded to her work.

This ascent into cultural recognition is particularly remarkable, considering that Vaka arrived in the United States under less than optimum circumstances. She emigrated from Turkey at the age of 17 when financial strains squeezed her family after her father’s death, arriving in America in the socially acceptable role of governess for the children of the Ottoman consul, an ethnic Greek, to the U.S. She was also, reportedly, escaping an arranged marriage. Vaka’s background provided a necessary foundation for her eventual success. As a daughter of an upper middle-class government official, she was immersed in the class privileges of the Greek bourgeoisie in Ottoman society. In addition to Greek she spoke Turkish and French (she learned the latter as a student in Paris). Once in America and before launching her journalistic and literary career, Vaka worked as a copyeditor for the Greek language daily Atlantis. She also taught classical Greek and French in private schools such as Comstock College.

In 1904, she married Harvard graduate and acclaimed writer of popular romances Kenneth Brown (1868-1959), a turning point that propelled her literary career. She published a total of 12 fiction and non-fiction books and scores of essays. Immersed in a literary world spiced with adventure and romance, it is not surprising that she showed no interest in addressing working-class issues. In fact, the telling of the immigrant experience was never within Vaka’s literary horizon. Instead, she functioned as a cultural intermediary. She not only explained the Orient and the Balkans for America, but she also translated late 19th century Greek literature into English, in collaboration with Yale Professor Aristides E. Phoutrides (1887-1923).

Writing about Istanbul in 1921 was far from an ordinary professional assignment for Vaka. She reported from a place intimately connected to her own biography, and in the midst of historical events that gravely threatened the existence of her co-ethnics in the city. Just a few days prior her second homecoming in 1921, the Greek army had suffered a devastating defeat by the forces of Kemal Atatürk in Burma. Though far away from the battlefields in Anatolia, Istanbul was at ear’s drop from the rallying nationalist calls, which enveloped the city. They deafeningly lurked in the background of the allied occupation, powerfully steering Turkish males to leave the city and join the Kemalist cause in droves. For the Turks, the war in Anatolia fed feverish anticipation for a new modern era, a country imagined as entirely Muslim, cleansed from Christians – invading armies, American missionaries, philanthropists, and autochthonous ethnic minorities. Conversely, for the subject people – Greeks and the Armenians among others – the extent and determination of Turkish nationalism led to profound anxiety about an immediate future when their historical presence in the city could no longer be tolerated. Day-by-day, the news from the warfront kept turning this fear into certain doom.

Vaka captured this historical moment toward the very end of her book, predicting destruction worse in magnitude than that of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. Written a mere one year prior to the defeat of the Greek army and the Smyrna catastrophe, her comments convey the chill of a cataclysmic doomsday: “From the talk in those cafés, too, it was easy to foretell that the doom of the Christians was sealed. The Turk, sword in hand as in 1453, was to re-conquer the lands he had conquered then; but to make the conquest sure this time, he was not only to exterminate the Christian element, but was to offer as a holocaust to victory the very homes of the Christians. The obliteration of that element was to be complete.”

Far from a merely personal confession of alarm, this was an urgent political plea. The theme of Turkish nationalism as an impending threat to Christians, not only in Turkey but to Christian Europe as a whole, ran throughout “The Unveiled,” drawing inevitable attention to the necessity of European and American intervention. Vaka’s agenda on behalf of her fellow co-religionists in Turkey fell on deaf ears.

Vaka’s political activism was only a single slice in a wider net of interests to which she, wittingly or unwillingly, was enmeshed. Just to mention one example, consider the ways in which her journalism was entangled in a web of American interests in the region, as explained in the introduction of the book by Professor Yiorgos Kalogeras, a scholar who pioneered research on Vaka. Kalogeras points out that Vaka’s correspondence was commissioned by, and her articles initially appeared in Asia, a publication committed to advancing American political and commercial interests in Asia and Oceania. Tellingly, the magazine was sponsored by The American Asiatic Association (AAA), an organization initially formed in 1898 by American merchants in response to European and Japanese economic and political encroachment in China. The secretary of the Association, one John Ford, was no other than the editor of Asia.

Innocence then, it goes without saying, cannot be part of the vocabulary describing Vaka’s work. This realization alone should alert us that there is more than meets the eye in Vaka. Scholars such as Yiorgos Kalogeras, Eleftheria Arapoglou, Ioanna Laliotou and Kathlene Postma, among others, take note of the plasticity, ambivalence, and contradictions that define her writings. She sings the praise of patriotism, for instance, but revels in connections among culturally diverse people, which she saw as a fertile terrain for personal enrichment. While known for embracing the Great Idea, the notion that lands that once were part of the Byzantine Empire should belong to Greece, there are instances when she voices her criticism of Greek military operations in Asia Minor. And while she does not skirt away from stereotypical portrayals of Muslim Turks, she was well ahead of her times in communicating the diversity and complexity of Turkish women.

Things are no less intricate when one considers the range of Vaka’s personal and professional identities. On various occasions, she has been portrayed or has depicted herself as a Greek immigrant, a child of the Orient, a Greek, an American, an Orientalist, an American author, a Greek American writer, a Greek nationalist, an apologist of American imperialism, but also as a critic of America. In view of this fluidity, one thing can be said for certain: the closer one reads her work, the more layered her work emerges. Both intellectually challenging and pleasurable for the reader, this quality serves as a testament to the richness of Vaka’s writings.

