Category Archives: Uncategorized

New Site is Live!

Friends and faithful readers,

I now have a new website up at http://www.apollopapafrangou.com where you can read my latest blog posts and catch up on news regarding my writing. The novel is scheduled for release this Thursday!! 🙂

This site will stay up indefinitely as an archive for older blog posts and the like.

Cheers, and have a great day!

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A Greek-American Dream by Guest #Author Steve Karas #MondayBlogs #amreading

Hello readers,

This week I welcome friend and fellow Greek-American writer Steve Karas. A Chicago native, Karas is the author of the stellar short story collection Kinda Sorta American Dream. I had the pleasure of blurbing Karas’ book, and what initially stands out is his range as a writer. As he explores the theme of identity in both contemporary and futuristic visions of America, he inhabits the diverse voices of a Greek-American diner owner, an African-American cop, and a Indian-American woman, among others with deftness and empathy. He introduces us to people struggling to make a life for themselves in America, and despite the familiar settings, both urban and rural,
the stories feel fresh and vibrant.

In contributing a post to the blog, I asked Steve to touch on his Greek roots, his experience growing up in Chicago, and the ways in which his background as a psychologist informs his writing process.

Please enjoy Karas in his own words!

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My family began its migration from Greece to America in the early 1900s. My great-grandfather, Ioannis, was the first, passing through Ellis Island in 1902 with eighteen dollars in his pocket. He landed in Chicago’s Near West Side, then the largest Greek immigrant community in the country. He came here for the same reasons so many other Greeks did at that time—to escape a poor economic climate, find employment. I don’t know if he ever intended to stay, or if he had any idea he’d be giving his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren opportunities they wouldn’t have in Greece. My mom and dad followed in 1960 and 1970, respectively, unmarried at the time, strangers in fact. They came to join family that had settled here before them with the hope of having a better life. By the late 1990s, it’s safe to say my parents were living the American Dream. Both had established careers, they’d bought a house, saved a bit of money, sent two kids off to college. So as a late teen/early twenty-something-year-old, when I told my parents I wanted to be a fiction writer, I can only imagine what they were thinking. I was studying psychology in school, but having doubts about that path as my heart was in writing. What they told me was that I should stick with pursuing a more stable career. I remember having a talk with my dad during one of my college breaks.

“Position yourself so you have options,” he said. “After you have your degree you can do whatever you want.”

“This isn’t some hobby. A good job is one that makes you happy.”

“A good job is one that pays.”

I huffed, loudly I’m sure. Didn’t the Greeks have a rich history in literature, after all? How about Homer? Hadn’t my dad read the Iliad, the Odyssey?

“Get your degree, and then you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Just make sure you have options.”

I thought it would be too late by then. I never considered I could do both.

I traveled to Greece a couple years later, the summer before I was to begin graduate school in psychology. I remember meeting up with a close friend who had been living there and pursuing a soccer career after a series of knee injuries had cut short a promising college stint in the States. He’d been confronted by one road block after another in Greece: offers that had fallen through, shifty agents, corrupt coaches and team presidents. We’d spent the day carving through the Monastiraki flea market in the old town of Athens and Plaka, the historic neighborhood built on the foothills of the Acropolis. We took a break from the sun on the cobbled steps of a hidden alleyway, between white-washed cube homes, just beneath the Acropolis’ walls. I lamented about having to start school, how I’d felt pushed into it by my parents, how my dream of becoming a writer was being squelched.

He said, “If things don’t work out for me now, boom, I’m done. That’s it. And I’ll always wonder, what if? I’m telling you straight—you? You have your whole life to write.”

That stuck with me. Funny how when we’re young the things our friends tell us sometimes carry more weight than the words of our parents, the people who typically know us and love us most, have our best interest at heart.

My career as a psychologist has been a blessing. Above all, it’s been fulfilling. I hope I’ve helped people. On top of that, it’s fueled my writing career. My work as a psychologist and my Greek-American roots, in fact, probably had the greatest influence on the writing of my debut short story collection, Kinda Sorta American Dream.

