“Lives of Betweenness” in Natalie Bakopoulos’ Scorpionfish.

Natalie Bakopoulos, Scorpionfish. Tin House Books, 2020. Pp. 256. Paperback $ 16.95.

What does it mean to live a “life of betweenness” in Athens, Greece, during 2016? What does it mean to choose “betweenness” when “betweenness” inundates the lives of others who have no choice? Scorpionfish offers a telling palimpsest. While its two protagonists initially disregard the formative affluence of their inherited Greek American “betweenness,” the novel itself explores how class inevitably intersects with the complexities of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. Mira is a young professor of ethnography born in Athens, raised in Chicago, and returned to Greece each summer. The Captain (who is never named), grew up between Detroit and Greece and spent decades at sea away from his family. Death and illness, break-ups and divorce, and job disillusionment and termination plague them upon their return to Athens. Their class privilege often silos their suffering in a city steeped in crises. Yet poignant moments of reckoning and risk gradually redefine “betweenness” for themselves, those around them, and others no longer around.

This dual narrative of return is never a solipsistic portrait of nostos. Mira and the Captain reinterrogate their fraught familial heritage against their selectively chosen identities, rendering contemporary Greek American counter-diasporas vividly marked by personal loss. The marginalized white ethnicity and immigrant class status of Mira’s parents in America and the Leftist patriarchal politics of the Captain’s father in Greece during the aftermath of the Greek Military Junta recontour, one generation later, into the dominating whiteness and classist superiority of Mira and the Captain in present-day Athens. In Scorpionfish, the “betweenness” of Greek American identity never solidifies within a fixed hierarchy of class when hierarchies themselves continuously reconfigure across individual traumas, social histories, and nationalist imaginaries. Its candid portrayal of voluntary rootlessness amidst starkly disenfranchised displacements probes critical questions pertinent to current scholarship on the Greek American diaspora and the transnational Greek state.

After her parents die in a car accident and her partner Aris confesses that he has a pregnant fiance, Mira disclaims “home” as she cleans out her parents’ many properties in Athens, island N. (an unnamed Greek island), and Chicago. After the Captain is fired, and his wife Katerina asks for a divorce, his landlocked aimlessness takes up hesitant residence in their secondary apartment in Athens while Katerina remain in Brussels with their twin children. Mira and the Captain first meet in Athens between their adjoining apartments near Mount Lykabettos, but their families and friends belong to a longstanding social circle on island N. Initially, their intimate wounds rub abrasively against systemic fractures when they reject their houses at a time in Greece when many around them struggle to maintain a permanent residence, temporarily inhabit refugee squats, or remain unhoused.

Athens proves familiar and unfamiliar. Mira first understands it as a city that visitors “either Orientalized or romanticized, two versions of the same sin,” believing herself “surely guilty” of both “versions” (45). But her gaze becomes unsettlingly interpersonal when the artist Nefeli, the closeted lesbian partner of Mira’s dead aunt, first takes Mira to a temporary refugee squat in an abandoned school. The same “entitlement” that Mira felt as a white, Greek American ethnographer documenting the testimonies of Left and Right-wing women during the Junta now makes her feel like an “intruder” witnessing the unexpectedly joyful vibrancy of this bleak space (88). Mira also recalls how Nefeli was herself imprisoned in an exile island camp during the Junta, and Nefeli claims she still suffers from concealing her queerness in Greece. Finally shedding her ethnographer’s gaze, Mira begins to learn from, rather than study, the women and children whom she befriends in the squat.

No longer complacent to be “a cipher for other people’s stories,” Mira teaches English classes at the squat and works with Rami, a young boy displaced from Damascus, who lives with her friends Faby and Dimitra and their daughter Leila until he leaves secretly to join his aunt and brother in Germany (154). After overhearing Dimitra and Rami speaking Arabic, Neo-Nazis shove Mira down in the street when she refuses to step out of their way. Dimitra insists that the police are corrupt and “‘on their side’” (101). Yet, physically positioning her whiteness between the men and Rami, Mira disrupts their oppression, if only for an instant. After he has left, Rami mails Mira his graphic novel, in which he and Leila traverse an unknown city while the homes of their friends are, “day by day, disappearing” until the illustrated background becomes blank and even the Arabic and English text vanishes (237). The layered erasure that Rami reenacts defiantly ends with the two teenagers holding hands, walking off into the unknown distance, signifying the granularities of choice within ostensible choicelessness.