As its title promises, “The Unveiled” examines a society in transition through Turkish women’s responses to modernization. Of course, the cultural manifestations of the emerging modernity were impossible to miss in the city, particularly for an author whose first-hand experiences reached well into the former Ottoman social order. Vaka duly captures, both in words and images, this historical transition in its most dramatic manifestation, women’s public conduct. She documents behaviors that were unthinkable in the recent past, where female quarters were secluded and women veiled themselves in public. Her camera, for example, seizes images of women socializing with men. And her narrative directs the readers’ attention toward women unveiled in the public; women municipal employees cleaning the streets; women entrepreneurs running their own businesses and employing women as clerks.

Vaka draws complex portraits of several Turkish women, dedicating a whole chapter to each. The titles of the chapters reflect her attention to individual perspectives: “An Old Turkish Lady Speaks Out;” “The Avenger of her Race;” “The Lady of the Mended Glove.” The author brings women’s stories to life, animating particular incidents that she experienced while interacting with these women. She builds on her encounter with glamorous Azzize Hanoum, for instance, to produce a segment full of suspense and erotic innuendo. A sensuous nationalist, Hanoum is vividly portrayed as a cunning seductress who marries a French lieutenant only to manipulate his desire for her in order to avenge the French invaders who have harmed her family. Liman, another unforgettable character, overcomes utter poverty, an orphanage upbringing, loss of home and a failed marriage. She takes it on her own hands to build a meaningful life anew. Her life story defies the stereotype of Easterners as prisoners of “kismet/fate.

The author uniquely features women’s own point of view. She acts like a contemporary anthropologist whose primary aim is to report, as extensively as possible, the conversations she engages in with the people in the field. Through this emphasis on dialogue, human beings emerge in the text as multi-textured characters, not cultural caricatures. She gives voice to multiple perspectives, facilitating cross-cultural understanding. Conversation also showcases the similarities that people from various cultural backgrounds share, not merely their differences.

To be sure, Vaka does not manage to skirt away from Orientalist stereotypes. She reproduces conventions of non-Western people as irrational, emotional, devoid of analytical thought. But at the same time she exhibits a remarkable sophistication in confronting the idea of an essential Oriental woman. Instead, she brings to the fore the notion that national and gender labels often veil what in reality is a diversity in the ways individuals experience their identities. There are many ways of being a Turkish woman, the author suggests, not a single one.

“The Unveiled” is a delight to read, as Vaka uses exquisite prose to effortlessly intersperse authorial insights with reported dialogue. She deserves praise not only for how she crafts her narrative, but also for what she advocates in the story. She promotes intercultural understanding and shows that a person has much to gain by friendships and conversations across cultures. A rich narrative with a political message, “The Unveiled” takes the reader on an intellectual journey by inviting reflection about identity, travel, interethnic encounters, and women’s emancipation, all in the context of the East-West relationship. In this regard, it is fortunate that the book features an extensive introduction that offers valuable insights on Vaka’s life and situates her work in a wider social and political context. The 34 rare photographs in the book further add to the richness of the reading experience.

Finally, it is only befitting that Gorgias Press anthologized Vaka twice. Both “The Unveiled Ladies of Istanbul (Stanbul)” and her earlier “Haremlik: Some Pages from the Life of Turkish Women” (1909) are included in its Cultures in Dialogue series, a project that brings back into circulation women writers whose work was published between 1880 and 1940. One could only hope that Vaka’s various autobiographical publications including “A Child of the Orient” (1914) as well as the writings of more recent yet neglected Greek American women authors, such as Theano Margaris, will be the next publishing target, this time perhaps in less expensive editions.

This review was originally published in The National Herald, June 28, 2008: 6.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Unpublished Interview about "Contours of White Ethnicity"

On the occasion of the publication of my book, "Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America" (Ohio University Press, 2009), I was asked to draft an interview, which was never published. It is not too late, I think, to share it here:

Q: What motivated you to tackle the topic of "white ethnicity" for your first book?

A: I spent the last ten years trying to understand Greek American identity, how it was expressed in the past, and how it is portrayed today. My early interest was in culture. I wanted to explore the importance of cultural activities and values–such as dance and the importance of community for instance–to define Greek America. But I soon realized that it was necessary to expand my perspective. I needed to take account the notion of “white ethnicity.” This was because, as we know, American society tends to classify specific ethnicities into larger panethnic categories. Vietnamese Americans, for example, are also classified as Asian Americans; Nicaraguan Americans as Latinos or Hispanics; and since the 1960s, groups such as Greek Americans, Italian Americans, or Polish Americans are often referred to as white ethnics. Scholars now commonly write about “white ethnicity” or the “whiteness” of European ethnicities, including Jewish Americans. Clearly, one cannot seriously practice ethnic studies scholarship and pretend that this conversation is not happening. I felt intellectually compelled to participate in this critically important discussion, which adds yet another layer to the complexity of the Greek American experience.

Q: What do we learn about Greek America once we see it in relation to white ethnicity?

