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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Diaspora

Forging an Identity

Some Notes on Multiculturalism from Petrakis to Kazan (to Davidson and Vardalos)




There are certain issues, it seems, that are perpetually relevant – or, at least, continually prone to exploitation – none more so than “identity.” September 11 might or might not have changed anything, but it has certainly brought to the fore once again notions of “who” we are and “what” we stand for as Americans. Indeed, since that awful morning, we have once again been called upon to show the colors as a collective mark of “our” identity.

I originally presented a different version of this essay four years ago at a conference in Australia on Greeks in English-speaking countries. Little could I suspect then, of course, how questions of identity and multiculturalism, which obviously figured prominently in the conference’s presentations and discussions, would take on such salience after September 11. Representatives of local government, who were invited to address these issues, as well as a number of speakers emphasized the importance of multiculturalism as a conceptual framework through which to define and welcome the increasing presence of plural cultures and human experience, and therefore of plural identities, in contemporary Australia. They were clearly motivated by what I understood to be a backlash at the time against multiculturalism in Australian politics and society.

During the conference, there was minimal reference to so-called “wedges” within ethnic minorities, such as diasporic communities, which affect the former’s adoption of multiculturalism. It was, rather, the Australian government – or, more specifically, politicians – who were identified as the main force challenging and resisting multiculturalism in contemporary Australia.

My intention in this essay – then and now – was neither to deny nor to argue against the essential role of the state in establishing and fostering a multicultural society. I believe, however, that the issue cannot be approached and examined from a political perspective alone, simply because the experience of being a minority is lived differently by each group and cannot therefore be generalized. To be defined as a minority or to be part of a minority is experienced differently not only by separate groups but also by different individuals within each group.

Thus, from a certain perspective, in relation to the Greek American or Greek Australian diasporas, the experience of displacement, of being away from one’s homeland, can be interpreted as embittering and frustrating. From another standpoint, however, the challenge of fusing or living between different worlds, languages, cultures, and identities is a rich, and enriching, experience – as well as a liberating one. Certain members of the community are marked by the desire to return to the rhythms of a lived historical past or, in the case of second- and third-generation Greek Americans and Greek Australians, a familiar historical past, while others are marked by the desire to experience an amemorial present. For some, home is language. The desire for the homeland is expressed in the desire to maintain its language, since, as Paul Celan said, “language is the only thing that remains reachable, close and secure amid all losses.” For others, however, home is God and the Church.

One can argue then that being a minority in general or a diasporic community in particular is about choice, about adopting a voice, which, although ambivalent (identifying with the homeland or the host nation), is necessary in order for diasporic communities to define and defend themselves against an often hostile and dominant host culture. It is in these ambiguities that characterize the relationship between a minority and a dominant culture that the problem of examining multiculturalism solely from a political perspective lies. In what follows, I examine the concepts of diaspora and identity as themes in literary representation. In reading a tiny, if representative, sample of works by Greek American novelists, one readily detects the different stages of cultural change in the social interactions of immigrant life, as well as the elements that determine these stages.

Life in America
I begin with Harry Mark Petrakis’s first two novels, written in 1959 and 1963, respectively: Lion at my Heart and The Odyssey Of Kostas Volakis. Petrakis’s parents emigrated from Crete in 1916, and he was born in Chicago in 1924. Petrakis’s fictional representation of Greek immigrant life portrays all the painful realities – poverty, resistance to Americanization, family tensions, and moral ambiguities – that formed the experience of first-generation immigrants. Petrakis depicts a world in which the old culture survives despite the fact that it has been transplanted and forced to operate amid enormous social and cultural change. The past has left its clear marks everywhere in immigrant life. The main concern of Petrakis’s characters is to maintain their Greek identity, support the motherland, and, eventually, return. Despite staggering damage, Americanization does not succeed in removing the links of continuity with the “primordial” culture, which maintains a significant role in shaping the consciousness of the immigrants.

At first glance, there is nothing ambiguous in Petrakis’s portrayal of the life of first-generation immigrants. The message conveyed is that the home culture cannot simply be put aside whatever the attitudes toward it might be. Any interaction and compromise between a Greek cultural past and the present host culture is avoided. Petrakis’s novels, however, are, of course, not written in Greek. It is in the use of English that the dichotomy and confrontation between a Greek heritage and an American future emerges. While the subject matter of the two novels strongly supports Greek identity, the use of English suggests the author’s assimilation into and accommodation to the dominant culture. The choice constitutes a form of self-empowerment, as well as the author’s attempt to create his own image as a Greek American (and as an American writer).

Life in “America”
If the lack of interaction between immigrant and host culture suggests an equal lack of an identity crisis in the first generation of Greek immigrants portrayed in Petrakis’s novels, Elia Kazan’s works, The Arrangement (1967) and The Anatolian (1982), stress an absolutely different situation. Kazan’s protagonists undergo a gradual Americanization in which they literally give up their selves. This process of erasing one’s former identity is inevitably accompanied by guilt, and personal and collective alienation. The greatest example of this kind of immigrant identity crisis in Kazan’s works is Evangelos Topouzoglou in The Arrangement.

