Art & Literature
My Big Greek Family
By: Maria Constantine
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Diaspora Greek-Cypriot Sisters Challenge Family Expectations in My Big Greek Family
In her novel, My Big Greek Family, author Maria Constantine challenges family expectations for young women, common in Diaspora families. As one of three sisters born to Greek-Cypriot-immigrant parents in London, she knew these all too well.
“I’m a second generation woman who grew up with two cultures. It’s enriching to experience and be part of two cultures, but at the same time, it raises certain challenges too,” Constantine explained.
This theme resonates with not only Diaspora Greeks and Greek-Cypriots, but people around the world who are also children of immigrants. We know firsthand that we are expected to behave a certain way, to live a certain kind of life, to uphold the traditions of the mother country. We also know that in many cases, our parents or grandparents left the “old country” many, many years ago, but they still hold firmly to the traditions, customs, mores, and even the slang words of their country at that time. They may or may not realize that their mother country has likely evolved, and those mores, slangs, and expectations no longer hold true. I know I have seen this with my own parents, and also observing my family in Greece; my cousins there didn’t have the same expectations placed on them. When these older generations return to the motherland, it’s sometimes shocking to see how much society has advanced, and that things are changing. But still, they hold tightly to what they know, what they grew up with, and that remains the expectation for their children. They want the best for their children, and hold firm to it, because it helps to keep their heritage alive in a melting pot society. You may have lived this too.
Though not an autobiographical story, Constantine builds on her experiences, weaving a compelling story about three sisters, children of Greek-Cypriot parents, growing up in London. These young women are adults – educated professionals – trying to make their way in the world, and of course, to find love. The celebration of Georgina’s 30th birthday sets off a whirlwind of self-examination and reflection for these women.
The sisters go on holiday to Greece, where they realize they didn’t know each other all that well. They learn each other’s secrets, dreams and desires. The oldest sister’s revelation sets everything on edge.
They begin to face their family’s expectations head on and challenge them: What if you find love, but he isn’t Greek? What if you don’t pursue the career your parents had in mind? What if you don’t want to be married off? What if you want to live a different lifestyle? What if in all your parent/family-pleasing, you become very unhappy? Why can’t you chase the dream you want and not the one your parents want for you? How do you reconcile all that?
These are questions we’ve asked ourselves. Many have compromised their happiness and lived their life according to family expectations, while others have had the courage to live the life that they desire. What’s right? What’s wrong? What will these sisters do? And how will their parents react? We are reminded that holding tightly to your heritage, your culture, your ancestral history and language are important, but Old World expectations do not always apply in the 21st century. Maintaining your cultural identity is a good thing, but we still have to evolve, we still have to live the life that is best for us. And no two of us are alike. My Big Greek Family also reminds us that straddling two cultures is both a bewildering and magnificent experience.
Song of My Life
By: Harry Mark Petrakis
University of South Carolina Press
Release date: November 13, 2014
The Celebrated Author’s Ode is His Most Personal
The latest memoir and 25th published book by author Harry Mark Petrakis, Song of My Life, will be released on November 13. This ode is perhaps his most personal and most reflective. Longtime followers as well as those just discovering him will appreciate this work.
Readers of his past memoirs may recall some of these stories, but in Song of My Life, Petrakis digs deep, divulging more details than ever before, and even confessing about some of the darker times in his life. He becomes like a character in his own story, and we learn how all these experiences shaped him into the glorious storyteller we have grown to love. In classic Petrakis style, his stories of joy and lament will have you cheering one minute and crying the next.
Petrakis speaks of the childhood illness that led to his love of stories and storytelling. He tells of his life as an aspiring writer—all the jobs he held (and some ever-so-briefly) and all of his misadventures along the way. Getting published was arduous work; it took 10 years of honing his craft and pitching his stories before anyone gave him a chance. He paid his dues, and became one of the greatest storytellers of our time.