A: For some time now the so-called “white ethnic revival” has fascinated the nation. Think of the popularity of ethnic festivals or the ubiquity of “things Irish;” films like “Grease,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Rocky,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Moonstruck,” and “Angela’s Ashes”; and novels by Jeffrey Eugenides and Mario Puzo. White ethnics take center stage in these cultural products. But there is more to it. White ethnics are depicted as the desirable norm, a cultural model to be embraced by WASPs. A perfect example of this kind of assimilation into ethnicity is portrayed in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when Ian and his family embrace Greek culture; they join the Greek dance so to speak, literally and metaphorically. In this revival, however, it is the Irish, the Italians, the Scotts, and other European ethnicities that lead “the dance of American diversity,” not racial minorities such as, say, Asian Americans. This development requires explanation. But I will just say this here: Because of this favorable national trend toward white ethnics a historic opportunity has emerged for Greek America to invest in institution-building and the cultivation of letters and the arts. At the same time it is a time of tremendous responsibility. How do Greek Americans, who now find themselves in a position of privilege, speak about racial minorities and the disenfranchised? How do they envision Greek America’s direction? The book grapples with this kind of questions.

Q: Your book places great emphasis on the importance of the past, and particularly “usable pasts.” Why?

A: There is a public thirst today to connect with a past. Even a casual look at the cultural scene of Greek America cannot miss this preoccupation. Individuals write memoirs, collect family oral histories, and search for roots. Preservation societies proliferate, and the drive to establish museums is gaining momentum. I wanted to understand this process from a particular angle: What aspects of the past do Greek Americans wish to retain, modify, or reject, and why? In other words, what pasts do they consider valuable (that is usable) and what useless? And who decides? This is an immensely important issue because the kinds of pasts we value reveal a great deal about who we are today, and who we wish to become in the future.

Q: One might say that the past is everywhere in Greek America: In liturgy, folk dances, autobiographies, novels, church architecture, museum exhibits, and in a whole range of customs and traditions. Where does one start to investigate this phenomenon?

A: Indeed, the past is so vastly present in the present! One cannot possibly cover everything without sacrificing in-depth analysis. What aspects of the past to include, and what to exclude? I asked myself this question over and over again in the early phases of the book, and spent a great deal of time thinking how to tackle it. A number of considerations helped me in the process. First I wanted to understand this topic from the point of view of Greek Americans. My concern was to examine what specific authors say about the significance of the past in their personal lives, their family and communities. Second, I wanted to include diverse perspectives. We often forget the fascinating heterogeneity of Greek America. Third, my aim was to bring forth perspectives about the past that are often marginalized. I wanted to include points of view that raised challenging issues for Greek America. And fourth, I was looking for examples that problematized the ways social scientists speak about “white ethnicities.”

Q: Do you draw those examples from “popular ethnography”?

A: That’s right. During the course of my research I discovered that numerous Greek American authors base their work on ethnographic interviewing and fieldwork. Although they are not professional anthropologists, these authors adopt ethnographic methods and often draw from the anthropology of Greece to document and analyze the past. This is quite fascinating. It shows, among other things, that there is osmosis between scholars and writers who work outside the academy.

Q: What is a thought with which you would like to close this interview?

A: Some of the “popular ethnographers” I discuss exhibit a deep concern not only about the cultural direction of Greek America, but also our relationship with other ethnicities and minorities. Authors like Helen Papanikolas and Harry Mark Petrakis offer us a way to see ourselves as an ethnicity open to internal as well as external differences, as knowledgeable about history, as attentive to the plight of Others. This is a powerful ethical and political vision for our future, particularly for the next generation that will live and create in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

December 29, 2009

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Greek American Women in Greece: Family History and the Quest for Roots

A Review of Catherine Temma Davidson's “The Priest Fainted: A Novel” (Henry Holt and Company, 1998) – By Yiorgos Anagnostou

In “The Priest Fainted,” Catherine Temma Davidson tells the stories of three women in a Greek-American family, the grandmother, mother, and daughter. We enter the plot of their lives through the perspective of the latter, a third-generation American ethnic of Greek and Jewish ancestry. The narrator interweaves stories about her own quest for roots in Greece with stories about her mother – a Greek New Yorker who eventually relocates to California – and her maternal grandmother, an immigrant whom the narrator never met yet with whom she holds an imaginary dialogue throughout the novel. The protagonist pieces together fragments of family history, offering insights on how and why she finds meaning in ethnicity.

Two parallel events organize the novel, whose primary female protagonists remain anonymous. The first event takes place in the 1950s, when the mother’s college career is brutally interrupted by McCarthyism. Her horizons narrowed by tight family finances, she escapes her impasse when she joins a wealthy friend in her relocation to Greece. Once in the country, she yields to the pull of the ancestral village, visiting with relatives. But she also participates in a different kind of social world. Residence in her friend’s exclusive enclave offers her a voyeuristic taste of the privileged life of wealthy, cosmopolitan Athenians.

