The editors of Erγon felt that it would be right and fitting to collect a set of short essays or reflections commemorating Petrakis’s life and work. We sent invitations to a wide range of people, both scholars and members of the Greek American community. We present here the responses we received from Dan Georgakas, Eirini Kotsovili, Nick Mamatas and Elaine Thomopoulos. Yiorgos Anagnostou also contributed an essay.
Compiled by Prof. Gerasimus Katsan, Erγon’s book review editor, the tribute offers reflections and insights on the experience of Petrakis as a script writer in Hollywood (Dan Georgakas); the changed reception of his work from the point of view of a particular reader (Gerasimus Katsan); the significance of writing as a home for Petrakis’s hyphenated identity (Eirini Kotsovili); his status as an ethnic writer in the context of the American literary market (Nick Mamatas); performative oratory (Elaine Thomopoulos); and significance for the self-understanding and public representation of Greek America (Yiorgos Anagnostou).
Remembering Harry Mark Petrakis: A Tribute
This past February Harry Mark Petrakis, the well-known Greek American author, passed away at the remarkable age of 97.
Anyone familiar with the Greek American community will understand what a deep resonance Petrakis’s work has had across several generations; his is an oeuvre that encompassed the experiences of the early immigrant days as well as the troublesome times of the mid-twentieth century, after the Greek American community had begun to come to terms with its own sense of itself, its own internal struggles with assimilation, integration, suburbanization, acceptance, bigotry and the contradictions of ethnic self-preservation. While I would hesitate to call him “representative,” given his distinctive voice and point of view, perhaps more than any other writer in America, Petrakis was both eminently in tune with his community and one of its most congenial critics.
My own first encounter with Petrakis’s writing was not a happy one. When I was still a teenager, I discovered a copy of his collected short stories on my father’s bookshelf and I casually read a story or two. My initial response was one of embarrassment and disappointment at what I perceived to be very stereotypical stories about Greek Americans. In his characters I thought I recognized many “types” who, in my own imagination, corresponded to actual people in my community, especially amongst the aged generation of original immigrants or their now middle-aged first-generation children. With the pompousness of youth, I easily and thoughtlessly dismissed Petrakis as a writer trapped in clichés that reeked of Anthony Quinn’s Zorba and the “Kiss Me I’m Greek” buttons sold at our annual Greek Festival.
Obviously, this reaction to Petrakis had more to do with my own adolescent ambivalence towards traditional Greek America and my conflicted sense of a “hyphenated” identity than any rational understanding of his work.
When I returned to Petrakis much, much later, I immediately realized how much I had missed in his fiction. The subtlety of his deeply drawn characters, but also their intense humanity, combined with an endearing humor that ameliorates the sharpness of his criticism of Greek America, which includes such issues as racism, classism, exploitation and the plight of women—especially within the traditional family structure—among others. One sees the deep affection he has for the entirety of his community, while not flinching in his depictions of its less-positive attributes. Moreover, Petrakis was willing to view Greek America through the prism of its place within the larger American context, as he does in his brilliant novel In the Land of Morning (1973), told mainly from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran who returns to a Greektown he no longer recognizes in the shabby streets soon to be bulldozed by urban renewal, and to a traditional culture that no longer resonates with his own experiences of a wider world. And yet the sense of loss in the novel is neither bitter nor nostalgic. Rather, in the turmoil and upheavals the community faced, Petrakis captures a sense of quiet endurance and the qualities that perhaps one can ascribe to most immigrant communities in America: the ability to “roll with the punches” that history throws, and to make the best of it.
Gerasimus Katsan is Associate Professor of Modern Greek and Chair of European Languages and Literatures at Queens College – CUNY, and serves as a book-review editor for Erγon.