Books Decide for Me: The Millions Interviews Ersi Sotiropoulos


Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos’s novel, What’s Left of the Night, is a lyrical and erotic reimagining of the gay Greek-Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy’s three-day trip to Paris in 1897. The book, which won the prestigious Prix Méditerranée Étranger, is dizzying, fevered and beautiful, and very, very horny. It’s also chimerical: Like Cavafy himself, it exists at a nexus of concepts—identity, queerness, modernity, making art, and Greece’s tortured relationship with Europe, which has come full circle since 1897, when foreign powers commandeered the nation’s finances.

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to review the book, and it was, without exaggeration, one of the most challenging things I have ever tried to write; I kept stumbling upon more questions with each draft. Fortunately, Sotiropoulos and her translator, Dr. Karen Emmerich of Princeton University, made time to entertain both my questions and slack-jawed observations. Over the past few weeks, we spoke by email and Skype while Sotiropoulos was in China. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

The Millions: Ersi,
I know that you learned about Cavafy’s 1897 trip to Paris while you were
working in Italy in 1984. Can you tell us a little bit more about that
situation and what you discovered? 

Ersi Sotiropoulos: That’s so many years ago. In 1984 I curated an exhibition dedicated to Cavafy at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. While consulting the archives I came across references to his trip to Paris in 1897—the first and last holiday journey of his life. There was very little information about it, only a few memorabilia: copies of the review “L’Illustration,” a shirt maker’s card, etc., obviously gathered to show to his mother when he went back. Cavafy himself left no written trace, not a personal note, nothing.

I started thinking of that young man (whose future course we all know very well), his trip to Paris at a very special moment in time, his passion for writing, his anxiety to find his own voice, and how he was tormented by sexual desires forbidden back then. I started to imagine him at that unique crossroads: Alexandria in the background, both remote and cosmopolitan, further away Greece, humiliated and once more destroyed, and finally Paris, illuminated, at the height of its glory. Later, I wrote a documentary film about Cavafy for the French television series Un siècle d’écrivains (A century of writers), and the same questions kept coming back.

TM: What
intrigued you about this period in Cavafy’s life, and why did your interest in
those three days persist for the coming decades? 

ES: Writing for me is about obsession. I don’t start with a predetermined idea about a book. I don’t have fixed plans. Sometimes it’s just a fleeting impression, a voice heard in the street, someone talking in the darkness. And I have to dig into this nothing, to insist and persist. In Cavafy’s case, the void of information about his trip was the trigger. What did Cavafy do in Paris? Whom did he meet? Paris in the last years of the nineteenth century was a mecca for the avant-garde, the place where Marcel Proust, Erik Satie, and Edgar Degas were living and creating, where modernism was being born. What intrigued me was the encounter of Cavafy—reserved, awkward, oppressed in his personal life, tormented by contradictions and doubts—with this dazzling world.

In addition, the year 1897 has strange analogies with what
had happened to Greece recently: the Olympic Games of 1896, which flattered its
national pride for a very short time, and then once more and again a ruined,
bankrupt Greece which would suffer under international economic control for 80
years, from 1898 to 1978.

TM: From what
I understand, your novels have mostly dealt with contemporary people and
subjects, and What’s Left of the Night is your first piece of
“historical fiction,” although I’m not sure it’s appropriate to call this book
by that term. Why did you decide to take this turn in your subject matter
around 2009, at least for this book? Why was the story of Cavafy’s three days
in Paris, specifically, the one that you wanted to tell at that time?

ES: I didn’t
decide to take a turn. It’s the other way round. Books decide for me.

At any rate, I would like to point out that this is not a novel about Cavafy, the poet. Not a historical or fictional biography. It’s mainly about the making of the artist. One has to read the book as the three days spent in Paris in June 1897 by a young, aspiring poet from Alexandria. It is a pleasure trip and at the same time a process of initiation that the reader will follow alongside the man who will become the poet Constantine Cavafy. If we read Cavafy’s poems before 1897, the date of the trip, with a few exceptions they are poor, mediocre, clumsy. Then, a couple of years later, there is an immense leap forward in his writing.

What fascinates me, what fascinates us all, is how an
artist, a poet still incomplete at age 34, someone rather formal and
conventional, but possessed by the passion for writing, tortured by his desire
for men at a time when “coming out” was unthinkable: how does he make
this huge leap forward? How does he become Cavafy? These accomplishments don’t
happen in a void. They trail behind them many aborted attempts, failures,
despair, misery.

Working on this novel, I arrived at two conclusions, each of them related to the importance of the year 1897 for Cavafy as both a poet and a person. First, it’s only after that date, as I said before, that he becomes the poet we know and admire. He abandons lyricism, shakes off the influence of romanticism, and develops his own distinctive voice, in which complex meanings are conveyed in a bare, limpid form. As a poet Cavafy matured very slowly. He was obsessed with formal perfection. Just imagine that the poem “The City,” which is mentioned in the novel, took him more than ten years to complete.

The second concerns his private life. By 1897 Cavafy had
accepted his homosexuality, though socially he was a very formal and
old-fashioned person. But however tormented and secretive he may have been
about his desire for other men, Cavafy was coming to a point in his development
as a poet where he was able to write about that desire openly, in an
unapologetic, direct way, unifying his passion for the Hellenistic civilization
of the past and his passion for other men in poems that met his own rigorous
standards for publication.

TM: You’ve
spoken elsewhere about how this book took you six years to complete, and how
writing it was like “splitting your head in two.” From what I understand, these
were pretty rare circumstances for you: since 1980, you’ve published on average
one book every two years. What was different about writing What’s Left
of the Night? 

ES: I don’t
remember having finished a book in two years! Stories, shadows of voices,
backbones of novels, stay within me for years while I work on something else.

In this novel I was driven by questions. My sources were not only the Cavafy archives, but all sorts of information, books, letters, personal narratives, photos, documents: novels of the late 19th century, books on the political and economic history of Egypt, on the Greek community of Alexandria, on the artistic life in Paris, on the Dreyfus affair, on the Greek-Turkish war of 1897, etc. etc… And of course I visited Paris and Alexandria many times. Then, at a certain point, I had to confess myself that going further into this mass of documentation was an excuse for not starting to write. I hate writing. Many writers do. Each time the beginning of a new work is excruciating.

TM: I was really intrigued by how frankly you portrayed Constantine’s sexuality. He doesn’t seem repressed so much as scared: that his affections won’t be reciprocated, or that he’ll be disappointed by the reality of sex compared to his expectations. There’s one powerful paragraph where Constantine says, “he already knew that his desire was far greater than the satisfaction would be, that the satisfaction would betray the desire…that this immediate relief would only disappoint him.” Can you discuss the relationship between Constantine’s sexuality and his creativity in this book?

ES: What interested me from the very start was to capture the moment, that exceptional moment when physical desire turns into creative impulse. What happens is that, for Cavafy, erotic desire becomes a driving force. But what is at stake in art is how desire is represented, whatever this desire is—that is what differentiates an amateurish poem from a great one: how the desire unfolds, transcends the poet who wrote about it and turns into something capable of transmitting emotion to readers who do not share the same desire.

There is a poem of that period titled “Half an Hour”—one of
the “hidden poems” that Cavafy refused to publish in his lifetime—that
has always stayed with me, especially these lines:

But we who serve Art, sometimes with the mind’s intensity, can create—but of course only for a short time— pleasure that seems almost physical.

