The immigrant experience is something nearly everyone in the United States has experienced either themselves, firsthand, or through their family members and ancestors, for those with a few generations of hyphenated American-ness under their belts. The stories we like to hear are the success stories, rags to riches, highlighting the ingenuity and impressive rise of the individual, making it in the United States against all odds.
For some, however, the journey was not as easy. The traumas experienced, living through wars, occupation, having to flee your home as a refugee, arrived along with the immigrants, like the bags they carried on that transatlantic crossing. The transition could be difficult and there are probably many more stories we do not hear, especially in the Greek community, about those who did not “make it” in America, or who eventually did but had to face challenges in life most would rather not discuss. Those unheard voices are often the most fascinating and have the most to teach us as a community and simply as human beings.
Out of the Bronx: A Memoir by Irene Sardanis is a powerful look at how she emerged from a difficult, to say the least, situation at home to inspire readers with her story of transcending her fears and building a new life on her own terms.
Now a retired psychologist, Sardanis was born in the Bronx, NY to Greek immigrant parents. Her mother had come to New York for an arranged marriage. Her father drank, gambled, went out with other women, and then abandoned the family when Irene was just 11 years old. Faced with their mother’s violent outbursts in the wake of this betrayal, Irene’s older siblings found a way out, but Irene was trapped, hostage to her mother’s rage and despair. When she finally escaped her mother as a young adult, she married a neighbor, also Greek, who controlled and dominated her just like her mother always had.
With therapy, Sardanis eventually found the courage to leave her husband and pursue her own dreams. Out of the Bronx is a powerful, emotional recounting of Sardanis’ journey, and the unvarnished truth of her experience which is at once so familiar and yet so uniquely her own is moving. Finding her voice, coming to terms with the mother and past that terrified and paralyzed her for many years, Sardanis offers hope for those still struggling with unresolved issues in their lives. “I survived to write my story. You can, too,” she writes in the introduction to the book.
The opening chapter recounts her experience at a Greek festival so vividly, you feel as though you are beside her as she orders traditional Greek foods and pastries from the yiayia behind the counter. Sardanis then flashes back to share her family background, and how her parents, her mother from Lesvos and father from Arcadia, found themselves in an arranged marriage in New York.
Of visiting Greece for the first time, Sardanis said in an interview shared with The National Herald, “My first trip to Greece was an odyssey. I was in Europe for the first time. After meeting an uncle from France, he convinced me to visit my mother’s village. At the Athens airport, hearing the language I’d heard from birth, I finally embraced my Greek-ness…I met up with my father who retired there in the 60s. He brought me around to all the relatives. I went to my mother’s village and met my aunt and cousins. I’d never felt so welcomed and loved like that. The Greeks really know how to welcome a stranger.”
When asked about the most surprising thing she learned through writing the book, Sardanis said, “I never believed I could forgive my mother. The biggest surprise was that when I wrote in her voice and learned about her painful life, I found compassion and sorrow for her misery. I forgave her.”
Out of the Bronx: A Memoir by Irene Sardanis, published by She Writes Press, is available online.