An Interview with Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos, author of Wheat Songs: A Greek-American Journey
Wheat Songs is a memoir of two interconnected Greek-American journeys—an actual physical journey for the grandfather, Pericles Rizopoulos, and a philosophical quest by the author, Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos. When the grandfather, Pericles Rizopoulos, a proud old man, tells his fascinating, tragic and true stories of the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II and the following Greek Civil War, to his twenty-something grandson, Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos, Perry’s philosophical reflections on his grandfather’s stories along with his own memories of growing up in his extended Greek/Italian/American family in the Bronx combine to create an enduring story about the strength created by a tightly-knit family and the powerful values passed down from generation to generation.
Academic Studies Press: The narration of Wheat Songs switches between your voice and your grandfather's voice, capturing both the way he dictated his stories and experiences to you and your experience of listening to these stories. What made you decide to write the book this way?
Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos: The project began as an ethnography that was gathered from an oral history with my pappou, Pericles and a journal kept by his brother during many of the events, Panayoitis. This project was my Master’s Degree thesis that focused on the narrative of the two brothers and their survival of the Nazi occupation of Greece during WWII and the Greek Civil War. After examining the piece and reflecting on how important the process itself was, I decided to include more of my voice and speak about my family and our life in New York.
I hope to welcome readers into the spaces that my pappou and I shared. I felt as though the discussion had to include the people and the places that we both knew and loved. Some elements of this story speak about our lives in the Bronx, our work in Inwood and my own reflections on our family and work.
ASP: What ultimately drove you to write Wheat Songs?
PGR: The initial inspiration came from sharing the story with my class on my first day of graduate school in response to Dr. Hope Leichter’s question, “How have your grandparents educated you?” That short retelling quickly turned into working on my Master’s Degree thesis. Upon only having a short discussion with my pappou and yiayia, the story took hold of us and we all knew it was something I had to work on and share. The stories were so powerful and the love and respect that we all shared became the driving force of the work. Also, I feel as though the themes of the book are incredibly relevant in today’s world and many of them speak to what I believe are universal values and ideas including love, faith, survival, family and memory.
ASP: Can you explain the origin of the title Wheat Songs?
PGR: The title Wheat Songs came from my great-grandmother Ourania’s habit of singing with my pappou and his brothers while they would work in the fields. The kids would get tired and to lift their spirits and encourage them to carry on, my great grandmother would sing old Greek songs with them. The idea of her songs is a recurring occurrence in the book whenever my pappou’s spirit is lifted or when he needs to lift it himself. The songs are a source of happiness and strength for him.
ASP: How has your involvement with the Holocaust, Genocide & Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College and the Elbenwood Center for the Study of the Family as Educator at Columbia University influenced the way you understand your grandfather's story?
PGR: I have truly been inspired by the work of both institutions. I have been very fortunate to have Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, the Director of the HGIC and Dr. Hope Leichter, the Director of the Elbenwood Center, as mentors and friends. Both have played pivotal roles in bringing this piece to life through guiding me in my research process and providing me with questions that have been the impetus for starting the work and elaborating on historical and personal elements of the book. The conversations I’ve had with both Dr. Afridi and Dr. Leichter and their guidance have been absolutely instrumental. I hope that this book can contribute to the already excellent work that both centers do in promoting dialogue and vigilance through educating people about history and the processes of memory.
ASP: What did you learn from your conversations with your grandfather? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
PGR: I learned a great deal about Greek history. Much of what is described in the book in terms of Greek history was not provided to me in any formal educational setting. I was absolutely surprised to learn about the degree of destruction that was brought to Greece during WWII and then by the Greek Civil War. Also, this work was truly the last thing that my pappou and I worked on together, and I was always surprised by his resilience and positivity. His refusal to accept his physical deterioration and will to keep sharing his story was inspiring beyond what I could have imagined.
Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos currently teaches philosophy courses at the College of Mt. Saint Vincent, Manhattan College, and St. John's University. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Columbia University's Teachers College.