That passage has served as a sort of central thread for my book. Like [a lighthouse] during the long years of loneliness and writing.

TM: I read
this book as a long meditation on the writer’s “process” and the irony of
literary inspiration. How, if at all, did writing this book transform your
writing practice?

ES: Writing books transforms me—they are like persons. I live with them. But if by writing practice you mean my schedule, that I start working very early when it’s still night, and that I travel all the time, I did not change. I don’t travel looking for inspiration, I travel to be myself.

In this book I followed in extremis my idea of art, in whose ardent pursuit the profane is sacralized; of an artwork that seems raising from the dust. Where does art come from? That’s the question I ask in my book. Can art come from something tiny, from an insignificant detail? Can this near-invisible detail—a tiny hair, a little harder than the others, on the pubis of the lover—suddenly gain substance and flow into creation?

TM: You’ve
been writing professionally since shortly after democracy was restored to
Greece after the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Greece and its
relationship to Europe have changed several times in several ways in those
ensuing 40 years, most dramatically during the debt crisis. To what extent has
this affected what it means to be a Greek writer, especially during and after
the crisis? 

I ask this question
because I interpreted this book, in part, as a commentary on the (often unfair)
way that a writer is torn between global aspirations and national “duty,” for
lack of a better term, especially when their homeland or culture is being
internationally humiliated, endangered, etc. 

ES: Your comment brings to mind the famous line from George Seferis’s poem: “Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me.” This was true then, it is true today.

The crisis weakened the already vulnerable status of the Greek writer. Arts, the book market, were among the first victims. Crisis has impregnated everything. It doesn’t have a face, it is a complex of crisis. And what interests me as a writer is to see how, besides its devastating impact on people’s lives, financial crisis has been corroded by a deeper crisis, an existential, ethical emergency, and how menacing those little symptoms can become, that at a first glance seemed totally superficial and inoffensive. “We don’t know anything, we don’t know we’re all sailors out of work,” Seferis wrote. Once again, in this country, the poetic word is more substantial and true than the words of the politicians. And much more clairvoyant too.

What is Greece? What does being Greek mean? I tried in the book to render the very particular, and not limited or nationalist, position of Cavafy in this matter. He was the opposite of a chauvinist. He said, “Είμαι κι εγώ Ελληνικός, Προσοχή, όχι Έλλην, ούτε Ελληνίζων, αλλά Ελληνικός” (impossible to translate) [I tried anyway: “I am, also, Hellenic, mind you, not a Greek national nor a colonized foreigner who has adopted a Greek identity, but Hellenic.”] The hellenism of Cavafy is like an embracing movement—Marguerite Yourcernar gives us a vivid image—it passes through a complex series of Greeces more and more distant from what appears to us the golden age of the race, but where persists a living continuity.

TM: The value that international critics have put on Greek literature in the past decade seems to have been pegged to its mimesis of life under austerity. It’s as if they’re saying, “Greek literature is only interesting if it’s giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to be in Greece during the crisis.”

ES: I think
that’s just idiotic. Whenever foreign journalists come to Greece, one of the
first questions they ask is: What are you doing about the crisis? What can the
writer do to help? That’s bullshit! All the writer can do is write. 

I remember once I was talking with Nanos Valaoritis, a poet of the old Surrealist group, and he told me how, during the years of the German occupation—when the situation was infinitely worse than it is now, people were starving to death and the streets of Athens were littered with corpses—poetry helped them survive. Poems such as “Amorgos” by Gatsos and “Bolivar” by Eggonopoulos and many of Elytis’s best poems—which did not describe the horror of the war, but an unprecedented lyric ecstasy—were written then. Those poems were not miserable or mournful, they were full of an orgasmic greed for life. 

[A writer] does not have to be a mirror for his time. This
is very silly, I think. And, always, you [a writer] have to step back a
little, to observe from a distance. I, personally, take distance. All
my friends, everybody I know, keeps asking me: Are you going to write about
China [where ]? I don’t know. Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t. I mean, you
need to live things first. And then maybe they will come
back to you, in a way. 

TM: Karen,
building off this last question, how has the international interest in Greek
literature changed over the course of the past decade, thanks to the financial
crisis or for other reasons?

Karen Emmerich: I can only speak to Anglophone markets, since I don’t know much about other linguistic spheres in which Greek literature is circulating. But to tell the truth, I don’t really see much of an impact in terms of quantity of books coming out—perhaps because the numbers are just so small to begin with. Certainly we’ve had several anthologies of poetry that use the crisis as a focal point—including Theodore Chiotis’s Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis and Karen Van Dyck’s Austerity Measures—and have gotten a fair amount of press. And perhaps the kinds of books publishers are willing to get behind are different: If literature from other languages is often used as cultural commentary, showing something true about that other place, Greece (in the Anglophone imagination) is no longer the place of quaint village and donkeys; it’s gritty, impoverished, urban. The extensive reviewing of Ersi’s novel has little to do with all that, of course—but Cavafy is always a draw.

TM: You’ve really been instrumental in bringing many Greek writers, especially Greek women writers, to English-speaking readers, who most likely only think of male names when they think of contemporary Greek literature: Kazantzakis, Seferis, and, of course, Cavafy. Has the crisis had any specifically adverse effect on the translation of Greek women’s writing?

KE: I hope that eventually some new names will start to fill out that list! Not only women, but more contemporary writers in general. It’s been more than 50 years since the last of the writers you named died, and that’s five decades of literary production that deserves attention. I think the crisis has had an adverse effect on the translation of Greek writing by anyone, frankly; there used to be some very limited state support for translations, and those programs shut down with the austerity measures. There has also been, as Ersi says, a decline in publishing in Greece, again because of the crisis—and if things aren’t being published in the first place, we’ll never know what literary treasures are out there that could be being translated. But again, the market for translations from Greek is so small to begin with that it’s hard to talk about the statistical significance of any changes we’re witnessing.

I would note that there are perhaps more translations of works by contemporary Greek women than by men: Jacob Moe’s outstanding recent translation of Maria Mitsora, Pavlos Stavropoulos’s translations of the wonderfully bizarre Ursula Foskolou that have been appearing in online journals, Patricia Barbeito’s translations of Amanda Michalopoulou, whom I have also translated. It’s an exciting moment, I think, for Greek literature in translation precisely because of this new crop of translators getting work out. Just imagine what could happen if we could rustle up some funding from a foundation to help support translation work!

TM: I know
that you’ve written at length about Cavafy and the difficulty of translating
his work. Briefly, what are some of the biggest challenges?

KE: They are neverending, which is why they’re so much fun to talk about. Many people who read Cavafy in English think of him as a prosaic writer, one who eschews literary devices as customarily understood. But in fact, he is a master of what Roman Jakobson and Peter Colaclides called “grammatical imagery,” using rhythm, rhyme, and even grammar itself to enact in his poems the very things he’s writing about. It’s astonishing, the tight complexity of the poems in Greek—and not just Greek as a singular language but Greeks, plural, a range of different idioms. Katerina Stergiopoulou has written brilliantly on this issue, including on Cavafy’s use of ancient Greek in epigraphs and within the texts of his poems themselves, and then of course there is the issue of Cavafy’s Alexandrian Greek, and Byzantine phrases as well. It’s a very rich linguistic tapestry, and rich in a way that English just isn’t. So the translator has to find other means, the means of the language she’s writing her translation in.