Topouzoglou is a character that has transformed himself into a successful American through the process of constantly drifting away from the convictions and values of his youth. There is, however, no reconciliation here. Assimilation within a mainstream culture is constantly juxtaposed and opposed by his Greek identity. In realizing the futility of such a pursuit, Topouzoglou regrets what has been lost and attempts to recapture the past. Kazan constructs a fictional landscape in which there is no gratification, since in attempting to adapt to other cultural demands, the immigrants end up distorting themselves. Topouzoglou’s repentance does not characterize all of Kazan’s fictional immigrants. There is a certain degree of acceptance of a different set of cultural values in addition to the total abandonment of the past. Nonetheless, the underlying message seems to be rather alarmist in relation to what awaits immigrants functioning within an intensely assimilating environment.

The first and most recognizable steps in Topouzoglou’s Americanization are assuming different names: Evans, Eddie, etc. Since his name constitutes a very obvious sign of his Greek origin, it is perceived as a negative sign. The desire to change is justified in Topouzoglou’s mind by American society’s negative perception of his ethnicity, although he overlooks the fact that changing a label does not mean a change at all of what lies behind it.

The melting-pot concept constitutes another form of Americanization. The term derives from a 1908 play by Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill about immigrant life in New York. Instead of a one-way road to assimilation within American culture, the notion of the melting pot implies a more complicated process in which effacing one’s cultural background occurs simultaneously with an attempt to retain certain elements of one’s tradition. Thus, the process of the melting pot suggests the fusion of different elements from various cultural pasts in order to form a homogeneous future. In his novels, Kazan raises the important question of the desirability and possibility of such a process for Greek immigrants; in the event, his characters end up choosing the wrong elements of the dominant host culture.

From America to “America” to never-never land
A logical and natural process characterizes the developing relationship between the diasporic Greek American community and the host culture as presented first by Petrakis and then by Kazan: from complete resistance to assimilation in Petrakis’s first generation of Greek Americans to Topouzoglou’s assimilation in Kazan. As such, one can define assimilation as a slow process rather than as an immediate result, a slow and long transformation that doesn’t only touch fundamental cultural markers such as names, languages, and lifestyles, but also influences the affective world of feelings and convictions. It does not involve a formal, technical submission of one culture to another; rather, it stipulates and expects important elements such as the attitudes, feelings, and desires of those being assimilated to be absorbed into the cultural and social structures of the dominant group.

Given the evolutionary stance toward assimilation described by Petrakis and Kazan, one would expect to see signs of extensive external and internal assimilation in the cultural expressions of contemporary Greek Americans. Catherine Davidson’s autobiographical novel, The Priest Fainted, published in 1997, narrates the author’s journey to Greece in an attempt to discover – or, to use another term, recover – her Greek identity and roots. Davidson’s approach is part of a widespread contemporary movement in America to define self strictly from a post-integrationist and post-assimilationist perspective that views identity as a hybrid process that remains separate, distinct, and special – but at the same time fits in with society at large. In visiting Greece to recover her roots, Davidson not only attempts to solve personal conflicts of identity and assimilation, but also to answer the much broader question of what it means to be an American in a largely global and homogenized environment.

The problem with The Priest Fainted, as well as with other recent Greek American attempts to construct distinctly “Greek” identities within a wider cultural framework – such as, most recently and notoriously, My Big Fat Greek Wedding – is their rather muddled, and consequently hypothetical, perception of the particular characteristics that define a Greek American. In both cases, there seems to be a rather superficial understanding of the particular elements that constitute what one would call a Greek identity. It is clear that in following a popular demand that requires and seeks a non-homogeneous – that is, multicultural – culture and society, The Priest Fainted and My Big Fat Greek Wedding invent Greek American identities that are caricatures rather than expressions of reality.

What is puzzling here, of course, is that Greek Americans have overwhelmingly embraced such caricatured images of themselves. It is also puzzling that the works of Petrakis and Kazan have not received the attention from within the Greek American community that they deserve. Regardless of the esthetic quality of Kazan’s novels, they astutely reflect the ambiguities involved in dealing with issues of ethnicity in American society; Petrakis’s early novels capture perfectly the nuances and ambiguities of being a Greek immigrant in the United States when it comes to defining one’s identity. In the end, however, it is perhaps precisely this intense desire to remove ourselves from any gray areas when it comes to who we are that has made works such as The Priest Fainted and My Big Fat Greek Wedding so popular. Maybe, as Peter Pappas suggested in his look into Nia Vardalos’s smash hit, we loathe ourselves – that is, our ambiguity about who we are as Greek Americans – so much that we love such clear and unambiguous images of ourselves, despite their caricaturish and ridiculous nature.

In addition to being a co-founder of greekworks.com, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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