Irene Archos has been a public high school teacher in New York City, an instructor of writing at several colleges in Greece, Germany and the US, and a tutor of English on remote Cycladic islands.
Alongside her professional teaching career, she has kept a writing practice as a journalist, essayist and poet. She has written about everything from contemporary artists’ use of hair in their work to music pieces about the music scene in Madagascar to the Lebanese-Israeli war. Mostly she publishes on a site she founded called www.greekamericangirl.com soon to be relaunched as Hellinida.
“I found after working for the Hellenic media that the issues important for women, especially those in a dual culture were overlooked or not developed with seriousness. So I started publishing my own digital journal,” says Irene.
GCT recently spoke to Irene about being a Greek woman of the diaspora and her website, which has been embraced by American women & will soon be relaunched for Hellenic women all across the globe, touching on topics that affect them most.
Where were you born and where do you live now?
I am truly a daughter of the Greek diaspora as I was born in South Africa during the height of Apartheid, moved to Greece in my infancy, then moved to the States. I was raised in the Greek enclave of NYC Astoria and that is “home” for the most part. I came back to live in Greece for a spell after graduating college and then moved on to Heidelberg, K-Town, Germany then Barcelona, Spain, and most recently Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine where I completed a Masters in journalism.
What part of Greece are your ancestors from?
I am proud from both sides of my parents. My mother was born in Thisseio, in the Keramikos, the ancient cemetery where the nobility and heroes of Athens were buried. Her house and entire neighbourhood had to be razed in order to allow for excavations to happen for the ancient cemetery. On my father’s side I come from the party island IOS, baby! My family has deep roots there. It’s where I had the best summers of my youth. But I found out that I have Cretan roots through my grandmother whose family descends from the 12 Archotopoulia, one of the 12 noble families sent from Komeninos during the Byzantine era to organise Crete after the Arabs left.
Tell us the story of greekamericangirl.com? How and when did it come about?
The site came about because I felt there was no media outlet that I knew of to deal with the issues and accomplishments unique to women of bicultural Hellenic heritage. When I looked around me, I saw “Latina” “China Girl,” legitimate media outlets catering to women of specific ethnicities but none for women of Hellenic descent. I also felt that the issues of women were either glossed over, ignored, or dealt with in a patronising way. So I decided to start it in an effort to build community and give voice to the experience of Greek women who had the double load of dealing with the pressures of living in two worlds and being successful in both.
What have you learned about Greeks in the diaspora through your blog?
They are more alike than different. Despite the differences in ground, the Hellenic flame burns deeply in our hearts. I feel sometimes that the Greeks abroad are more Greek than those who have never left. There is something that happens to you when you undergo the immigrant experience. Your perspective changes. You can be global but very local at once, it is a paradox but this is what I have seen happen over and over. I have interviewed hundreds of women of Hellenic descent from Australia, UK, Greece, Sweden, the US of course, South Africa, but the similarities overwhelm the differences. They tend to be smart, hard-working, loyal, patriotic, success stories. But they don’t get enough credit for it. It’s about time a forum existed to celebrate the Greek woman in a public sense.
What issues do you think the third and fourth generation Greek women of the diaspora will be facing in 20 years? Do you think a lot of the pressures faced by Greek women now would’ve subsided by then?
I think the issues will remain the same, perhaps toned down in intensity. How much do you stay rooted to your ethnic identity without falling into provincialism, isolationism and self-aggrandisement? How much do you assimilate into the larger culture and the larger world in order to take a seat at the big table? When you become 3rd or 4th generation, you must work harder to educate the young about the values, the history, and language of your culture. This is going to take a lot of work.
Do you think the Greeks in Greece have an understanding of how tightly Greeks in the diaspora have clung to their identity, their language, culture?
No, absolutely not. It is very ironic, but in a way I feel the Greeks of the diaspora have to come back to Greece to light the flame of Hellenism. Of course, this is a giant exaggeration, because I meet native Greeks who exemplify all that is the best of Ellas on a daily basis. I am speaking in general terms. It makes no sense to me that when I get off the airport from NYC I have family members make the suggestion that we go for a coffee to Starbucks in the Golden Hall shopping mall. “Are you crazy! Trelathikate;” I yell at them. “I have come to escape the shopaholic corporate culture of the US. Why would I want to meet in the mall for a Starbucks coffee? Take me to a traditional quality kafenio in Plaka or Monastiraki, in a seaside village of the Peloponnesos such as Nafplio so I can sip the beautifully brewed “Elliniko.” The Greeks are their own worst enemy. I have written extensively on this–check out greekamericangirl.com/tag/national-sin-of-greece/.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a podcast called “An American in Athens” where I will recount anecdotes of daily living in Greece, funny and frustrating at the same time. I am also trying to make www.greekamericangirl.com transcend itself from a one-woman show to a movement. It will be relaunched as www.hellinida.org in the next couple of months. It will, I hope, gain more international following as it will broadcast the cause of the Hellenic Woman of the Diaspora across borders.
What inspires you?
Nature, art, creativity, poetry, people with ‘philotimo’.
Aside from your family which Greeks have influenced you?
I have to say Saint Filothei of Athens. I live just a short ride from the monastery dedicated to her honour. She is a role model because she was a reformer, a philanthropist, and a champion of women’s rights during the Ottoman occupation. She, like Greek women today, suffered the same pressures to marry. She was married to a nobleman at age 14 but she suffered physical and emotional abuse at his hands. She was the first woman to found a secondary school to train women in skills so they could be independent and not have to be taken advantage of. She became controversial in that she used her own money and charitable donations to buy back the freedom of women taken into Turkish harems, in other words, she worked to release sex slaves, still a huge issue in today’s world. She loved God and her country and exemplified the values of a true Hellinida.
What is one piece of ancestral advice you remember to this day?
My yiayia used to say, “To psari vromai apo to kefali.” The fish stinks from its head.
Do you feel like you have two πατριδες (nations)?
Absolutely, and this is both beautiful and agonising at the same time. I wrote an essay ‘Half Fish, Half Woman: the hybrid creature of the Greek American Identity’ greekamericangirl.com/half-fish-half-woman-the-hybrid-creature-of-the-greek-american-identity/ It summarises the conflict.
What is your favourite Greek food?
Anything with melitzana (eggplant) in it-mousaka, papoutsakia, gemista.