Reflecting on his nine-plus decades, he shares some not-so-proud moments, including how he felt he continually let his family down as he pursued his dream. He reveals details of a gambling addiction, and even a planned suicide attempt. He tells about the trials and tribulations of caring for and living with an elderly parent –how he often resented his mother’s presence, how he ultimately had to lie to her, and the subsequent guilt he carries.
He talks about his time in Hollywood, and ponders how his life would have been so much different, had he chosen certain other paths. Throughout the book, we see and feel the abiding love he has for his wife of 69 years, Diana.
In this tome, it is reaffirmed that Petrakis is a part of every character he has created. And this is what makes them all so real, so relatable, and so memorable.
I must confess, as I read Song of My Life, I felt like I couldn’t finish it, only due to the irrational thought that when the book ended, so would the life of Petrakis. On the contrary, at 91 and going strong, the author, who was recently presented with the coveted Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, marches on. He continues to write. His son John, a professor and former film critic said at the award presentation that when he sees his dad in his study, typing away, “all is right in the world.” Indeed. May he continue to share the genius of his imagination, for many more years to come.
Santorini: Inspired by a True Story
By: Alex M. Smith
Santorini Reminds Us Not to Let the Past Hinder the Future
The romantic island of Santorini is the setting of a novel by Alex M. Smith of the same name. His fourth novel is based on true events.
The author, of Greek and Phoenician descent, traces his roots to the city of Antioch, back when it was part of the Byzantine Empire. Wishing to stay close to his roots, Smith lives in a “mountainous village overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.”
“Just like my seafaring ancestors, my life has been one long journey. In it, I discovered different places and experienced sights and sounds that later influenced my writing,” he shared.
Smith began writing at a young age, but like many others, felt timid about sharing his work. Thanks to family encouragement and “a push” from his editor, he took a chance.
“I think I got my passion for storytelling from my grandfather, who I used to sit with for hours while he told me stories about the old days.”
When the author first saw the island of Santorini in 2004, he exclaimed, “Who would ever want to leave this place?” He said he chose the storied island because it “is purely symbolic, but where better than one of the most beautiful islands on earth?”
In Santorini, the protagonist, an American novelist named Jack, has exiled himself to the island to escape his tragic past. He has more female suitors than a man could want, but none capture his heart or his mind, until the lovely Katherine literally fell into his life.
Katherine, from San Francisco, and Jack are attracted to each other, though wary of a possible entanglement. But the island has worked its magic. The two spend time together, and they develop feelings for each other, but can’t seem to commit. A misunderstanding drives a wedge between them and they split. Neither realized the extent of their attraction, and how their time together, their feelings, had left their mark on their spirits. Both are forced to confront their own respective demons to determine if they can really make the leap. Will they be able to overcome their fears? Will more miscommunications sabotage their future together? Will love conquer all?
The novel shows us that love is worth fighting for, even if the battle is within ourselves. Set against the picturesque romantic island of Santorini, we find ourselves wishing for our own romantic island adventure.
Santorini has been very well-received. Also, in the spirit of giving back, the author donates 10% of all proceeds of this book’s sales to ALS research.
Smith is will soon publish the next two books in his “Grapes of Desire” series, and is developing a new romantic suspense series.
Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexMSmithAutho
On October 4, The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame conferred upon literary icon, Harry Mark Petrakis, 91, its coveted Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement. At a reception at the National Hellenic Museum, friends and colleagues shared anecdotes and read excerpts of his work. The award was presented by longtime friend, Judge Charles P. Kocoras. The legendary author wrote compelling stories that resonated with Greeks and non-Greeks alike. Though his characters are Greek, they could have been from anywhere else in the world. They're human; they're identifiable and relatable. Petrakis is uniquely Greek, yet uniquely Chicago. His work has inspired generations of writers. His 25th book, Song of My Life, is expected later this year.
