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.]

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