If you’re a writer, you no doubt know the dictum, “Write about what you know.” It remains sound advice. Another side, though, is equally valid — write about what you don’t know. It’s a means of exploration and discovery.
What’s Left takes that approach more than any of my earlier works. As an 11-year old, Cassia’s living in a financially secure extended family quite unlike any I’ve known intimately. She suffers a tragedy that prompts the action of the novel, again quite different from my own experience. Cassia tells most of the story in her teen years as she investigates the central questions in her life.
For me, this also required constructing a back story beginning with her great-grandparents and moving to the present. What do I know about running a restaurant, managing a family business, being Greek-American or Greek Orthodox, for that matter?
Well, as she advised me (and you readers) at one point, “You better be good to toads.”
I simply recorded what she dictated to me.
Read the book and you’ll see why.
I thought about “correcting” that to “You better be kind to toads,” but my sense is that it’s closer to what an 11- or 12-year-old may say under the circumstances.
To be honest, I don’t remember much from when I was that age. There may be good reasons I keep blotting it out.
Give me some help!
What do you remember of being age 11?
In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s clan wasn’t like a typical happy family. Hers was more like a hippie circus extending from the restaurant they jointly owned and operated. Much of their joy sprang from the fact they were different.
Only when tragic events rocked their course did they begin to resemble others around them.
It’s an inversion of Tolstoy’s great opening to Anna Karenina.
Likewise, their road to recovery includes their distinctive application of kefi, a Greek approach to living that defies precise translation. Still, I try in my novel. Cassia’s aunt Pia embodies it.
What would you suggest as a secret to happiness?
For the Eastern Orthodox, today ushers in 40 days of Pascha, or Easter. It’s not a one-day event, but the joyous response to Great Lent, culminating in the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost.
As I’ve become aware of the extensive presence of Greek-Americans in my own town and across much of New England, I’m surprised how little fiction has been written of their experience and distinctive culture.
They’re not the only ones to be largely unseen in American literature, especially as it has reflected the melting pot ideal of the wider society. Still, there are reasons distinctive identities remain, as we might see in the stories of blacks, Southerners, Irish-Americans, and Native Americans who were among those who gained a significant voice in the last half of the 20th century. Wandering through the library stacks, I’ve also been surprised to find so much by Asian-American novelists and African expatriates.
And most notably, perhaps because of their strong rabbinic tradition and support of erudition, American Jews have long been prolific writers and storytellers, producing many of the leading novelists of the 20th century.
In puzzling contrast, Greek-Americans, with perhaps as much as half the population of American Jews, have been largely invisible.
The Greek perspective is most likely to be expressed in the old country, especially in the works of Crete native Nikos Kazantakis, although I’m also intrigued by the Dubai-born Karl El-Koura, now living in Canada.
Here’s what I’ve found by Americans:
Natalie Bakopoulos’ The Green Shore is about life under the Greek junta.
Celebrated Dean Bakopoulos (My Amerian Unhappiness) looks entirely at mainstream consumer life.
Prolific D.C.-focused crime novelist George Pelecanos touches on Greek connections (Shame the Devil, for instance) without revealing anything unique to the culture – his characters could as easily be Irish or Italian.
Susannah Hardy’s Greek to Me Mysteries perhaps come closer.
The stellar exception is Michigan native Jeffrey Eugenides, whose father was of Greek descent and his mother, English and Irish.
His 2002 Middlesex is a masterpiece of not only the Greek experience before and after arriving in the New World but also of the frequently overlooked Midwest itself. His other two novels, The Virgin Suicides (1993) and The Marriage Plot (2011) also contain telling insights into the Hellenic influence.
The one other writer I know of who tackles the identity head-on is Anna Pappadapoulos and her marvelous 2015 Samaritans. The novel has both a Greek-American mother and an opening in Indiana, something it holds in common with my own What’s Left before veering off in a much more precarious life journey.
Well, yes, there is also The Movie (you know the one I mean). It is sweet and informative, but barely touches the surface and has some saccharine scenes that make those in the know blanch.
Do you know of any other Greek-American novelists or books to add to the list? Are there other ethnic or religious cultures who need better representation?
