By Vicki J. Yiannias
“The story of Adéspotos itself was never meant to be the story of a search for my own identity,” explains Ashley Black, author of Adéspotos, an essay about her experiences among the Sarakatsani, a nomadic tribe of shepherds in Epiros. “Rather, it is my discovery of the unique dignity held by people who are free. It is almost like being an ascetic, but more so. An ascetic must give up pleasures to be free; the Greeks I have met in these villages enjoy the pleasures of life but are not owned by them. This is the whole meaning of my story.” The Sarakatsani call themselves “Adéspotoi” which means “without a master”.
Ashley Black, who born in Greece and adopted by American parents when she was an infant, has searched for her Greek birth parents for many years to no avail. However, for just a couple of hopeful days, as she describes in Adéspotos (one of nineteen essays by women titled, Greece, A Love Story, reviewed here on June 2), Ms. Black thought that she might have been a child of Sarakatsan parents.
While Ms. Black, an award-winning writer, screenwriter, film director, and communications consultant in San Francisco, helps companies and organizations articulate their vision and create films that explain how they changed their world, her interview with TGN revealed the depth at which Ms. Black is exploring and changing her own world, as well.
TGN: What do you know of your origins?
AB: I was adopted through an agency in the United States. According to my adoptive parents, the adoption took place in the US around 1949. I don’t know how I got here from Greece, but some have speculated that I was brought by a Greek family who was immigrating; and they later turned me over to an adoption agency.
TGN: Why did you visit the Sarakatsani?
AB: I went to Epiros because the Internet investigator who was trying to locate my birth family received information that someone had heard of my Greek parentsʼ surname there, but this turned out not to be true, which I learned when I arrived there.
My interest in the Sarakatsani was not related to my background. I had seen evidence of their tsellingatos here and there on a trip and asked about them in Ioannina. I became interested and, of course, dug up an old volume of Campbellʼs Honour, Family, and Patronage.
When I went to the village in Epiros, I was surprised to learn that the Mikhas, [a character in Adéspotos] was Sarakatsan, and for a day or two, I thought I might be his daughter, but that turned out not to be true… I have no evidence that I am related to the Sarakatsani.
TGN: Do you have any new information on your birth parents?
AB: I never found my birth parents. The Internet investigator, though he specializes in finding the parents of Greeks adopted in America, never found my parents. I think he was disappointed as was I; he never charged me for his services.
Later, while traveling in the Zagoria, I met a couple from Volos. The woman, Nausika… marvelous name… seems to know everyone in Greece. She referred my story to Roots Research and its founder, Mary Theodoropolis (http://www.butterbox.gr/). The Roots Research Center is a non-profit voluntary NGO established in 1999. Its board consists of five members, all adult adoptees. The Centre aims at helping adult adoptees in the search for their roots. Roots Centre makes available databases for people who are searching for their roots. The relevant records are kept under the auspices of the Hellenic Data Protection Authority.
The Roots Centre combines forces with expert consultants and scientists from various appropriate fields. Mary and Roots Research have done much good for many people. Unfortunately, they have been unable to locate my parents. And so, I am resigned to the fact that I am unlikely to find my birth parents. I hope to compensate myself in this disappointment by becoming a Greek citizen some day – that has become my dream.
TGN: Do you travel to Greece frequently?
AB: I havenʼt been to Greece recently because the adoption of the Euro combined with the devaluation of the dollar have made it too expensive.
After the journey described in Adéspotos, I visited Greece a couple of times, but did not return to the village.
On one trip, I brought a group of friends to Epiros; they had asked me to show them the “real Greece”. It was a mistake. While two of my friends understood the charm of the villages and approached the people and environment respectfully, two others were unappreciative, even derogatory, about the country, including the charming villages of the Zagoria. I realized that they were really seeking some touristy place like Mykonos. I had intended to show them the charming village of my story, but it is too special for people whose value system is defined by Prada and Armani. So I took them no further than Parga. Even Parga they didnʼt appreciate and I encouraged them to return to Athens early. In those people who could not appreciate – indeed, were even rude about – what villages like Monodhendri represent is the threat to a civilized world.
TGN: Did that experience cause you to end your trip?
AB: No, I remained in Parga and stayed in a wonderful apartment owned by Tassos and his mother, Ellás. The story behind Ellásʼs name is another story that could only happen in Greece: when she was a little girl growing up in Epiros during the Civil War, the Andartes made a practice of stopping people and asking, “Are you ELAS or Ellás?” So, to defy them, her father named her Ellás.
My hope is to revisit my friends in the village when it will be easier for me financially. Wouldnʼt it be nice to return as a Greek citizen. One can dream.
TGN: Do you have ties with the Greek community in San Francisco?
AB: I do not have ties with the Greek community in my town, but I would love to make connection with them.
TGN: Are you working on a new book?
AB: My current project is a novel, Disinterment, situated in Epiros, which explores the danger that fanatical thinking poses to freedom. The story takes place in an imaginary village in Epiros. The time is just before 911, but the story spans the 1922 Katastrophe, the defeat of Mussolini in 1940, the Papadopoulos regime, and the bombing of Serbia.
The Greeks represent the independent spirit, which, I believe the world, with its turn to religious fanaticism, is trying to crush. As represented in my story Adéspotos, when you are “adéspotos”, you are free but you are also in many ways an orphan.
The average person, who is afraid to be free, resents independent thinking. So it takes courage to be free. Only strong spirits, represented in my novel by the Greeks, have the courage of that kind of freedom – the courage to stand alone and think for yourself. Because the value systems of so many people are shallow (as my friends who did not appreciate the Zagoria) we are letting the religious fanatics take over. And if the world is not to fall to totalitarianism, we depend on the sometimes-disorderly freedom of the Greek spirit.