The Italian-American Writers Experience

“Where are the Italian American novelists?”

This article, by Fred Gardaphe, appears on L’Italo-Americano.

The Italian-American Writers Experience

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.”

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…Read more at L’Italo-Americano

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