The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work
By: Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Just Say OPA! The Wisdom of the Ancients Still Holds True
The wisdom of the ancients is still incredibly meaningful today. Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon have harvested these profound words and principles into a new paradigm for finding meaning in our lives. These tenets are nothing new, but looking back to their words is actually quite eye-opening. The philosophers’ thoughts on living, and how to get the most out of life, still hold true. This husband and wife duo reminds us of these age-old truths, and prompt us to discover our own path to meaningful and joyful living. This road compels us to look at all areas of our life, to identify what’s truly important, to simplify, to even begin anew, and be the best we can be.
They examine the quintessential Greek village life. Many of us Westerners have always been told that the villagers were “backwards” or “didn’t know better.” On the contrary; we see that they are sage individuals, and actually knew better all along. We revisit these concepts that are at the very core of our Hellenism: filoxenia, filotimo, arete, evdemonia, and more. These are the virtues we strive for, and have often lost sight of, ironically, in our pursuit of a better life. The villagers embrace a true concept of community, and live these virtues every single day. This has led them to become very resilient in the face of adversity, especially with the financial crisis. They have a different attitude to toward life. They value the simple pleasures, and continually find joy in their lives. They actively embrace life, and are sure to take the time to engage with each other and develop relationships. They know they are intertwined; they are connected and each have a place in the world. They truly understand what community is and why it’s essential. While we’ve been in the fast lane chasing material wealth and prestige, we’ve lost sight of what life is about. The result? We’re tired, stressed, unhappy, unhealthy, feeling like we have no purpose, and like our lives are without meaning.
The philosophers told us that our mind, body and spirit are interconnected. When one gets out of whack, nothing else seems to go right. When we get stressed, it affects our physical health. When we don’t feed our spirit, we suffer in many areas. When we work, work, work and don’t make time for family and friends, for life, we lose meaning. We start to feel like we are on the hamster wheel and can’t get off. We have things, but we aren’t happy.
Learn or re-learn what the philosophers had to say. Read the OPA! Affirmations. There’s a wealth of information here. The OPA! Way becomes a road map for living, for embracing life, for reconnecting, and helping us find our place in the world. We all have much to give, we all have much to learn. It’s time to re-discover it and perhaps, finally, we will lead lives (and find work) that is meaningful and brings us joy.
OPA! truly is more than a word. It’s a way of life. Pattakos and Dundon have created a guidebook for our lives. The wisdom of the ancients indeed holds true, and in today’s world, is more essential than ever. The OPA! Way is a volume you’ll refer to again and again. It’s time to be the best you, to embrace life, and find joy. Everybody say OPA!
Alex and Elaine will appear at the National Hellenic Museum on December 4.
Check out my Q&A with the authors.
The Last Island
By: David Hogan
Publisher: Betimes Books
Novel Explores Themes of Redemption, Escape, Love, Our Flawed Nature
Playwright David Hogan offers an intriguing novel, “The Last Island,” based on a fictional Greek island in the Sporades. The Bostonian who lived in Athens for many years and has spent much time on the island of Skopelos, examines the human condition, our flawed nature and more.
There, he witnessed the island change from a traditional fishing society into a modern, tourist-based economy.
“I wanted to capture something of that transition, what was lost, what was gained and the effect it had on the people, the animals, the island itself.”
“During that time, I was alternately mystified, amused, excited, frustrated, and delighted, as I would have been anywhere else, but in Greece I think those emotions were heightened. I can remember moments when I was swimming in the Aegean at sunset or standing on a mountaintop at dawn where the history and urgency and majesty of the place would course through me. At times, I can still feel it.”
Hogan’s protagonist – unnamed throughout the story – is any of us, an everyman struggling with regrets, searching for meaning, asking himself, ‘now what?’
“He’s as flawed as any of us. Perhaps the one thing that sets him apart is the level of his self-awareness when he recognizes who he is and what he’s capable of. This understanding comes to him abruptly and confrontationally. Most of us will never experience such a defining moment, but that’s one of many reasons to read novels.”
