The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame inducts Harry Mark Petrakis
CHICAGO — Three local writers were posthumously inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF) on May 19. After a hiatus, the event returned in person to the Poetry Foundation in Chicago to celebrate the life and works of the beloved, award-winning Greek. -American author Harry Mark Petrakis, pioneering memoirist and journalist Era Bell Thompson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller.
“Creating great art does not happen automatically or easily and there are many places here in America and around the world where it does not thrive. In Chicago, it does,” said CLHOF founding author and editor Don Evans. “For this reason, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame has begun inducting our greatest historical writers, our way of honoring the writers and work that have so profoundly improved our lives and our city. We believe these authors left behind a body of work that continues to be a positive force and also paved the way for future greatness.
Evans also said that in honoring these writers, “we are also honoring the great institutions, readers, artists and supporters, all of whom coalesce to give Chicago – past, present and future – a deserved reputation as one of best places in the world to be a writer.
The first class of writers, inducted into 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 100 of Chicago’s finest literary minds. Evans shared that the writers selected all “lives lived and produced work of the highest caliber, important work worth reading for generations to come.”
Chicago-based author and former publisher/editor of Greek magazine WindyCity, Maria A. Karamitsos, inducted Petrakis.
“As a writer and as a Greek-American, it’s 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, because one of the greatest storytellers of our time left us just a year ago at the age of 97. The author of some 24 books has indelibly marked the literary landscape, but even more, readers. I’m a big fan and I’m proud to have known him.
She spoke about Petrakis’ work, his influence, and more: “I always remember hearing ‘Petrakis put us on the map’ and ‘he gave us a voice.’ He gave us a strong, booming voice. Its alien, yet so familiar, characters helped lift Greek-Americans out of the shadows of racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s and into the mainstream. Yes, the Greeks – and other Southern Europeans – endured discrimination and worked tirelessly to be accepted in society, while retaining our culture and traditions. Petrakis’ stories could have been about any group. But by making them Greek, he showed the world that we were all the same, people looking for the American dream.
Karamitsos shared parts of the many interviews and conversations she had with the author, and how he encouraged her to write. She continued, “Petrakis believed wholeheartedly in writing what you know. He did not consider himself a “Greek writer”. He said: “I write about human beings and most of them are Greek. They could be anything. I write about love, death, hate – there’s no Greek grief or German joy etc, these are individual things for a character.
He once told Karamitsos that he was part of every character he created. “It 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 powerful, moving, but always accessible expressive prose.
Petrakis’ son, John, an associate assistant professor in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Film, Video, and New Media department and a former film critic, accepted the award on behalf of the family.
“There were so many great things written and said about my dad tonight, that I thought I’d switch gears and talk a bit about him as a father, grandfather, uncle, patriarch of the family and language lover,” he said. while pictures of his family adorned the screen.
He shared memories, including a story of working with his father on a screen adaptation of his novel, Ghost of the Sun, a sequel to A Dream of Kings: “I took a closer look at love of my father for words and stories. Although the project never saw the light of day, it was nevertheless a great joy to collaborate. Years later, we jokingly described the process like this. I would write a scene and he would rewrite it, inserting a panoply of his descriptive swear words. I would withdraw them, arguing that in screenwriting you have to allow the camera to do the heavy lifting. He agreed and removed the big words, to replace them in the next draft with a new list of big descriptive words.
Losing a father is never easy, especially one so larger than life. Petrakis said: “My dad was a big presence in our lives and he is sorely missed by our big family. As my older brother said of my father, he took up a lot of space wherever he went, and now that he’s gone, a big void has formed. But luckily, we have our memories, and with that, we have his writing.
He ended with a reading of his all-time favorite short story, Harry Mark Petrakis, The Song of Rodanthe, which was also a favorite of his father. Dean Petrakis, Harry’s youngest son, was also present.
The full video of the event will be available soon. For more information about the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, visit https://chicagoliteraryhof.org/.