Category Archives: Oakland

Taking Flight: On WINGS OF WAX, #MFA programs, & Finding Your Voice #MondayBlogs

WingsofWaxcover

 

March Madness is nearly upon us, dear readers. No, I’m not referring to the NCAA basketball tournament, though I will try to find some time to watch a game or two while conducting a publicity tour around the publication of my debut novel, WINGS OF WAX. Work and leisure balance, right?

WINGS OF WAX is scheduled to hit retailers on Thursday, March 10th, two weeks prior to the release of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2, the sequel to Nia Vardalos’ wildly successful 2002 film about the loveable Portokalos family. The movie’s opening date coincides with Greek Independence Day, March 25th, so next month is shaping up to have quite the Hellenic flair. In looking forward to March, I’m also compelled to reflect on the past, waaay back to 2009 when I was a second-year graduate student struggling to find my story in a Creative Writing MFA program.

In 2008, I began graduate school studies at Mills College in Oakland, CA. I spent the first semester feeling my way around campus, taking lit classes and reading novels. I was in a critique group, but didn’t do much writing, primarily due to the fact that I entered the Creative Writing program with what I thought was a completed novel: an urban Oakland tale of a young man coping with the loss of his murdered brother. Each week I submitted sections of this story for feedback. For the most part, my work earned positive response from fellow writers. I seemed destined to cruise through the next couple years in route to earning my degree. Not quite.

Despite the early praise of my novel draft, I didn’t feel tied to the story. In reading over the work, it seemed as though someone else had written it. The characters and circumstances didn’t interest me, though I didn’t want to admit that to myself. Besides, I figured that if my colleagues enjoyed the work, I must have been doing something right.

Fast forward to the second semester at Mills. The same writing excerpts which had previously earned praise were panned this time around. My new critique group’s professor, a well-accomplished novelist who shall remain unnamed, marred my workshop submissions with red pen—truly mightier than the sword—to the point that I began to think of the page as my flesh; the crimson streaks across it akin to fresh wounds.

Each week in class, this professor peered at me across the room, her raven eyes brimming a predatory ferocity below equally dark bangs. She and uttered things like, “You need to do a better job inhabiting your characters. Your people aren’t real yet. This story reads like a TV show.”

A TV show? Ouch!

Unless someone is comparing your story to the likes of The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men for instance, no serious novelist wants to hear that their work is mere television without the pictures.

“You need to write from a place of authenticity,” my professor went on to say, “Write your story. The word is all that matters.”

As harsh as this professor could be, I began to realize, after shoving my ego out of the way, that she had the best of intentions. She was pushing me, like any good teacher or mentor, to do the work and get better. I know she didn’t mean I needed to literally write my story, but, in some sense, that’s what I began to do.

Heading into the final year of grad school, I gave much thought to the notion that despite the emphasis on the ancient Greeks’ contributions to world culture, there seems very little written in regard to modern Greek culture, and the experience of Greek-Americans in particular. Of course we do have the movie MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ stellar novel MIDDLESEX, but what else? The more I considered this, the more compelled I felt to write from my own experience, not in the sense of writing an autobiographical story, but in respect to joining other Greek-American artists in illuminating our heritage.

I began WINGS OF WAX fall semester of 2009, though it wasn’t called WINGS OF WAX at that point. “Flight Paths” was an early title. The earliest draft of the story began with Angelo standing outside of an exotic bird shop, his dreaded place of employment, while pondering the world beyond his inner-turmoil. In fact, the novel’s early incarnations were almost entirely focused on the protagonist’s interiority; a kind of stream-of-consciousness depiction of a young man’s deepest insecurities and anxieties as he tries to forge a place for himself within the local Greek community.

I started the story with no outline, though I did have a vague idea as to how it would end. The writing came fast and easy. It was a fun project—the book I should have been writing all along; the novel I had finally given myself permission to produce. Above all else, that was the greatest thing I gained from the program. Even my old professor, the toughest of critics, saw potential. She told me to keep pushing, to continue forging deeper into the story’s truth. That seems to be the most valuable aspect of attending an MFA program: You allow yourself time to write and read, and in doing so you find your voice.

The next semester, my final at Mills College, the story finally began to take shape to most closely resemble the novel that it is today. At least in the sense that it’s no longer a stream-of-conscious narrative as Angelo’s struggles are reflected in how he interacts with the world around him and outside of his head. This makes for, apparently, a more compelling read.

