Saturday, January 12, 2019

Framing a Book Project, Bringing into Conversation Italian American and Greek American Studies

Transcultural Encounters, Comparative Inquiries:  Italian Americans and Greek Americans

This volume contributes to American ethnic and immigration studies by bringing into conversation scholars working in the fields of Italian American and Greek American studies. The aim is to move beyond the “single group approach,” which privileges the study of ethnic singularity, to explore these two groups in relation to each other. We propose to bring into focus cross-cultural interfaces and to inquire comparatively about similarities and differences in cultural representations associated with these two groups. 

Our book project contributes to these developments from a particular angle, namely transcultural and comparative scholarship. We are interested in promoting the understanding of Italian Americans and Greek Americans through the study of their interactions and juxtapositions. 

Two perspectives organize this volume: First, we are interested in exploring Greek and Italian U.S. transcultural encounters. Italian Americans and Greek Americans have lived in the same neighborhoods, worked in the same workplaces, loved each other, married with each other, participated in labor strikes together. They play music together. Did they find inspiration in each other’s cultural expressions? What do we know about the fields of their interactions? They have certainly been classified under the same rubric as “white ethnics,” Michael Novak’s infamous PIGS (Poles, Italians, Greeks and Slavs), an ideological construction which was pivotal in the identity politics of the 1970s. But how did Italian American and Greek American lives intersect in everyday social life? How did they negotiate their mobility to the suburbs in relation to each other?

Second, we adopt a comparative perspective so that the practices of one ethnic group will illuminate the other, and vice versa. Both groups have built robust religious and various educational institutions. In what ways their adaptations and cultural expressions are similar, and in what ways are they different in specific contexts? How do we account for the similarities and differences? How have they been representing themselves, and in what manner have they negotiated representations of their identities construed by Others? All-in-all, in what ways did Italian American and Greek American histories and experiences converge or diverge?

Taking cues from concepts such as contact zones and borderlands, we are interested in understanding the social dynamic–processes involving negotiation, conflict, cooperation, solidarity, love, cultural exchanges–that have marked these encounters. We are interested in identifying differences, similarities, and intersections across the historical experiences of these groups. We wish to map specific encounters and comparisons to find out what they tell us about American society as a transcultural terrain.

In addition, our proposed book contributes to the fields of transcultural and comparative studies. Our contributors will be reflecting on the practice of transcultural and comparative analysis they employ, and will be generating insights based on that analysis.

This proposed book is multi-disciplinary. It features scholarship from the perspectives of architecture, ethnomusicology, education, history, cultural and literary studies, film studies as well as whiteness studies. It examines the production of ethnicity in the context of American political culture as well as popular culture, both visual (Kojak, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Moonstruck) and “low brow” crime fiction (Domenic Stansberry and George Pelecanos). It includes analysis of literature (Annie Liontas/Paola Corso; Elia Kazan, Eleni Sikelianos, Jeffrey Eugenides/Gay Talese, Gregory Corso, John Fante). It involves comparative work on religious architecture, transoceanic circulation of racialized categories (Australia, United States), translocal interconnections (Newark, NJ), the formation of pan-Mediterranean identities, and the making of the immigrant past in documentaries from Italian and Greek filmmakers. Although there have been a couple of books comparing European American ethnic and immigrant groups, notably in labor history and literature, this volume is the first of its kind, as far we can tell, for initiating a multidisciplinary transcultural and comparative study across European Americans.

This book then brings to the fore nationally recognized cultural texts, authors and artistic expression as well as lesser known texts and histories that mostly circulate in ethnic and diaspora contexts. Brought in transcultural relation and juxtaposition to each other, both visible and less visible cultural products widen our understanding of Italian and Greek ethnicities and the ways in which they negotiate their cultural presence in American culture via self-representation and engage with representations of their identity by Others. 

Written in a non-specialized language accessible to the general public, Transcultural Encounters, Comparative Inquiries: Italian Americans and Greek Americans is a book of interest to a wide range of publics: scholars in various academic fields, including American studies, ethnic studies, and diaspora studies. It will speak to Greek Americans and Italian Americans. It will also resonate with readers in Greece and Italy, who are increasingly interested in their diasporas. The book helps imagine new College courses in intra-ethnic European Americans, and new trajectories in European American scholarship. It is positioned to serve as a reference point in future discussion of transcultural and comparative ethnic studies.

This conversation is necessary for several reasons, one certainly in the context of a wider academic discourse that often tends to undervalue the study of European Americans. Seen as tenuously holding on to surface identities and largely assimilated into “whiteness,” Italian Americans and Greek Americans have been marginalized by a significant thread in the American academy. Italian American and Greek American studies have certainly been effective, the former more so than the latter, in bringing into focus the vibrant cultural production of their respective ethnic groups. Indeed, one might speak about a proliferation of research on food, community history, diaspora affiliations, transnational connections, literature and popular culture among others. Scholars have responded to the devaluation of their subject matter by performing its value. They bring to the fore the arts, cultural expressivity, and histories of these two groups, demonstrating how Italian and Greek American ethnicities keep shaping American society and their respective historical homelands.

This is rarely practiced in the scholarship of European Americans. We seek, as we mentioned, to initiate a broader conversation that moves beyond seeing ethnicity as singularity. In this move we come closer to ethnographic and historical realities where immigrants and individuals with hyphenated identities do not live insular lives, or negotiate solely in relation with American culture. They interact, collaborate, clash, and affiliate with each other in various modes and degrees. This fertile transcultural field merits that we place it at the center of analysis. The aim is to illuminate new and unexpected facets of Greek- and Italian ethnicity in the United States.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

For a volume to be co-edited by Yiorgos Anagnostou, Yiorgos Kalogeras, Theodora Patrona