Gail Holst-Warhaft is the author of the new book The Fall of Athens. Her other books include Dangerous Voices and The Cue for Passion. She is a poet and has been a journalist, broadcaster, academic, musician, and translator. She is an adjunct professor at Cornell University, and she lives in Ithaca, New York.
Q: How did you first get interested in Greek culture, and how did this book come about?
A: It was completely accidental! I’d done an arts degree and I thought I was going to Italy. I got off the ship [in Greece] from Australia, I was 21—I thought this was the way to get a cheap ticket to Europe. I got off the boat and fell in love with Greece.
It was an instant love affair and it hasn’t worn off. It was the way people engaged with you and the music—the combination of the people, the music, the warmth of the people was overwhelming to me. It became my life’s work.
Q: And the book?
A: I had written books about Greek music, and began translating modern Greek literature…A turning point in my relationship with Greece was after I decided this was the place for me, there was a coup in 1967. It seemed unbelievable. It was like being in a B-grade movie.
The dictatorship lasted seven years. It was very brutal…I decided to leave Greece and involve myself in the anti-dictatorship movement…I became a journalist, and I could play the harpsichord, which is a rarity in Greece, and the fact that I was a journalist helped me get into that [Greek musical] society again after the dictatorship fell in 1974.
Years went by, and I published bits of this, I wrote academic books, I married an academic and came to America, and I became a poet. Poetry was the most important thing in my life. I was writing about the sad state of Greece—it was disastrous for artists I knew—and my publisher [was interested in my biographical sketches].
Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Greece?
A: There’s the most incredible ignorance about what happened in Greece during [World War II]. The German occupation of Greece was brutal…Ninety percent of Greek Jews were killed…
There was a brutal civil war after that. [What followed] was dependent on what happened in the civil war. The people on the left and the right—the wounds were not healed even today. One of the misperceptions is how much Greece suffered.
The state of the economy, the American press covered well, but [when it comes to how it affects people]—they’ve always known how to handle good times…I don’t think people can see the underlying anxiety of people now.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I did want to make a parallel with antiquity. I have paired poems about the present situation or the 4th century B.C. and later. The idea of the fall of Greece, Rome, great civilizations in my mind—to try and link to antiquity and recognize [the time when] Greek civilization flowered.
When we talk about classicism, there was a short period of 50 years when Athens was at its apex, followed by a pretty tragic period. I wanted to point that out in the case of Greece now and Greece then.
Q: How much has changed since you first started spending time in Greece, and what do you see looking ahead?
A: The most interesting thing to me—during the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, I saw them as decades of relative peace and prosperity for Greece. The music and poetry seemed to go a bit downhill during that period. Western music was being heard, there was a lot of tourism and consumer goods in the country.
And then this crisis now has a long history—in 2008, 2009, people began to talk to me about hardship. But it has produced poetry and music. Friends say there’s a lot going on informally now. I think in some ways Greece thrives on hardship, and can turn it into something beautiful.
[Looking ahead], what worries me is my friends remember the end of the civil war. They remember the hardship and hunger, they know how to deal with it, to live carefully.
Their children in their 30s and 40s, with children of their own, are unable to deal with this very well. A lot of them have been forced to move back in with their parents.
There’s a lot of that, and I don’t think it will be solved in the next decade. It will take longer. Greece should have got out of the Euro some time ago but now it’s very difficult to do so. [The country] produces very little and is dependent on tourism. It’s a fragile economy.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a little book about Greek island music. I wrote about the blues of Greece in the 1970s—it has become world music. At that stage, it was looked down on as low-class, from refugees from Asia Minor. I got very interested in the music, and spent time with the musicians.
It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the beauty of the songs of the Aegean, the Eastern side of Greece. It appeared to be very jolly, and then I realized how terrible and desperate life was as sponge divers, fishermen—life is dependent on the sea. As we’ve seen with the tragedies of the refugees, it can be very dangerous.
There are songs about keeping on the good side of the sea. I’m interested in the mismatch—the lovely blue sea of the Greek islands and what life is like for the people who wrote these songs.
And I’m working on some poems.
Some people said I should write a sequel [to this book], "The Fall of America." I think a lot of writers—Ithaca is top-heavy with writers—people are…asking, what can we do. Ithaca is an official asylum for refugee writers. I work with that group.
I think of the Australian tide of immigration—it’s impossible to imagine what would have happened to Australia or America without, yet both countries are trying to keep them away. Greek immigrants here form…communities here in many cities. They have seen the plight of refugees and realize life is not as secure as everybody [might think].
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of the things I think the book makes clear is though ancient Greece was a long time ago, ancient Greece and modern Greece have many things in common, the most important being language.
Modern Greece [continues] the development of a language—they are proud of their heritage, and are rethinking the ancient works of literature. I was involved as a musician in two productions of Aristophanes—they use ancient [literature to explore] modern [times].
For Greeks, ancient Greek literature is their big resource—they use it in a creative way. They feel as if they are on the same landscape where great myths and legends took place. They feel continuity in their country.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb