Producing Greek America in Greek
by Yiorgos Anagnostou
For the last two decades, at least, writers, documentary makers, journalists, musicians, museologists, filmmakers, and scholars based in Greece have displayed an intense interest in Greek America. The work of these cultural producers, often but not always bilingual, circulates nationally as well as internationally, shaping the ways in which various publics, in Greece and elsewhere, understand the history and the culture of the Greek diaspora and ethnicity in the United States. This corpus is often acclaimed. The film Brides (2004) and the novel Dendrites (2015), for instance, won the Greek State Film Award for Best Film and the European Union Prize for Literature, respectively. The documentaries The Journey: The Greek American Dream (2007) and Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Luddlow Massacre (2014) have earned national and international distinctions: The Los Angeles Greek Film Festival Award for Best Documentary Film and the First Prize in the 8th Festival of Greek Documentary DocFest, respectively. Other cultural expressions, such as musical performances, enjoy great national popularity.
This cultural production comes in a variety of forms. Music groups and performers such as Takim and Dimitris Mystakidis reinterpret immigrant songs of the early twentieth century, which they perform in multimedia narrations of Greek migration. The film Brides builds on a historical archive located at Ellis Island to visually narrate the emigration of picture brides at the same period. The documentary Greek-American Radicals: The Untold Story (2013) excavates archives in the United States to bring marginalized historical knowledge about U.S. Greek immigrant political activism to Greek and Greek American audiences. Authors and scholars based in Greece also produce work on Greek American families, religious figures, and political identities. Translators bring Greek American autobiography and poetry into Greek. Greek TV frequently features programs on the Greek American experience. We witness a dense transnational production and circulation of knowledge about Greek America, a phenomenon calling for a wide conversation.
I am primarily interested in three interrelated facets of this phenomenon:
(a) The content of these products—novels, films, documentaries, museum exhibits, songs. What meanings do these cultural texts produce about Greek American identity, and what claims do they make about the past and the present of Greek America?
(b) The perspectives of the cultural producers—authors, filmmakers, journalists, scholars—themselves. What motivates their interest in Greek America? What is the cultural significance they assign to their work? Did they face any institutional or social resistance in Greece? These questions bring attention to the social processes of culture-making, privileging the point of view of those who produce it.
(c) The manner in which this cultural production shapes public understandings of Greek America in Greece and elsewhere. What aspects of Greek America does this production privilege, what facets does it marginalize, and why? Does it reproduce dominant meanings, or does it intervene, offering alternative understandings? How is it discussed in the media and popular culture?
The larger issue associated with this cultural production, as I see it, is that it is consumed outside the framework of Greek American studies. While often insightful, the public conversation neglects how scholarship about Greek America may illuminate the significance of these texts and their contexts. Let us register the fact that the bulk of this scholarship is written in English, which may have contributed to its marginalization.
The production and circulation of knowledge about Greek America and the Greek diaspora in Greece is significant for a variety of reasons. Institutions, artists and intellectuals, and local communities display an interest in the ways in which diaspora contributes to Greek society. The diaspora is seen as a source of cultural and economic investment as well as a conduit for new ideas. What values does diaspora agency foreground, and for what purpose? In what ways does it contribute to new understandings of Greek identity?
Only a handful of academics, authors, and intellectuals analyze this phenomenon for the Greek public, translating it in relation to Greek American cultural politics. Their perspective often drowns in an avalanche of cultural clichés about national heroism or unadulterated diaspora attachment to Greece and the Greek landscape.
Ergon aims to contribute to an informed understanding of the aforementioned phenomenon in conversation with Greek American studies. We will continue reviewing important texts written in Greek and initiate a series of interviews with cultural producers in Greece. Whenever possible, we will attempt to illuminate the flows of texts, people, and ideas across the terrain of Greece–Greek America, and their significance.
Η διασπορά διεκδικεί fora, αποκτά φόρα. Άρα μας αφορά.
Diaspora claims visibility, a matter of cultural mobility,
an activity of gravity to the polity.
Cover image credit: Heidi Michel
Editor’s note: A Greek translation of this writing is forthcoming