CULTURE

Greek-American writing the focus of Mondo Greco

For several years now, the semiannual journal Mondo Greco has served as a useful outlet for non-academic English-language writings on the Greek world. Published in the USA by Wire Press, the journal has always had a transatlantic identity; now, it has taken this element a step further by focusing on the Greek-American experience itself in its latest, double edition (6/7, Fall 2001-Spring 2002). The bulk of this volume (some 300 pages) and its cost ($20, or around 24 euros, twice the normal price) alone testify to the sheer quantity of material available on this broad and potentially rich theme. This edition looks at this transatlantic relationship, as explored by writers who have faced the challenge, not only of moving in and understanding both cultures, but in relating the experience meaningfully to others. Assuming writers have sensitive antennae and a certain depth of understanding – the editorial logic seems to go – then their observations may reveal much about the special and longstanding ties that bind the two nations. «Seems» is an apt modifier, because this theme, while partly self-explanatory, is not spelled out. The editors have clearly opened a rich mine of material, yet offer no opening editorial or essay to tease out some common elements, or just to suggest a few themes for the reader’s attention. Thus in the process of avoiding heavy-handed editing, the editing task is largely abandoned. We don’t know why this theme was picked, or why now – September 11? A backlog of like submissions? And there is no explanation of the particular selections, although the subdivisions (fiction, travel, memoir, poetry, biography and obituary, and photography) are clear enough. One of the best things about this volume, its inclusiveness (along with creditable proofing and presentation), makes for an unabridged collection of varying quality. Still, it sheds much light on the writerly challenge of describing a sense of place, and dealing with dislocation and being torn (mentally and sometimes physically, thanks to jet lag and strange food) between cultures, when dual heritage pervades one’s very essence. Inevitably, most of the focus is on Greece, from a half-outsider, half-insider perspective. In some cases, this part-knowledge (e.g. with the language) is liberating and allows for incisive generalizations; for others, it is the source of frustration and pain. Most contributors avoid any «I’m-misunderstood-by-both-cultures» kind of lament, but the difficulties, as well as the benefits of such experiences and heritage, stand out. The very title of the sole anonymous essay, «Growing up Ethnic was no Bed of Roses,» speaks volumes. One of the more thoughtful pieces is Minas Savvas’s «The Vanishing of Conscious Hellenism,» which rather pessimistically discusses the future of Greek consciousness in the American milieu, not least because of the Church’s distancing itself from secular life. Yet, he captures a more widespread sentiment by asserting that «far from chauvinism, my Hellenism is an instinctive, patriotic love for a vulnerable, much-tormented, achievement-rich, little country where I first saw the sun’s light» (p. 72). Some pieces (e.g. Stratis Haviaras’s excerpted novel «Basil, Basil») look vividly at life in Greece’s past through one of those formidable family figures, in this case, Great Aunt Martha; or in the case of Constance Stellas’s «No Monkey Business,» her yiayia (grandmother), who «lived in her memories of Greece and with the ‘good’ people of the Atlantic City Greek community that she spoke to. It was a big enough village for her.» In the opening essay, Helen Papanikolas looks at an unorthodox repartee between a US-based Orthodox priest and a parishioner and at the oddities of being in a priest’s family in modern America. On the non-fiction side, Artemis Leontis spells out the appeal, but also the limits and occasional triteness, of much travel literature, where acts of movement like passing through airport customs can assume the gloss of a transcendental experience. Profundity and simply embarrassing oneself straddle two sides of an uncomfortably thin wedge when writing too closely of one’s own experiences. One well-known contributor is Nicholas Gage, with an excerpt from his book on Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis titled «Passage to Delphi,» which is rich with detail, although it is about neither Delphi nor a passage. More disarmingly, Joanna Panagiota Angelides relates the nostalgia of the old Hellenikon airport, and the many past reunions associated with it, something many can identify with. Such compilations, especially memoirs, can become repositories for castaway selections from larger works, or bits and pieces that never quite gelled into literary coherence. This again raises the question of editing, which involves selection and culling, but also asking writers to rethink their own work. Joan Marinakis Kaufman’s «The Early Years» and «America, America» by Paul Mitarachi seem somewhat self-focused, even though both are competently written and may have historical interest. Nick Papandreou similarly offers a first-person commentary that seems more like journal notations in search of a theme. Ioanna Carlsen also writes in the first person, but fills it out with dimensions of her family history and the inevitable deterioration of time. In Margot Demopoulos’s engaging «Ellis Island, October 1922:» «Men swaggered up and out, with sun-hardened mud from the village still caked on their boots. They had crossed the ocean dressed in sweat-soaked undershirts, hunched over backgammon boards in hot, cramped berths. Now, they fled the eight-berth cabins like wild mountain goats kicking up dust, eager and panting to climb.» Along with prose pieces are 11 poetry selections (three, rather unpoetically titled «Two Poems»). Penelope Karageorge’s «Island Inferno» reminds us that «Greece makes you sweat for its beauty. Even the water burns.» George Kalamaras explores generational changes, wondering what it’s like «to die far from your island / having never heard / the word ‘computer chip’ or ‘VCR’ or ‘History Channel’.» And Constantine Manos’s engaging photographs of the American East Coast and Crete round out the volume nicely. Clearly, the binational experience is fundamentally enriching and expansive, even if limiting as well as liberating through the challenge of dual understanding. The editors have done well to open up the theme to different perspectives and have presented it in an easily digestible form.