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The Life and Works of H. M. Petrakis (1923-2021)

by Eirini D. Kotsovili

Harry Mark Petrakis’s life span and work covered most of the 20th century along with its momentous social, political, economic and cultural changes in the United States and abroad. Born in 1923, in Missouri, from Greek parents who emigrated from the Greek island of Crete (as described in his Tales of the Heart: Dreams and Memories of a Lifetime, 1999), he remained until his passing in 2021 an intriguing, charismatic author who spent most of his life in Chicago, where he bore witness to, and immortalized, the everyday lives of Greek American immigrants as well as other inhabitants of the city.

As the author of twenty-four novels and recipient of prestigious awards, honours and nominations, along with an academic affiliation, Petrakis enriched American fiction via his examination of human affliction through his characters. In addition, he authored non-fictional publications, including essays, short stories, and autobiographical works, which shed light into his own life, his family and highlighted his ongoing commitment to writing. His texts also serve as a gateway to a turbulent past—both personal and collective—which resonates till this day: from the desires of mostly working-class immigrants and how these compare or contrast to the “American Dream,” to the different kinds and expressions of abuse, of violence, of loss and addiction manifested in everyday life (sometimes plaguing members within the same family, or an ethnic group across generations), to powerful references to racial strife and segregation in Chicago and beyond, Petrakis masterfully captured the changes and tensions that himself, his family, his home city, state and country were experiencing. His work can serve as a meditation on identity; the making of, and the shortcomings of fictional characters—as depicted for instance, with references to gambling in Nick the Greek (1979)—while they try to make it in an ever-changing American capitalist society, as explored through his working-class Greek immigrant protagonists and their efforts to make ends meet in A Dream of Kings (1966) and Twilight of the Ice (2003). Particularly moving are the references to his younger self, interacting with older Greek Americans; for instance, in Stellmark: A Family Recollection (1970), Petrakis encounters a first-generation Greek American grocer; what starts off as a confrontation, turns into a meaningful exchange which allows the younger author to reflect more broadly on Greek origins, and varied aspects of culture that are respectfully preserved and referred to, by the grocer.

Through his works, the reader can see how he was always torn between the memories of his parents’ distant homeland of Crete and of Greece and his reality of being a second-generation Greek American. Amidst this constant friction and question of belonging—actually, because of it—Petrakis found a genuine home in his writing, which offered the possibility to reconcile the two. While set in a North American Midwestern context, his work was often infused with cultural references from Homeric texts to classical Greek mythology and from history to philosophy. His publications also include historical novels; for example, The Hour of the Bell (1976) and The Shepherds of Shadows (2008)—both on the 1821 War of Greek Independence.

His work marks an intercultural Greek American dialogue, where his fictional characters present an ongoing meditation on the makings of the individual subject, on one’s sense of self, of belonging and becoming, of origins and destinations; of having inherited a distant, glorious Greek past and living a challenging present in America; of being both similar and different from one’s surroundings. Overall, Petrakis’s readers are bound to rediscover his poignant reflections on the ever-changing Greek American, and, more broadly, immigrant society and identities. As the theorist Stuart Hall points out in Questions on Cultural Identities (1966), these are shaped by historical and social contexts, and impacted by power structures and institutions to produce modes of inclusion and exclusion, belonging and alienation. Petrakis's oeuvre helps readers navigate the connections between Greek America's transformation and broader historical changes in the United States.

The snapshots of life in cultural and psychological crossroads portrayed by Petrakis also serve as autobiographical tableaux of his own journey and literary oeuvre. Specifically, he offers fascinating accounts on his early efforts to getting his voice heard through his published works, and in this, he also comes across as a mentor and a teacher for upcoming writers (as in the 1983 Journal of a Novel), offering a living example of how to never give up the craft despite the plethora of tribulations and obstacles one encounters. Indeed, throughout his life, Petrakis struggled with considerable ordeals brought about by the demands of everyday existence, illness and addiction, and he persevered through the cathartic power of his literary craft, as he recounts in his final book Song of my Life (2014). It is amidst great and ongoing personal upheavals that his writing proved to be one of his few constants (along with his family); a point of (self) reference and a lifeline that allowed for self-discovery and ultimately assumed an elevated purpose of connection to self and others. His experiences and his struggles gave him scars, but also provided a gateway to reach and speak to us about them. He still does.

Eirini D. Kotsovili studied at McGill University (B.A) and at University of Oxford (M.St, D.Phil), where she also served as Junior Dean (Somerville College). She is a Lecturer at SFU (Humanities Department), a member of the Stavros Niarchos Centre for Hellenic Studies and the Institute for the Humanities. Her research and teaching interests revolve around the notions of gender and identity, Modern Greece and contemporary cultural production that reflects on the relation between past and present within various sociopolitical contexts.