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As a psychologist, I’ve tried to empathize with people from different walks of life, which has undoubtedly benefited me as a writer. I’ve worked with young people who are first generation immigrants like my parents. I’ve even counseled a few who moved to America from Greece amidst the recent crisis and struggled to assimilate into the American culture (probably not too unlike my propapou, Ioannis). I’ve worked with second generation immigrants, people like me, whose parents had come from Mexico and Poland, many of whom didn’t speak any English, but who knew they wanted better lives for their children. More than any other group, I’ve worked with kids whose families have been in America for generations, and it’s sometimes this group who I think experiences some of the greatest struggles. It’s often made me think about the value of suffering, of having to work hard to provide food, shelter, a future, not to mention iPads and flat screen TVs. It’s made me consider how my wife and I will balance handing things to our kids and having them earn what they get.

Of course, no one is more proud of my book getting published than my parents. They’ve sent a heap of copies to friends and family in Greece. The path to writing it was a circuitous one. But when I trace it back, in many ways, my dream leads to my family’s dream. To my parents and their wisdom. To Papou Ioannis. Even to America and the pull it had on them all.

Steve Karas is the author of Kinda Sorta American Dream (Tailwinds Press, 2015) and Mesogeios (forthcoming from WhiskeyPaper Press, 2016). His stories have appeared in various literary journals, including Necessary Fiction, jmww, Hobart, and Little Fiction. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids. Please visit his website at steve-karas.com.

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

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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.”

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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.

Inhale, Exhale: On Mindfulness, Ancient Greece, & The Now

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The Oracle at Delphi. “Know Thyself”

 

You must plunge beneath your crowded thoughts and calmly contemplate the higher realities with pure, focused attention. If you do this, a state of inspired serenity will remain with you throughout your life, shaping your character and benefiting you in so many ways — Empedocles, ancient Greek sage.

Though we generally, and rightfully it seems, attribute the origins of meditation to Eastern tradition, this quote by Empedocles suggests similar practices were present in ancient Greece. There is evidence of a certain mindfulness taught in Plato’s Academy, and philosophy, which the ancient Greeks are often credited with inventing, requires an inward gaze while contemplating the outer universe. Let us not forget the words Know thyself inscribed at the Oracle of Delphi, the world’s navel according to the ancients. All this is to say that as a Greek-American with an interest in attaining inner peace, I find inspiration in the notion that my ancestors followed similar pursuits. It’s with them in mind that I have recently incorporated a new ritual into my morning routine.

Minutes after waking, before checking social media, prior to rising for breakfast and preparing for the day’s writing session, with eyes closed I sit at the edge of my bed and simply breathe. I focus my mind on the present moment–the carpet beneath my feet, the drone of distant traffic beyond my window, the warbling birds gathered in the trees. With each inhalation I ground myself in the present moment, letting any residual thoughts of past or future evaporate, and with each exhalation I radiate calm. After five or so minutes, I open my eyes to a new clarity and tranquility.

Now, let me clarify that I’m not some New Age bohemian committed to levitating above my mattress. In the past I couldn’t help regard the term “meditation” with a smirk. But, as a person who tends to ruminate a bit too much on potential hardships yet to come, and often finds it difficult to accept the things I cannot change, this simple five minute routine offers some genuine solace. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale into the the here-and-now.
Anxiety runs in the family. Both my yiayias, may their beautiful souls rest in peace, struggled with the affliction, their minds ever-churning with What if’s? That question, the What if of it all, too often plagues me as well. It’s kept me up at night, and it has also inspired my writing. Now I ask myself what if I can just enjoy the moment? What if what comes next is better than expected?

Since writing in itself is a meditative experience, as is any other artistic practice, perhaps this new routine of mine is just an extension of my work. I know that we Greek men, in our proverbial stance of Mediterranean machismo, frequently strut about with our chests puffed. As foreign as it will initially feel to exhale, and deflate those prominent torsos, we might find that it brings us into the present while simultaneously providing a link to those who came before us.

There’s a Coin in my Cake! On #Greek #NewYears & Luck. #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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Happy New Year! Kalee Chronia!

After two weeks of holiday celebration, work begins anew with the first blog post of 2016. In looking forward, into January and the months beyond while preparing for the March release of my novel Wings of Wax, I can’t help but also gaze back to past New Year’s Days.

