Janet Sarbanes on Greek American Heritage in Life, Fiction, and Politics: An Interview

by Yiorgos Anagnostou

Janet Sarbanes, an Award-winning author, educator and public intellectual, gracefully agreed to a conversation with me about the place of Greek heritage in her life, work, and politics. Her willingness to explore this topic introduces us to a world of cultural and political commitments rarely acknowledged in the Greek American public sphere. In this respect, her narrative in this interview invites reflection on the ways we go about thinking and imagining a meaningful multicultural life which includes Greek connections.

Janet Sarbanes, welcome to Ergon! I first encountered your name in discussions about your recent book Letters on the Autonomy Project. You are a Professor of Writing and Cultural Studies at the California Institute of the Arts and an accomplished author of fiction and scholarly work. I also recognized your family name in connection to distinguished politicians connected with Greek heritage. It is this heritage that I would like to explore in this conversation—your thoughts about its social significance, its place in your personal and intellectual life, and, if applicable, politics.

I would like to start with your work and its major contours. What are the commitments and political passions driving it?

Thank you, Yiorgos, I’m looking forward to this conversation. I would say that in both my fiction and my essay writing I’m particularly focused on how people come together and fall apart, and how writing can intervene in that, both content-wise and through the creation of new forms and uses of language. As a reader, I think I’ve always gravitated toward Latin American fiction and U.S. fiction and poetry that emerges from contexts where individual creative work is linked to a collective political project of autonomy, such as the Black radical tradition. Fiction can help us question and reformulate not only what it is to be a self, but a self in relation. I’ve never found the hyper-individualistic focus of much U.S. fiction published today to be particularly compelling—I’m interested in people’s singularity, but not more so than their collective existence. In the scholarly and essayistic writing I do the relation between art and politics is a central concern, as well as the sociopolitical dimensions of artistic practice, particularly in subcultural contexts. I’ve written about the Shakers for instance, and how central their art practices were to their utopian communal experiment, and also the Greek blues known as rembetika, which emerged from and within a specific historical and cultural milieu that bridged East and West.

The name Sarbanes in Maryland is linked with an eminent line of educators and politicians. The late Senator Paul S. Sarbanes (1933–2020) was your father. I connect Congressman John Sarbanes (b. 1962) with his “Hellenism for Public Service” initiative. Educator Christine Dunbar Sarbanes (1936–2009) is well-known in the state and beyond. Could you help us navigate this web of familial relations and their significance for you?

Yes, I come from a family of public servants. My dad was the first Greek-American senator, and my brother John followed in his footsteps as congressman. My mom Christine taught Latin and ancient Greek for many years. My brother Michael teaches science in the Baltimore city school system and my aunt, uncle and cousin on my dad’s side were all educators as well. And of course, I’m on the faculty at CalArts. I was taught from an early age that a fulfilling life entails helping others and that has panned out—one of the great joys in my life today is helping students develop their thinking and realize their creative visions.

How did Greek heritage matter when you were growing up? Does it find its way into your adult life?

Though I’m only half-Greek, our extended Greek family in the states was very central to my upbringing. They embraced my mom, who immigrated from England and did not have family of her own. As for so many Greek-Americans, my yiayia, who immigrated to the U.S. in the twenties, was a powerful influence on me—on our whole family. She was a phenomenal cook and caregiver who lived on her own after my grandfather died (before I was born) until she passed away at the age of ninety-one. Her home was a hub for our extended family and her many friends, and she served as a sort of adoptive grandmother for a number of newer (non-Greek) immigrant families in Salisbury, the small town on the Eastern shore of Maryland where she lived. And she was a wonderful storyteller with a wicked sense of humor. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll stop there. We were also fortunate to have living ties to Greece through my father’s cousin, who returned there from the U.S. in the fifties, moving back to our ancestral village in Peloponisos. Recently my brother Michael bought a little stone house in that same village, and we’ve been talking about maybe retiring there together eventually with our families. So the living connection is very strong, and then both my mother and father had deep investments in Greek heritage going all the way back to the ancients: the importance of the examined life, of caring about the collective and not just the individual, of fighting for justice and people’s rule i.e. democracy, and also the value of education. I should also mention one aspect of my Greek heritage I’ve struggled with: the silencing and devaluing of women and the rigidity of gender roles. Of course that patriarchal dimension exists in most cultures, but I’m talking about its specific manifestations in Greek culture.

