A Note About Italian American Literature From Our Contributing Editor
In 1974, a pioneer in the field, Rose Basile Green, presented the first extensive survey of the novels written by American writers of Italian descent in The Italian-American Novel. That same year Richard Gambino’s Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of Italian Americans explored the psychological impact of ethnic identity of America’s Italians. Gambino’s notion of creative ethnicity as an alternative to ethnic chauvinism laid the groundwork for criticism of myths created by and about Italian American culture. Along with anthologies such as Helen Barolini’s The Dream Book (1985), Ferdinando Alfonsi’s Dictionary of Italian-American Poets (1989) and Anthony J. Tamburri’s et al. From the Margin (1991), Gambino’s and Green’s studies have enabled a distinct cultural tradition to be identified and maintained.
Until recently, Italian American culture has not depended on a literary tradition for a sense of cultural survival. Steeped in oral tradition, Italian American culture is a rich amalgam of both cultures, and never set out to be a culturally visible identity. Most immigrants from Italy came to America with the idea of earning a livelihood and then returning to Italy. Simply, their goal was to do whatever was necessary to improve their lives in this new land. While the experience of this transition would become the basis for the creation of art, it was never intended by these artists that their work be received as Italian American. Rather, influenced by the literature encountered in schools, in libraries, and in bookstores, such writers saw themselves as American writers. Contemporary Italian American literature demonstrates a growing literary tradition through a variety of voices. Critical studies, reviews, the publication of anthologies, journals, and the creation of new presses are ample evidence that Italian American culture has gained understandings of its past as it develops a sense of a future.
In this column you will meet the major voices of contemporary Italian American culture who represent the development of a literary tradition and the advancement of a culture that epitomizes the evolution of ethnic identity in the United States.
Contributing Editor Fred Gardaphe is an Italian American writer, Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College/CUNY and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Associate Editor of Fra Noi, an Italian American monthly newspaper, editor of the Series in Italian American Studies of SUNY Press, and co-founding-co-editor of Voices in Italian Americana.
Among Mr. Gardaphe’s many writings (link to bio) is the following essay entitled, “Imported from Italy” —
He must be somebody’s grandfather, in a navy blue button down sweater, the same grey stubble on his head and cheeks. Why does he sit on a folding chair in a storefront window? He stares out the window, even as I walk into the store. So unaccustomed to customers as he must be, he just sits there, staring out the window, through his own reflection, into the street. Without a word he lets me walk around the store, but there is no browsing to be done. Only one part of the store brings anything to the eye. It is the emptiness that fills this man’s store.
Long, shiny, white enameled meat counters, empty. Their spotless windows reflect long rows of white wooden shelves, empty. As I walk on the creaking wooden floor I wonder what this store used to be. It’s so silent. I hear his raspy breathing, sounds like the leaves that are blowing along the littered sidewalks outside. I walk to the only shelf that holds any merchandise. Six gold cans of imported tuna in olive oil and four red cans of imported plum tomatoes. I pick up a can of tuna and the legs of the gold metal folding chair scrape the floor. I stand still as he approaches. I read the ingredients, all written in Italian.
He comes to me like a museum guard. I expect him to tell me not to touch things. So I return the can carefully next to the others before he arrives. I turn and for the first time I am able to see his face.
You have seen his face many times. Eyes all but sewed closed. The pupils are reflections in a watery brown pool. Eyebrows so thick that they cast shadows over the lines under his eyes. The white fluorescent light shines off his bald forehead so that when I look I blink. Only if I crouch a bit can we see eye to eye. He stares straight into my chest and I wonder if he might be blind, but then he stretches his hand to take the can that I was holding and lifts it into the space between us. The top of the gold tin mirrors the ceiling and I look into that reflection as he speaks.
“This a gooda tuna. Da best.” His chapped lips continue moving after he speaks, but no sounds emerge. I nod. He nods. I want to ask him what he is doing here in this store all but ten cans short of being completely empty. I want to know if he had promised someone, a wife, a partner, himself, to remain in the store until everything has been sold. I want to know why he hasn’t reordered stock, why he keeps the lights on, the door open and the store empty.
But all I ask is, “How much does it cost?”
He leans forward as though waiting for me to speak. I lean back, waiting for him to respond. Hasn’t he heard me? I ask him again, but this time in Italian.
“Quanto costa questo”?