In my memory we sit around my grandmother’s table, at the center of which is a simple round cake unadorned with frosting or candles. Still, the moment invites anticipation as my yiayia hovers over the modest loaf with a knife, her hand making the sign of the cross–straight down, then right to left–prior to conducting the first cut. Four of us are present–Mom, Dad, Yiayia, and I–though she divides the cake, the Vasilopita, into several slices. The first is for Jesus, the second for Mary, the third for St. Basil after whom the cake is named, the fourth is for the house, the fifth for the poor, and the rest goes to those of us at the table from youngest to oldest. We dig into, albeit carefully, our special dessert. Amid the wedge of cake on my fork, something shimmers in the light. Upon further inspection, I discover the lucky coin, wrapped in gold foil, and hoist it high for all to see. Another year of good fortune for me! As a child it took me a while to figure that Yiayia rigged the cake so that I always ended up with the prized slice, but no one else seemed to mind.

As my Greek readers will know, the cutting of the vasilopita cake is a tradition often occurring on New Years Day, though it can also be done later in the month. It’s similar to the Mardi Gras King Cake of New Orleans fame in which a tiny plastic baby is substituted for the gold coin. The vasilopita commemorates St. Basil who, according to legend, redistributed the gold and jewelry of Caesarean citizens who had ransomed their goods to prevent the raiding of their city by a foreign tyrant.

This year marks the ninth since my maternal grandmother’s passing. Due to her upholding of the vasilopita tradition, I hold a special place for her in my memory each New Year’s Day. This January 1st there was no vasilopita at home, though I suspect I’ll find myself at a party in the coming weeks in which the special cake will be cut. Maybe both my yiayias will look down to ensure that I have more good fortune this year.

In one way or another, we all make our own luck, whether literally, through baking it into pastry, or figuratively, in how we choose to approach and interpret the often random occurrences in our lives. May the new year be a lucky one for you! Here’s to 2016 bringing all the best things!

Silver Bells: On #Gratitude, #Xmas music & #GreekAmerican traditions. #MondayBlogs

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This past Friday I finished a first draft of the latest short story for my collection-in-progress, and wrapped work at my day job prior to a two week vacation. I gave myself permission to take a break after a busy last few months, but here I am compelled to write another blog post, the last of 2015 as I won’t–for sure this time–be posting next week. I guess I felt moved to share my take on the holidays, and again reflect–as I did around Thanksgiving–on all I have to be grateful for. So, here’s my latest list of holiday gratitude, 1-4 in no particular order, and rest assured I’ve checked it twice!

1. I’m grateful to be a published author: Chief among 2015’s personal highlights was signing the contracts with Booktrope to become a published novelist. I’ve never put much faith in the Law of Attraction–the philosophy that your thoughts manifest your reality–but I will say that from the time back in those grad school days circa 2009 that I began the initial draft of the novel which would become Wings of Wax, I constantly imagined it being published. Each time I sat down to write I envisioned a completed book between covers. Six years later, and my debut novel will be hitting shelves in March, 2016. Maybe the Law of Attraction does work to some degree. This is technically my second book (the first was a collection of short stories published when I was a teenager) but this one feels like the beginning! Maybe I did manifest my reality. In any case, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my writing with readers.

2. I’m grateful for Christmas music. Sure, many tunes are a bit cheesy and over-the-top, but there’s something about the seasonal soundtrack that makes me smile. At their core, most Christmas songs speak of togetherness and possessing a generous spirit. That message is appropriate all year round, and these crisp evenings as I take the dog for a stroll after the day’s work is done, I’ve been listening to Soul and R&B renditions of classic holiday tunes: The Temptations’ rendition of Silent Night, Let It Snow by Boys 2 Men, and This Christmas by Donny Hathaway are all great selections.

3. I’m grateful to be in a position to give. It is better to give than to receive, so goes the old cliche. I’ll say it is wonderful to give and receive. I can give gifts, I can give love, I can give time, all of which bring a smile in return, and what a gift to receive!

