Telling My Father’s Story

Arthur Alimonos in NYC, 1952

One day my father called me at work to tell me about Bill Clinton’s new autobiography. “He made 10 million dollars!” he told me. “You see, that’s what people want to read, true stories!” For decades, my father has harped on me about how people don’t want “fake” stories. In his mind, only nonfiction has any value. This attitude is shared by most old Greek people I know. Despite the fact that Homer was the first fantasist and that the word fantasia is a Greek word meaning “imagination,” modern age Greeks seem to have outgrown imagination, as if the country itself has turned into the grumpy senior citizen of the world. As for how lucrative a business fantasy fiction can be, my father apparently never heard of Harry Potter or Star Wars. But Bill Clinton he knows, since—for as long as I’ve known him—he only watches the news. Bringing up Clinton’s autobiography was his way of bringing up his own life story; the only part of my writing ambition that ever interested him was that I might someday relate his life to the world. I can’t count the number of times he’s started a sentence with, “When I came to this country . . .”

From what my parents have told me, my father’s life would make a pretty amazing story. As a young boy, he watched as the Nazis invaded his country. His five brothers were imprisoned by the Germans for being part of the Greek rebellion, but they each somehow escaped execution. Years later, he came to America as a penniless teenager, and after much hard work became a quite well-to-do restaurateur. He lost the love of his life, an American woman, due to his strict adherence to Greek tradition.

I have never been opposed to writing the biography of Arthur Alimonos. My only problem is that I have little experience writing nonfiction. I imagine the basics of story-telling are the same: you need scenes and summaries, a conflict and engaging characters. But I realize that, despite my father’s amazing life, it is not so unlike the lives of so many who fought in World War II or of other emigrants who landed on Ellis Island in extreme poverty. It is not enough to simply write a series of events. The book must have a central theme. Even a less than spectacular life, like that of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, can make for a brilliant story if handled properly. But the story I want to tell may not be what he wants. My telling may not be as flattering as he hopes it to be; he imagines his life a great success story, but a simple success story doesn’t make for good fiction or nonfiction in and of itself. If anything else, a biography needs to be honest; it needs to portray Arthur Alimonos for the man he truly was, with all the complexity that goes with being human, with every fault and foible.

To make it work, the story of Arthur Alimonos must also be my story, because I have never truly known the man. I am planning to record hours of interviews with him, and in this way, take my own journey into discovering my father. His book will be the story of my telling his story. In the end, I hope to create a portrayal that people will find relatable, sympathetic, maybe even inspiring. I hope to endear my father to the world, to immortalize him as he wishes to be immortalized.

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