Tribute to Constance Callinicos: American Aphrodite
On this last day of Women’s History month, it is with deep feeling that I mark the passing of a legend: Constance Callinicos. She was the author of a ground-breaking book, American Aphrodite, who put Greek American women on the American map. She was the first to document interviews with women of bicultural identity in America and relate the complexities of what it is like to grow up female in America. This is an interview I published about her more than a decade ago, but many of her insights still hold. Unfortunately, her passing happened more than two years ago without much fanfare. But
What is it like to be a Greek woman assimilating to American culture? Think your experience is unique? Then read Constance Callinicos’ classic text American Aphrodite and you will see your experience, your concerns, your struggle echoed in the lives of thousands of Greek American women all over the States. The book serves as an invaluable tool for understanding the Greek American woman’s experience from more than one angle: the personal, the sociological, the psychological and the historical. It is a must-read for anyone interested in “white minorities” in the US as well as the evolution of feminism from within a minority culture adapting and adopting to a dominant one. It is an honor for us at greekamericangirl.com to have had an interview with the renowned author, feminist and historian of the book.
In case you are not familiar with her, Constance Callinicos, a longtime feminist and activist for women’s rights, has in American Aphrodite concentrated her activism and writing on the subject of becoming female among Greeks in America. She is currently researching a companion volume on Greek-American men (working title Hermes In Ameriki ), with an emphasis on assimilation into mainstream American culture, the process of becoming white in an alien culture, among many transformations the changing of one’s family name, a key component of one’s identity.
Ms Callinicos is also a musician trained in opera and concert presentation. She sings in seven languages. From her teen years she has served as Music Director of various Greek Orthodox churches in the United States, most recently a ten-year Byzantine musical journey at St Sophia Cathedral of Los Angeles, California.
Here is a snipet of what she shared with our readers:
What prompted you to write the book? What is the book about?
American Aphrodite is an overview of the private lives of Greek-American women of the first three generations, from the mail-order “picture brides” to their granddaughters, the third generation.
Documenting their lives in 111 taped interviews and over 300 conversations with women from Greek-American communities throughout the United States, the book describes life as lived in an oppressive patriarchal culture.
The author weaves into the fabric of these stories her own life story and her impressions of Greek-American culture as she lived it, a struggle for independence and control over her own life.
Why did you write this book?
The book started out as research for a novel. I had been involved in the women’s movement for years and had done extensive reading on the lives and histories of women of other cultures and from other places and experiences, had been profoundly influenced and changed by getting in touch with “our” history. But I had seen very little – in fact almost nothing – depicting the experience I had lived and known in Greek America.
I spent many hours in libraries and book shops, expecting to find titles about Greek women, at least one title, for heaven’s sake, in the light of the mass of new writing spawned by the women’s movement. I found nothing. I read plenty about Greek men, books authored by men, in which “history” was defined as Greek men’s history. Theodore Saloutos, archon of Greek American historians, included a passing reference to having to accompany his mother who spoke no English to buy shoes and other household needs like groceries. Otherwise, nothing about the lives of Greek American women.
So I decided I had to do the work myself. I hit the road and started interviewing women from Greek communities all over the U.S., north, south, southwest, northwest, northeast. Very soon I realized that truth was better than fiction, and so was born the format of American Aphrodite, a story told in the women’s own words, interwoven with my own.
How has the Greek-American Women’s Experience changed/stayed the same since you wrote your book?
I can only judge by the experiences of my daughters and their cousins, and from what I read and experience as I travel the country to visit friends and relatives. Of course the 3rd and 4th generation has advanced light years beyond the struggles of the 1st and 2nd generations, a college degree and a professional degree and a profession of any kind being not just a possibility, but an expectation of the younger generation of women. Freedom to choose a life, to choose a mate, to establish a family of your own no matter what or how is definitely a reality for the young Greek-American woman.
What I’m seeing in the response to this book by younger women (not just Greek American) is that it has moved into the realm of “classic” and has become important as a teaching tool, a valuable historical document, rather than the painful first reading of so many who shed tears at the exposure of their own lives. Women’s studies programs are an ideal milieu for the book. I am currently pursuing inclusion of the book in these departments.
What advice would you give to the next generation of Greek American women?
I would give the same advice to them as I gave to my daughters when they were growing up: ask yourself the question “What do I want?” and the answer should not be what you think your parents want or your friends want, or your boyfriend wants or your brothers. “What do I want?” is the only question any young woman should ask herself. Then when she has given serious thought to her wishes and dreams and decided what it is she wants, she should pursue it. Make a plan, execute the plan. Ask for your parents’ blessing. But not for their approval, if they will not approve of you as you really are and see yourself. Is it a hard road for some? Yes. For others, not so hard. But you don’t want to wake up on the morning of your 60th birthday and realize that you had dreams and ambitions when you were 20, but decided not to pursue them and have regrets.
And don’t forget hard work. Realizing your ambitions doesn’t always come easy. Ask your grandfathers and grandmothers about hard work in the pursuit of a goal and a better life. They’ll tell you all about it — and so will my book.
Get a copy of the classic to read and share with your friends at Amazon. Mention you heard about it through our site and you can get a signed autographed copy. Better yet, let’s have an online book discussion!
How has your experience of being Greek changed from your mother’s and grandmother’s time. Do you identify with your “Greekness” anymore? Have you been embarrassed to be an ethnic minority? Have you been proud?
For more reflection on this topic, read “Giagia and Me: An Ice Age of Difference”