Local author draws on family ties, poetry, to tell story of American immigrants

Call Me Athena: Girl from Detroit, a newly released novel written in verse, is the acclaimed work of local author Colby Cedar Smith. Cedar Smith, who teaches creative writing at the Arts Council of Princeton, distinctly captures one young woman’s strife for independence, equality, and identity as she navigates 1930’s Detroit as the American-born daughter of Greek and French immigrants. The novel, serving as a testament to life throughout the years of the Great Depression, both artistically and historically depicts love, loss, and the tension between children and their immigrant parents.

Mary, the novel’s protagonist, is loosely based upon Smith’s paternal grandmother, Mary Skandalaris. Familial connection to the story runs even deeper than a shared namesake, as Smith’s great-grandfather was a stowaway on a boat from Greece who ultimately earned citizenship by fighting in WWI and her great-grandmother was a novice nun in France who ran away with an American soldier to begin a new life in America. 

Cedar Smith’s years of personal and historical research, along with travels to Greece, France, and Detroit, were compiled to create a path stretching back to the early 1930’s that would shape the characters of the popular novel in verse. 

“This research was fueled by my desire to understand how my great-grandparents had survived the hardships of war, displacement, loss of loved ones, debilitating poverty, and grief,” Cedar Smith remarked recently, “all while forging a new future in a new land.” 

Although compelling familial research fueled much of the novel’s historical content, Smith largely attributes her inspiration for the Call Me Athena to her grandmother Mary, whose personal stories of the Great Depression captivated her family and friends with humor and intellect. Following a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s, Mary passed, leaving her stories to continue being shared by others as she once loved to do. Honoring the words of poet Patricia Smith who says “Poetry can’t cure grief, but it understands”, Cedar Smith recorded the stories that she grew up listening to her grandmother tell as both a means of working through her own grief, as well as sharing the powerful experiences of her grandmother in a manner that has enthralled readers near and far.

Call Me Athena is far from just a young adult novel. The themes of identity, freedom, equality, feminism, and hope present within the novel have the capacity to resonate with readers of all ages, making it the ideal read for parents and children. At 575 pages long, the novel is nowhere near the draining read that one may expect from a piece of its length, using poetry to enhance emotions, beauty, and tragedy within the story’s already exciting plot. The novel in verse also offers an accessible read that can be snuck into the few moments of free time that many of us are lucky to even have these days.

“I find novels in verse to be a bit of a relief” Cedar Smith notes, “you can pick it up, digest it in bite-sized chunks, and yet feel like you have experienced the depth and breadth of an entire novel in several hours. Honestly, it’s a pretty miraculous form.”

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