Greek Heritage Is Front and Center in Apollo Papafrangou’s New Book
The Oakland native lets his Greekness shine through his newest book, Wings of Wax, that examines a father-son relationship.
Photo by Ariel Nava
Oaklander Apollo Papafrangou learned at a young age that he had the ability to tell a good story, to draw in the wide-eyed reader. He made an early splash with Concrete Candy, a short story collection published by Anchor Books, with French and Danish editions, when he was just 15 years old. HBO Films optioned the movie rights to his novel The Fence, and his latest, Wings of Wax, was released in March by Booktrope Editions.
An Oakland native raised in Rockridge, Papafrangou, 35, lives in the family home now. “It was a working-class neighborhood when I was growing up,” he recalls. His family was active in the Greek community; his great-grandfather once owned a candy store in West Oakland; his grandparents were artists, and his mother is a painter, smoothing his way toward an artistic path. Papafrangou attributes his passion for storytelling to being raised in a Greek-American household, where the epics of his ancestors were combined with contemporary family lore.
“Family is a big theme—father and son. The father has a larger-than-life personality, charismatic in that kind of classic Greek way. There’s a streak in there that’s pretty close to my own life,” Papafrangou says about Wings of Wax. “I wanted to join the ranks of the writers exploring that terrain in all its vastness—your Greekness comes before all other identifiers,” he says, offering such examples as Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie. Those authors both write about the ethnic experience, he says. “But their stories resonate far beyond their audience.”
Papafrangou attended local schools and completed his MFA in creative writing at Mills College, where he worked on Wings of Wax extensively. His family attended church at Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Oakland. His father is Greek, and his mother is a first-generation Greek-American, making Papafrangou both a first- and second-generation American, and giving him a narrative framework for his tale. Papafrangou’s fiction has appeared in Quiet Lightning, the Simon & Schuster anthology Trapped, and Voices, a collection of works by Greek writers published by Nine Muses Press, among other publications.
In Wings of Wax, protagonist Angelo Koutouvalis is known for his near-flawless sketches, yet he can’t seem to render the picture-perfect life he desires. Angelo believes the secret to gaining fulfillment lies in traveling to Greece for a reunion with his estranged father, who can hopefully pass on the mysterious ways of the kamaki—the classic Mediterranean ladies’ man. But first, Angelo must find a way to overcome his crippling fear of flying. The novel’s title, of course, refers to the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and his wings, held together by wax, melted; Icarus plummeted to his death.
“I liken the character to someone who holds himself really tightly, then opens his wings. Ascending, opening yourself to things you desire, to other people, to community,” he says. The story is a coming-of-age tale, in which Papafrangou’s hometown features. “Oakland is definitely a character in itself.”