In a recent interview about your short story collection, “ The Protester Has Been Released,” you discussed your pedagogies as a mother, addressing the political responsibility to explain things to children and how. Is Greek heritage a topic that enters this interaction?

In my interactions with my daughter, I do try to impart many of the shared values of our extended Greek-American family, who live on the other coast from us. This includes embracing her heritage as an immigrant, the importance of learning other languages besides English, the value of community, and of course the value of education, of developing her thoughts and abilities and engaging with the world around her. Concepts I was raised on like philoxenia, which means hospitality, literally being a friend to strangers, and philotimo—love of honor, of doing the right thing and being decent and thinking of others. Although philotimo is a complex concept, and as you have written about, a site of ideological struggle. In rural villages such as the ones my family comes from it was very much about family honor, the family name, and was often used to police the behavior of women and girls. I remember hearing about that problematic history from my aunts and cousins in Greece, and experienced its aftermath myself. But my father invoked philotimo more in terms of the value of working for the greater good, and that’s what I try to pass on to my daughter. What else? I try to give her that living connection to Greece that I was given. I think if you have a real stake in a place outside of the United States, it gives you a different relationship to the American project—some critical distance. And I also try to instill in her a respect for the care work that women in our family have always done, going back to my yiayia, the remarkable ways in which they nurture family and community, which aren’t included in the history books.

Your fictional work draws inspiration from various cultural traditions, including African American oratory and literary polyvocality, Latin American fiction and folktales, and European existentialism, among others. Is there any facet of the Greek heritage that speaks to your creative imagination?

When I discovered rembetika, it really spoke to my imagination, in no small part because it was a musical form that developed in a fascinating sociopolitical context. I’ve written a scholarly essay about rembetika your readers might be interest in.

In terms of the ancients, Greek mythology occupies a central place in my imagination—it’s wonderfully rich. The hybrid creatures, the metamorphoses, the intermingling of mortal and immortal. And of course the philosophy, the plays, and the poetry. But I’m also a bit wary of how enmeshed philhellenism was and still is in the project of Europeanization. As Stathis Gourgouris observes, the notion of ancient Greece as the cradle of western civilization took shape in the nineteenth century as part of the attempt to reclaim modern Greece from “eastern” influences, thereby erasing much of its history. That history is painful, it’s a history of colonization, but it too shaped what Greece is today. We don’t get much of that history, in the U.S. anyway. But in college I studied the poetry of George Seferis, Constantine Cavafy, Odysseus Elytis and Yannis Ritsos, and found my own way to Katerina Gogou and Katerina Aggelaki-Rooke. That gave me more of a feeling for what a sensibility that integrated ancient and modern Greek experiences could look like.

Did you ever entertain the idea of giving voice to a Greek American literary character? How would you imagine the relations of this figure with people from other heritages, and how this web of relations would matter?

I’ve written two stories, one in each collection, with Greek-American characters. In Army of One, the story “Dear Aunt Sophie” chronicles an email correspondence between Sophie and her ten-year-old niece Alexa, who’s trying to figure out why her aunt left Baltimore and moved to Southern California. The family at the heart of the story runs a diner, which was what my father’s family did—a common Greek-American experience. But Sophie wants to be a writer, and she felt in order to fully become herself she had to leave home. The correspondence with her niece that makes up the story is really about negotiating the demands of family and the demands of creativity, and it helps her reconcile them with humor and a bit of pathos.

The other story, “Ars Longa” in The Protester Has Been Released, again features a Greek diner owner and his adult children, who live in a Colorado town where for some inexplicable, perhaps environmental reason, everyone has fallen sick with cancer, including all of his children. In the face of this existential crisis, he agrees to run the hospital cafeteria in return for being allowed to take over an empty wing and turn it into an art school staffed by his kids. How did the ancients cope with chaos, he wonders, and finds the answer in Aristotle: by making art. That story also has the Greek family interacting with a Ute family and their tribe, the original inhabitants of the area, drawing out similarities in their experience and the very real differences.