As graduation neared, I submitted for approval my thesis, sixty pages of a new novel draft, a Greek-American narrative now titled WINGS OF WAX. In the months after earning my degree, I completed the draft. I then spent the next several years revising the book, listening to the valuable opinions of my peers, and sharpening the story’s structure. I submitted the novel to publishers and agents, racked up some rejections, and did some more revision work. I sent it out again, almost signed a deal or two, but they didn’t pan out. Finally, seven years after the story idea sprouted in my mind, WINGS OF WAX is on the brink of soaring into readers’ hands at last courtesy of Seattle’s Booktrope Publishing. I found my story, and a publisher, and had a lot of fun in the process. In reading the novel, you might find that it is your story, too.

CityWingsproWide

Advertisements

May We Get There With You: On #Oakland, #MLK, and #Greek Allies

IakovosKing

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos marching next to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Chocolate City by the Bay.

Often coined with this term, the Oakland, California of my childhood in the 1980’s was–like Detroit, Atlanta, Washington, DC, and other metropolitan centers with a black-majority populace–a city in which African-American culture held prominent influence.

Lionel Washington, the city’s first black mayor, served three consecutive terms from 1977 until 1991 when he succeeded to Elihu Harris, another African-American Democrat. Local hip-hop made big noise during that period as the bass-heavy sounds of Too Short and the Dangerous Crew could be felt reverberating from the heights of the hills to the flatland depths. Sports figures such as the Warriors’ Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond of “Run-TMC” fame were touted as local heroes.

My experiences back then, as a Greek-American kid and Oakland native, are perhaps best exemplified under the guise of festivals. Each May I attended the Greek Festival at our local Orthodox church on Lincoln Avenue, home to the Bay Area’s largest congregation of Greek Christians. Gobbling down souvlakia and bobbing my head to the twanging Bouzoukia notes, I gathered among friends in celebration of our heritage, and its lengthy ties to the city we called home.

Come early June, and the initial hints of summer, I looked forward to Festival at the Lake. A now defunct arts event, it simultaneously celebrated the city’s ethnic diversity while showcasing the food and wares of the city’s many black-owned establishments. As much as Oakland was, and still is to a lesser degree, a “Chocolate city,” it has always been a town of coexisting flavors. It’s a city which bred, back in 1993, a Greek-American teen who identified with black culture to the extent that he penned a collection of short stories featuring African-American characters. This teen, grown into a man now, shall remain nameless, though I’m sure you can guess his identity. 😉

As a Greek-American of Oakland roots, maybe this early affinity for the black experience had some historical relevance given that an alliance between the two communities goes back many generations.

AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), the largest lobbyist group of Greek-Americans, was founded in Atlanta, George circa 1922 in response to threats from the KKK who viewed Greek immigrants of dark, Mediterranean complexion as a swarthy horde of undesirables. Even after weathering threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Greeks were met with discrimination as restaurants in most Southern American cities displayed window signs declaring “No Dogs, No Greeks!”

Perhaps due to these early bouts with hate, Greeks who eventually opened their own coffee shops, candy stores, and restaurants, were among the first proprietors to openly serve an African-American clientele long before the Civil Rights Movement. In her examination of Angela Jill Cooley’s essay, The Costumer is Always White: Food, Race, and Contested Eating Space in the South, blogger Sara Camp Milam writes, “Greek-owned businesses challenged and intimidated the hegemonic, elite white social order that enforced segregation. Because they didn’t identify as white, and because they held positions of power in the community, Greek restaurant owners in Birmingham were able to subvert the social order, maintain non-white Greek-American identities, participate in desegregation, and expand their own businesses.”

GreekDiner

Greek-owned diner in Pittsburg catering to black patrons. Circa 1930.

Speaking of the Civil Rights Movement, those in the Greek community were among the first to publicly stand with African-Americans in their fight for equality. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the famous Time Magazine photo of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos standing in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. In a declaration of true Christian values, Archbishop Iakovos, who traveled across the country to be at King’s side, said, “We have fought oppressive and repressive political regimes for centuries. A Christian must cry out in indignation against all persecution. That’s what made me walk with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.”

In turn, Martin Luther King found inspiration in ancient Greek philosophy and often referenced the words of Plato and Socrates in his sermons. In his 1957 speech “Loving Your Enemies,” he referenced the Greek concept of love:

The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agapeis something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.”

Bringing things back to the present day–June 18th, 2016–from my desk in Oakland, California, I reflect on the words of Martin Luther King and wonder if, in America, we can ever truly attain agape.