Athens is similarly uncanny to the Captain amidst its trash strikes, open drug usage, and hate crimes in unlikely neighborhoods. His father, a Leftist politician active during the Junta, still haunts familiar spots. The Captain’s disturbance of memory recalls Freud rejecting his father on the Acropolis when the former compulsively points out a photograph of his father to an unimpressed server in an anarchist taverna. A phone call with his brother back in Detroit also speaks volumes. The latter works in a lucrative financial sector, votes Republican, and remains “very punishing about the Greek situation,” callously insisting that “the Greeks should pay back the debt, cent, by cent, regardless of the suffering” (76). The Captain grows angry that his brother cannot see the “geopolitical complexity” of the crisis, as if his own years in international waters have brewed a compassionate cosmopolitanism in him (76). He wonders about his brother’s “internalized shame” at his Greek heritage, which the latter conceals beneath his American prosperity. Yet the Captain’s chosen profession also enables the classist avoidances of his own life at sea, which permits the social mobility and material security of his Greek identity on land to remain a distant protection.

Mira meanwhile ponders the question of “what are you?” It was always more “curious than critical” growing up in Chicago, but now those asking in Athens “wanted your ethnic identity […] there was an element of racism to it” (152). As a child, Mira asked her mother if they were white. Her mother’s reply, “‘No […] We’re Greek,”’ resolutely declared “Greek” was its own ontological ethnicity. As an adult in Chicago, Mira herself answers “Greek American,” but, in Athens, when taxi drivers ask, she answers “Greek,” choosing not to “bother” with the nationalist scorn or befuddlement that her “betweenness” might provoke (152). Like the Captain, she has grown accustomed to the relief of hazy negatives:

I didn’t not feel Greek. I did not feel particularly American either, but I felt comfortable in my outsiderness. Maybe this was a function of Americanness, or whiteness, to feel one can go anywhere and belong. I certainly didn’t feel Greek American (153).

Her comfortable “outsiderness” disenfranchises the “betweenness” of those around her who are not white, denied Greek citizenship, or defy simple categories. For example, her friend Faby, a Syrian-born violin maker and translator who studied in Paris and married a Greek woman, refuses to owe anyone “a solid, unchanging identity” (152). He “feels both Greek and non-Greek, he speaks Greek, and that is enough” (153). The conjunctive doubling (“both”) and adjectival sufficiency (“enough”) notably rejects ethnicity as a required predicate of permissible belonging.

Mira finally relearns “Greek American” in an increasingly multicultural capital where xenophobic hatred festers, and socio-economic class and institutionalized rights designate belonging within its nationalist imaginary. However, this reeducation also requires her to confront how shifting markers of class played into stereotypes of sophistication from her American childhood. The heritage snobbery of Mira’s extended Greek family conflicted with the cultivated internationality of her college friends. She was never “elegant,” “pedigreed,” or “Greek enough” for her father’s cousins, who assumed the refinements of cultural class could never be instilled in a child of Greek immigrants (32). Conversely, she reduces herself to an “immigrant” only deemed “cosmopolitan” “by mistake” since her “Greek Americanness” paled parochially against the “global citizens” at her university (58). After spending decades perceiving her “betweenness” to be a paradoxical disappointment, Mira now begins to rescript these classist fictions of her past through her present encounters.

The Captain’s self-brewed cosmopolitanism also traces back to his youth. At an early age, he sought to escape the politically charged, masculine “Greekness” of his father. His father despised his son’s cowardice, accusing him of “running away” only to develop dementia in old age, eroding his former sense of patriarchal duty (81). For decades, the Captain lives as a married father in Greece and an anonymous bachelor at sea—two sides of the same privileged coin. But after he is fired, he is finally forced to weigh (in both the nautical and scaled meaning) the “anchor” of this complacent “rootlessness” (135). By way of introduction, he first asserts,

I’m not a man of geography. I don’t attach myself to places. I’m more comfortable with the placeless universality of the sea, its altered progression of time (17).

