Best wishes to the owners of Café Nostimo in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who have just announced that they’re closing their Greek restaurant at the end of today after 16 years in business. Time to retire. We can understand that, especially the part about working nights and weekends.
Theirs had become a must-stop on my return trips to the Seacoast region, and I was looking forward to indulging myself next Wednesday, before my Quaking Dover presentation at the Dover Public Library.
Wish I’d known about the place pre-Covid, when I lived in nearby Dover. I had heard that some nights even had Greek dancing. The restaurant did have a large tent pavilion beside it for summer dining and more.
Lamb shank was top-of-the-line, but their gyro wrap was heavenly. I could argue about some details elsewhere, especially in comparison to a favorite version in Watertown, Massachusetts, but their desserts lineup was unbeatable.
I’m viewing this like a great dinner and the time you look at the empty plate while you’re full of happy memories.
As the translations on their wall proclaim, Yamos! And: Epharisto!
No book was more of a struggle for me – or ultimately more transformative. Not that any of them came easily or quickly.
Each of them would have been much simpler if I had only hewed to a specific genre and with a particular reader in mind, but my goal was to explore a theme and see where it led rather than fill in a blueprint and hope that others would be fascinated by the discoveries. That put me in the “pantsers” end of writers, meaning seat-of-the-pants, rather than the “outliner” side, which can be paint-by-numbers rather than “painterly,” layer upon layer added or scraped away for intrigue, depth, and motion.
My earlier novels were grounded in people, places, and events I had experienced directly, which I then abstracted, of course, for a more inclusive understanding. When needed, I could turn to my journals for details and to my correspondence for dialogue or even make a few phone calls.
What’s Left, though, took me far beyond that. Yes, I was starting from the finale of my first published novel and trying to advance the scene by as much as a half-century, but I had no experience in a family-owned business. (I had skirted marrying into one, but I didn’t know how it would feel growing up in that situation – this was totally unlike my grandpa’s plumbing outfit, anyway.) Nor had I really worked in a restaurant. As for being part of a tight-knit extended family? Much less Greek-American? The adage, “Write about what you know,” now became, “Write about what you want to know.” More pointedly, that led me more and more into my daughters’ generation and its struggle for survival. As if anyone has answers to the big questions.
I set out thinking the story would take up the ongoing issues of the counterculture movement one by one – peace and non-violence, sexual and racial equality, the environment and ecology, natural foods and fitness, alternative education, spirituality, boho lifestyles, and so on. I had plenty of extended outtakes from the earlier books plus a set of essays that could be woven into the narrative.
But my upbeat, idealistic outlook started ringing hollow. Yes, the issues remain, even thrive, in spite of the entrenched opposition, and they need to be taken up by a younger generation. What hit me was the debris of broken dreams and promises, much of it caused by our own petite shortcomings. Yes, some of them mine as well. Broken families, too – just what is a family, anyway, especially when you examine the evidence closely, as the novel does? Where was the tight community we envisioned, much less that sense of tribe? As I looked around, I saw those who most continued in the hippie image were either bikers or what my kids would call losers. I have to say substance use or abuse has taken a heavy toll.
It’s too much to pack into a single novel, though one can touch on them. My focus slowly shifted on trying to pick up from the wreckage. That is, the place where Cassia found herself.
I was still mulling my approach when I chanced upon Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Garden” and was taken by its unique structure of 16 mosaic panels that could be moved about, if one wants, within its developing chronology. Lethem also had me realizing how much I needed to develop Cassia’s family’s past, with its own bohemian streams in coming to America. How many threads could I manage within this?
Voila! I had an organizing point. As poet Gary Snyder says, quoting an ancient Chinese folksong, to make a new ax handle, you use an old one as your pattern.
While I inherited the Greek-American element from an impulsive touch at the end of my first published novel, where this one picks up a generation later, I was only now piecing together how pervasive its presence in my own life without any earlier special awareness. As I’m seeing now, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” very little about Greek-American culture seems to exist in literature. (He nails the largely overlooked Midwest, too, by the way.) And then I started to engage it here where I live, beginning with Greek dancing and then Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so different from my own Quaker and Mennonite grounding – it’s like the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as Snyder once quipped, two ends of a long arc.
The novel itself demanded at least a dozen major revisions, pushing it ever more toward the present, especially once Cassia found her own (snarky) voice and her brothers and cousins became vital characters. My personal genealogical research techniques also came into play as I examined her ancestry, both on her mother’s side and later, to my surprise, Cassia’s father’s.
What I really wasn’t expecting was the way she prompted me to return to my earlier fiction and severely revise it as well. In most cases, adding new characters and new scenes, cutting heavily, and renaming results. The three books about her father’s past gained a unified structure and timeline as well. So, in more ways than one, through Cassia, my novels embody what’s left.
Cinema critic Roger Ebert was talking of the importance of the witness in every movie and pointing to the places where the character appeared in the film under discussion, mostly in a lower corner. The comment flashed me to the reality of how often the hardest thing to see is what should be the most obvious. It’s not just the elephant in the room, it’s things we take for granted.
One way or another, all fiction is built on the observer, who is also to some degree an outsider or misfit, too. (If there are any exceptions, I’d love to hear them.) Four of my novels, for instance, were intuitively built around a photographer, a profession that makes Cassia’s father a well-trained witness. In turn, as she investigates his archives, she, too, becomes a witness, even before she starts commenting on his earlier life.
Of course, as a reader, you also become a witness. Or even a voyeur, as Camille Paglia has contended. It’s almost like every page is a microscope slide to be interpreted.
Curiously, I now see this also at play in a long-term non-fiction project in my life. Forty 40 years ago, seemingly by accident, I became involved in trying to uncover my father’s ancestry. I thought we were simply homogenous Midwesterners who had always been in Ohio from its beginning. What I discovered, though, was that one branch was – but German-speaking and largely akin to Amish. My name-line, however, was Quaker by way of North Carolina and its slaveholding culture. Both strands were outsiders to the larger society and also pacifist. It opened my eyes to alternative histories and to a recognition that stories don’t always have to resolve nicely – three people may record their memories quite differently, and maybe all three are true, if not factually accurate.
Oh yes, the research was often collaborative, with correspondence going and coming from others working on parts of the puzzle. It wasn’t always quite as lonely as drafting fiction or poetry.
To my surprise, as my novel What’s Left was taking shape, Cassia started assembling bits about her Greek-American grandparents, who had died before her birth, and then beyond to her great-grandparents, who brought the family to the New World. Like me, she found valuable clues in the surviving snapshots and formal portraits regarding their personalities, as she also did in the letters and other documents.
None of my ancestors came by way of Ellis Island, and on Dad’s side, they were all in this country by the time of the Revolutionary War. I once pondered doing a series of novels on them, but I’m still intimidated by the technical challenges – a realistic language they can speak and we can understand being high among them.
Witness, I might add, has an extra dimension in Quaker thinking. It’s not just what one sees or hears but how one lives. The goal is integrity, as in wholeness or consistency. Is that what others see in us or our lives and work? Or even as our goal and ideal, even when we fall short reaching for it?
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.
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.
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?