Apollo Papafrangou, We Grew Here. Oakland: Nomadic Press, 2021. Pp 230. Paperback $21.00.
We Grew Here is a wonderful new novel-in-stories that centers around the themes of Greek American boyhood and art. From artisanal food truck to art gallery, from suburban San Ramon to a horyo (village) on an unnamed Greek island, Apollo Papafrangou guides us through his fascinating characters’ lives. Papafrangou grounds the novel in the popular culture of the West Coast through references to Miley Cyrus, John Stamos, Chiclets, the BART, and images of the distinctive California “lowrider” phenomenon: “a classic Oakland Scraper—1970’s Chevy Nova—candy yellow and lifted on huge rims better suited for a covered wagon, rumbled along with a quaking bass-boom” (157). A welcome, fresh meditation on the Greek American condition, the book offers a new perspective on the diaspora’s chief preoccupation—the Greek past—at every turn: “Alex Kouros wondered if, like eye color, some memories were hereditary traits passed from one generation to the next—a tendency toward nostalgia, perhaps, or a predisposed diversion to particular kinds of work” (123).
Short story-chapters with strong narrative arcs propel readers forward through these humorous and enjoyable short stories. The novel-in-stories form, where each novel chapter functions as a self-contained short story, advances at a satisfying clip and allows the author to focus on a wide array of characters in turn. Mike Lagounis, Angelo Koutouvalis, Dino Kouros, Johnny Eliopoulos, Pete Saropoulos, Yiannis Saropoulos, and Uncle Elias each have their moment as a main character. The large cast of heterosexual male characters indeed conjures a younger version of what Papafrangou describes as a “scattering of silver-haired men seated outside the kafenions perusing newspapers and sipping kafe” (133).
The boys ask themselves if they have what it takes to become men: “I can’t imagine being one-hundred percent committed to a woman right now,” says Alex Kouros, much less having a kid, but who knows, when I’m thirty-four I’ll probably feel different” (97). They’re concerned about the responsibilities of becoming an adult—and specifically an adult Greek man.
The novel’s foundational question may also be the one most mulled over in Greek American culture: What does it mean to become a Greek man outside Greece? These Greek American youths seem to leave the American West Coast less frequently than their counterparts in London and New York, so that their few trips loom large and on a scale grander than they do for New Yorkers and Londoners. They idealize not the land, really, but its masculine inhabitants; they idealize Greek men. For Angelo, “Dad was this missing piece across the ocean; larger-than-life and out of reach … cool, a real mangka, y’ know? And really good-looking” (138).
The mangka archetype, of course, remains a nostalgic, out-of-reach archetype for Greeks inside Greece, not only in Diaspora. As those of us familiar with popular Greek music know from the hit song “Mangkes No Longer Exist,” the chief characteristic of the mangkas is belonging to a lost era. The mangkas archetype is taciturn and manly. He adheres to a code of honor not always aligned with the law—he is comparable to the cowboy in American culture. Instead of a cowboy’s hat and spurs, the mangkas wore a long moustache, pointed shoes, a fedora. He carried a knife and a set of worry beads—symbols of his ability to dominate but also to remain calm.
The Greek American youths of Oakland aspire to this masculine Greek archetype, but struggle to square the circle of living according to principles of the mangkas as well as the progressive Bay Area. This pressure is most likely one that many men feel, especially after the #MeToo movement. And that’s what makes the book unique: a very particular group of young men display how contested twenty-first century constructions of masculinity are experienced and negotiated. When the youths draw and paint and exhibit their art, they worry about whether such intellectual labor is manly.
As bold as the novel-in-stories is with respect to these heterosexual men’s anxieties about gender, it is just as strong in its questions about race and class, capitalizing on the complexity of its Oakland setting. The book dramatizes second and third generation Greek Americans working through the expectation that they fulfill their blue-collar immigrant forebears’ dreams: “Definitely not the blue-collar crowd of old. You, little one, can wear whatever color collar you choose,” a character says (117). Another character demonstrates a similar concern: “The American dream, yes? Be better until you the best” (124). The characters of We Grew Here ask interesting questions, too, about how class status is expressed in the art world: “If art doesn’t make sense—if it doesn’t make dollars—why so many new galleries downtown? Why are hipsters getting all the opportunities?” (186).
The questions of class, masculinity, and the American Dream of course all intersect with the problem of making a living—the reason Greeks came to America in the first place. A man is someone who can make money, the stories conclude, if uneasily. The old trope of callous-building, sweat-producing manual labor is waning, though, and the young men apprehensively seek the new meaning of manhood even as they tend the muscles they no longer need to bring home bread.
Many of the characters chafe against what they perceive to be the outcome of the feminist movement—namely, that male discomfort no longer matters. Their own discomfort is, they seem to feel, eclipsed by the now more salient discomfort of women. When the youths invent a “kissing booth,” the exclusively heterosexual group of men remind each other that “we’re the only ones being objectified” (7) and later, Johnny Eliopoulos laments: “I am sick of these women only wanting me for one thing. Every time I meet someone things are great until they come out and say they’re just interested in sleeping with me” (107). In the same story we learn of “a service that allows women to ‘rent’ a gentleman for the day” (111). Eliopoulos goes on to conjecture that “a lot of women want the ‘Mediterranean lover’ experience” (111). Greek masculinity is essentialized, the characters seem to say, and they don’t like it.