TM: How did
you and Ersi collaborate to get the tone and vocabulary of the English
translation just right?

KE: We went back and forth several times with the translation. She and I don’t always see eye to eye, since she’s reading the translation alongside the Greek and looking at the level of the word, whereas I’m trying to work on a level far larger than the word, but I have to say the collaboration was invaluable in many regards. I don’t know if the translation is just right—she’s a stickler in her own writing for every word being in place, and in order for me to feel that way about my translations I would need six years, too. Which most publishers don’t allow, unfortunately! Or perhaps fortunately—because otherwise, if everyone felt the same as me, we’d never get to read anything in translation at all!

TM: With the crisis
now “ended,” what is your outlook for Greek literature in translation,
specifically literature by women? 

KE: The “crisis” is anything but over. I think it’s heroic of people to keep on keeping on—as writers, as publishers, as creators, as readers, as engaged humans, as humans period—given the current situation in Greece. I can’t give you an outlook, but I can give you a desire: for greater support for writing of all kinds in Greece, writing that helps hone our understanding of the present, the past, and the future. If some of that support could come in the form of book deals abroad, or royalties for struggling writers, or grants for writers and translators, then that would be a positive step. If anyone’s reading this who’s in some position of power and authority with discretionary funds to think about setting something up, my lines are open!

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Makes Sharp Observations about the Hell of Retail and the Broader World


Wendy was the best salesperson in the store, which meant she was the best liar, which meant her co-workers should have been suspicious of her “homemade” pie. She made it for the ramshackle Thanksgiving dinner in the store that year, a potluck for the staff to sustain them through the Black Friday deluge. It was a hit, apparently, among all the dishes served, and so was Wendy, who refrained from eating any of the dessert herself. “Everybody was saying how nice she was, how thoughtful,” but Wendy was neither of those things.

“Wendy and I were the only ones who didn’t have the shits that day,” says the lone co-worker, our narrator, who smelled bullshit in Wendy’s poisoned pie. “That was when Wendy was sales lead. Which meant she had the highest sales goals” that Black Friday, which would be her last. “Who knows what she put in that pie. I made it my mission to beat her. And I did … I’ve been lead ever since.” He’s proud, even though he knows he shouldn’t be—but in the cutthroat and unstable world of retail, pride in being the last one left alive is the only kind in stock.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s new collection, Friday Black, weighs individuals’ small, short-term victories, like this one from the titular story, against the long-term solidarity they prevent. But he doesn’t do so to chide his characters for choosing themselves over others—if this can even be called a choice. Instead, Ajdei-Brenyah’s imperative in these 12 stories is showing how this hard world ossifies even the softest souls. These are hard times and these stories traffic in hard subjects—the state-sanctioned murder of Black children, dog-eat-dog capitalism, school shootings, eugenics, nuclear war, among others. But while Friday Black is unforgiving in its depictions of a racist country, a rigged economy, and the eerily recognizable dystopias that might replace them, it is equally unwavering in its moral optimism.

Adjei-Brenyah loves his main characters as much as he loves his readers, both of which groups want justice and not its facsimile. Friday Black gives them the catharsis they demand, only to let them discover in its aftermath that nothing has really been purged. In “The Finkelstein 5,” the gutting first story, teenager Emmanuel Gyan joins a wave of Black-on-white reprisal killings after a white man is acquitted of beheading five Black children with a chainsaw. As Emmanuel is about to assist his first killing, he “wondered if his rage would end … but as he thrashed and yelled and saw it all, he felt nothing leaving him,” right when the police arrive. The climax is gruesome and infuriating, and a sharp reminder of who is allowed the catharsis of public rage and retaliation, and who is expected to bare their souls for the edification of a (white) public.

This first story hits hard, perhaps the hardest of the 12, but Adjei-Brenyah’s exact prose, engrossing storytelling and occasional humor make “The Finkelstein 5” as frictionless to read as the rest of Friday Black. He is a nimble writer, and each sentence is measured—not out of caution, but because Adjei-Brenyah knows exactly how much he needs to say. At times, that means clipped, jaded sentences; at others times, sentences that are tender without being precious. “Sentence-level writer” appropriately describes Adjei-Brenyah, especially in the two-page story “Things My Mother Said.” A story about a mother and son with very little to eat, its sentences wound the reader one by one:
One day I came home to the warm smell of chicken and rice. I hadn’t been able to steal a second burger in the cafeteria at school that day. My stomach whined. At home the fridge had become a casket bearing nothing. The range and oven had become decorations meant to make a dying box look like a home. Hunger colored those days.
Adjei-Brenyah spins something beautiful out of a bad situation here, but this story doesn’t romanticize anything, nor do any others in the book. Rather, they draw into relief how easy it is as readers to interpret any desire to salvage something good from so much bad as a weakness, an uncomfortably earnest strategic error. Like how Wendy poisons her co-workers in “Friday Black,” good faith and kindness are frequently things to be betrayed in this book, and to a certain extent, each of these stories asks an old question: Am I too kind, or too dumb? Or are these the same things?

One of my favorite iterations of this question is the dystopian story “The Era,” which follows an adolescent boy, Ben, through his daily life among genetically engineered superhumans. This future world is a radically honest one, where people say exactly what they think, and where the destruction of the weak by the strong is morally nonnegotiable. In history class (“HowItWas class”), Ben learns that “emotional truth clouding was the main thing that led to the Long Big War and the Big Quick War,” ancient, Lucasfilm-scale conflicts over water supply. “The wars going on now, Valid Storm Alpha and the True Freedom Campaign, are valid/true wars because we know we aren’t being emotional fighting them.” Choices made without self-interest are seen as evolutionarily inferior, and when a classmate wants Ben “to make her happy for no reason,” he enters her world of birthday cakes and jokes and forgotten heartwarming traditions. Soon, he rapidly descends the social ladder.

Adjei-Brenyah’s stories tell the truth; they don’t “intervene in the discourse” as if they were just waiting for their turn to speak and not actually listening. While all of them are distinct and distinctly good, the most polished stories are those that riff on the dissatisfactions of retail sales associates. They are the most multidimensional and the most precise. Adjei-Brenyah is such a virtuoso at curating telling details; those powers are on display the most in these stories.

“How to Sell Jackets as Told by Iceking” recounts the slow fall from grace of a celebrated salesman of expensive winter coats. “In the mall the only truths that matter are the kinds you can count,” he tells us, laying bare the contradictions of a line of work that pays lip service to “good customer service” while rewarding only good customer shilling. “Sales goals, register tills, inventory. Numbers are it. Everything else is mostly bullshit.” Iceking knows numbers are all that matter, but won’t admit to himself he hopes that this isn’t entirely true. This is obvious when he makes a strategic error in choosing to cover a late co-worker, Florence, punching her timecard for her at her request, even though she hasn’t yet arrived at work. He was too nice.

Florence “practically filled out her application while in labor. That’s why she’s so good,” he says, repeating his manager, Angela’s, early praise of the new hire. It says less about her than it does about what we consider to be a valuable employee, and the kind of ruthlessness that otherwise good people are encouraged to emulate. Florence’s impression is apparently quite good: After building a large sale with an affluent family, Florence arrives at our narrator’s side. “ ‘Angela told me to tell you to go on break.’ Her voice is sweet and acid. I stand for a second. Today they had officially promoted Florence,” and our proud, rainmaking narrator can’t dismiss her. A few minutes later, he’s punching out at the register, where the manager is ringing out the family’s large purchase. She asks if anyone helped them. “‘Absolutely, she even hauls the goods.’ [The father] chuckles as he points his thumb toward Florence … Mother, Father and Son look at me and see a stranger.”

