NEW YORK – Author Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos spoke with The National Herald about his books, Wheat Songs, a memoir, and 100 Conversations You Need to Have, a series which currently includes three volumes of thought-provoking questions and corresponding answers from some of history’s greatest philosophers.
Wheat Songs is an especially moving book as it recounts the Greek and Italian-American experience through Rizopoulos’ unique perspective. He told TNH that the inspiration for the book began with a question from his professor on the first day of class in graduate school, “What have you learned from your grandparents?” which triggered a memory for the then-21-year-old of his pappou, Pericles Rizopoulos, talking to him when he was 11 about World War II and the Greek Civil War. The young Rizopoulos soon was knocking on his grandparents’ door to learn more of the story.
His grandfather, originally from Kastoria, lived through WWII, the Occupation, and the Civil War and the harrowing experience was captured in vivid detail by his brother who kept a journal. Rizopoulos, who does not speak Greek, sat with his grandfather while he shared stories from that traumatic time period and read the journal, translating it for his grandson who recorded the details of what began as Perry’s master’s thesis, an ethnography on the Civil War. The oral history provided by his pappou and yiayia, who was present throughout the process, added layers to the story and what eventually became Wheat Songs.
Rizopoulos told TNH he was “always captivated” by his grandfather’s stories and his willingness to share the personal experience of those harsh times, the starvation, and the destruction of war. The book offers a brief history of Greece, illuminated through the family stories shared.
What emerges from the book is the profound bond between Rizopoulos and his grandparents on both the Greek and Italian sides of the family. He noted that it is a Bronx narrative, Inwood specifically, as much as it is a Greek and Italian narrative. Astoria also figures into the story. The importance of place and its influence on identity, as it crosses time and space, highlights the connection between community and memory in the book. The immigrant experience shared by so many is also central to the book.
Rizopoulos told TNH that his grandfather came to the United States with nothing and worked his way up, like so many other immigrants, with hard work and the love of family so central to Italians and Greeks in the Bronx, and so many immigrants everywhere. The strong work ethic meant he didn’t see much of his father until he started helping out in the family’s pizzeria. Days would begin at 4 AM, but Rizopoulos learned early on the value of hard work. He said, “I consider myself fortunate to have grown up that way.”
The tight-knit family sharing meals together and passing down history and values, including philotimo, from generation to generation, make the story very personal but also relatable to anyone.
He added that his Greek grandfather and his Italian grandfather, Giuseppe, who also served in WWII and went blind at the age of 50, were really great friends, they would hang out together and talk on the phone every day. The book clearly demonstrates how the time spent with his grandparents shaped Rizopoulos’ life and character profoundly and will hopefully inspire others to truly appreciate their elders and what they lived through, and perhaps record the family history while their grandparents are still with them.
Rizopoulos’ 100 Conversations You Need to Have: A Philosophy Guide to Daily Growth is a trilogy with 100 questions and answers in each book. He told TNH, “It is modeled after the Socratic dialogue method as each page has a question on one side with lines for reader responses below and a short statement from a philosopher on the other side of the page with more lines for a response. The first volume is a collection of philosophy from across the world and various time periods. The second volume is from the Stoics and the third is all Chinese philosophy.”
Rizopoulos currently teaches philosophy courses at the College of Mt. Saint Vincent, Manhattan College, and St. John’s University, and is pursuing his doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Wheat Songs and 100 Conversations You Need to Have are available online.