When she sets out in the task that’s become my novel, What’s Left, she doesn’t expect to be creating a family genealogy going back through her great-grandparents. But there’s no avoiding it.
As I explained in an earlier draft:
Theirs is a unique odyssey – one where the final homecoming is far from its point of origin. As a tragedy, the suffering comes at unmapped turns in the quest for the American dream. As a comedy, well, there are hot dogs, hippies, Hoosiers, and hope. Take your pick.
She gets insights on her parents’ generation:
Thea Nita notes that children in her generation grew up hearing of the woes of the Great Depression as a staple of conversation at big family dinners. In our case, that included the diner shooting.
A good genealogist doesn’t turn back when the details get disturbing:
By now I’m rather astonished at the events Thea Nita’s uncovered. Every family has things it wants to keep secret, but as a journalist, she’s driven toward disclosure. What did I tell you about listening closely to arguments? The dirt that comes up, even years later? Or even in what might transpire in mother-daughter confabs.
Does it work for the reader? I certainly hope so.
One reason, I suspect, is because Cassia is part of a family that holds many experiences in common. They live close to one another, work in the restaurant or related enterprises, play and grow up together, worship in one of two streams they’ve blended. Whatever they have flows from a shared source.
Speaking of family, Cassia’s oldest cousin, Alex, would be quite a catch. Where would you want to dine with him – romantically or just as a friend?
The world’s second-largest Christian body, with 250 million members, is officially known as the Orthodox Catholic Church. It shared communion with Roman Catholics until the schism of 1054.
Here are ten ways it varies from its Western counterparts.
- Unlike the Roman Catholic denomination, the Orthodox operate as a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by a bishop (often known as a metropolitan). In practice, these often have a national or regional identity, such as Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox.
- Metropolitans, rather than the pope, are the head of each of the self-governing churches, and together they form the Holy Synod. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized as the first among equals.
- Advent and Christmas. Advent is longer and Christmas isn’t celebrated until January 7.
- Lent and Pascha. The liturgical calendar differs from those used in Western Christianity, with Easter (Pascha, the Greek preferred term) typically being aligned to Passover. Great Lent is longer, too. The Feast of the Assumption and Pentecost are holy days nearly equal to Pascha.
- The Theotokos. The Virgin Mary, Mother of God, is venerated and central in the liturgical worship. More nuanced, too, than in Roman Catholicism.
- Greek, rather than Latin, as the basis of its Scriptures and theological discourse. It’s a language more suited to nuance and philosophy, so I’m told.
- The priests may marry (unlike Roman Catholicism) but the bishops cannot (unlike Protestants).
- Sensuous richness. Incense, bells, chanting appeal to the nose and ears. An abundance of iconography, especially, surrounds the eyes.
- The iconostasis. An elaborately decorated wall stands between the altar and the congregation. It has three doors – the angel doors, to either side, and the blessed door in the center. The priest passes repeatedly through the central door, which is left open during the service, while the deacon or others may use the side doors, as required.
- You show up for the Sunday service – the Divine Liturgy – you’re likely to think you’re late. The priest, deacon, and psalmists have already been celebrating the Orthos for an hour, sometimes alone, in preparation.
AS AN ASIDE: In 978, Vladimir the Great sent emissaries to study four religions in neighboring regions – Judaism, Islam, Latin Rite (Catholic), and Eastern Rite (Orthodox). Reputedly, he rejected Judaism as lacking power, since it had lost Jerusalem. Islam, because it banned alcohol. Latin Rite because of the political power of its pope. But Eastern Rite, with the sumptuousness of its liturgy in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, won him over. As they wrote, “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth.” And thus, the Russian Orthodox church was born.
Admittedly, this is a superficial overview. I’m hoping for a lot of clarification from more knowledgeable readers.
Since these are transcribed from the Hellenic alphabet, their spellings in Latin script can vary.
Here are ten.
- Yasou. Hello.
- Kalos orises. Welcome.
- Ti kanete. How are you?
- Ine kalo. That’s good.
- Ne. Yes.
- Ohi. No.
- Signomi. Excuse me.
- Efharisto. Thank you.
- Parakalo. Please. Also, you’re welcome.
- Goodbye. Andio sas.
I’ll leave the swear words to Cassia in my novel What’s Left. Especially the ones she learned at church camp.