What started as a graduate school dissertation turned into a very personal project for Perry Rizopoulos.
Just a few years after graduating as Manhattan College’s valedictorian, Rizopoulos started to really think about the life the grandfather he was named for, Pericles Rizopoulos, and what life for him was like during World War II.
Rizopoulos now has something to show for that exploration of the past, with his memoir, “Wheat Songs: A Greek-American Journey.” He recently returned home to his alma mater to share what Rizopolous describes as a hard look at “immigrant family values, family memories, how we interact within generations, and my relationship to my Italian, Greek and American heritage.”
Writing the book required Rizopoulos to spend a lot of time with his grandfather, listening to his stories from those darker times. But then again, such conversations between grandfather and grandson were not exactly uncommon — sitting before Pericles for storytime was something that’s always been a part of Rizopoulos’ life.
“It was doing something that I had been doing since I was a kid, and it had this additional sense of purpose,” he said. “I was recording and taking notes. He thought this really needed to be shared with others. I was very blessed to have a relationship with him, and it was rewarding to spend time with him (while) learning about my self and my ethnic identity.”
And while there’s been many years between the war and now, Pericles was more than willing to do his part.
During the Nazi occupation of Greece, Pericles and his brother were captured and sent to a military camp. “Wheat Songs” not only tells the tale of their escape, but also explores his family’s migration from Greece to the Bronx. And it’s an interesting story, because escaping from the Nazi camp was just the beginning of their troubles. Not long after, Pericles found himself caught up in a Greek civil war that pit factions loyal to the United States and United Kingdom against communists.
The war lasted a little over three years, but tens of thousands were killed, while more than a million people were temporarily displaced because of the fighting.
That particular war tends to get overshadowed by World War II, but not in Rizopoulos’ novel, which started as a thesis project where he thought back to a time or memory when his grandparents educated him. Rizopoulos could think of a number of examples, especially with how close he was to his grandfather growing up.
“I relate to him as a role model and friend,” he said. “It gave us a real purpose.
“Drive and work is a big theme in the book, and it’s a big thing in my family and our family values. This was kind of our last work together, working through history and getting this book done together.”
Pericles died in 2016 before the novel was finished. However, he did get a chance to at least hold his own early edition before his passing. Rizopolous gave it to him as a Christmas present.
During those final years, Pericles fought illness and fatigue, yet he kept moving forward with his grandson’s project. Rizopoulos didn’t dare suggest stopping the work, he said. That would have offended him.
“Although he was physically deteriorating, this book conveys the kind of drive this man had,” Rizopoulos said. “We were aware that he was passing on, and there was a profound sense of awareness that things were going to end soon. It was more like he kind of had a feeling that I knew what was up. It was a way that we spent time together.”
The conversations between Pericles and his grandson seemed endless, highlighting the importance of family. Now that the book is out, Rizopoulos is making sure the whole family gets a copy — including those relatives still in Greece.
“I hope I can add value to all the people I had a chance to speak with about the book,” Rizopoulous said. “I want to give back in a way that shows I’m grateful that I was even able to go to grad school, which is a luxury in itself.”
Today Rizopoulos teaches philosophy courses at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, St. John’s University and Manhattan College while pursuing his doctoral studies at Columbia University. Between his Columbia professors and his grandfather, learning never stopped for Rizopoulos.
Pericles may be gone, but not in the memories of his family or the 220 pages of his grandson’s novel.
“We’re connected in that way,” Rizopoulos said, “and the main connection that I have are in the ways he taught me.
“I learned a lot about him as a person. We had a separate purpose together and it became our project.”