The situation seems banal, the unfortunate circumstances of someone who didn’t learn how to play the game. But everything has been made into a game in this country, in this world, in this economic system, and the rules are rigged. The dystopian futures he brilliantly imagines here somehow seem more believable than the ones he writes about the hellish now, not because they are, but because we don’t want to believe that this is the reality of our burning little world. Friday Black is written with force, Ajdei-Brenyah’s language sharpened into tiny blades that cut deep and fast, down to the soft insides that, he urges us to remember, are still there.

Too Young for Too Long: On Daniel Torday’s ‘Boomer1’


The term solecism—an error in syntax; a minor infelicity; a violation of social protocol—was one of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Word of the Day selections in spring 2004, around the same time that Cassie Black (née Claire Stankowitcz) began considering a move to Brooklyn in earnest. The United States had been at war in Afghanistan for three years and in Iraq for one; a bedroom in Greenpoint was $600 a month; and the oldest millennials were galloping into adulthood. Cassie, about to graduate from Wellesley, heard people were moving to Brooklyn and decided she would, too. Not one for solecism of any kind, following is what Cassie always did. Mark Brumfeld, however, a Colgate alumnus and soft-boy mandolin player, would try to change that in the course of Daniel Torday’s Boomer1.

“Solecism” appears again and again in this book, where its widest possible meaning—doing things out of order—captures the conflict at this novel’s heart. Partly the (un)love story of Cassie and Mark, partly a chronicle of New York from post-9/11 to post-recession, Boomer1 is entirely a story about the generation that came of age in between, whose members will likely not live better than their parents. Or, to be unambiguous: This is a “millennial novel,” and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. For the millennial novel. For millennials being history, which we are now, officially.

In March, Pew Research Center declared that anyone “born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 22 to 37 in 2018) will be considered a Millennial” henceforth “to keep the Millennial generation analytically meaningful, and to begin looking at what might be unique about the next cohort,” emphasis added. While this new clarity heralded the welcome end of categorizing everyone under 40 as a millennial, it also insinuated that millennials were now an archive that was ready to be examined, finally. As if our individual histories—our data, our old online selves, our texts, our itinerant nudes—haven’t been at our fingertips, if not in the palms of our hands, for quite some time.

“Had any generation in the history of the world been so duped about the nature of time, been rendered so complacent by the appearance of control over perception?” asks Mark’s mother, Julia, in the novel. According to the millions of words published about millennials in the past decade, the obvious answer is no, and I was apprehensive that this book would be a long-form reiteration of that answer. To a certain extent, it is, yet Boomer1 tweaks recent history just enough to avoid being a draining re-litigation of events we’re still collectively processing. Though it returns to well-tread paths, Boomer1 is a refreshingly (if at times devastatingly) uncanny, funny, and clever retelling of the events that made millennials mad.

Arriving almost exactly seven years after the first Occupy Wall Street protests, Boomer1 reimagines that movement as a decentralized, dark-web-conspired wave of “generational domestic terrorism.” In this case, it’s not the 1 percent against the 99 percent, but baby boomers against millennials, the latter camp having been been radicalized by the video missives of angry, unemployed, and masked YouTuber “Isaac Abramson,” who is actually not a millennial but identifies as one. The unsubtly biblical name is the grandiose pseudonym Mark assumes upon leaving Brooklyn for Baltimore (and his parents’ basement) sometime in 2010; an ignominious goodbye-to-all-that is not what Mark had in mind when he arrived in New York in summer 2001.

He came to the city to be a Great American Writer, “marry a strong-minded woman and have strong-minded children and lead a strong-minded life.” Three years later, when Cassie arrives in Brooklyn, he is arguably on his way. An editorial assistant at a glossy men’s magazine, Mark also moonlights in a Brooklyn bluegrass band and is generically desirable enough for Cassie, who did not come to New York desiring to be any particular thing and who did not particularly desire men (she’s slept with mostly women). A cocktail waitress at the Chelsea Hotel and the bassist in a band, Cassie needs only to watch “old Polish women in their babushkas push their black wire carts home from the Pathmark” in her “ugly enough” corner of North Brooklyn to feel “she’d arrived,” full stop. Unequally ambitious and about six or seven years apart, Cassie and Mark share a musical background in bluegrass, which provides the pretext for their very early-mumblecore Brooklyn introduction.

Early in the book, both of their bands play a gig at a Williamsburg warehouse that “was pre-cancerous with artists’ lofts” where “bespectacled college grads milled around drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon from the can and Miller High Life from the bottle.” A few weeks later, they reconnect after Cassie’s show at CBGB’s, which Mark, “an ironic-thrift-shop-T-shirted twenty-something-year-old-boy,” had seen advertised in the print Village Voice. “Did they have a CD? They didn’t, but they’d made a MySpace page where you could stream two tracks they’d recorded on Cassie’s iMac.” Torday’s prose is lapidary with such period details that range from authentic to ~authentic~. Often they’re deliciously precise subtweets aimed at Brooklyn or millennial stock characters (“Well, I work for a start-up but mainly I’m the editor of Czolgosz Quarterly”). A few other details, like the nod to PBR above, are Brooklyn as Told by Lana Del Rey circa 2011 calling cards that try a little too hard—which is what I think Torday intends. If this is a book about history, it’s also a book about people who have become caricatures of their own.

Cassie and Mark find themselves in the same bluegrass band, then in a relationship, and after several years that elapse in a few pages, in almost inverted professional places in a post-recession New York. Cassie has become a competent fact-checker at Us Weekly thanks to Mark’s network, and he has left journalism for a Ph.D. program in English, “so he had all the time in the world – to worry about what was ahead. The world wasn’t conforming to his ideas of what it should be.” Unsuccessful in the sclerotic academic job market, he comforts himself writing a 10,000-word review of an Emma Goldman biography for “the most prominent hipster intellectual journal in the country,” The Unified Theory. His contributor bio reads, “‘Mark Brumfeld is a writer living in Brooklyn,’ which seemed to Cassie a tautology, or at least a solecism.” (Cassie is the funniest character in the book.)

The story of the famed anarchist consumes Mark, compounding his long-simmering resentment for the baby boomer literati who just won’t retire and give their jobs to him. “They had and they had and they had, as if that was the very condition of their own existence,” Mark thinks, disgusted by the opulence of his unremarkable professor’s $4 million Joralemon Street townhome. Meanwhile, “his own generation had not. They, too, wanted plenty, but they did not have.” Angry and increasingly isolated, Mark begins to wear on the patient Cassie, who rekindles her romance with an old girlfriend, because at “least if she was with a woman, she would be not procreating while experiencing pleasure.” She threatens to leave him, and after he ambushes her with a desperate marriage proposal and a hideous, chocolate diamond and titanium ring (“It was everything she wouldn’t have picked”), she does, abandoning him at the table of a trendy restaurant in a gentrifying DUMBO.

