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Utah writer draws on rich heritage

Published: Sunday, Feb. 20 2000 12:00 a.m. MST

"I originally intended to be a doctor," said Helen Zeese Papanikolas, during an interview with the Deseret News in her Salt Lake home. "So, I studied bacteriology. In those days, we didn't have aptitude tests, or I would have known better."

Papanikolas' parents were Greek immigrants. In 1917, they moved from Idaho to a Carbon County mining camp called Cameron, adjacent to Castle Gate, to open a coffee house for hundreds of unmarried Greek miners.After she was born, three months later, the family moved to Helper, where Papanikolas grew up in a multi-ethnic community. She remembers several languages being spoken in her backyard, including an original American dialect. The mothers hung clothes on wash lines stretched between two wooden poles and splashed buckets of disinfectants down privies.

Life was also less than ideal at "the squat brick school house," where Greek and American cultures clashed. After American school was over, she and other Greek students went to Greek school, for which they were taunted by the other students. School was held in an old butcher shop in "Greek Town." Recalcitrant school boys were sometimes hung by their bib overalls on a meat hook jutting from the wall.

The Zeese family finally moved to Salt Lake City, where Papanikolas' father opened one grocery store, then another, until he had 11. Eventually, Papanikolas graduated from the University of Utah. One day, in 1950, the director of the Utah Historical Society asked her to write about Greeks for the Utah Historical Quarterly. Although she had never written history, she started studying old newspapers and interviewing old-timers. "I'm glad I did, because they began dying afterwards."

The result was "The Greeks of Carbon County," an article that started a lifetime of writing about her Greek heritage. Later, Papanikolas edited a book focusing on all ethnic groups, "The Peoples of Utah"; she wrote a series of short stories and she wrote the biography of her parents, recently re-issued by the University of Nebraska Press, as "The Greek Odyssey in the American West."

When Papanikolas went to Greece for the first time in 1958, she discovered how truly American she is. "Coming back on the plane, approaching New York, it was such a joy to know I was coming back to my country. Utah's my home. I couldn't live anywhere else. Sometimes, I get annoyed when I hear legislators say stupid things, but I'm sure legislators say stupid things everywhere.

"Our early days in Helper were difficult, but we had wonderful Greek community life. When we moved to Salt Lake in 1932, we knew everybody. There were not that many Greeks. After World War II, many more came and they brought a different culture. There were women then who didn't know how to make baklava."

In her youth, Papanikolas said, "Greeks weren't even considered white. When a person says a Greek or an Italian is not white, that shows ignorance." She also remembers being mocked by other children for eating spaghetti. "Now spaghetti is a national dish here."

It was the code of honor emanating from ancient Greece, called "felotimo," that got her and other immigrants through their trials. "They brought this culture with them -- their poetry and songs that were composed during the 400 years under the Turks. They're so beautiful and lyrical -- even the mourning songs about death."

Papanikolas' new novel, "The Time of the Little Blackbird," just published by Swallow Press in Ohio, is based on death as the symbol of Greek folklore. "One of my nephews said, 'I didn't want to see Mary, one of the characters, die,' and my husband, Nick, said, 'I didn't talk to Helen for four days!' which was a huge exaggeration.

"The novel's theme is universal, about Greek families in business together. Immigrant families didn't have enough money, and so to give themselves strength, they got their savings together from the mines and slaughterhouses and established a business."

This novel is about "an immigrant generation, 28 percent illiterate, working-class people. This story is a common immigrant experience. Almost every Greek family I know had a family business.

"My husband let me use three incidents from his childhood, which were commonplace. Anyone, for instance, could punish a Greek child. An uncle, anybody, an older person. That was the way you raised children -- everybody got involved."

Papanikolas believes writing about one's ancestry elucidated her own understanding. "It brings a lot of your views together. Those years became clear, and so much of the anger and annoyance of the older generation has dissipated, because you see so clearly how the culture dominated their lives and affected their children."

She added that "the historians are appalled at me for writing fiction, and the fiction writers could never take me seriously, because I was writing history."

Writing "The Peoples of Utah," she said, "was a wonderful experience, because as the editor, I felt obligated to know the cultures of these programs. I did massive reading. I stayed up til 2 a.m. almost every night. Maybe that's what happened to my vision."

It's a virtual certainty that Papanikolas will continue to write in spite of recent eye surgery. "I'm compulsive, so I'll work again."

Her forthcoming book manuscript is to be called "An Amulet of Greek Earth," because when young men came here, their mothers often put a bit of Greek earth, a piece of the holy book and a splinter of the true cross in a piece of cloth and sewed it together and pinned it inside their son's shirt. If the son died in this land they called 'exile,' the priest would have that pinch of earth to sprinkle inside his coffin."

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