However, the Captain finally reveals to Mira that he was accused of conspiring with human smugglers when he transported refugees to shore, sardonically ventriloquizing his formal dismissal—“facilitating migration was the charge” (220). His decision risked the comfort of his epistemologically “placeless” home at sea so that others could find refuge in a physical place on land. And the cost of this existential selfhood results in a raw suture—the hasty stitches by which he attempts to rejoin his split lives—recalling to his mind Rimbaud’s grammatically sutured predicate “‘I is someone else’” (23).

Mira’s narrative uncovers an intergenerational wound beyond suturing. Her mother’s mental instability, worsened by her chronic alcoholism, was a symptom of her permanent exile in Chicago and persistent desire to return to Greece. Mira even tells the Captain that her mother “‘existed in two places but lived nowhere’” (47). Now Mira must reconcile this nihilistic “betweenness” to reconceive of her own. This reckoning occurs after she travels to island N. to locate Nefeli, who has been behaving erratically and gone missing, and learns from Aris’ father that Nefeli has been concealing a terminal diagnosis. Nefeli dies shortly after. The morning after speaking to Aris’ father, Mira swims too far out into the ocean, besieged by unsolicited and uncontrollable voices that resurface her distant and immediate past. Between her rhythmic breathing that her mother once taught her surge the doctor’s warning about her mother’s fragile health after a scorpionfish sting, Aris’ confession about his impending fatherhood, his father’s confession about Nefeli’s illness, and Mira’s mother’s lament that exile will kill her (197). Past and present traumas discompose and then reorder between Mira’s rhythmic breaths.

After Mira drags herself to shore, an old woman from the island asks her “‘Tinos eisai?’” (“To whom do you belong?”), which her grandparents asked her when she was young (198-199). Now she muses, “I am fugitive, I am nothing. I couldn’t get it out of my head, as if someone else were telling it to me. You are nothing. Whose are you? You belong to no one” (232). Notably, this agent of nihilism is imagined, whereas insidiously real Greek institutions label other characters “fugitives” belonging “no one.” “Betweenness” as a dissociative split transforms Mira into listener and performer—what she describes as a “strange feeling of seeing my strokes from above, as if I were both myself and some woman I was watching from the separate point […] ashore” (196). This theatricality is heightened by her belief that she heard “some sort of minor-keyed singing” while swimming (196). The ocean even separates from the shoreline, forming a metaphorical proscenium (the frame between the stage and the audience) between self and other, reality and delusion, and denial and acceptance. Mira finally acknowledges that her mother’s drunk driving, an indirect result of her exile, was the likely cause of her parents’ car accident, recognizing that “when we’re in its midst [grief] cannot be translated at all” (201). Mira finally acquiesces to this second self, whose identity is finally translated:

Maybe I had somehow finally split myself in two: the woman I was then and the woman I was becoming, both of us out there carving through the waves. I sipped my drink and wondered how long it would be before my mother emerged from inside me, how long I could keep her hidden deep inside before she broke through my skin, triumphant (204).

Mira’s own past and present selves ominously reconfigure into the dead mother within waiting to split through the skin of the daughter who previously denied the cause of her death and resisted her own inherited “betweenness.” In this poignant scene, Scorpionfish honors the trauma of Mira’s dissociation without salaciously weighing it against the terminal illness, debilitating exile, or forced migration of other characters on any double-sided scale.