The protagonist flees his everyday life as a Boston fireman and heads to a Greek island. His grandmother was Greek, and he learned some of the language as a child. He seeks refuge there, where no one knows him, no one knows he can understand some language; he’s just another person. It’s the perfect place to get lost – to lose his former self and begin anew. But redemption is not so easy.
He finds work at a taverna. Immersed in island culture, he meets a mysterious stranger, named Kerryn, who teaches him much about life, getting back to basics, and also about protecting the environment.
Kerryn, like Hogan, is an environmentalist. She’s shedding all her possessions in an attempt to get back to a simple, more natural life, where man and nature live in complete harmony.
“She hasn’t found an answer yet, hasn’t quite found a new way of being, but she’s searching. I’d like to believe we all are.”
She befriends a dolphin, and risks her life to make sure the waters remain wildlife-friendly. Their growing friendship pulls him into her quest to save the island from losing its old ways, and ultimately, helping the dolphins.
Two unlikely beings, shedding their own pasts teach each other about life, love, and human nature. One has previously crossed ethical lines, while another does it currently. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What if the end justifies the means? Is man more important than nature? Are the new ways better than the old? Have we made life too complicated, and if yes, can we return to simpler ways and times? Do we know what we are really capable of? Hogan’s adept storytelling makes us ponder our spiritual essence, and to reflect on who we are, where we have been and where we are going – and how things so different can really be so much alike.
“The Last Island” is a contemporary fiction bestseller at Amazon UK, reached Number 1 at Amazon Australia, and was a finalist for the San Diego Book Award. Hogan has recently completed a stage play and is currently working on a new novel.
By: Demetra Tsavaris-Lecourezos
Illustrations by Rick Sanders
Publisher: The Word Verve
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-941251-10-2
Hardback ISBN: 978-1-941251-11-9
Published: May 2014
First Book in Series Takes Kids on Fun, Educational Travel Adventures
CHICAGO--Many parents have watched Disney’s “Little Einsteins” with their kids, immersing them in travel adventures around the world. Author Demetra Tsavaris-Lecourezos loved to watch the show with her daughter, Katerina. As Katerina grew older, however, it was time for something more advanced.
“There was nothing out there,” Demetra revealed. “My creative juices began to flow, and the idea sprang from there.”
She spoke to an attorney at Disney, and was quickly advised that anything that she shared with them could be used.
“Immediately, I hung up. I knew I could do something with this idea.”
The concept, co-created by her late husband, Constantine “Gus”, began as a movie script, designed to teach kids about travel, language, means of transportation, currency conversion, and other life lessons.
Demetra, who had written poetry in high school and college had not published anything, remained undaunted. She flew to Los Angeles to meet with National Geographic, Lions Gate and others. The complete package—which included films, toys, activity books and other related materials, was well-received; however, she was continuously told that producing the series would cost millions; none wanted to take that risk. They all recommended that she adapt the scripts into children’s books.
Disappointed, she returned home, and began to write. With four scripts written, it was time to query publishers. Then a series of events put the project on hold: within the next year, she experienced a miscarriage; then Gus, and her mother, became ill and passed away—her husband from pancreatic cancer, and her mother, leukemia. Demetra and her husband were planning to relocate from New York to Tarpon Springs, and had set in motion plans to open a gift shop, called, Given With Love.
"We signed the corporate papers for the store, but he never got to see it open.”
In the wake of these life-altering events, and everything poured into the business, it never seemed the right time. Then last winter, a friend suggested she pitch the idea to a well-respected publisher.
“I took a chance, and reached out to Janet Fix of The Word Verve, via Facebook. Coincidentally, she was planning a trip to Tarpon. Janet came to my shop, and we hit it off. She asked to take the book manuscripts with her; all I had was the movie script. I trusted her with it. A week later, she called and said let’s do the series, and send her the first book ASAP. That was in January.”
