Whatever I have learned about Italian American literature was on my own; no teacher suggested I read what I have read, and what I have learned has saved my life in many ways.
In Mario Puzo’s novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), I found my widowed mother, who raised four children by herself, to be very much like the protagonist, Lucia Santa, who “makes the family organism stand strong against the blows of time: the growth of children, the death of parents, and all changes of worldly circumstance. She lives through five years in an instant, and behind her trail the great shadowy memories that are life’s real substance and the spirit’s strength.”
In Pietro di Donato’s masterpiece, Christ in concrete (1939), I heard my hod-carrier grandfather through Geremio’s dreaming aloud while he worked on a construction site: “Laugh, laugh all of you...but I tell you that all my kids must be boys so that they someday will be big American builders. And then I’ll help them to put the gold away in the basements.... But am I not a man, to feed my own with these hands? Ah, but day will end and no boss in the world can then rob me the joy of my home!”
Through John Fante’s novels and short stories, I came to see, not only my grandparents, but the way their children might have seen them, as through his story, “The Odyssey of a Wop”--“I pick up little bits of information about my grandfather. My grandmother tells me of him. She tells me that when he lived he was a good fellow whose goodness evoked not admiration but pity. He was known as a good little Wop.” And later on, because of Fante, I understood why my mother used to say, “I’m a dago, you’re a wop; I eat spaghetti, you eat slop.” “From the beginning,” writes Fante,” I hear my mother use the words Wop and Dago with such vigor as to denote violent distaste. She spits them out. They leap from her lips. To her, they contain the essence of poverty, squalor, filth.”
John Fante, one of America's greatest early 20th century novelists
I eat up every Fante’s work I can find. He becomes my Hemingway. Just as Puzo became my Norman Mailer, and di Donato, my James Farrell. All of a sudden, American literature is not something descendant from the Pilgrims. I make sense of the drama inside the Catholic Church and understand the sturdy pagan underpinnings of my family’s fears of the “Evil Eye” and defiance of literate authorities. These writers transformed my grandparents’ broken English from signs of stupidity and sources of embarrassment into beautiful music that I begin recreating in my stories. And when I do, I hear them, as though for the first time; their resurrections keep me sane.
It seemed everywhere I turned I found another Italian-American writer. I began scouring used bookstores. That’s where I meet Umbertina (1987), a fine first novel by Helen Barolini—the first I had read by an Italian-American woman. Barolini’s writing gave words to my grandmothers’ silences: “She had won, but who could she tell the story to?...She had seven living children and twenty-seven grandchildren, but to none of them could she really speak.” Through Barolini’s epic novel, I learned of my culture from a woman’s point of view, a perspective I had never known either because I had never bothered to listen, or because of the silence I had never realized was imposed on the Italian-American women.
While I began to see the relationships between these writers and those others who I had once believed were the real American writers: the Hawthornes, the Poes, and the Whitmans, I wondered if there was a connection between the Italian-American writers and Italian literature. While there were some writers, like Ignazio Silone, who gave me insight into the conditions under which Italians immigrated to America, and Dante and Machiavelli, who revealed the roots of public behavioral codes such as bella figura, the maintenance of a public mask so as not to reveal any weaknesses to outsiders.
I found the connections to the literatures through my study of the oral traditions evidenced by folktales, such as those collected by Italo Calvino, and also proverbs. I realized that so much of the literature created by the early Italian-American writers was the oral culture in writing. This led me to realize that Italian-American literature, the child of Italian and American cultures, had been abandoned by both its parents, making it an orphan of sorts, or at least giving it the sense of being an illegitimate offspring, that would have to fend for itself in the world’s cultural arena.
I followed the careers of Tony Ardizzone and Jay Parini, neither of whom saw themselves as Italian-American writers. But when I reached the older writers, such as Joseph Papaleo, Rocco Fumento, and Ben Morreale, I heard something different. Morreale felt that he had never been recognized as an Italian-American writer because the Italian-American community had no way of seeing the need for its writers, at least not the same way the Jewish or African/American communities did. He spoke of the anger he felt when the mafia imagery overshadowed all the efforts of American artists of Italian descent. This anger, perhaps, could be traced to the negative attitudes that kept the Italian American writers from wanting to identify themselves with their ethnicity.
Breaking away from the stereotypes might have been easier had these artists been supported by their own paesani (countrymen), but for writers like Mario Puzo, gaining fame and fortune through fiction had been a way of making it, of getting beyond the constraints placed on the immigrant generation. It was a personal and individual struggle that once rewarded, required no paybacks. And because success came in spite, and not because of, community support, there would be no sense of duty to return support to the community. This would explain the position of a Gilbert Sorrentino, or a Don DeLillo, both of whom I had never considered Italian-American writers, because they rarely touched on subjects peculiar to the Italian American experience.
When Gay Talese raised the question, “Where are the Italian American novelists?” on the front page of the March 14, 1993 New York Times Book Review, I believed that he might be bringing, for the first time, national attention to the possibilities that there might be a literary tradition that is distinctly Italian American.
However, hindered by his lack of familiarity with the vast body of literature created by American writers of Italian descent, Talese reduced the experience of Italian/American writers to his own, and offered a number of explanations which sound plausible, but which, in reality, do not reflect my belief that you are what you read. Since he had not read Italian American writers, he could only ask the question.
This power of literature to create identity and community has taken a long time for Italian Americans to realize. Louise De Salvo, the winner of the first Gay Talese literary prize, a $10,000 award presented by UNICO, has written in her memoir: “It is as simple as this, reading and writing about what I have read have saved my life;” those words could be mine, for not only has reading kept me from becoming a gangster, but it has made me a professor who realizes that if reading can save a life, then it must be true that literature can save a culture.