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Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Inducts Harry Mark Petrakis
by Maria A. Karamitsos
On May 19, three local writers were welcomed posthumously into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF). After a several year hiatus, the event, which took place at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, celebrated their lives and work. Among them, the beloved Award-winning Greek-American Author Harry Mark Petrakis.
“The creation of great art does not happen automatically or easily and there are many places here in America and the rest of the world where it does not thrive. In Chicago, it does,” said Author and CLHOF Founding Executive Editor Don Evans. “For that reason, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame started inducting our greatest historical writers, our way of honoring the writers and work that so profoundly improved our lives and our city. It is our opinion that these authors left behind a body of work that continues to be a positive force and that also paved the way for future greatness.”
Evans also said that in honoring these writers, “we’re also honoring the great institutions, the readers, the artists, and the supporters, all who merge together to give Chicago—past, present, and future—a deserved reputation as one of the world’s best places to be a writer.”
The first class of writers, inducted into the CLHOF in 2010, included Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright. To date, 55 authors share the illustrious honor. Authors are considered by a panel of more than one hundred of Chicago’s finest literary minds. Evans shared that the writers selected all “lived lives and produced work of the highest caliber, important work that deserves to be read for generations to come”.
Chicago-based Author and Former Publisher/Editor of WindyCity Greek magazine Maria A. Karamitsos inducted Petrakis.
“As a writer, and as a Greek-American, it is an incredible honor to be here to talk about one of my literary heroes, the late Harry Mark Petrakis,” Karamitsos said. “It’s still strange to say late, as one of the greatest storytellers of our time left us just one year ago at the age of 97. The author of some 24 books left an indelible mark on the literary landscape, but more so on his readers. I’m a huge fan, and I’m proud to have known him.”
She spoke about Petrakis work, his influence, and more. “I always recall hearing, ‘Petrakis put us on the map’ and ‘He gave us a voice’. He gave us a loud, booming voice. His characters foreign, yet so familiar, helped to usher Greek-Americans from the shadows of the racial discrimination of the 1950s and 60s and into the mainstream. Yes, Greeks—and other Southern Europeans—endured discrimination, and worked tirelessly to be accepted into society, while still holding on to our culture and traditions. Petrakis’ stories could have been about any group. But in making them Greek, he showed the world that we were all the same—people in search of the American Dream.”
Karamitsos shared portions of the many interviews and conversations she had with the author, and how he encouraged her writing. “Petrakis believed wholeheartedly in writing what you know. He didn’t consider himself a ‘Greek writer’. He said, ‘I write about human beings and most happen to be Greek. They could be anything. I write about love, death, hatred—there’s no such thing as Greek sorrow or German joy, etc.—these are individual things to a character.”
He once told Karamitsos that he is part of every character he created. “This makes them all so real, so relatable,” she said. “His modern Greek tragedies gave voice to immigrant stories. His characters were multidimensional. Deeply flawed. His expressive prose powerful, moving—yet always accessible.”
Petrakis’ son, John, an associate adjunct professor in the Film, Video and New Media Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a former film critic, accepted the award on behalf of the family. “There have been so many lovely things written and said about my dad tonight, that I thought I would switch gears and talk just a bit about him as a father, grandfather, uncle, family patriarch, and lover of language,” he said, while images of his family graced the screen.
He shared memories, including a story about working with his father on a screen adaptation of his novel, GHOST OF THE SUN, a sequel to A DREAM OF KINGS. “I got an even closer look at my father’s love of words and story. Though the project never came to fruition, it was nonetheless a great joy to collaborate. Years later, we would jokingly describe the process thusly. I would write a scene and he would rewrite it, inserting a panoply of his large descriptive words. I would take them out, arguing that in screenwriting, you must allow the camera to do the heavy lifting. He would agree, and took out the large words, only to replace them in the next draft with a new slate of large descriptive words.”
Losing a father is never easy, especially one so much larger than life. “My father was a big presence in our lives, and he is sorely missed by our large family. As my older brother said of my father, he took up a lot of space wherever he went, and now that he is gone, a great void has formed. But luckily, we have our memories, and along with that, we have his writing.”
He closed with a reading from his all-time favorite Harry Mark Petrakis short story, “The Song of Rodanthe,” which was also one of his father’s favorites. Dean Petrakis, Harry’s youngest son, was also in attendance.
Era Bell Thompson, a memoirist and trailblazing journalist who worked for Negro Digest and Ebony, among other prominent publications; and Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Lisel Mueller were also inducted.
Full video of the event will be available soon. For more information about the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, visit chicagoliteraryhof.org