Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Long Live Zorbas!

(note the Zorba performance with a twist of civic responsibility)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Greek–American Poetry – Dean Kostos Interview

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Revisiting "The Priest Fainted"

Rachel Lea, a student in my course on Greek America I taught this Spring, wrote her term paper on Catherine Temma Davidson's novel The Priest Fainted (Holt, 1998). I am posting this paper not only for its analytical insights, but also for its value as an example of how an individual like Rachel reclaims heritage through literature (see the conclusion of the paper in particular). Her paper adds yet another critical layer to commentary on Davidson's novel. For my own take on this work see, immigrations-ethnicities-racial.blogspot.com/2010/11/point-of-view-of-third-generation-greek.html

Rachel has kindly granted me permission to share her paper in this blog. I include it here with no major editorial revisions, though I have omitted the introduction.

A Hyphenated–American
by Rachel Lea

Catherine Temma Davidson’s novel, The Priest Fainted, paints a different story [exploring ethnicity beyond collective belonging]. Davidson’s unnamed heroine is a Jewish-Greek-American who practices neither Judaism nor Orthodoxy, grew up in California, knows only the most rudimentary Greek, and whose only glimpse into her ethnicity is food and occasionally visits to her relatives in America and in Greece. She claims only the superficial of characteristics of ethnic identity, food and family. And yet, her story is a vivid account of walking in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother before her. “How far back are you willing to dig?” (163) asks the protagonist, and that seems to be a question of ethnic identity. How connected a person feels with their ethnicity is equal to the amount of information they have relating to the collective and personal experiences of their forbearers and some have more than others. Those with less are required to dig further, find more, and make more connections.

In the opening of her novel the author describes a scenario engulfed in the sights, scents and tastes of imam baildi, a dish whose name translates to “the priest fainted,” (and is also known as mousaka) that evokes a familiarity ingrained in the protagonist’s heart, mind, body and soul. “There are as many versions of the recipe as there are bays and mountains…Recipes are passed hand to hand, mother to daughter…an unspoken knowledge in their palms and fingers.”(4) Food has a strong connection to ethnicity for Davidson’s character as it was the only aspect of Greek life she experienced in her youth. The regaling of family recipes is so graphic you can feel the salty grape leaf brine chap your own hands, the fragile filo between your fingertips, and see the eye floating in the post Lenten celebration soup magiritsa. Such detail is not equally bestowed upon other facets of Davidson’s story.

Nonetheless, the imagination is not left wanting throughout the novel despite Davidson’s matter-of-fact description of her heroine’s early experiences with her Greek heritage. At the first opportunity, she quit Greek school, attended church only on Palm Sunday and Easter, and visited maternal relatives in the summer to her chagrin. In her youth, she identified as American and her Hellenic relatives were at the mercy of her razor-sharp adolescent criticism with their “crooked teeth”, “frizzy hair”, and “fuller figures” feeding her “oily meats” and “tooth-numbingly sweet desserts” (27).

Later, the character returns voluntarily while in college as a student of Modern Greek and quickly realizes the Greece she was being guided through was not the Greece she wanted to know. Leaving the group, the nineteen-year-old sets off to spend the summer with cousins who whet her appetite to return a third time. It is then that her ethnic sojourn sets forth and the thirst for familial history is quenched. Meanwhile, she realizes there is History in the sense of temples, agoras, men in togas staring below at their constituents, and there is Herstory in the sense of the daily lives of women in a man’s world where sisters, wives, and daughters are protected for the jewels they are, but never allowed to shine publically. Such is the dichotomy faced by Greek women.

As a Greek-American woman, Davidson’s heroine is afforded some leeway, much like her cigarette-smoking mother before her (women smoking was commonly frowned upon in Greek culture), and her eccentricities are embraced by the Greek law of hospitality philoxenia. However, in her experiences living with relatives under the pretense of staying in Greece indefinitely, the new arrival faced the daunting realities of transforming herself into the Grecian statue many women embody. “As a potential new Greek, a returning daughter, I had to learn their rules. The first was that women never venture far from home,” she states, expressing the conflict of her American feminist independence with Greek social norms. And yet, she gains strength from the actuality of the position Greek women hold:

"The women work hard and say little. When they get old, they have worn off their beauty—dressed in black, faces like leather, their hands rocky and gnarled… Women who have been treated like children most of their lives – first by their fathers, then by their husbands and sons – take revenge. As their men become more child-like, they toughen up. The older they grow, the stronger Greek women become, muscles like iron, sometimes with a hint of a beard. Fattened on the bad habits of power, their men become vain, petulant and weak" (70).

It is the women who hold the power in the end, not the men, in village life. Lives of managing a household, performing laborious chores without a peep, being good wives and mothers leaves them stronger, more capable than the men who seek to control them.

Meanwhile, the young woman searches for her own identity obscured by her lack of information pertaining to her own familial roots, picking bits and pieces of her experiences and fitting them into a puzzle larger than herself. The whole of the novel is a collection of stories from her personal expeditions and those of her mother. The latter is patched into the story following the main plot, drawing parallels between the daughter and her mother. The heroine wonders why she was never let into those aspects of her mother’s life. Then it becomes clear. “My mother has made a choice, has kept what she has wanted from her mother’s past and discarded what tasted too sour or cost too much (219).” Alas, the life of the hyphenated ethnic, retaining that which is convenient because the primary society (in this case American) either allows or demands (in the case of early immigrants) the change. Discovering her mother’s omissions, the young woman is able to connect large parts of the puzzle, creating a recognizable outline of familiarity upon which we the readers are only able to speculate. She too has picked and chosen which aspects she wants to accept and which she would prefer to discard.

