New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Although in recent decades migrant culture has been the focus of extensive research, the book history of migrants is a topic that remains untouched by the scholarly community, even though publications play a crucial role in the cultural education and self-awareness of immigrants, says Maria Kaliambou, Senior Lector in Modern Greek, Hellenic Studies Program at Yale University.
Ms. Kaliambou, who teaches courses in folklore and Modern Greek language and was elected Erasmus Student Ambassador of Greece by the European Commission In 2011, has set out to change that with her new book, “The Book Culture of Greek-Americans”, a significant contribution to Greek American studies. Her research on the book history of Greek Americans can contribute not only to Diaspora studies but can also lead to a better understanding of oral vs. written literature, book history, and cultural identity.
Ms. Kaliambou presented a talk by the same name at last spring’s conference, Reimagining White Ethnicity: Expressivity, Identity and Race, held at the Calandra Institute in New York. Following up on the coverage of two other presentations by Greek Americans at the conference, The Greek American Image in American Cinema by Dan Georgakas, and Ethnic Acts: On “European Ethnicity” Cultural Politics, by Yiorgos Anagnostou, the GN speaks with Maria Kaliambou about the book culture of the Greek American community, particularly in the beginning of the 20th century.
GN: What motivated you to begin research on Greek American book culture?
MK: I wanted to debunk the circulating stereotype that there is no such thing as Greek American book history. The variety of the publications produced by Greek Americans since the beginning of the 20th century demonstrates the opposite. The books produced by immigrants show the strong wish of Greek Americans to have their own voice and to form their cultural identity in their new home.
GN: When and where did the first Greek American publications come on the scene?
MK: As soon as Greeks began immigrating to the United States, Greek American publishing houses—mostly family businesses—appeared in urban centers such as New York, Boston, and Chicago.
GN: What was their scope?
MK: The broad repertoire of books and newspapers aimed to fulfill all the reading needs of Greek immigrants. Various kinds of books were published, “high” and “low” editions; books for adults as well as children; books with educational, religious, social, humorous, or functional character, and so on. Also a significant number of serials and periodicals were published in almost every community.
GN: What were some of the things you discussed in your presentation at the Calandra Institute?
MK: The complicated and ambivalent relations between Greek Americans with their Greek homeland in the area of publishing, the attitude of the migrants towards books imported from Greece, how Greeks in Greece evaluated the books produced in America. At the beginning of the 20th century the Greek books that circulated among migrant communities were mostly imported from Greece. Regardless of the low literacy of the Greek immigrants, the demand for books was astonishingly high. After the 1930s immigrants printed books in order to compete those imported from Greece.
GN: What types of books were they?
MK: They fell into two categories: religious and secular. It is interesting also to make the distinction between the professional and amateur producers, because different motivations produced different books. The question is raised as to who were their intended audience, intellectuals or common migrants?
GN: Were they written Katharevousa or Demotic Greek?
MK: The language of these books was usually the archaic Greek, or Katharevousa, and not the demotic, or Demotike. Books in demotic came into appearance later.
GN: Did the vast majority of the readers of these books easily understand Katharevousa?
MK: It seems contradictory to me that these intellectuals who wanted to be the “people’s educators” used a distanced language for their audience. How could the illiterate or semi-literate immigrants have read, understood, and been affected by those books? Also, what about the younger audience in Greek American communities? According to Archimandrite Athenagoras Kavathas in Boston (from the unpublished papers in the archive of Demetrios Callimachos), “when children here in America saw a Greek book in front of them, the only reaction it caused was to throw it out of the window. Loathsome in outside appearance, unappetizing in its content!” Do children’s books follow other production and distribution structures than the ones for adult books?
GN: You have said that your book “moves between the disciplines of folklore, book history, migration, and ethnic studies”.
MK: Yes, my new project intersects with all these fields. In general, my research interests range from folk narrative—with a specialization in folktales—to the theory of folklore studies, popular literature, history of books, history, Southeast European cultural studies, and European philhellenism. Currently I am also working on a pedagogical book on folktales for Modern Greek language teaching.
Since she earned her first degree in History and Archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece in 1997, and her Ph.D. in Folklore Studies/European Ethnology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich in 2005, Maria Kaliambou’s career has continued on an upward trajectory. In 2006 she received the Lutz Röhrich prize in Germany for her book Heimat – Glaube – Familie. Wertevermittlung in griechischen Popularmärchen (1870-1970) [Home – Faith – Family: Transmission of Values in Greek Popular Booklets of Tales (1870-1970)], and was a post-doctoral researcher at the University Charles-de-Gaulle Lille 3 (2006). Se was also a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton University (2006-2007), and a visiting lecturer at the department of Folklore Studies/European Ethnology and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Munich (summers 2009, 2010).