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4. I’m grateful for a Greek spin on the holidays. Holidays are a time of tradition, of course, and in my family we continue to carry our own. For as long as I can recall we have hosted Christmas dinner. Growing up, when my parents were still together, the days leading up to Christmas were often intense. My Greek-immigrant father would grow moody, to say the least, in response to the rampant commercialization of the holiday, and often decry the Capitalist machine prior to decrying everything else. Opa! 🙂

But, alas, by the time the big day rolled around, things were okay again. Laughter and cheer were present as we opened our house to family and friends, everyone gathering to enjoy a typical Christmas meal of turkey and stuffing, albeit with a Greek twist. Alongside the holiday bird, there was village salad abundant with Feta cheese and Kalamata olives; Greek-style roast potatoes heavy on the lemon, garlic, and oregano; flaky, buttery, tiropita, and we made stuffing from a recipe passed down via my maternal grandfather who was from the island of Mytelini. It calls for chestnuts, figs, olives, bulgar wheat, Greek brandy, and other secret ingredients that make for a savory/sweet delight.

These days, Dad sends shipments of kourabiedes from Greece, and Mom travels up from Monterey to again claim her rightful place in the family home as Christmas preparations commence. We still do the open house party, Greek stuffing and all! There you have it, faithful readers. Rest assured, I’m grateful for you, too! Now to really take my break. May you all have happy, happy holidays abundant with traditions of your own! Καλα Χριστουγεννα και καλες γιορτες! I’ll look forward to seeing you in 2016!

#Art as Life: On Arts Education & Smelly Markers #MondayBlogs

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Imagine, if you will, a baby crawling up a mountainous flight of steps, one little knee at a time, slapping the surface of each stair in announcement of his progress. His ascent is inspired not by the promise of toy or treat, but by a desire to view up close the spectrum of colors and shapes beckoning from above.

I was that baby, and the stairs belonged to some famous New York City art museum, the Guggenheim perhaps, to which my mother had taken me during one of our visits to the Big Apple. It seems I was drawn to art (pun intended), so the story goes, since before I could walk, willing to brave even the most arduous climb simply for the sake of a layered canvas. Growing older, and more mobile, I could often be found reaching for a pencil, or crayon, with which I would fill countless sheets of paper; first with scribbles, and then, as my hand grew more confident, superheroes and monsters. My favorite tools of the trade were those gold and silver markers that emit the smelliest fumes via which I would grow intoxicated and then preform “drunken” dinner songs for family. Ah, but that’s another story.

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A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

Mom, no doubt, was an big inspiration for this early creative streak. Aside from taking me to see the framed creations of the masters, she provided visions of an artist at work as she spent countless hours at her drawing table laboring at her craft. Art was, and is, integral to our family experience, woven like tapestry into the texture of our everyday life. My mother is a painter and sculptor, and her father, my papou, earned quite a name for himself in the art world despite his feeble beginnings as a Greek immigrant. My dad, who while in America earned a living through his electrician business, has since, in moving back to his native Greece, dedicated himself to his own artistic talents.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in the company of artists, attending gallery openings and exhibitions–many of them my mother’s–wandering among the paintings in search of both inspiration and a makeshift play space. Now, as an adult, attending galleries and museums is still a favor pastime. When Mom is town from Monterey, it’s a joy to trek out to San Francisco and take in an art exhibit. Each painting, every sculpture, tells its own story. I’ve learned that the point of viewing art is not always to glean “meaning” from a piece (“What is this artist trying to say? What does it mean?”, you often hear people remark), but rather to observe how it makes you feel.

I’m grateful that my family has gifted me with a life abundant in art. Just as I was exposed to paintings, so was I entrenched in the world of stories and poems as our home was one full of books. An artist’s life isn’t always easy, but it is ever vivid, consistently rich. When I was growing up, Mom taught art at my elementary school. I often heard classmates–the children of “square” families–say things like, “Art isn’t important becomes it doesn’t make money.” Well, sometimes it does, and it will, if nothing else, expose one to a spectrum of colors beyond the banality of dollar-bill green.

This post is inspired by the recent news that the Senate has passed an act making arts education part of the Common Core curriculum. Now, I believe Common Core is problematic in of itself for a variety of reasons that I won’t expound upon here, but this is a good thing for all. There surely is a place for art in schools. Today, more than ever, we need people who are unafraid to color outside the lines.