Mark decamps to Baltimore shortly after his jilting. The first of his “Boomer Missives” appears on YouTube shortly after that. And shortly after that, he is spending entire days on dark web chat forums under the handle Boomer1, nourished by the “unerotic, unromantic space” so reminiscent of the “sausage-fests of parties he and his guy friends had in middle school” – spaces where even “the idea of Cassie…or any woman listening in…was ridiculous.” The solid straight line that connects these dots is the sexual and social rejection of a young, white man who believed he need only to show up for his due sex and success. It’s a clear citation of incel internet culture, one that casts doubt on the motivations of men who want to move fast and break things—even those like Mark who “learned in his academic life not to make heteronormative assumptions.”

Tellingly, it was an act of intergenerational male aggression—a fist fight Mark loses with his stock-market-playing former high school history teacher—that sparks his cuckolded tinder, leading him to make his first radical YouTube video. Bleeding and furious in his parents’ basement, in front of a poster of Jerry Garcia, he warns his elders: Retire or We’ll Retire You. Much to Mark’s surprise, his video strikes a nerve with his disaffected and precarious peers: Viral fame ensues and soon an anti-baby-boomer movement of “boom boomers” is born that’s more SHAC 7 than Occupy Wall Street.

Rather than mass protests, the “boomers” conduct a series of widespread “distributed denial-of-service” attacks against baby boomer symbols, like the AARP website—which is as ridiculous as Torday intends it be. Someone “threw a trash can through the windows in front of Terry Gross’s production studio.” In a stroke of millennial ingenuity, someone else “used a drone to spill pigs’ blood all over the roof of Stephen King’s Bangor home” (very ~millennial~ but still funny). Some of the rage is evidently misplaced:
Every night the news was filled with interviews with the name doppelgängers of boomer heroes whose home had been vandalized—every Robert Dillon and Jon Erving and Irving Johnson in America suffering for the sins of their homophonic namesakes, for the lack of attention to detail in the millennials who perpetrated them. In Baltimore alone a guy named Jonathan Watters had a series of pink lawn flamingos thrown through the bay window at the front of his house.
The confused identities of its targets reflect a more important confusion of identities at the source of the boom boomer movement—a movement that Mark inadvertently started but which appears to be set on finishing without him. After his first blistering videos go viral, his editor at The Unified Theory and another “hipster intellectual,” Regan, insist that he take them down to “erase the footprint” and “move all of this over to the Deep Web.” He complies and begins recording new missives behind the anonymity of a David Crosby mask.

Intended to protect him from becoming traceable, the tactic works a little too well, and rather than becoming a recognizable icon of disgruntled American youth, “Isaac Abramson” becomes a meme format. Soon, copycats are making versions of Boomer missives in their own basements, wearing their own David Crosby masks, with their own Jerry Garcia posters in the background tilted at slightly different angles. “The Boom Boom movement was supposed to be his Boom Boom movement,” Mark thinks, wondering how his scheme to claim his place in history has worked out for everyone else but him. As the movement grows, it swallows him entirely and shits him out, and the novel ends with him certainly gaining a place in history, but not the one he wanted.

The ambivalence of digital history—which can be gamed despite its democratizing potential, and which can abet social inequality as much as it can attenuate it—is one of the book’s more interesting moral concerns; Torday has written it in such a way to engage with its complexity. Boomer1 is a novel in 10 parts, each told from the perspective of one of its three protagonists: Cassie, Mark, and his mother, Julia. All three of them have a distinctly different relationship with the interminable memory of the internet, and by arranging their narratives contrapuntally (Mark’s missives are called “fugues”; the last section is titled “Counterpoint”), Torday engages with the ambiguities of being the first generation to be so immersed in its own history so constantly. What else, after all, should we ultimately make of social media, personal online brands, and the dopamine jackpot of going viral, other than a monetization of individual histories?

Cassie’s relationship with the internet is the most positive. After she leaves Mark and he begins his Boomer missives, she takes on the handsomely compensated job of Director of Research, Native Content Division at the thinly veiled BuzzFeed-dupe “RazorWire,” where she plays bocce and smokes freshly rolled American Spirits. Coincidentally, her workload increases considerably when Mark’s missives go viral, spawning a deluge of anarchist™ listicles and think pieces. In this way, ironically, Mark directly contributes to the meteoric rise of her own career as a sought-after editor of “content”—both advertorial and editorial, which she increasingly can’t distinguish. She doesn’t really care to try.

Cassie pivots to video and while editing what would become a career-defining viral smash of a clip, she wonders: “What did it do to her conception of time, to her sense of memory, spending her day manipulating time like this? Did writing, slowing and condensing the world into words, do the same? Cassie wasn’t sure,” but she does it anyway because it will accrue clicks and money and fame. She moves to San Francisco, where young “meme developers” adore her as “the Cassie Black.” The girl who came to New York as a follower leaves it as a leader, locked into a place in history—whatever that means anymore.

It’s difficult not to wonder what Torday’s attitude is toward Cassie—the text insinuates that she’s a sellout, a favored insult among Generation X, to whom Torday dedicated the book. Mark, however, is simply a man born in the wrong generation. Parts of this novel veer a little too close to sympathy for a type of white American man who’s been radicalized only because he wanted his life to be just a little easier than it is already. As Cassie’s former lover, Natalia, succinctly states: “Where the fuck are the Panthers Mark’s supporting? This boom boom thing sure seems white as fuck.”

Torday’s book is eerily prescient of the America we’ve struggled to reckon with since Nov. 9, 2016, and all the more unsettling even in spite of its clever humor: All of this writing was on the wall, but in the hyperdrive of digital history, we were moving too fast to see it. Only two years ago, social media was still vaguely and cheerfully “democratizing” instead of undermining democracy itself, and “leaning in” was what people were saying women had to do to be taken seriously. With or without the current situation, that former self-deceptive tech utopianism could have never lasted because nothing does, even for youth who’ve grown up with a sense of mastery over history. That’s the melancholy theme that runs through this book from beginning to end, which Torday focalizes through the sad character of Mark’s mother, Julia. Reflecting on her own childhood in suburban Philadelphia at the dawn of the postwar boom times, she recalls “the beginning of a period, an era, that appeared then to have no limit.”

A former Haight-Ashbury hippie and talented musician decommissioned by hearing loss, sexism and pregnancy, Julia reminds the reader that young people have always been young people, that men have always been perpetually too young for too long, and that the order of things is provisional and random. History has always moved too fast to betray that much of it is, in the end, accidental. The point seems to be that millennial rage, while merited, is nothing out of order. This generation may appear to have been especially duped about the nature of time, but this is a distinction of degree rather than kind.

It’s All So Much: On Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’


When I was growing up in Florida, we called it God’s Waiting Room, but not because we thought it was heavenly. The elderly retired in Florida, “waiting” for death, and we kids who joked about it were waiting, too. Not for death, but to leave for older, darker, nobler, safer states. I say safer because for a certain kind of person Florida can feel dangerous. It’s spread too thin over spongy limestone, sprawling in every direction except up or down. Everything is overexposed; the horizon oppresses; the ground might even swallow you whole. There are no hills or valleys or basements—no cuddling natural borders, no places to hide. Things and people spill out and stick together like cracked eggs in this gun-shaped frying pan. Leave if you can, but Florida will stick; Florida will follow.

In fact, you can never really leave the Sunshine State, as Lauren Groff intimately apprehends in her excellent collection, Florida. In these 11 stories, Florida is not necessarily the setting or the subject, nor the sordid punch line it’s often made out to be. Instead, Florida is the thing that Groff’s fly-wing delicate characters can’t escape.