The book’s women characters are somewhat less nuanced, with Yiayias, mothers, sisters, and wives seeming a bit like stock characters or foils. They do, however, get some very witty lines, and through them we see Papafrangou continuing to question the status quo in Greek American lore. “I want to break the pattern of the Greek-woman-as-breeder routine,” says a character named Phaedra (189). And while the sexual orientation of the male characters is homogenous, some diversity with respect to sexuality is introduced via two women: “From under his mattress [Pete] withdrew a magazine with a naked woman on the cover. He flipped it open to a photo spread of two women lying on top of each other. Both had blonde hair like Ms. Henderson, the art teacher. “Why are they doing that?” asked Alex. “Because they’re lesbians,” Pete clarified. “Lesbians are girls who like to kiss each other” (70).
The book also expertly illustrates the encounter of American-born children with Greek culture. Many, but not all, American readers will recognize the tradition of roasting a lamb, also described vividly by Papafrangou from the fascinated perspective of someone whose neighbors and friends never roast an entire animal: “Atop the ice, rested the twenty-seven pound lamb; a perfect specimen of flesh and fat marbled pink-and-white beneath the overhead lamps” (177). Some cultural practices are not only surprising but incomprehensible to the foreign-born Greek children. “How could an eye be evil?” one of the boys asks, insisting “how does Yiayia’s spit protect me?” These are the questions that children born in Greece rarely think to ask. But for Greek Americans, the notion is unfamiliar, and this defamiliarizes practices like the evil eye. The boy concludes that “the combined power of their saliva would cure me” (57). In this way, the book also takes up the problem of the western gaze. While we are used to thinking of the orientalist gaze turned towards Arab and Asian cultures, the Anglo-American gaze is very much an othering gaze (especially outside the city of New York, the largest Greek American community where Anglo-Saxons may even be in the minority). Not only are everyday practices of Greek Americans questioned and ogled by Anglo neighbors, but many of the American born Greek men turn that orientalizing gaze on their own families and themselves.
This willingness to explore the complex problem of Greek American racialization offers Papafrangou an entry point to engage boldly with the question of race in the United States more broadly—a question which much of Greek American culture elides or evades by simplistically imagining Greece as the cradle of white civilization. People of color are present and described in detail: “a quartet of elderly black men in matching pink vests-and-neckties crooned classic R&B tunes, the notes lilting above this carnival-of-sorts” (157). Later, Mike Lagounis writes in a letter, “I stroll 19th and think, ‘Where did all the white people come from?’ This once chocolate city has been vanilla-fied by Pabst-chugging twenty-somethings rushing in from wherever the hell Hipsterland actually is” (116).
At three-thirty on Easter morning Alex Kouros is driving home from the “Anastasee,” and sees a “patrolman furrowing his brow at the ruddy phosphorescence emanating from Alex’s lap.” American readers thus encounter for perhaps the first time what almost every Greek has experienced since childhood on Easter, the “candle with its red plastic wax receptacle.” The policeman’s gaze reminds the young Greek man of how just a week before, “people marched the streets in BLACK LIVES MATTER T-shirts, their fists cradling candles” to protest what’s described on the radio as “yet another case of a young, black teenager brutally murdered at the hands of forces supposedly sworn to serve and protect” (170).
Such moments ask Greeks to think carefully about the history of their own racialization. Pete Saropoulos, for his part, has his hair done in an African American style and the narrator comments that “the cornrows, in combination with his Mediterranean complexion, lent Pete a racially ambiguous appearance” (87).
Papafrangou takes care to make We Grew Here accessible to readers who don’t read Greek. Some definitions of the transliterated Greek are embedded in the dialogue: “In Greek, we have a word philotimo. Basically, it means generosity. Hospitality. I’m just passing it on” (150). At times, though, readers who do know Greek might be confused by the characters’ use of the language. For example, the above definition of philotimo is quite off the mark. And in “ Ti kaneis etho? Emeis menoume afto toh dromo, re malaka!” the missing “se” isn’t the error we typically hear L2 Greek speakers making. At another moment, a character says “Kalo ston Alexandre!” The grammatical errors also aren’t commented on in the text, so readers can’t be sure whether to read them as manifestations of an anxiously imperfect bilingualism or a blissful ignorance. We don’t know if characters are self-conscious about their mistakes or confident because they can understand each other, and that’s enough.
What’s evident is this novel’s deep concern for self-expression in both language and visual art, and for the need to render accurately the particularities of this group of boys-becoming-men. Although We Grew Here isn’t written with the lyricism of Bakopoulos’s Scorpionfish or Eugenides’s Middlesex, the prose is engaging and clear, lively and interesting and certainly offers an American reading public a comprehensive view of what it’s like, in the 2020s, to become a Californian Greek man. And this is what makes this novel-in-stories important as a contribution to American literature: these Greek American characters are rooted in Oakland and by depicting Greek characters from outside the typical centers of Chicago, Detroit, and New York, and by engaging boldly with the most timely questions of race, post-industrial labor, aesthetics, and gender expression, this excellent new novel-in-stories helps integrate Greek American writing into broader American literature.
Joanna Eleftheriou is author of the essay collection This Way Back. Her poems and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Arts and Letters, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America. She has studied at Cornell University, the Center for Ottoman, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham (UK) and the University of Missouri, where she earned a PhD in English. A contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction, Joanna teaches at Christopher Newport University and the Writing Workshops in Greece.