Three decades later, the daughter visits Greece. As an Ivy-League college student first and a learned traveler later, she sets to explore a society that once shaped the women in her family. Leaving behind her Beverly Hills milieu she enters the social world of ancestral villages and towns where her relatives live. Not unlike her mother, she immerses herself in Athenian cosmopolitanism, this time inhabited by foreign models, American expatriates, and a repatriated, abusive Greek American lover.

The narrative interweaves the women’s lives, illustrating generational continuities and discontinuities. The forces pulling the generations apart are easy to identify. Dramatic class mobility propels the ethnic family away from the economic anguish of its immigrant past, landing the daughter “in the lap of luxury,” as the New York Times’ review of the novel puts it. At the same time, assimilation creates new tastes, rendering a host of old-world traditions irrelevant, even repulsive. The narrator rebels against certain ethnic practices such as attending Greek language school while she experiences others as fundamentally alien. “To eat a Greek ‘magiritsa’ is like poking through a corpse trussed up with onions,” the narrator lets out. “Was it any wonder that when it came to eating the real ‘magiritsa’ I gagged?” Immigrant food ways are unpalatable here, erecting a barrier to the third generation’s quest for roots.

But certain connections persist, meandering their way through the bulk of layers of discontinuities. Take for example the power of the immigrant language to animate the presence of the grandmother, nurturing intergenerational links. “I can fall into the rhythm of this speech and believe I understand the meaning of the words,” the narrator lets out. “Almost, almost, I am about to break into the blue world of the old language. I can feel my grandmother rising up in me, a perfect wave.” Yet the narrator does not always embrace the ancestral language. Early on in her life, she accepts with relief the option offered by the parents not to attend Saturday language classes, which interfered with weekend leisure.

Through formal study in college and immersion in the language, the narrator eventually develops an astute appreciation of the value and poeticity of Greek. Her appraisal of the sounds, flow, and subtleties of the language is lyrically sensuous and intimately affectionate: “(My mother’s) mouth takes the names of her aunts and turns them into endearments, flowing into their language … She has deep bells in her vowels; consonants form round roofs in her mouth. The sentences wash together with the thick fluidity of olive oil or honey”. Or, “The words in Greek sound even more lovely than in English: ‘Glyka,’ ‘Glykoula.’ Sweet, Little Sweet One, does not convey the taste in the mouth of … the sticky rind of melon marinated in sugar that the Greek words evoke.” Significantly, in a thread unexplored in the novel, it is Greek poetry that continues to offer a source of connection with Greek culture once the narrator’s quest for belonging in Greece shatters into emptiness.

With an equally sensual delight, the narrator attends to another line of continuity, one associated with the transmission of food habits in the family. In this route, time-tested recipes travel through generations of women and across geographical spaces, in the diaspora. “Throughout the Levant,” she writes, “on any given day, the aroma of ‘imam’ rises, a scent of onion, and oil, garlic and tomato.” Stories surrounding these recipes posses the dreamy quality of half-fact, half-legend; but their message is unambiguously clear. In the narrator’s family, “Imam Baildi” means “The Priest Fainted.” “Perhaps the priest was given a bite of bitter and sweet pleasure, and the power of everything behind the dish pushed him off his rock (where he was mediating), just for a moment.” Women are aware of the immense power food possesses to stir the senses; families attach creative nicknames to these recipes accordingly.

In exploring the social significance of ethnic food, the narrator turns, for a rare moment, into a staunch defender of the ways of the past; she advocates the tradition that recipes are best transmitted orally, taught through example. Listen to the undercurrent of assertiveness in the following string of sentences: “Recipes are passed hand to hand, mother to daughter. Girls helping their mothers to prepare simple meals acquire an unspoken knowledge in their palms and fingers.” “My mother’s … thump after rolling grapes is crisscrossed with calluses that withstand the brine.” “Looking at my own hands, (I see that) the skin along the fingers is starting to pucker and go tough.” Additional passages in the novel remarkably evoke how the modern tendency of writing down recipes represents a convenient shortcut that violates the ethos of communal food preparation, irreparably damaging ties across generations of women.

For the narrator, full immersion in the making of ethnic food earns her cultural knowledge while forging intergenerational links. In this kind of activity, smells, touches, scars, memories, and images leave inedible marks in her body. Ethnicity experienced in this manner – family members coalescing around a shared practice that engages all the senses – is deeply felt and remembered. Tacitly, the narrator offers a template, a sort of cultural lesson, to those readers who search for ways of transmitting ethnicity to their children.

The paths tracing the narrator’s connections with food and language crisscross within a larger route, the narrator’s quest for roots in Greece. This journey underlines the depth of the longing to connect with the places and people associated with family history. But the seemingly irresistible urge that initially pulled the narrator to Greece gradually loosens its grip; it eventually dissipates as the quest for roots leads the narrator to places where it is cultural distance that she experiences, not the desired connection. The longed-for union with the family’s origins remains unfulfilled; the quest for a home in the ancestral past remains elusive. Ultimately, the deep thirst for roots turns into profound alienation. The narrator ends up setting in motion a biting cultural critique, particularly of Greek patriarchy, eventually leaving Greece. Not unlike her experience with the “magiritsa,” the yearning for full belonging via roots will never materialize.