Heritage seems to organize the lives of great many American people. But it is often cast as a personal pursuit of roots, and in many cases, as an ahistorical celebration of ethnic pride. Does heritage carry broader social significance?

I think there’s a power in difference, when it’s not treated as a static thing but as a creative process, manifested through culture, language, politics, place, etc. The assimilationist narrative, which was very harshly foisted on my father’s generation—“English only” is nothing new—insists that power and survival in America depend on leaving these differences behind. But one of the reasons I’m so interested in the concept of autonomy, as the French-Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis theorizes it, is that it views a group’s attempts to generate their own values, their own way of life, as a continuous sociohistorical process, not a once-and-for-all event. What this allows for in a diverse society is solidarity across differences and across freedom struggles, rather than the assertion of a unity based on the suppression of differences—as happens with nationalism, for instance. But differences can also be evacuated of their history, as you point out, and become empty signifiers that are merely “celebrated” rather than deployed in any meaningful way. We’re all different, goes that subtext, but look, we’re all the same.

I think one way to resist this would be for Greek-Americans to engage with Greece in a way that rejects American imperialism, to insist that modern day Greece has something to tell us as well as ancient Greece, to acknowledge our connection to this so-called “second world” country in a way that does not condescend, that does not map onto a “see how far we’ve come” narrative. I’m personally very proud of the Greek leftist tradition, particularly its more autonomous dimensions. But this tradition is almost entirely absent from Greek-American culture and politics, or at least it was when I was growing up. Of course, that has to do with patterns and ideologies of immigration, you come to the U.S. to partake of the American dream, not to question it or the atomized and unequal society it produces.

Your political thinking finds inspiration in the work of the diaspora philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. Are there any Greek American artists, authors, or intellectuals whose work you find meaningful personally and relevant to our times?

I’m a fan of the fiction of Leni Zumas and Anna Moschovakis, the films of John Cassavetes, the music of Diamanda Galas, the art of Connie Samaras and Renee Petropoulos, and the scholarship of Stathis Gourgouris and George Katsiaficas. But Castoriadis was a huge revelation for me. He helped me think through so many aspects of the Greek tradition in a way that was politically useful, distinguishing, for instance, between liberal democracy and radical democracy. Because the Greek contribution to politics was radical democracy, not republicanism or representational democracy—that was more of a Roman institution. A radically democratic society is democratic at its very roots, which is to say, it’s a society permeated with a sense of its own self-creation and engaged in the ongoing questioning and reconstitution of its institutions by the demos, or people. It is autonomous, it determines its own form – and Castoriadis goes back to the Greek roots of the word, auto or self, and nomos, law or form, to arrive at this notion.

Greek Americans derive immense pride from their connection with ancient Greece. You are a thinker who draws inspiration from a diaspora political philosopher and writes about a fundamental Greek concept, autonomy. Yet, I have not seen Greek American organizations inviting you to speak about the relevance of this concept for today’s America. How do you explain this?

Well, I was very happy when you reached out, Yiorgos, and glad to know about Ergon. I don’t know the answer to that question—in my own case, I may be a little too far to the left and a little too experimental for the celebratory modality of a lot of Greek-American cultural events. To be honest, I think my work might find more of an audience in Greece, and that would bring me real pleasure.

This neglect applies broadly. There are distinguished Greek American authors, artists, and filmmakers who leave an imprint on American cultural life but are excluded from the cultural life of the community and its parishes. What could change this situation? What are the conditions for opening-up the community to their work and ideas?

I think when the social and cultural life of the community revolves around the church, as it does for so many immigrant communities, there’s a tendency to avoid certain topics and approaches. One thing that could change this situation is to develop organizations that don’t revolve around the church, electoral politics, or business. Alternative spaces that bring Greek-Americans together with Greeks. Spaces that are open to critiques of nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and white supremacy, and to experiments in art that shift our modes of perception and understanding. Because for culture and politics to really live, you have to be able to question your institutions (including the institution of art). You have to be able to continuously challenge accepted truths, and in light of those interrogations, to make and do something new, as Castoriadis says. This is what constitutes radical democracy—it’s not limited to direct democracy in decision-making, it’s a commitment to the understanding that we make our own laws, conventions, culture and forms of life, and that there is never an end to this process.