He smiles and his face ripples in wrinkles that squeeze his eyes completely closed. He places both hands on the can, as though it was a missal pressed closed in prayer. He nods his head, as though I have just said something he agrees with.
Then we converse in phrases, in Italian.
“Where do you come from?” he asks.
“My grandparents come from Bari and Genova. I was born in Chicago.”
“Then why do you speak Italian?”
I don’t have a good answer. To keep the converation going I say, “Because I like to.”
He nods as he says, “Nobody speaks Italian anymore.”
“But what do you think they speak in Italy?”
“Italy is far away. I don’t know. Maybe now they speak German.”
We laugh. But there is a difference. His laughter causes tears to drip out of the tight corners of his eyes. Mine causes my eyes to widen. He makes no effort to remove the tears with the edge of his hand and I expected he would. Instead, the tear drops onto his now reddened cheeks, flows in between the greying stubble and splashes onto the top of the tuna can, distoring the reflection of the latticed ceiling. When the laughter stops he speaks in broken English.
“But why you speak Italian here? We are in America. There is reason no more to speak Italian.”
“Why not speak Italian?” I ask.
“Because there is no more Italian here.” His right hands leaves the can and waves over his head. “There is only ‘mericans. ‘Mericans doan need Italian no more. Is no good to speak the old tongue.”
I don’t want to argue with him. He already seems to be tiring. So I don’t respond. But he continues.
“Once ever’one want the things from Italy. Then ever’day my store she fills with the customers. My shelves they fill with the cans and ever’t’ing come from Italy. It was good days. My boys they work with they father. Cut the fresh meat, put on the scale, wrap in white paper.” He points to a full knife rack on the wall, a shiny white scale, and then to a roll of white butcher paper. “But is not that way no more. No. No. Nobody want the things from Italy no more.”
His head shook from side to side as he paused and looked around the empty store. And then, as though he had received a second wind, he resumed.
“I’m a tell you this store she use to be my Italy. Ever’ morn I open doors at six clock. Iffa close my eyes I can see Italy joosta from a smell. We have fresh basil, oh she smell so sweet. We have a rosamarie, anna all fresh spices, smell the place like was still growin in mountains. We gotta fresh cheeses: the provolone, the Gorgonzola, ricotta, an my son he grate the Romano and Parmesean right when the customer ask for it. They cheese so fresh you think they was a cow inna back alley. Ever’ day I make the fresh sausage and my wife make fresh bread an pasta. An what we no sell we eat that day.
“There, that shelf she was for the oil and above it we put the fresh vinegar that my brother make. They was inna green bottles.
“An over by the door they was barrels all fill with olives green and black that swim inna salt water. You jus’ dip you hands in an they taste like they do where I was born. An over the counters was a hanging the pepperoni, salami, the dry peppers and cheeses and when the door open oh you should see how they swing into each other from the breeze, make a soft sound, joosta like a music.”
As he spoke he stared at each spot until even I could see the emptiness fill with what he was describing. He walked over to the spot he was talking about and pick up an invisible box or can or bottle and describe it in great detail.
Then he would return it to the shelf, straighten out an invisible pile and move to another area. I followed him around the store until we returned to the front, to where the folding chair sat facing the window that reflected the empty store as it framed the autumn afternoon.
He sat down, sighed, and stared out into the street, the can of tuna was now in his lap. Silence. A long silence, as though he was empty of anything else to say. He just sat there, clutching that can of tuna, as though it was a hand full of cards, waiting for a game of solitaire to start.
I felt like a mannequin standing in that empty window, waiting for someone to carry me away. I stared at his reflection in the window. For some reason I didn’t want to say goodbye and at the same time I felt I had to leave. After I promised myself I would return someday I asked.
“Quanto costa quella scatola di tonno?”
He looked down to the can in his hands. He held it up to me. “You a good boy. And for you I give this.” As he held out the can, I dug into my pocket for some money. I held out a dollar.
“No, I no take a you money. Doanja know what is a gift? This for you. Remember I give you the best. Now you go have a good lunch, okay?”
I took the can, “Grazie. mille grazie, signore.”
“I’ll come back sometime. We can talk some more.”
He smiled and his eyes watered. He mumbled something that sounded like, “Everone move away. No one comes back.
But I stay. You have a good lunch, no?”
As I left the store he waved and when I walked past the window I gave him another look and a smile. He just stared out, as he was doing when I first walked by, as though I had never been there.
— “Imported from Italy” by Fred Gardaphe