by Evan Jones

Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature edited by Tess Fragoulis et al. (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 2004, $18)


The late C. M. Woodhouse wrote that “the only practicable definition of a Greek is that he is somebody who thinks he is a Greek,” adding that grounds for thinking oneself a Greek would “include language, consciousness of history, almost inevitably religion but not necessarily place of birth.” The contributors to Musings share some of these attributes, but also modify them—as one would expect from a group of writers whose identity is shared between two cultures—raising issues around what it means to be a Greek-Canadian, and the change that comes in moving from one identity to another.

In the anthology language is English, meaning that a connection with the English-speaking world is more immediately apparent. Greeks have always lived abroad in other cultures, but they have always written in Greek. The most famous modern Greek poet, C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933), wrote and lived within the Greek community of Alexandria in Egypt. Another poet, George Thaniel (1938–1991), lived and taught in Toronto but also wrote his poems in Greek. Written language is an initial difference between these generations of Panhellenic writers, and yet Una McDonnell’s poem “Agape,” which opens the anthology, hints at how this difference is rendered by writers who consider their heritage Greek if not their written language. The writers in Musings flirt with the Greek language and the anthology contains a brief glossary of anglicized Greek terms (excluding even the accents, which would have offered readers a hint as to pronunciation of the words). For example, a character in Aliki Tryphonopoulos’s “Pyraes Point” says to his friends, “the first one to get it going with a British manouli gets the next ten ice creams free. And Aleko, paidaki mou, it won’t be you!” These Greek idioms have recognizable equivalents in English, but authors here have chosen to use the anglicized terms—common, colloquial terms in Greek, perhaps intended to give a flavour of authenticity to the work. But in using this kind of language, authors are also hinting at the middle ground they occupy and the change that is taking place culturally.

Modern Greece’s history is an important factor for many of the fiction writers in the anthology. In Paul Bouyoucas’s “Anna and Sotiris,” Anna and Sotiris are inhabitants of Leros, an island in the southeast of the Aegean, when the Germans attack in 1943, prompting emigration to Turkey and eventually Canada. Kivelli, the protagonist in the excerpt from Tess Fragoulis’s Hipster, Hit the Road, is a victim of the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923. Historical fiction thrives, then, but there are also stories set in Canada, within the Greek community here, and these stories are both local and personal. Helen Tsiriotakis’s “Mr. Frederick and Nancy Drew” relies more on local knowledge of the Greek community in Toronto than events in Greece, leaving behind the tragedy of recent European history for the safety of Canada and the drama of family. In these kinds of stories, Greek history is not as important as the consciousness of being Greek in Canada is, and this consciousness is part of the change in cultures affecting writers of any heritage.

Amid the fiction writers in the anthology, the interest in religion isn’t as direct as history or language. In Hélène P. Holden’s “Emavora,” one of the story’s themes revolves around Orthodox Greeks living in Catholic Montreal. But here, religious ideas and imagery are part of the story and not the focus, as in Heighton’s short story, “On Earth As It Is,” which takes place partially in a Greek Orthodox boys’ camp north of Toronto, but offers little about religious experience beyond the significance of the setting. I mention these examples not as criticism, but rather an interesting point of divergence between the poets and prose writers assembled here. What the fiction writers aren’t as interested in, the poets face directly. In “cloth of worship,” Eleni Zisimatos Auerbach writes, “… you were / a sign and crucifix—dangerous, dangerous,” and signals something that Helen Stathopulos picks up on as well in “Family Tree”: “… Daughters / of immigrants, we are trying / to take the danger out.” This danger is to be noted, and perhaps it is Christian, but it is also the dangers of the Old World. The days of risk are gone, lost to history, and the particular safety offered by immigration to Canada is an important idea. However, the closing section of Stavros Tsimicalis’s untitled poem points to change but also suggests new kinds of risk:

On the resurrection
He follows the orderly
Procession calmly, along with
The rest of the suppliants
With their white candles.
The only noticeable difference
That he carried a shovel.
His apology simple direct:
I came to bury Him.

This is a change to the original story, and what this anthology represents overall is this change to what has gone before—the modification of one kind of people into another.

Evan Jones’ first collection, Nothing Fell Today But Rain, was nominated for the 2003 Governor General’s Award. He has edited two anthologies, New Canadian Poetry and Introductions: Poets Present Poets.

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