[Nancy Caronia is finishing her PhD on contemporary, transnational literatures at the University of Rhode Island, where she’s also a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric and the Assistant Director of the Writing Center. Her first book, which she discusses in this post, is due out next year. She’s very active in the American Studies, Native American Studies, and Italian American Studies communities. And she’s even published on Springsteen!]
Whenever I tell anyone I’m of Irish and Italian ancestry, I usually qualify the Italian by stating, “actually, I’m Sicilian, not Italian.” Their reactions range from an eye-roll to wide-eyed wonderment. Some even venture to say, “so, you have Mafia in your family? I better not cross you. You might have me killed.” Others simply want to know how I make my sauce. Facts, of course, do not matter when thinking about Italian Americans and their contributions to the American Diaspora—Don Corleone, Tony Soprano, and a good red sauce (or gravy, all depending on from where your ancestors were located) win every time. Still, it’s important to recognize that Italian Americans contributions to the American landscape are more diverse and complicated than one-dimensional references to the Mafia and spaghetti sauce.
In literature, Mario Puzo and Don DeLillo are familiar names, and American Studies courses will often include one or the other (although these courses will more likely include Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic version of Puzo’s The Godfather); however, there are many Italian American writers who are thriving and writing radical texts today. These IA writers deserve not only public attention, but also to be taught in American Studies classrooms alongside canonical and alternative canon texts. Since I’ve just finished co-editing with Edvige Giunta Personal Effects: Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo (Fordham 2015), I’ve been thinking about and reading memoir. DeSalvo, who began her career as a Woolf scholar (she wrote Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work ), turned towards memoir in the 1990s and inspired an entire generation of Italian American women writers with her groundbreaking work, Vertigo (1995), about growing up second generation Italian American in New Jersey. Since then she has written no less than seven books of memoir and essay, including Adultery (1997), Breathless (1999), and Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (2000). This fall, she has two books being released: The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity (St. Martin’s Griffin 2014), which was inspired by her blog “Writingalife,” and Casting Off (Bordighera Press 2014), a novel about two white ethnic women who engage in extramarital liaisons and don’t suffer for it. The Harvester Press in the UK published Casting Off in 1987, but it never found a publisher in the US—until now. Bordighera Press, dedicated to publishing Italian American and Italian literature since 1989, decided it was long past time that Casting Off was published in the US. I was asked to write the introduction for Casting Off and I’ve contextualized it alongside other novels written in the 1980s. It’s an important contribution to radical second wave feminist concerns about female sexuality and, as such, erases the male gaze.
This past semester, I taught DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing alongside a diverse bunch of memoirs, including Annie Lanzilotto’s L is for Lion: An Italian Bronx Butch Freedom Memoir (2013) and Domenica Ruta’s With or Without You (2013). My creative non-fiction students unabashedly embraced these memoirs, and were thrilled when Lanzilotto, whose memoir was a finalist in this year’s Lambda Literary Awards, visited our class. (Read my review of her visit here.) These memoirs are not sentimental, romantic portrayals of food and family. The love in these memoirs often hurts, but the protagonists are strong women who emerge with more than a few scars and a lot of life experience. They are also terrific storytellers who create complicated tales of second and third generation immigrant life in the US.
I’m looking forward to reading Criz Mazza’s Something Wrong with Her (Jaded Ibis 2014). It examines the origins of her anorgasmia and seems like it will be another searing and complex portrayal from her about contemporary life. Mazza has written or edited more than 17 books, and coined the term Chick Lit in 1995 with her co-editor Jeffrey DeShell for the volume Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction (FC2 1995). The title was chosen sardonically, and in 2006 Mazza published “Who’s Laughing Now? A Short History of Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre” detailing how the phrase has gone from “point[ing] out [the] delusion” that “men write about what’s important; women write about what’s important to women” to the way in which, in its second incarnation, the term was “stripped” of all its “irony.”
I could easily see any of these memoirs being taught in a survey course on class or being used in a gender and women’s section on female sexuality. Additionally, these memoirs would offer a nice contrast to memoirs like Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb (I taught this with Lanzilotto and Ruta) or Richard Hoffman’s newest memoir Love & Fury (Beacon 2014), but I think both Lanzilotto’s and Ruta’s memoirs would be terrific on a syllabus that includes fiction like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Penguin 2007), Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (Penguin 2010), or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (Knopf 2013).
I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention Diane di Prima, who turned 80 this week. She has a new book of poetry coming out with City Lights, The Poetry Deal. Buy it and support the most under-appreciated poet of the beat generation. When I first read this line from “Rant,” THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. She felt radical, she was a woman, and she was Italian American. Like DeSalvo, Italian American women writers have a lot for which to thank her.
I’d like to quickly crowd source some important recent scholarly contributions to the fields of Italian American literature and culture. Anthony Julian Tamburri, the Dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute and one of the field’s foremost scholars and champions, has written Re-reading Italian Americana: Specificities and Generalities on Literature and Criticism (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 2014). The book addresses the contemporary state of Italian American literary studies, but also examines early twentieth century Italian American writers such as Pietro di Donato. Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880 to 1943, is now available in paperbook from Fordham University Press. First gathered and edited by Francesco Duarte, this new American Edition, edited by Robert Viscusi with translation edior Anthony Julian Tamburri and bibliographic editor James J. Perriconi, offers up a multi-genre volume of poetry, journalism, history, memoir, biography, and drama of writings by Italian immigrants, many who wrote in Italian. This volume offers a larger context for understanding how Italians made the transition to American life and what it meant to come to the United States. I think it is quite an achievement and contextualizes IA culture in a more expansive and inclusive manner. Co-editors Edvige Giunta and Joseph Sciorra have done an amazing job of gathering the academic essays, stories, poems, and visual art that make up Embroidered Stories: Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora. The collection examines needlework through a transnational perspective. Editor Simone Cinotto compiled a diverse range of essays for Making Italian America: Consumer Culture and the Production of Ethnic Identities, released in April by Fordham. The focus is on immigrants and their children and how they’ve adapted to US culture through consumptive practices. The Calandra Institute resurrected the peer-reviewed journal Italian American Review three years ago and you can read all the book, film, and digital media reviews for free here.
If you are interested in knowing more about Italian American studies, there are two organizations and conferences that I would recommend. The Italian American Studies Association is an inclusive organization that regularly brings together scholars, writers, and artists. The seed for the DeSalvo book was sown at an IASA conference in New Haven when I casually turned to Edvige Giunta and said, “we need to do a panel next year on Louise DeSalvo.” She turned to me and said, “okay. Then we can do the book.” This year’s conference will be held in Toronto from October 17 – 19. The CFP is closed, but information about the conference and the association can be found here.
The John D. Calandra Institute, located within New York’s CUNY, is one of the most important spaces for discussions about Italian Diaspora. Each year they have a lively conference that brings together scholars from many different disciplines. Next year’s conference will be held on April 24 and 25, 2015 and its theme, “Bambini, Ragazzi, Giovani: Children and Youth in Italy and the Italian Diaspora,” will bring scholars from around the globe. The CFP is up and abstracts are due September 12, 2014.
[Next series starts Monday,
BenPS. What do you think? American voices you’d highlight?]
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