That doesn’t keep them from trying. All the stories Groff tells here are, at some level, chronicles of flight. Women walk through the particularly creepy streets of Gainesville or the palmettos of its surrounding prairie, trying to escape what they hate about themselves or what they love too much. Men row into tea-hot ponds to evade the twilight of their own mythmaking. Others wade into swamps to cockfight with snakes, stimulating the bravery they otherwise lack. Mothers holiday in France or Florida’s tangled forests, fighting to escape the fact that they love their babies more than they can protect them. Children, young or grown, cloy for freedom from their parents, living or dead. All of them quake with trepidation about living just one more day: They love life too rapturously.

“Ghosts and Empties,” the first story in the collection, prefaces these themes and introduces patterns that repeat throughout the book. Like most of the stories to follow, it exists entirely in the mind of its protagonist. Here, it’s a mother who has “somehow become a woman who yells” and takes up an evening ritual of walking through the charmingly tarnished Duck Pond neighborhood of Gainesville. She intends the walk to exorcise her rage, stoked from “reading about the disaster of the world…millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious.” Instead, she becomes a witness to the tiny but unceasing changes occurring around her, “gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” Her escape fails, forcing her to concede that to be alive is to overflow, and to accept that “nothing is not always in transition.”

Failed flights of this sort form the narrative spine of Florida’s stories: Like this first protagonist, most of Groff’s characters fail to get too far from who and where they no longer wish to be. They are (deliberately) too empathic, handicapped by their hypersensitivity to beauty and filth, and they tend either toward hedonism or hibernation but cannot find a place between. Language, ironically, disappoints them; they hunger for touch in order to know the truth of things. In one way or another, they are all willfully globed in one-way glass, observing the world but utterly unable to communicate with it, let alone exist in it—perhaps for the best. Groff designs characters that embody the ambivalence of loving life itself while being terrified to live.

The second story, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” most richly embodies this kind of character in the form of Jude, who “was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.” His father is an abusive, racist herpetologist at a thinly veiled University of Florida; his mother, a well-read woman worn out like a paperback by the man she married. The father grinds Jude down, too, disgusted by his oversensitivity. Words are no use to Jude, for whom “knowledge of another person was ungraspable, a cloud. He would never begin to hold another in his mind like an equation, pure and entire.” Though his mathematical brilliance takes him far away up North, he finds his way back to the quaint little bowl of Gainesville. Eventually, he loses his hearing inexplicably, forced to communicate even more through the body.

Florida completely beguiles the body: It’s a place of flesh memories, and Groff is at her most delightful when conjuring Florida’s tingles and miasmas and gummy heat as they stimulate the skin. For Groff, Florida’s bodies are sites of congealment, quivering at the threshold of combustion. They fascinate her, and her prose exquisitely decomposes all emotions and experiences into their sensory components. Even when the characters crack out of their flesh, they hover in surreal planes that remain richly embodied, as in “The Midnight Zone.” Here, a concussed mother is marooned in a secluded cabin circled by a Florida panther, flowing in and out of consciousness, waiting for her husband to come back (men, in these stories, are for the most part either fleshy pillows, fickle vipers, or too far away to even matter). Her little boys fail to keep her awake, and she disassociates, “as if the best of me were detaching from my body.” Her spectral form glides into the humid night, where the “great drops from the tree branches left a pine taste in me.”

Though the emphasis on embodied experience certainly charges the stories erotically, it does not make them prurient. Instead, they have the bewildered innocence and wide-eyed wisdom of a child who sees things exactly as they are—as bad as they look, or more beautiful than older eyes can be bothered to see. Even the adults are terminally un-grown-up, perpetually resenting and yearning for parents who are dead, absent, or oblivious. Jude hallucinates the ghost of his father scolding him for living a life that was far too safe, too passionless. In “Salvador,” the narrator weathers a hurricane in the storeroom of a dubious man’s bodega, “praying, not knowing if she was praying to her mother or to either of the gods.” In “Eyewall,” the narrator confers with her own dead father in the midst of a hurricane, curled in a bathtub. In some cases, Florida itself seems to facilitate the communion, filled to the brim as it is with ghosts and failed ventures.

“This land, he told her, was full of living twits and unsettled spirits, both,” Groff writes in “Above and Below,” which follows the downward spiral of a graduate student denied further funding for her research. “The spirits were loud and unhappy, and filled the place with evil. All them dead Spanish missionaries and snake-bit Seminoles and starved-to-death Crackers and shit.” Such are the refuse of a state that has been abandoned, orphaned, shuffled about, and sliced apart for almost 500 years, longer than any other state.

For most of that history, Florida has been a feral, lawless place: Until the late 1960s, the state legislature met only every other year, for a single 60-day session, writes historian Gary Mormino in Florida: Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams. It’s a state that’s been ruthlessly cultivated by capital: phosphates poured into its aquifers, concrete into its swamps. And yet it markets itself as a place of natural beauty. But Florida is not a “land of contrasts,” and Groff avoids this flimsy and inaccurate conceit. Instead, she incarnates Florida’s grotesque continuity, warping the line between past and present, spirit and flesh, flourishing and decay.

On account of all that collision, a hunger for shelter throbs in many of the stories. It takes the form of a sinkhole that becomes a bell jar for a mother on the brink; a bomb shelter where imagined nuns weather a fiery apocalypse; an empty tub in a windowless bathroom, which, as any Floridian knows, is the safest place to hide during a hurricane. But this search for sanctuary feuds with a love of freedom elsewhere in the collection, sometimes within the very same story. Both Jude and the protagonist of “Above and Below” chide themselves for clinging too much to safety, and the dazed, casually alcoholic mothers who lead most of the stories resent that they are too incompetent to take the risks they crave.

We are not safe and we cannot pretend to be, and if Groff has a political objective with these stories, it’s that we as a species have so tightly cocooned ourselves that we cannot address the dangers at hand. Environmental catastrophe looms over Florida, amplifying the anxiety that crackles beneath its stories. Global warming, the death of coral reefs, and the gyres of plastic choking the oceans keep Groff’s characters awake at night. As Floridians, their concerns are well-founded: Their home is uniquely vulnerable to environmental and wildlife degradation, a situation made worse by the corrupt network of old guard conservatives that perennially governs the state. Things will get worse before they get better: Already the third-most-populous state, Florida, for all its weirdness, increasingly attracts immigrants in search of sun, real estate, and low taxes.

All of this newness collides with the Southern gentility of North Florida, the Cracker pastoral of the interior, the pastel ostentation of Miami, the crypto-Alabaman of the panhandle, and the Sun Belt suburbia of Tampa and Orlando. They remain as discrete as the bands around a coral snake. Florida remains placeless, inchoate—an easy target for those who would rather be someone else somewhere else, like Grant in “For the God of Love, For the Love of God”:
…as soon as he realized he would go up to Michigan alone, leaving behind the incontinent old cat he hated, the shitty linoleum, the scrimping, the buying of bad toilet paper with coupons, Florida and its soul-sucking heat, he felt light. A week ago, when they drove up to the ancient stone house framed in all those grapevines, he knew that this was what he wanted: history, old linen and crystal, Europe, beauty. Amanda didn’t fit. By now, she was so far away from him, he could barely see her.
Florida is a place that is easy to hate. Its errors have not yet earned the dignified charm that gilds the flaws of places civilized in earlier centuries. The piss and malfunction of the subway are, in this regard, a price to be paid for all New York has to offer. Florida’s scum is, alternatively, a source of buyer’s remorse. For people like Grant, who is like many people who grew up in Florida, the place is as shallow as its soil, which isn’t even really soil but the gray of ceiling-fan lint that peels off in long, fuzzy worms. It is not a place to put down roots. It is a place to leave.