What is then the significance of the past for the narrator? I will only trace a single trail along these lines, one that intersects with the novel’s feminist dimension: the narrator’s resentful accusation that Greek official histories as well as mythology exclude, silence or misrepresent women. The author has a score to settle in particular with Greek ancient mythology, which, as she poignantly charges, portrays women as passive and weak.

The narrator ventures to rewrite the myths in order to correct their misplaced representations. In her retelling, the versions portray women as strong, wise and powerful, mutually supportive and independent. In this respect, she invents an ethnic past that women can use as a model to empower themselves and craft their own life trajectories. Hence her motto, “Every woman needs a story.” Positive stories about the past offer a tapestry upon which women may draw to weave their own stories of personal fulfillment.

If the reader wonders why the narrator allows herself to be subjected to an abusive sexual relationship, it will help to recall the narrator’s view of her story as a deliberate construction, not a reality in itself. One could attribute a didactic purpose in the recounting of this experience, in all its shocking details. The lesson to be learned may have to do with the profound power of erotic desire to reconcile itself to the exercise of male abuse. The narrator underlines the vital need to overcome such passion though her telling of this process remains on the surface. Once it is read against the narrator’s references to Greek mythology, the traumatic affair cautions women about the dangers of certain relationships, urging alertness against oppression.

“The Priest Fainted” may dazzle readers with its insights and richness of language. In a novel where the narrator stresses the power of stories to shape identity, the author invests in the craft of writing accordingly. But this book may equally irritate and annoy for the superficial treatment of many of its insights. There are simply too many threads, too many trails that are only touched on the surface, fleetingly mentioned, trivially engaged with, and then forgotten; their possible interrelations remain suspended, unexplored. How does, for instance, the narrator’s ability to discern distinct American and Greek views of history entangle with her quest for identity? The fact that the novel consciously organizes itself around loosely connected fragments; and the narrator’s position that knowledge of the past is fundamentally incomplete, should not grant the license for convenient narrative closures, and the reduction of serious issues to glittering aphorisms.

Enter the book and be prepared for additional challenges. The telling of the story may disorient some readers. To be sure, the memoir-like aspect of the novel will anchor your reading experience. Structured as a series of poetic entries in a diary, parts of the narrative are crisply clear. But lucidity works alongside with ways of telling that may exceed a reader’s comfort level. A mere couple of pages into the novel, you will find yourself in a shifting literary universe. The narrative is laced with abstract metaphors, often fired up in rapid succession. Buckle up for additional challenges. As the novel lacks linear plot, you will have to meander through a narrative that moves back and forth through time and across space. Be ready to stretch your reading alertness in order to connect the various narrative fragments.

As this novel encourages women to fashion lives of their own making, it will no doubt earn the praise of some feminists for its agenda to empower women. Yet the narrator’s brand of feminism may unsettle feminists of a different persuasion. In weaving a story of self-liberation, the narrator haunts Athenian “clubs favored by models,” hunting, as she puts it, in places where good looks and sexuality earn women free drinks and flirtatious partners. Is this a kind of female empowerment, as some have argued, or is it untroubled conformity to the rules of the beauty and desire industry?

One must also attend to the novel’s undercurrents of silence. Unexplored remains the thread of the grandmother’s political activism, tantalizingly evoked: “My mother says she still has her mother’s union card; she promises to send it to me. … (a) promise unfulfilled.” It is hard to miss the explosive silence clothing this trail. The narrator’s search for roots does not include the interest to excavate the story connecting the grandmother with labor struggles. Her quest for roots centers on the display and overcoming of personal wounds, not the telling of economic abuses, past and present. Clearly, the agenda of self-empowerment does not include attention to the wider social structure. The grandmother’s participation in the labor movement cannot possibly square with the daughter’s passion for self-discovery in Athenian expatriate hubs, the ancestral village, and the Greek islands. To recover the dramas of working-class immigrants as well as alternative cultural connections one must look elsewhere.

[Note: This review was originally published in The National Herald, Book Supplement, December 20, 2008: 20–21.]

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Νεοϋρκέζικα Ρούχα, Φανταχτερά Γυαλιστερά (GRAMUP 7)

«Στο μυαλό μου όμως είχα άλλα σχέδια. Να θωρακιστώ για το Γυμνάσιο ψυχολογικά, γιατί το ηθικό μου σερνόταν σαν ομφάλιος λώρος γαϊδούρας λεχώνας, και να στείλω στίχους μου σε διαγωνισμό του λαϊκού περιοδικού Ντομινό, το οποίο μελετούσε ενδελεχώς μια γειτόνισσα μοδίστρα, ειδικευμένη να μεταποιεί τα ρούχα που μας έστελναν οι συγγενείς από τη Νέα Υόρκη - συνήθως νάιλον και εξαιρετικά λαμέ. Μερικά ήταν τόσο γυαλιστερά –κι αυτά ακριβώς προτιμούσε η μαμά μου– που, όταν έβγαινε στο δρόμο φορώντας τα, οι τυφλοί αποκτούσαν το φως τους και οι μη τυφλοί το έχαναν» (45-46).

Ξανθούλης, Γιάννης. 2009. Η Εκδίκηση της Σιλάνας. Ελληνικά Γράμματα.