At the same time, Davidson asserts, “The beginning of a story tells so much” (56), discussing the two Greek creation myths of the world, one the triumphant Zeus toppling his Titan infant-eating father, the other of a lonely Rhea who ends her cosmic boredom by separating night and day, land from water. Through erotic dances with a wind of her own creation, they produce the luscious green and plethora of creatures that inhabit the earth. This version is generally dismissed as a creation myth by classic Greek Mythology because of Rhea’s chaotic characteristics. Davidson, however, uses this example not only for its earthly establishment but also as an ancient representation of strong women being pushed into the background for the glorification of the masculine Zeus.

Davidson endows a stronger role of women in her own renditions of ancient myths and mocks to some extent the masculinity that is emphasized nearly to the point of comedy: “Hercules with his overdeveloped arm muscles, his massive thighs, pumped on hormones, strides through the legends, wiping out monsters with long eyelashes" (87). Women either take the role of a weak, emotional being or venomous “snake-headed or scaly-clawed” creature that prefers the sweet flesh of lesser heroes. Formerly ordained as weak or portraying male ideas of femininity, allegorical women transform in Davidson’s rewrites into intricate goddesses whispering all the secrets of their sex through the veil of male-centric mythology. She makes their stories real, their personalities human, more so than their original depiction, and weaves her personal experiences into them. These new versions empower her as a woman and a Greek one at that, gathering strength from the newly freed heroines whose learned lessons apply to her own identity. They are a vessel through which she rationalizes her life and choices much like the ancient Greeks explaining natural mysteries via the same myths in their original format.

Gradually, men take their place in the story. The protagonist encounters them throughout her travels and some take stronger holds than others. Her fling in the country while staying with her cousins during her collegiate summer abroad pale in comparison with her relationship with Steve, a returned expatriate Greek basketball player. Intensely sexual and physical, their coupling seems an abuse the young woman is more than happy to oblige paired with a pleasure and release from the strong feminine self she asserts to the outside . He provides control and direction sexually and provides a sense of possessiveness she enjoys. However, when she sits waiting in Steve’s living room to invite him to the beach, she hears the distinct voice of another woman and the relationship turns from a comfortable possessiveness to a painful abuse of the mind. She vows after that moment that he isn’t worthy of her and yet ends up in his bed time and time again. He is the Narcissus to her Echo, only in love with himself, ignorant of her loving repetition of his words. Finally, on her last date with Steve the heroine comes to the undeniable conclusion that she must leave him when he questions an adjacent woman about her opinion of sex with other people. A mysterious Dark Knight from another table states that, “Love is something sacred, not a game” and the protagonist quickly creates an excuse to leave the group and escapes out the front door.

Similarly, the young woman’s mother encounters the same situation. A successful lawyer in Athens and a moderately successful dentist in the rural villages of her family nesting grounds vie for her affection. Both offer stability, but only one makes her feel like “a nymph, childlike and petite,” the lawyer. She sets her mind to marry him out of the fear of an uncertain abyssal future, especially since she had been denied her diploma for approving a Communist Frenchwoman to speak on campus during the McCarthy Red Scare. She had no other perspective suitors offering the standard of living and comfort the lawyer did, and though trapped, she relished in his possessiveness in the same way her daughter does with Steve. That is until the lawyer’s brother arrives requesting a dowry of fifty thousand dollars under the presumption that Americans bathe in money. She laughs at the absurdity of “the old-fashioned and obsolete Greek nature,” as well as how close she came to “the old and rusty trap” (197) of a Greek marriage, a possession before a person. She just barely evades its snapping jaws and laughs in its face. Much like her daughter, a vicious cycle is ended before the female participant loses her personal identity to become an object in her husband’s home.

Overall, Davidson’s novel sketches a map for other hyphenated American ethnics, like me, to follow. The process of ethnic identification by her heroine includes recognition of herself, exploring both present and past and accepting what stories, traditions, recipes, make up the current self and rejecting that which does not apply, whatever that may be. The modern hyphenated ethnic is an evolutionary adaptation of the original immigrant traveler, embodying that which is American and yet preserving relics of a personal and ethnic nature. Be it a recipe passed down through the tentative observation of the woman’s mother or actual physical participation, a mirroring story to that of her mother, or rewriting classic myths paired with their original counterparts, the heroine’s ethnic identity is a powerfully feminine one and her journey an example of how far she was willing to dig in order to connect with her ethnicity. “Whether or not you picture [Ariadne] collapsed in a heap of shame or lying on the grass, head against the flank of her lover [Europa], chewing on a long piece of grass, determines everything else. Endings Count (229).” Taking all she has learned and all that I have learned from her, my own path to ethnic discovery seems clearer, the brush cleared away and guilt removed for not practicing the Orthodox faith or not speaking the language of my Greek ancestors. I begin to imagine my own great grandmother travelling across an ocean, newly married to my great-grandfather, bound for Frankfurt, Indiana to open a shoe shining parlor and shoe repair shop. My grandmother is a first generation Greek-American and yet seems so disconnected from her ethnicity. It was my father who carried on the female tradition of passing on secret family recipes while watching and video-taping my great-grandmother diligently wrap the filo dough around a broomstick. My mother, a non-Greek, became the dolmades goddess and has been called upon to roll nearly five hundred for my aunt’s wedding. To this day, we don’t measure in specific amounts, every rendition slightly different from the one before as we attempt to hone the evasive taste of a Greece we’ve never set foot upon and of a recipe nearly lost in time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Greek Cinema in Hollywood