I’ve tried, and I thought I had succeeded until I visited my favorite beach last summer, near the town where I grew up. I saw gummy grass poking through white sand off the Gulf coast, like mildew in the caulking of a tub. It wasn’t normal; I wasn’t normal, if only because I cared. Something had changed—the water, perhaps, poisoned by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or the beach itself, which is bound to be remade eventually in the image of its boardwalked counterparts on the Atlantic coast. How dispiriting to see this place change, and how much more dispiriting to care—and so much more deeply than I ever wanted to.

“Of all places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself,” Groff writes in “Yport,” the final story. I cannot forget these sentences, which are somehow simultaneously hilarious and shattering, ominous and reassuring. It is this ambivalence that pervades Florida’s stories of the anxious, awkward love the Sunshine State kindles and keeps lit. Groff has grasped the true grotesqueness of Florida, an “Eden of dangerous things” spliced with stinking bodies, living and dead. In her hands, Florida as state and state-of-mind becomes an alembic, cohering these discrete stories as perfectly as if they were written in one sitting, though most of them were published years apart. Florida is so much, perhaps too much. Florida is just enough. In this collection, Groff’s powers transform that glut of vitality into something startlingly precarious and, even to a forsworn Floridian like me, something startling and precious.

Who Is Greek?

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Last week, Greeks and people of Greek descent around the world commemorated the events of October 28, 1940, a day not remembered as a revolution or victory, but a day of saying no—literally. Called “Oxi Day,” the holiday memorializes the fateful moment when Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas curtly said “No” to Mussolini’s plans to invade Greece.

In saying no, Metaxas sent his country to war with Fascist Italy, whose army underestimated the tiny but furious Greek military. The Greeks, exhaustion and embittered by recent defeat, rallied and soon astounded the world and routed the Italians back to Albania—a blow that dealt the Axis its first defeat of World War II. Astonished and inspired, the Allied leaders poured forth encomiums on the Greeks, with Winston Churchill famously saying that henceforth, “We will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks!”

Fiercely proud of this day (and of Churchill’s quote in particular), Greeks around the world hold parades and other formal events. For the first time, this year in Athens an Afghan immigrant was supposed to carry the flag at the front of the Athenian parade—a symbol of the sea change to Greek demography after years of global instability and subsequent waves of migration. However, at the last minute, he was asked to carry the school’s sign, rather than the flag, and most recently, there have been reports that his home was attacked. What should have been a cause to celebrate the Greekest of Greek things—of voyaging out and coming back and going again—has now become an occasion to examine the way the borders of Greekness are violently policed.

Since antiquity, cultures upon cultures have passed through the sieve of Greece, which subsumed them all under a mantel of “Hellene” that’s come to mean so many different things in its three millennia of history. That sieving has never really stopped, certainly not in the last 40 years when Greece became firmly European and, thus, a destination for migrants from Africa, the other Balkan states, and now the Middle East (and Turkey and China, mostly on “golden visas”). At the same time, “ethnic” Greeks have left the country in droves, often unwillingly, to find work.

From this perspective, it seems appropriate that this young Afghan boy should be at the helm of the Oxi Day parade. Yet it was bound to be a flashpoint from the beginning: for decades, Greek nationalists like the fascist Golden Dawn party have fumed at “non-Greeks” carrying the blue-and-white, such as when an Albanian student was given the honor, on account of being top of the class. For these fascists, but also for other Greeks who cling to a unitary, essential Greekness, it is unconscionable that a non-Greek would carry the flag on this Greekest of days. After all, Oxi Day was a triumph of Greekness, as Churchill said.

In saying so, Churchill inadvertently apprehends a paranoia, a simultaneous pride and shame, a yearning placelessness, a paradox that haunts global Greekness, and that perhaps come into focus in the modern mythmaking of Oxi Day. In the literature of the Greek diaspora, particularly the Greek-American diaspora, these forces come into being clearly, and corroborate much of my own experience.

As a queer third-generation Greek-American, I’ve lately felt particularly under the assault of oxi. For one, Australia’s gay marriage plebiscite has dredged up the deeply held but discreet homophobia of some people in the diaspora, a significant portion of which has ties to Australia. That silt thickens the already sludgy waters I’ve waded through my whole life, and, most recently, when I turned to my ancestral Orthodox church for aid in the aftermath of abuse, despite its apathy (or in Russia, outright aggression) toward anyone who isn’t cisgendered and straight. Last month, this apathy became antipathy in Greece when the progressive government simplified the process for trans people to change their legal genders.

This double marginalization puts me beyond an Albanian front of identity politics, where I’m quartered with ever more people who are pushed out by the oxi of an essential Greekness. It adds to the experience of being extraneous that I had growing up. I didn’t have the stereotypical Greek-American childhood—the one that comes with supplemental Greek language school, Greek vacations each summer, and spit-roasted lamb spinning in my backyard on Easter Sundays. So when I went to college (one I picked deliberately because of its Modern Greek language program), I committed myself to making up for lost time, and I immediately joined the Greek American Student’s Association, intent on acquiring the Greekness I didn’t really grow up with

To mark my debut, I signed up to celebrate Oxi Day with all of the other Greek-Americans, most of whom were, unlike me, the full-blooded, fluent-speaking financiers- and physicians-in-the-making that comprise much of the third and fourth generation Greek diaspora. Together, we painted a mural of the Greek flag on the off-campus wall designated for things like that, embellishing it with quotes and taking selfies while the older students and “off-the-boat Greeks” chatted in fluent Greek I couldn’t understand. No matter to us that other eager student groups would paint over this mural by the next day, at the latest. What we were doing nevertheless had the weight of a sacrament, of summoning up and solemnly honoring Greekness itself.

This essentialism—a belief in something like a Platonic form of Greekness—inflects all the received wisdom about who and what is considered Greek. Oxi Day, in particular, operationalizes this idea by turning Metaxas’s rejection of Italy into an outstanding example of an essential Greek spirit—one fatally devoted to the fatherland and to the cultural heritage it generated.

A deeper look at the metaphor finds that the first cause of Greekness itself is the land – and not just the territory of the modern Greek state, but also the ancestral possessions across western Anatolia, the Black Sea, Alexandria, and even as far north as the Danube. Nostalgia for the artificially, aggressively erased Greek presence in these places—for example, the city of Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey)—and bitterness at the blunders that led to it ache through Greek Diaspora literature.

The best example of this tendency is Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, in which the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” is the pretext of the whole story. Calliope/Cal Stephanides’s grandparents (brother and sister) are refugees of the disastrous Greek-Turkish War of the early 1920s, which forced them from their ancestral Anatolian village and straight into the Aegean, where they board a ship as the city of Smyrna burns. Throughout the book, Calliope/Cal comes back to this tale and its implications, and at various points, mentions returning to Anatolia to come full circle, but never does.

More specifically, Cal refers to his intersex gene coming full circle, of wanting “to get it down for good: this rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time.”  The synecdoche shows a fundamental split between being a Greek body and being a Greek subject—a symptom of a mythologized essentialism that makes the task of determining one’s Greekness into one of making maps (identities) fit onto territories (bodies).

