As a group of right-wing Greek colonels were plotting to seize power and control of Athens and the rest of Greece, Athens slept, unaware of the changes that were soon to come. The night was April 21, 1967 and it began what has come to be known as “The Regime of the Colonels” or in Greece, “the Junta.”
Local author Natalie Bakopoulos debuts novel
Tomorrow, 7 p.m.
Michigan native and recipient of a 2010 O. Henry Award, a Hopwood Award and Platsis Prize for Work in the Greek Legacy, Natalie Bakopoulos grew up listening to the melody and music of Greek culture. Holding an MFA in Fiction from the University, Bakopoulos travels through the precarious and often unpredictable world of occupied Greece in her debut novel “The Green Shore.”
“The idea of Greece was always there,” Bakopoulos said. “Even if I wasn’t speaking Greek as a child, I heard it when my father spoke, and I was aware of the ideas and music … and of parts of the Greek culture very acutely.”
Bakopoulos said she strayed from her passion for writing early on. Despite her love for literature, Bakopolous graduated with an undergraduate science degree and set out to work in a research lab.
“I wanted to be a writer long before I admitted (it) to myself.” Bakopolous said. “When I found myself working in a lab, instead of reading journals like ‘Cell’ or ‘Nature’ I would always have The New Yorker or a literary journal, and I kept thinking, ‘it’s nice to be interested in literature,’ but mine moved beyond just an interest in reading.”
It was only after a year of sitting in on a multitude of literature and writing classes that Bakopolous admitted to herself that the science track was not for her. Despite the belated start on her writing career, Bakopolous said some of the best advice she’d received was from a University professor who spoke about never fearing the timing of things.
“Charles Baxter said in a Hopwood Talk that ‘art is not a sack race’, ‘literature is not a sack race,’ and not everyone comes to something at the same time,” she said. “I think I always felt behind, like everyone is already publishing and everyone has their MFAs and everyone is ‘in the business,’ so to speak.”
Determined not to let her late arrival to the writing world hold her back, Bakopolous started writing what she knew, recounting old stories and discovering forgotten histories. This love for Greek culture propelled Bakopoulos to write “The Green Shore,” and it wasn’t until she began researching the country’s rich history that she began to understand the difficult position the coup d’état had left Greece in.
“It was the idea that Greece had a military dictatorship during a time where the rest of the world was really moving ahead,” Bakopoulos said of her interest in the time period. “Greece was completely stunted by this coup when it could have been entering the modern era.”
The trapped environment of occupied Greece provided an entangled backdrop for the characters in the novel. Based loosely on her father’s family, “The Green Shore” follows the story of four characters living in Athens at the time: Sophie, a willful girl with a penchant for activism thanks to her left-leaning boyfriend, Nick; Anna, Sophie’s sister, who falls desperately in young love with an older, married man; Eleni, their widowed mother, who tries to scramble together the pieces of her family, and Sophie and Anna’s uncle Mihalis, a poet who must lay low due to his outspoken nature.
“The way the characters feel trapped makes for a great story,” Bakopoulos said. “And what better way to trap them than in a dictatorship.”
Bakopoulos also noted that some characters have more of a real-life model than others.
“Mihalis was inspired by my father’s uncle who was a poet named Mihalis Katsaros, and he’s a poet who is known in most circles of that generation,” Bakopoulos said. “Even if people were not literary, they’d know him as the crazy poet in the middle of the square.”
The compilation of fictional characters in a historical setting allowed Bakopoulos to delve into an intricate narrative while having a general story arc to follow. Bakopoulos stressed the importance of the storytelling above the history lesson the book holds.
“I want my readers to be moved and to feel differently when they’re finished reading than they felt when they started,” Bakopoulos said. “If they learn something about Greek history along the way that’s fantastic, but that’s not necessarily my agenda; I wanted to create a moving narrative that was interesting and complicated.”
Taken as an excerpt from Kostas Karyotakis’s poem “Sleep,” the Green Shore symbolizes the need for something lost, a missing person, place or sentiment. Encompassing the horrific history of Athens in the late ’60s and the fragile lives of a family, “The Green Shore” provides a glimpse into the psyche of characters cornered and a nation besieged.
“In many ways each character is longing for something they’ve lost, whether that’s home or a love or a different lifestyle, but they’re all longing for that green shore,” Bakopoulos said. “It’s going back to a place that exists in your memory.”