Mira and the Captain’s balcony—as the intimately shared topos of their counter-diaspora—tellingly rehabilitates the splits and sutures in their lives. The Captain realizes that “what had previously been an escape, a liminal space between my domestic life in Kifissia and my solitary life at sea, had become the place I’d begun to re define myself” (172). No longer “landlocked,” he feels as if he is “soaring about the earth,” and, to him, the balcony itself “allowed us to be two things, to occupy two places, at once. The meeting in the metaxi, the in-between, the what-if. It was a limbo, but one in which I strangely felt whole in the split” (172). Metaxi contains the same prepositional variance as “between”: “connecting,” “in the midst of,” “counted as a member of,” and “compared with.” Mira and the Captain are connected by their disparate liminalities, in the midst of the shifting, socio-economic palimpsest of Athens, counted as members of an ethnically changing Greek demos, and compared with the complex identities of others. The balcony, like their self-referentially doubled narrative, intertwines these stories—“a double helix” in constant mutation (91).

“Betweenness” comparably underwrites Mira’s description of her dead parents at Nefeli’s funeral: “my mother stood next to me… My father next to her, very still, looking straight ahead, but a relaxed expression on his face” (238). Her mother, no longer terrifyingly latent inside her body, now seems “nearly mischievous” unwrapping candies from her purse. Metaxi returns in its unspoken interdiscursivity, connecting Mira’s mother to her daughter, placing her in the midst of those living, counting her as a member of the funeral party, and comparing her to an imagined composite of her past selves (“her young self, in a sense, but in her good black dress, her current haircut”) (238). Like Rami’s graphic novel, hope finds a seat at the funeral. Leila has dyed a strip of her hair blue in tribute to Nefeli’s painted blue scorpions, visitors frequent Nefeli’s final art exhibition, Rami facetimes in high spirits, also with blue hair, Aris calls with news of the birth and an apology, and Mira and the Captain sit together at the harbor of island N., shifting unfamiliar chairs into familiar positions.

Scorpionfish dwells not on resolution but recognition. Early on, Mira defines a “life of betweenness,” projecting in the second person but not yet able to introspect:

It is impossible to piece together where something went wrong when all we have are memories, and memories of memories. You could take them all and line them up, each moment, but it would never add up to a life. What makes a life is the white space, the glue that holds everything together. It is impossible to know, impossible to understand (64).

“Betweenness” signifies what “holds everything together” in the aftermath of unimaginable breaks. “What are you” and “to whom you belong” root in familial dysfunctions, institutional erasures, and individual traumas while branching into rehabilitated relationships, reclaimed homes, and resistant choices. “Janus Witness” (2000), the Greek American poet George Economou’s speech fittingly named for the double-faced Roman god of dualities, lends a sardonic epilogue. While filling out a visa form in the Greek village of Dafni, Economou recalls arguing with the chief of police over his nationality (“Greek! American!”), cycling through elliptical, elided, and distanced variations of his own “betweenness”:

American, Greek, American, GreekAmerican, greekamerican, it went on, as our one word apiece stichomythia concealed from me my true identity, struggling to emerge out of the merger of the two seemingly antagonistic words (11).

The chief cannot “understand” the “glue” that “holds together” the poet’s Greek ethnicity and American nationality, the “white space” between the printed boxes on the visa form that “add up to [his] life.” The chief answers “Greek” to complete the form, like those in Scorpionfish who only accept “Greek” for an answer. Answers force “Greek” and “American” into “antagonistic words” by erasing what is between them. Unlike the chief, Mira and the Captain learn the difference between refusing to answer to antagonism and exploiting the impossibility of answering.

Ilana Freedman
June 13, 2023

Ilana Freedman earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Her research explores comparative poetics, interdisciplinary approaches to diaspora and transnationalism, and the study of classical reception. Her publications include comparative readings of Seamus Heaney, C. P. Cavafy, James Merrill, and George Kalogeris. She served as the graduate coordinator for the Modern Greek Studies Seminar and the Ludics Seminar at the Mahindra Humanities Center from 2014 to 2022. She currently teaches English Literature at the Brearley School.

Works Cited

Bakopoulos, Natalie. 2020. Scorpionfish. Tin House Books.

Economou, George. 2000. “Janus Witness: Testament of a Greek-American Poet.” The Kimon Friar Lectures in Modern Greek Art and Letters. The Attica Tradition Educational Foundation.