Do you ever feel trapped by your family?

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s brothers and cousins — the ones she calls the Squad — are essential for bringing the story fully up to right now. It’s their turn to move forward. What do they want to do with their lives? What does this family mean to them?

Cassia makes her own bold decision for her future — one I sense is enabled by their solid identity.

But there are the other cousins — the ones from the other side of the tracks, the ones who don’t fit in and never will.

So it’s not just about the family restaurant.

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As she noted in an earlier draft, comparing her mother’s side of the family to her father’s:

From everything I’ve seen, his family wasn’t warm or truly close. They did what they were supposed to. Had what they were supposed to. Basically, they followed orders. So what Baba found and embraced with Manoula’s family was more disorderly and conflicting and yet also affirming when it came to his own existence. Privacy here is not taken for granted. Thea Nita, for all of her love of solitude, would spend far more of her working hours surrounded by the public, where the action and people were. Maybe that’s why the Buddhist meditation held such appeal for Nita and her siblings — it was one time they could really focus on themselves alone. 

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There are flip moments when I’d say my family was defined by the TV programs we watched together. Think of the TV dinners we ate on those TV trays we set up between us and the screen (black-and-white, for the most part). Even the pizza we ate on very special nights, scraping off the toppings to eat separately from the dough and its crust. Or the burnt popcorn we ate afterward.

Cassia’s close kinship was more active than that, but working with her father’s photos did give her a place of retreat.

Do you ever feel trapped in your family? Or in your social circle? At moments like that, where would you rather be?

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High on the trail, the view becomes clearer

In my novel What’s Left, what she discovers about her deceased father (her Baba) is much zestier than this passage. So I cut it. You’ll still get the drift in the final version.

As a kid, your Baba figured out he never quite fit in with his surroundings. He thought about things he couldn’t explain to others, though to be fair about it, he rarely caught their signals, either. Deep within himself, he sensed there was much more to life than what was happening around him. I think he wanted the big picture, which is what he must have felt when he was climbing mountains.

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Too many things are trying to happen there, I’m afraid. We can move along better without having to trip over the added baggage. I do like the image of climbing mountains to feel the big picture, though — something I see as recharging his soul.

Where do you turn to recharge yourself? Anyplace special? Music? Dancing? A deep bubble bath? Meditation? Or is it something else altogether?

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I’m also thinking about typical encounters with professional photographers. There were strange, formal portrait sessions when my sister and I were very little. Do families still do that anymore? Then there were the senior portraits in high school or yearbook group shots, which were akin to elementary class pictures earlier. But weddings are the big event for many, the mother lode of the profession.

Tell me about your parents’ wedding pictures. What do they reveal? What do they mask?

Greek-run restaurants are a staple of the American scene. Cassia’s family ran one. This was another, in Lowell, Massachusetts, where her aunt Pia was from.

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Entering a photographer’s private world

Her father’s photographic trove gives Cassia the pieces she eventually assembles into a massive picture puzzle of his world. It spans some big changes in his own life, as well – especially regarding her own family.

In my novel What’s Left, this task also means she has to master some now obsolete technological skills, including reading photographic negatives, where blacks and whites are reversed, moving around in a dusky darkroom, using a photo enlarger, and developing glossy prints in trays of chemical liquids she’s mixed on her own. (My, have those things changed thanks to digital photography!)

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Christos Anesti!

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.

The center of the ceiling in an Eastern Orthodox house of worship typically displays a large icon of Christ Pantocrator, or Ruler of the Universe. Here is the image from Annunciation Greek Orthodox church in Dover, with four angels and what I presume are the authors of the four gospels. Every time I look up at that face, the thought arises, “I could follow that man.”

Ten ways ‘What’s Left’ and ‘Nearly Canaan’ differ

I’m relieved to find these two novels have big differences.

Here are ten.

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  1. Children and family. Cassia starts telling her tale from age 11, and she’s surrounded by her two brothers and a clutch of close cousins. No kids of note in Jaya’s tale.
  2. Greeks. Central to Cassia’s identity. None pop up in Nearly Canaan.
  3. Gypsies. Are they really a strand in Cassia’s background? Not a factor in Jaya’s.
  4. Ghosts. Cassia’s dealing with her family history, after all. Jaya isn’t.
  5. The cat. A key figure in Nearly Canaan. None by name with Cassia.
  6. Sexuality. More explicit in some scenes of Nearly Canaan.
  7. Infidelity. For Cassia, it’s an issue in her parents’ generation. In Jaya’s circle, it’s a more immediate threat.
  8. Wilderness. The desert is a major influence when Jaya and Joshua move west. Hardly noticeable for Cassia, even when she’s living in Las Vegas. In addition, much of Nearly Canaan veers off into the forests and mountains to their west.
  9. The volcano. A turning point in Nearly Canaan. No geologic activity in What’s Left, apart from the mountain that triggers Cassia’s lifelong obsession.
  10. Photography. Her father’s archives become the key to Cassia’s discoveries. None to examine with Jaya.

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Any of these strike your fancy?

Where are the Greek-American stories?

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?

 

What prods a writer to the keyboard day after day?

A statement read long ago, that many novelists set out in their newest writing to discover the book under the one they previously finished, has long resonated with me.

I addressed it head-on in What’s Left, which picked up at the end of my first published novel and the Hippie Trails stories that followed. The nagging questions also prompted the three Jaya novels that followed Promised, which are now all compressed into Nearly Canaan.

In both cases, this effort to finally resolve the question of “what’s it about” – really about – led to my reworking the previous novels rather than writing more. In fact, it would up reducing my list.

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I write to explore and discover. There’s a reason I’ve come to be defined as a Mixmaster.

If you’re a writer, let me ask. How about you? What motivates you to sit down at the keyboard? What’s your approach? How do you define yourself and your work?

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Has me recalling another question. Would you rather produce one big book that delivers it all – a masterpiece? Or a bookshelf of more modest but widely read works?

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Or if you’re a reader, why do you turn to the books you choose?