Published in May, the story is about several kids hanging out in front of a shop, who are bored and can’t decide what to do. Mrs. Eva, the shop owner, hears the kids and engages them in an amazing adventure. With her Magical Crystal Globe, she takes them on a journey to actual places in Queens, NY. The kids visit Fort Totten, the Queens County Farm, and as fairgoers they attend the World’s Fair.
Things started happening quickly. Eager to begin promoting the new book, she immediately set out to schedule book readings. While calling local book stores, she learned that this year is the 50th and 75th anniversaries of the World’s Fairs, and celebrations will take place throughout the year. She soon found herself invited to the World’s Fair Anniversary Festival, for two book readings.
“The book wasn’t even printed yet! I had to go to a local print shop to have one printed and bound, to show. The audience loved the illustrations. Selecting the artist was another set of coincidences. Turns out the Tampa-based illustrator I selected, Rick Sanders, was also a native New Yorker, and we were born in the same hospital in Jackson Heights!”
Demetra will return to NY for more events this fall. Back in Tarpon, she’s been reading the book to local classrooms, where the response from children has been overwhelming.
“They love the drawings, and are eager to know where the kids go with each turn of the page!”
Full of colorful illustrations and engaging history that children can get excited about, “Young World Travelers” teaches children the value of imagination, how much the world has to offer, and creates awareness for the greater world. It whets their appetite for travel, and makes history fun and accessible. Next year, look for the next adventure, to Greece.
CHICAGO---Award-winning author and investigative reporter Nicholas Gage appeared at the National Hellenic Museum on June 13. At the event, produced in partnership with the National Hellenic Society, Gage chronicled his “Writer’s Odyssey.” He spoke about his childhood in Greece, coming to America to a father he’d never met, how he became a writer, and more. It was an emotional moment for Gage, speaking about his mother, Eleni, whose story is recounted in the book, Eleni, which was subsequently adapted for the big screen. He described how he honed his journalistic and investigative skills to return to Greece to learn his mother’s story. Due its immensely personal nature, it took time to gather his courage to begin the investigation. He also revealed that he had to summon even more courage to actually put pen to paper. Gage spoke about some 7000-plus letters he received from people who’d read the book, explaining how it had touched them.
The author spoke about his other work, including the book, Greek Fire, about Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. He said he was often asked, “because he was Greek,” if he’d met the pair. He reported that he’d met Onassis twice, but “sadly” not Callas. In researching the story, he learned that much that had been written about the couple to that point was untrue.
Another memoir is in the works, this time recounting his years as an investigative reporter.
A rooftop reception followed the event. An internationally renowned writer, Nicholas Gage is engaging, yet humble. He’s simply a man with stories to tell and a passion for his heritage.
This week, we caught up with award-winning reporter, author, producer and philanthropist
The author spoke to us about becoming a writer, about his philanthropic endeavors, apathy among younger Greek Americans, and more. Mr. Gage will appear at the National Hellenic Musuem in Chicago on June 13.
Maria A. Karamitsos: When did you decide to become a writer and why?
Nicholas Gage: When a teacher in the seventh grade noticed that I had writing ability and encouraged me, even though I was still struggling with the English language. I knew I wanted to be a reporter and writer to find out what happened to my mother and tell her story. I studied journalism in college and graduate school and won a prize for the best published writing by a college student, which was presented by President John F. Kennedy at the White House in May of 1963, a big thrill for an immigrant kid.
MAK: What was your first job as a writer?
NG: My first job was for the local paper in my home town, Worcester, MA, the summer I finished high school. It was there I decided I wanted to be an investigative reporter to develop the skills to ferret out documents and get people to divulge information they really don't want to talk about so I would be well-equipped to search out my mother's story when the time came. I honed those skills later at the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal and by the time I was 30, I was the chief investigative reporter for The New York Times.
MAK: You obtained the first Nixon tapes in the Watergate Scandal. That makes you part of history. Briefly tell us about that.
NG: The Times was being beaten badly by the Washington Post on the Watergate story, so the executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, sent me from New York to Washington to beef up the efforts of our bureau there, and within a week I got the first Nixon tape from a source I still can't reveal.