Monday, November 8, 2010

«Το Τρίτο Στεφάνι» στη Νέα Υόρκη ...(GRAMUP 6)

Στην αυτοβιογραφία του, η οποία εκδόθηκε μεταθανάτια, ο συγγραφέας Κώστας Ταχτσής αναφέρεται στην

«άρνηση των δυο–τριών ελληνικών βιβλιοπωλείων της Νέας Υόρκης όχι ν΄αγοράσουν, αλλά ακόμα και να δεχτούν παρακαταθήκη τα εκατό αντίτυπα της άτυχης εκείνης πρώτης ελληνικής έκδοσης (του Τρίτο Στεφάνι), που είχα υπεραισιόδοξα κουβαλήσει μαζί μου ...»

Το Φοβερό Βήμα (επιμέλεια Θανάσης Θ. Νιάρχος), Εξάντας. Αθήνα, 1989. σ. 226.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Νίκος Σπάνιας

«Όταν βασίλευε στην Αμερική ο περίφημος Μακάρθυ κι άρχιζε ο ψυχρός πόλεμος, ήρθα στην Αμερική. Πώς ήρθα; Εξ αιτίας του 'Γυάλινου Κόσμου', ο οποίος είχε εκδοθεί από τη ΄Δωδώνη΄. Γνώριζα τον Κάρολο Κουν και μου λέει: 'Θα μου κάνεις μια μερακλίδικη μετάφραση΄. Το έργο είχε επιτυχία., έπαιζαν η Λαμπέτη, ο ίδιος ο Κουν, ο Λυκούργος Καλλέργης και μια ηθοποιός με μεγάλο ταλέντο που έχει πεθάνει, η Μαρία Γιαννακοπούλου. Όταν παίχθηκε το έργο ο Τενεσή Γουίλιαμς έγραψε ένα γράμμα στην Πρεσβεία, είχε βρει τη διεύθυνσή μου από τον ατζέντη του ή τον αντιπρόσωπό του και δεν είχα κανένα πρόβλημα να έρθω εδώ (στην Αμερική).
Όταν ήρθα, το 1952, ήταν πολύ δύσκολο να μείνει κανείς και έκανα έναν από τους λεγόμενους 'έικονικούς' ή ψεύτικους γάμους. Έτσι μπόρεσα κι έμεινα, γιατί μου άρεσε η Αμερική.
Μου άρεσε η ελευθερία, να παίρνεις το αυτοκίνητο και να πηγαίνεις από τη Νέα Υόρκη στην Καλιφόρνια, χωρίς να σε σταματάει ο αστυφύλακας, όπως μας σταμάταγε με το Λειβαδίτη όταν μέναμε στο Μεταξουργείο και φτάναμε στο Κολωνάκι. Μας έλεγε: 'Τι θέλετε εδώ;'
Ήθελα να μείνω, γιατί ήμουνα πολύ φτωχός στην Ελλάδα, με τρύπια παπούτσια, δεν είχα λεφτά να κόψω τα μαλλιά μου. Είχα πολλά μαλλιά τότε, μακάρι να τα ΄χα και τώρα. Ντρεπόμουν να λέω στη μητέρα μου: 'Δεν μου δίνεις λεφτά να πάω στον κουρέα, να κόψω τα μαλλιά μου; Θα με δει ο Πρεσβευτής, να βάλει τη σφραγίδα...'.
Από εκεί που φοβόμουν στην Ελλάδα και δεν ήξερα να κάνω τίποτα, δεν ήξερα να οδηγώ αυτοκίνητο, δεν ήξερα γραφομηχανή, δεν έξερα πως να γίνει κανείς μπάρμαν, τα έκανα όλα αυτά, όλες αυτές τις χειρωνακτικές δουλειές, φυσικά με τον κρυφό πόθο (μια που τρόπον τινά ήρθα ξυπόλητος από την Ελλάδα), να γυρίσω με λεφτά. Αλλά έμεινα από το 1952 και δεν ξαναπήγα πίσω.
Πήγα κι έζησα στο Χάρλεμ. ΄Εκανα το λάθος να πάω. Ήταν ορισμένες από τις αποτυχίες της ζωής μου. Και μετά είπα: πρέπει να πάω στην Αστόρια, να συγκεντρωθώ για να γράψω.
Επειδή είμαι τύπος αντιφατικός, επαναλαμβάνω πως ό,τι ξέρω Ελληνικά το ξέρω κι εγγλέζικα, αλλά είναι ίσως λόγοι συναισθηματικοί που με κάνουν και γράφω ελληνικά. Άλλωστε μια μικρή αναγνώριση που είχα στην Ελλάδα, την οφέιλω στα ελληνικά γραψίματά μου...»