This synecdoche also shows up in some of David Sedaris’s early work, specifically in the essay, “I Like Guys.” One summer, he travels with his older sister and a gaggle of other young Greek-Americans to a summer camp on a Greek island for “instruction in such topics as folk singing and something called ‘religious prayer and flag.’”

There, he planned to “re-invent” himself and perhaps find a girlfriend, putting paid to his emerging gay desire. In reality, he ended up with constipating anxiety, perhaps on account of the performative masculinity of his male roommates, writing he “never once had a bowel movement” during the month-long trip. He also encounters another emerging queer, Jason, who spites David after a too-close-for-comfort bit of tumbling. Joining forces with the other guys, Jason torments David, and then gets a girlfriend himself, “cured.”

At the surface, it’s just a funny story of a backfired first foray into gay adolescent sex, but to a Greek-American reader, its coded in a way that almost perfectly inverts Greek-American tropes. The summer camp young David attends with his sister in Greece is almost undeniably the “Ionian Village” summer program, which the Greek Orthodox archdiocese administers for Greek-American kids up through age 18. Here, then, is an instance of the Orthodox Church—a de facto steward of ethnic Greekness—processing the pubescent bodies of diaspora Greeks into idealized Hellenic youths, fed and watered with Greece’s own famous sea and summer light.

If that’s its aim, then Ionian Village tends to achieve it, based on what I understand from friends (I never attended). People I know praise it, gushing about how it pulls Greek-American youth together around their shared identity, and I don’t doubt it has influenced more than a handful of alumni to marry one another. In Sedaris’s subversive rewriting of the tale, a queer diaspora Greek body goes to this same place only to awaken an unambiguously homosexual eros that was, prior to the trip, still sealed in the proverbial wine cask like the Aeolian winds. Arriving home, he stares at himself: “I like guys. The words had settled themselves into my features.”

The question lingers: did the trip arouse what it was intended to suppress? So while the Greek Establishment effectively said oxi to young David’s queer-bodied Greekness—in the form of marginalization, unrequited love, and prolonged constipation—at the Ionian Village, in writing his story, he too, says oxi to the Establishment contours of Greekness, writing a new possibility for Greek diaspora identity into discourse.

The ongoing renegotiation of Greekness in these texts plays out in the lived politics of Greekness, too. For most of recorded history, Greek identity was conferred on Greek speakers who lived a Greek way of life, until it became a slur for pagans and pretenders to Roman glory during the 1,000-year era of the Byzantine Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople, it became a collective term for any Christian Ottoman subject. Even in 1923, when the League of Nations brokered the biggest mass population exchange in history between Greece and Turkey, ethnicity was by and large equated with one’s religion.

In the almost 100 years since, this reification along linguistic and religious axes left a legacy that still, today, limits the field of Greekness. Ask any diaspora Greek, and you’ll find that “Greekness” almost automatically implies an inherited knowledge of the Greek language and initiation into the (Greek) Orthodox Church. In light of this history, Greekness was already a complex category of identity whose interstices were aggressively policed with negations and denials—with oxi—well before the modern Greek state came into being in 1830 (for the first of several times up through 1974).

As the diaspora grows, thanks to the hopefully slowing but still severe brain drain from the neoliberal impact-crater of the Greek economy, its members increasingly come under attack as not Greek enough, even though they—and the support they send back to Greece—have been deemed essential to the economic recovery of the country.

Even within the diaspora itself, it’s easy to encounter one arbitrator of authentic Greekness or another, someone who’s eager to say oxi to your claim to a part of your identity you never asked for, but that’s there all the same—one that you might even love. Often these oxis come down to one’s mastery of the notoriously difficult and poorly standardized Greek language, to one’s number and intensity of immediate family or business connections to Greece, and even to one’s genealogical Greekness. Whatever the goalpost may be, it seems to be migrating more often than not.

All the instability and policed permeability of modern Greekness manifest distinctly in Oxi Day. The event that’s today celebrated as a shining moment in Greek history starts to break down with a sober look at the facts of what actually happened in 1940. It’s true that historians mark the event as the first Allied victory for the war, and credit it with averting the German army from an early attack on Russia. In retrospect, then, it’s tempting to read Oxi Day as the day a strategic Iphigenia was sacrificed on a Greek altar. However, at the time, Metaxas’s choice to say no made for a particularly brutal period in Greek history that’s still paying dividends.

While the German army was surprised by the Greek resistance (Adolf Hitler later commended the Greeks for putting up the best fight so far), the Germans eventually broke through the Greek front and ultimately established control over the rocky little country. Installing a puppet government in Athens, the Germans instituted a brutal regime of reprisal killings for extortion, and contributing to the loss of 10 percent of the population by the end of the war—the highest of any state in Europe.

In that sense, Metaxas’s defiant oxi was a Pyrrhic victory, a catastrophic election of principle over expediency whose consequences are still visible in Greek demands for German reparations, which still float to the surface from time to time. Furthermore, it was not the valiant attempt of a good-hearted philosopher-king to shield the embers of democracy from fascism. By most accounts, Metaxas himself was a fascist who admired Mussolini’s strong-man politics and who was also an aspirational führer who seized absolute power over Greece through maneuvers more commonly associated with Hitler himself.

Neither was the Greece he ruled at the time a haven of democracy. First of all it was a monarchy, and had been so (off and on) since its liberation a century earlier, when a Bavarian boy-king became the first head of the new Greek state. The monarchy had recently been restored, and in 1940 symbolically ruled through Metaxas over a crippled Greece still reeling from the loss of ancestral Hellenic territory in 1923.

By 1940, it had become a tiny synthetic nation swollen with Anatolian Greeks who spoke different dialects of Greek, and perhaps no Greek at all—far from the golden Hellenic homeland rhapsodized in the mythology of Oxi Day. What’s more is that he never even said oxi on that morning. Speaking in French, he tersely stated, “Well, we’ll have a war,” and it was only later that outraged citizens began chanting oxi in the streets.

Today, in other streets and other countries, under the essential Greekness that’s paraded on Oxi Day there is a complicated, contradictory identity constantly in a state of panic, an ongoing oxi volley between self and other. While these dynamics don’t do much in the way of distilling an original, essential Greekness, I do think there is something essential to Oxi Day.

It’s not so much an innate Hellenic spirit as it is the mutative mythmaking that’s made it possible for people of all kinds to be able to call themselves Greek across the millennia. The details of Oxi Day congeal into a myth that points to something more than memory or fact. By virtue of this power, myth might be the greatest legacy of the Greeks and the most productive of Greek ruses: it motivates the search for truths, essences, Platonic forms of things like Greekness.

Those searches bear material fruit in the form of art and cultural artifacts, like the complex literature of the Greek diaspora, some of whose writers wrestle in their stories with the myth of Greekness, working out an answer on the queer bodies of characters who identify as Greek differently from how they are supposed to. When confronted with the rubric of mythic Greekness, they respond firmly with oxi, opening up space in the sprawling field of Greekness for another new identity.

In doing so, they show how Greekness’s longevity never came from its essence, rather, from its porousness. This seems poignant, and perhaps emblematic: at the site of ancient Delphi, the omphalos, the “navel of the world,” a wall of oddly shaped polygons, interlocked without any mortar, had endured earthquakes and the erosion of centuries. Almost everything else has been crumbled or carted away to museums, where, for Greeks and non-Greeks alike, they signify the things we used to have, but don’t anymore.

Image Credit: Wikipeda