MAK: You have received six Pulitzer Prize nominations and numerous awards. What accolade has been the most meaningful to you?
NG: The first prize of the Royal Society of Literature of Great Britain for my book, “Eleni”, because I prevailed against some of the best writers in the English language when I didn't know a word of that language until I was 10.
MAK: World War II, the German occupation, your mother’s story, the Greek Civil War, the Pontian Genocide, etc.—all of these things happened in the last 100 years. The wounds are still fresh, yet these events are little known to those outside of Greece and the Diaspora. Why do you think that is, and what in your opinion, can we do about it? Why is it so important to tell these stories?
NG: I think there is a tendency in the West to dismiss the struggles of the Greek people in modern times and the way to fight against it is to write about those struggles, as I and other writers like Elia Kazan and Harry Mark Petrakis have done.
MAK: How did you become part of The Godfather III production?
NG: As an investigative reporter in New York, where there are five Mafia families, I wrote a lot about the Mob. Executives at Paramount Pictures, who were having trouble finding a way to finish the saga of Michael Corleone, were impressed with my articles and asked me to write a proposal on how I would tell it. I did; they liked it and they hired me to develop and help produce the picture.
MAK: Will you be producing or co-producing any other films?
NG: I'm currently working on a couple of potential films, but there's a lot of bull in the movie business and until the cameras roll, I don't like to talk about my projects.
MAK: Tell us about the scholarship at Boston University.
NG: Some 25 years ago I established a scholarship for students of Greek ancestry at BU, where I went as an undergraduate, in memory of my mother and I've contributed my lecture earnings to it, so that now the fund has some $700,000 in it. Each year the fund awards several scholarships to deserving students, some of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.
MAK: Describe some of your other philanthropic endeavors.
NG: I have raised funds to help ethnic Greeks in Northern Epiros; to support the work of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania; and of course to help my native village, Lia, where I built an inn, roads, and other projects. I've also used my pen to bring attention to the plight of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and Greek and Orthodox communities in the Balkans and the Middle East.
MAK: What’s happening at the Panepirotic Federation? Update us recent endeavors.
NG: We are working to gain better rights for ethnic Greeks in Albania and encourage investments and development on both sides of divided Epiros. We have made great strides so far, alleviating the persecution of Greeks in Albania and promoting major infrastructure projects in southern Epiros. We took the lead to bring together Epirot groups throughout the world into an international organization, the World Council of Epirotes Abroad, which is holding its third triennial convention in Ioannina this summer from July 24 to 27.
MAK: The younger generation of Greek Americans is quickly losing interest in syllogi and other Greek organizations. I’m sure you are dealing with this in the Panepirotic Federation. How, in your opinion, can we re-engage them, and keep them engaged?
NG: Although American-born Greeks don't feel the pull of the regions their fathers come from, these places are part of their identity and if they take the time to learn about their history, culture and traditions, they will be greatly enriched. The leaders of the syllogi need to do a better job to reach out to younger people.
MAK: You’re in Greece right now. What is the general feeling over there, in terms of the crisis and the future? Do people seem hopeful that things are improving?
NG: Greeks are going through hard times but they are known for their resilience and will recover if they stay the course and reject irresponsible demagogues.
MAK: You’re coming to Chicago in a few weeks. Tell us briefly about your presentation.
NG: I'm going to discuss my work as a writer and my efforts to bear witness, in my books, to my times and the Greek experience on both sides of the Atlantic.
MAK: What’s next for you? Another book perhaps?
NG: I'm developing a new book project but it's too early to talk about it.
MAK: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
NG: My advice to young writers has been offered by many before me--read good writers and write about what you know.
Nicholas Gage will chronicle “A Writer’s Odyssey,” at the National Hellenic Museum on Friday, June 13 at 6:00 pm. www.nationalhellenicmuseum.org 312.655.1234