Δύο ποιήματά του:


Όλα θα γίνουν σκηνικό της μνήμης.
Τ’ αργόκοβο χέρι κι’ αυτό
το τόσο ανθρώπινο, γαλανό βλέμμα
να δραπετεύει υγρό σαν κύμα.
Το φεγγάρι πλατύ και στοργικό
σαν επιστήθιος φίλος, πάνω μας.
Όλα θα γίνουν σκηνικό της νύχτας.
βουίζει με λάμψη σα σμάρι ανενόχλητο
ο πολιτισμός.
Μόνο η δειλία δεν γίνεται το τέλειο πεπρωμένο μας
καθώς ορθοί, στο άπειρο, ανάμεσα σε δυο κόσμους
πειθαρχούμε σε μιαν άλλη επιταγή.
Μη φύγεις στα μυστικά οροπέδια της ψυχής.
Τώρα που σμίγουν οι σφενδόνες της φωτιάς με το σεισμό,
ας τιναχτούμε με τη γέφυρα,
το καύχημα του περασμένου αιώνα,
ας βουλιάξουμε με κόκκους αλάτι στα μάτια
παίρνοντας μαζύ μας σαν τελευταίο όραμα
το χέρι της Ελευθερίας γεμάτο λειχήνες
πριν απολιθωθούμε στην αιώνια ανωνυμία
του έρωτα.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Honoring the Day of the Dead through Art

Sunday, October 24, 2010

La Bruja (Lila Downs)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Empowering Greek American Women

A Review of Constance Callinicos' American Aphrodite: Becoming Female in Greek America (Pella Publishing, 1990).

By Yiorgos Anagnostou

American Aphrodite: Becoming Female in Greek America turns private dramas into public documents. It documents the experiences of those Greek American women who were oppressed by ethnic patriarchy. It tells the stories of those who have felt the iron grip of male domination and its power to put down women; to mute, insult and render them inferior and unworthy. Its author records the far-reaching consequences of psychological and physical abuses against women. Viscerally felt, patriarchy shattered dreams, crushed desires, crumbled lives, dwarfed ambitions, stripped away self-confidence, fermented rebellion; it traumatized and oppressed. Family relations were injured, and immigrant culture was spited. Patriarchy exiled women doubly, both from family and ethnicity.

The book builds on an oral history project, which consists of the author’s interviews with a total of 111 women spanning three generations. It gives voice to the “picture bride” generation of the 1920s and 1930s and to the daughters and granddaughters of that cohort. The sample does not include post-World-War II immigrant women, as the author makes clear. For her research, Callinicos scoured the country between 1978 and 1982, looking to interview women who grew up in various places in the United States but who shared the social background of early 20th century rural Greece. Separated by geography but connected through an “almost identical upbringing,” these three generations of women “were acculturated,” Callinicos distressingly points out, “as Greek peasant girls, first, last and always.” It was the transplanted Greek village in America, the “horio,” which overwhelmingly defined their existence.

There is a personal component in the book as well, with the author disclosing parts of her own story as well as her family’s history. Briefly yet poignantly, she draws the portrait of her immigrant grandmother. Familiar only with bits and pieces of the family’s distant past, Callinicos puts together the fragments to reconstruct her grandmother’s world, a peasant way of life wholly transplanted in 1920s America. Readers are told a story of uninterrupted continuity, where the ways of the Greek village survived intact to entirely define the life of an immigrant woman in America. “In fact,” the author writes, “my grandmother did live out her life in the village, even though her body was here in America.”

Callinicos, a professed feminist, also undertakes a dejected appraisal of her mother’s life. American-born, vibrant, and “gifted with a talent for music and a beautiful voice,” Mary Zervas Triantafillou aspired to “become a musician and teacher,” an ambition that was thwarted by traditionalist parents. Despite her struggle to escape from parental control, Mary ultimately succumbed to an arranged marriage, ending up as an unpaid waitress and cashier in her husband’s restaurant, and a dutiful “Good Greek Mother and Homemaker.”

This is a book driven by deeply felt emotions. Anger layers it. Passionate resolve motivates its writing. Frustration textures it. Tears stain its pages. And the conviction that it matters, at all cost, to tell its story animates its purpose. The author’s decision to include lengthy interview material affords a direct glimpse into this nexus of these feelings. Intimately confessional, the numerous testimonies converge on a single point: they sorrowfully document and bitterly indict Greek patriarchy for limiting the lives of women. A chorus of women’s voices expresses an avalanche of grievances. Women were denied opportunities for education; shamed for their non-conformity; silenced as inferior; humiliated, again and again, because they happened to be women, an identity which patriarchy devalues.

The author joins the chorus, recalling episodes of her own experience growing up in Greek America. She brings attention to ordinary sociability where the ideology of patriarchy infuses the worlds (and words) of men and is internalized by women. Toasting newlyweds for a son (not a daughter); rehashing proverbs about women as sexually vulnerable and dangerous; treating sons preferentially. It is in this kind of everyday incidents that patriarchy works most effectively to dominate women. It makes it appear natural that women represent a burden. It is as if it goes without saying that women are lesser than men. In the context of the honor-shame culture, where non-conformity to traditional ideals brings shame to the entire family and compromises its honor, patriarchy requires that women must be supervised and controlled.

The accretion of ordinary insults against women ultimately weaves a suffocating social reality. The author informs readers that women’s asphyxiation constituted a grim reality even in the late 1980s and 1990s. Ominously, she reports: “The Greek world in America remains largely androcentric. Many (women) feel it is a world they are not inclined to continue to inhabit or perpetuate. Simply put, they leave.”