The broad pattern of Greek American socioeconomic mobility is often described in terms of the bootstrap narrative, which explains success in terms of hard work alone, neglecting to account for the structural privileges that immigrants from southeastern Europe eventually enjoyed in contrast to people of color who are blamed for their poverty. Still, some liberal politicians subscribe to this ideology. What are your thoughts about this contested issue?

I absolutely respect and honor the sacrifices my grandparents made, the challenges they faced and how hard they worked. But I also know that one of the main things that contributed to their success was the strong communal bonds they had, those networks. It was those networks that enabled my grandfather and great uncle to come alone to the U.S. as young teens (I think my Uncle Gus was twelve years old), find work as busboys in restaurants owned by other Greeks, and eventually come to start their own. Black Americans, by contrast, were forcibly brought to this country and cruelly deprived of their social networks by slavery and its aftermath, discrimination and racist violence that continues unabated today. Asian and Latine immigrants were denied the opportunities afforded to European immigrants—as you note, first only Northern European immigrants but eventually Southern European ones as well. When you lose sight of that history and context, you become invested in upholding an unjust system. That we were able to assimilate into white supremacist structures—is that really something to be proud of?

Civic responsibility is a central value in the self-definition of many Greek American organizations. It is often practiced as charity, philanthropy, humanitarian aid, and support of causes such as medical research. But it is often rare that we see civic responsibility as advocacy in politicized issues such as climate change, structural causes for poverty, or race-related issues. Is there a conceptual space to think of American ethnic organizations—or American ethnic communities, for that matter—as agents toward political and social change?

There have been moments in Greek American history (that I’m aware of, I’m not a historian) where Greek Americans were instrumental in bringing about change. Greek miners in the West, for instance, were central to the union struggle. And Archbishop Iakovos marching across the bridge in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—that was a moment. I’ve always found that story interesting: Iakovos actually faced criticism for his action from the Greek-American community—they called him a prodotis or traitor, essentially a traitor to his race. In response he cited his own experience as a Greek born under the Ottoman Empire to third class citizenship. He said joining the march was taking revenge against all those who oppress people. When we don’t allow our political and historical experience to be flattened out or erased by ahistorical ideologies, such as whiteness, we find our way to new solidarities. That also includes solidarities with newer immigrants. Greeks and Italians were subjected to immigration quotas and outright bans in the twentieth century, that’s our history, so why aren’t we making common cause with the people experiencing that today? And anyone whose family came as economic immigrants to this country should have—and retain—a class consciousness. You mentioned climate change—as Castoriadis notes, the Greek concept of autonomy as self-determination also involves self-limitation, which is an environmental concept. We cannot continue with this unfettered and unexamined growth in the face of climate catastrophe. So I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying yes, American ethnic organizations and communities are positioned to make political and social change, so long as they reject the assimilationist narratives that keep them tethered to the status quo. One of the most powerful tools they have is that strong sense of community, that concern for the common good, which could help undo many of the ravages of privatization, austerity and hyper-individualism, if harnessed to that end.

What is a concluding thought or two you would like to share with the readers?

Just that I’m grateful for this opportunity to think through my relation to my heritage and how it informs my work, and I hope it holds some interest for them. I thought I might end by sharing a few lines of Katerina Gogou’s:

Don’t stop me. I’m dreaming.
We’ve been through centuries of injustice.
Centuries of loneliness.
Not now—don’t stop me.
Now here forever and everywhere.
I’m dreaming of freedom.

April 30, 2023

Janet Sarbanes teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program and the MA of Aesthetics and Politics in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts. She is the author of two short story collections, a children’s book, multiple essays and critical writings, and, most recently, the book Letters on the Autonomy Project (2022), a work exploring notions of radical democracy and autonomy, theorized beyond liberal individualism.

Yiorgos Anagnostou teaches in the Modern Greek Program at the Ohio State University.