New York.- Vicki James Yiannias
My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City, Dan Georgakas’ unique contribution to understanding the ethnic experience in America, has been essential reading for Greek Americans since its original publication in 1972. The memoir’s theme of how the pre-war immigrant generation’s interactions with their American-born offspring reshaped the community has gained new relevance. As the Greek American community, becoming predominantly multi-ethnic is being re-shaped again, the new second edition and e-book version of My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City couldn’t be timelier, or more important to read.
Georgakas’ high-level scholarship and broad social insights evident in his prolific, decades-long participation in conferences, editor of several Hellenic journals, books and articles, and his unusual accessibility to other creators for discussion and encouragement, have gone a long way in building the Greek American archive.
The author/educator/historian was generous with his time for this interview saying that he consciously accepts the role of public intellectual.
GN: Why have you decided to publish a second edition of My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City?
DG: The first edition was sold out and the Author’s Guild offered me the chance to publish a lower-cost second edition and an e-book version that would make my memoir economically accessible for international readers. More importantly, I think my theme of how the pre-war immigrant generation interacted with their American-born offspring is relevant to our present era when Greek America is becoming predominantly multi-ethnic. This is reshaping our community just as the cycle I write of did. As then, there will be changes that are unexpected, some desirable, some not.
GN: If I’m not interested in Detroit’s Greeks or the mid-century Greek America you write of, why would this book be of interest to me?
DG: In addition to what I’ve already said, my book explores a category of Greek American communities that has not been widely recorded. The Detroit Greeks were fervent New Deal Democrats whose lives were formed in the context of a major manufacturing center. This brought them into early and close contacts with “Americans” and other immigrants. These Greeks did not live side by side but within walking distance or a few minutes car ride of each other. So, I write of being Greek and American rather than Greek-American, I believe that relationship to mainstream culture is characteristic of many other cities.
GN: How different is your orientation from other memoirs by writers such as Nicholas Gage and Harry Mark Petrakis?
DG: A Place for Us is an intriguing account of Gage growing up in Worcester, MA, a community very different than mine. Gage’s community was socially very conservative, clinging to and enforcing village perspectives. The restrictions on women were particularly shocking to me. There are still small clumps of such communities throughout the United States. Gage has captured their essence.
Harry Mark Petrakis mainly writes about the immigrant generation in Chicago. While flowing into mainstream society, his Greeks live in ethnic neighborhoods that reflect their Greek culture more strongly than American culture. His Stelmark is an extraordinary candid memoir that is more biographical than other works I am citing. He deals frankly with an addiction to gambling that was leading him to oblivion. Rather than the usual homage to the Greek Orthodox church, he writes about the conflicts between some of the community and his father who was a priest. Petrakis also speaks of how he was drawn to writing and wrote for ten years without being published due to editors not being interested in Greek America themes. Ultimately, however one of his stories, “Pericles on 34th Street,” became the first television show featuring Greeks as its central characters.
My work is most similar to Helen Papanikolas’ A Greek Odyssey in the American West, a portrait of her parents. The saga is set in Utah where the dominant culture involves mining rather than manufacturing. Papanikolas is as concerned about the community’s collective biography as much as her family’s history. She features accounts of women struggling to break with traditional Greek patriarchy and the general community fighting the KKK and other xenophobes.
Among other books, I am fond of is The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos which offers a rare look at the Greek under-class. Some of his novels also feature Greek private eyes working in Baltimore. Less known is the work of Suzannne Jenkins. She has Greek ancestry and specializes in fiction she calls “chick-lit.” A number of them feature a female Greek American who is a homicide detective in the Detroit police department. I particularly enjoyed her The Greeks of Beaubien Street, a novel set in Detroit’s Greektown.
None of the works I have cited, included my own, is the “real” Greek America, but taken as a whole, they effectively capture the diversity and richness of Greek American life.
GN: You’ve been critical of Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex, a best-seller set in the Detroit in the era you write of.
DG: More than that, Middlesex specifically deals with the parish in which I was raised. I respect poetic license and have no problems with the sexual themes Eugenides explores, but he doesn’t know much about Greek America. He wisely sent a first draft of Middlesex to Helen Papanikolas for comment. She replied with several pages of corrections regarding Greek culture. Eugenides incorporated many of them. But his depiction of the community I lived in is widely off base. His Greeks are stereotypical “greenhorns” filled with outdated ideas and skills. This fits his fictional story line but doesn’t capture the reality of that time and place. A social factor at play is that Eugenides was born in a wealthy suburb decades after the times he writes about. His views seem shaped by a collapsed and blighted Detroit rather than mid-century Detroit which had the highest average income of any American city and was a “golden age” for the immigrants of the Great Migration.
GN: What is your estimate of the literary scene in today’s Greek America?
DG: I’m concerned about its thinness. I don’t know of any notable literary works, written by the second wave of massive Greek immigrants of 1965-1980. Literary publications had not fared well. Voices, a promising literary journal was produced in California by a millennial a few years ago but only lasted two issues. More recently, second-wave immigrants have published Ergon, an excellent mixed critical and literary journal now in its second year. More generally, the literary trend since the late twentieth century is that talented Greek American writers have flowed into mainstream culture as soon as possible and rarely take on topics or create characters rooted in Greek America. This is an ominous trend for the future viability of our culture.
Dan Georgakas is Director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies at Queens College CUNY, and Consulting Editor for CINEASTE magazine. He has been awarded the American Hellenic Institute’s (AHI) Annual Hellenic Heritage Public Service Award for the Promotion of Hellenism in America.