Callinicos offers acute insights on how patriarchy is transmitted. She understands that this ideology can be found where least suspected, in the pleasurable experience of folk dancing for instance. Consider the reasons why she recalls an early dance lesson from her immigrant grandmother. Her purpose is to show that this instruction is more than learning how to dance; it is learning, in fact, how to become a traditional Greek woman. The young Callinicos is instructed to dance, “delicately and modestly. Never (to) kick the feet up off the ground.” The authoritative admonition continues, drawing a connection between dance and gender: “Too much like a man that way,” the grandmother cautions. “This is a woman’s dance. A little lift of the skirt, a modest woman’s way. Never too much.”

Callinicos ponders the meaning of this warning, contemplating how the immigrant past shaped the identities of Greek Americans. Reflection leads her to recognize that traditions are far from innocuous; they may perpetuate women’s domination. Traditional expectations of folk dancing, for example, encourage male dancers to display daring, assertive bravado, and bold aggressiveness; in contrast, it demands that their female counterparts adhere to modesty, self-restraint, and discipline, norms that define appropriate behavior throughout a woman’s public life. Expressive traditions contribute to women’s subjugation.

Significantly, while the author indicts immigrant culture, she is not willing to altogether abandon it. Ethnic food and dancing still function as sources of pleasure, meaningful sociability, and cherished intergenerational remembering. At the same time, it is not possible for women to authentically connect with ethnicity, Callinicos suggests, unless they form their own exclusive, all-female circles, away from the authoritative male gaze. Here, the author borrows a page from a specific brand of feminism, influential in the 1970s and the 1980s. It was common for women to establish their own separate places to socialize, create, and work, shutting off the males whose demands, controlling attitudes, censoring comments, and sexism were seen as inhibiting women’s liberation.

It is from this feminist angle that Callinicos advocates resistance to patriarchy. Adopting the perspective of an activist, she urges women to battle those ideas and behaviors that subjugate them. As a template for future action, she offers a personal story, which unfolds in the exclusive company of women who gathered to celebrate the birthday of her sister. This festive occasion is turned into an act of rebellion when women violate the patriarchal restrictions imposed upon them through folk dancing. The narration of this event overflows with the cathartic exuberance one experiences in the act of subverting structures of domination. With “the hypnotic melodies of the clarinet” and the “incessant beating of the drum” (288) as the sensory background, the leader of the folk circle dance appropriates male behavior and creates an emerging imagery that changes a tradition that has restrained women. The woman dancer leaping with “her billowing skirts swirling at her ankles” (288), kicking up her legs, and shouting, redefines tradition in women’s terms.

Documenting and critiquing patriarchy exemplifies a particular feminist strategy, namely consciousness-raising. Revealing the workings of patriarchy explains the real causes of women’s domination. In this manner, women who were taught to blame themselves as intrinsically unworthy are now in a position to understand what brought about their condition (and conditioning). Exposing the causes of their domination empowers women. It provides a language through which they can speak back and resist patriarchy in all its guises.

A subversive component in American Aphrodite is bound to generate controversy, as it bulldozes away a cultural taboo in Greek America, the absolute prohibition against airing one’s dirty linen. Violating this code of silence assaults the principles of the honor-shame culture: Transgressions from cultural ideals must be kept hidden, away from the prying public. Predictably, interviewees made a point to keep their anonymity, to avoid exposing their family. It is the making of the author’s story public that defies the principles of honor. It is also the decision to publish narratives about duplicity in Greek America that risks ethnic stigmatization. Ethnic groups are conscious of their historical vulnerability, exercising caution to keep “dark secrets” away from public view. The airing of such secrets raises a politically and ethically sensitive issue, namely how an author introduces and discusses ethnic self-critique.

Throughout the book women’s narratives of victimization powerfully cascade, leaving no doubt about the reality of patriarchy in Greek America, past and present. Yet the persuasive case laced by the testimonies should not distract the readers’ attention from a serious fault of the book. Callinicos suggests that the sample of interviewed women represents the whole. It is precisely this erroneous assumption that enables her to portray Greek American families of early 20th century rural origins as a homogeneous entity across time and space. Incredibly, Greek Americans are depicted as frozen in time, wrapped up in their past, mechanically reproducing peasant patriarchy. At least some immigrant families displayed remarkable cultural versatility and openness to new ideas where caring, non-patriarchal males encouraged their daughters' creative proclivities. In the piece “The Twined Muses: Ethel and Jenne Magafan,” for example, Steve Frangos takes note of an immigrant father from a small village near Mesinia who “recognized and warmly supported” his daughters’ “artistic gifts.” This portrait alerts us about the existence of a male Greek America far more diverse than the one reconstructed in the book. As it is evident in my discussion, “American Aphrodite” greatly contributes to the struggle of women’s liberation. But in neglecting to take into account the heterogeneity of peasant families the book commits a disservice to Greek America and to the wider reading public, which it explicitly identifies with the “Americans who want to know her (the Greek American woman).”

In this regard, reading American Aphrodite presents a twofold challenge. On the one hand, it calls upon the reader to enter a world that devastated women, and to reflect on how to actively battle patriarchy. On the other hand, a critical reading should resist accepting that world as the only ethnic reality.

[Note: This review was originally published in The National Herald, Book Supplement, February 23, 2008: 10–11.]