Boston Review
CURRENT ISSUE
table of contents
FEATURES
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
poetry
fiction
film
archives
ABOUT US
masthead
mission
rave reviews
contests
writers’ guidelines
internships
advertising
SERVICES
bookstore locator
literary links
subscribe
RSS feed

Search bostonreview.net
Search the Web
Google


 

Buona Sera, Social Clubs?

Alane Salierno Mason

Don’t Tell Mama: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing
Edited by Regina Barreca
Penguin Books, $16 (paper)

The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture
Edited by Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta
The Feminist Press, $16.95 (paper)

The Italian American Reader
Edited by Bill Tonelli
William Morrow, $27.95 (cloth)

8 Editing a literary anthology is like forming a social club—you get to decide who are “your” kind of people. Italian Americans have long been fond of social clubs, on a scale ranging from regional affiliations (like the Society of Citizens of Pozzuolo on my old street in Brooklyn), to mutual-aid and business-networking societies (like the one my grandfather belonged to as a young ornamental plasterer in the 1920s), to such national organizations as the Knights of Columbus, the Order Sons of Italy in America, and the National Italian American Foundation. So it should be no surprise that like almost every other group in America in our age of identity and branding, they have taken to anthologies to call attention to their presence on the literary scene.

Three collections of Italian American writing have been published in just the past year: Regina Barreca’s Don’t Tell Mama, Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta’s The Milk of Almonds, and Bill Tonelli’s The Italian American Reader. But they are not the first: in 1985 Helen Barolini compiled a collection of Italian American women’s writings called The Dream Book that won an American Book Award before dropping out of print, to be reissued only after a boom in Irish-American writing seemed to herald a revival of “white ethnic” pride. In 1997 the head of the National Italian American Foundation, A. Kenneth Ciongoli, teamed up with writer/scholar Jay Parini to compile Beyond the Godfather, an eclectic mix of academic essays and memoirs meant to respond to Mafioso stereotyping and to an infamous front-page New York Times Book Review essay by Gay Talese that lamented the absence of Italian-American names in the club of American writers of note.

Beyond the Godfather sketched out an as-yet-uncharted territory—emotional, aesthetic, and political. But the politics were a bit unstable: Ciongoli urged Americans to reclaim the philosophical heritage of ancient Rome, which he saw embodied in Italian American values. He did not mention that prior efforts to reclaim that heritage had provided the symbolic strategy for movements as diverse as the French Revolution and Mussolini’s Fascism, nor that ethnic pride can be a very mixed bag (the anthology appeared in the wake of the Bosnian wars). But Parini asked the right general questions: “Was I, in fact, a member of some category called ‘Italian American,’ and did this have any bearing on my work as a writer?” and had the wit and political sense to leave them unresolved, for “[h]eritage is something mysterious and should perhaps remain so.”

*  *  *

There is nothing mysterious, however, about uses of heritage as levers of politics. At the height of Italian immigration, people whose “Italian” identity was meaningless—compared to regional identities such as Tuscan or Sicilian—became Italian partly by exclusion: the Irish controlled Tammany Hall and other Democratic Party machines and, worse, the Catholic churches, where they made Italians worship in the basement. It was understood that “the Anglo-Saxons” (as George Panetta, a wonderful mid-century New York writer included in the Tonelli and Barreca anthologies, called them) controlled Wall Street, the elite universities, advertising, publishing and the media, and the social clubs that separated old money from new, blue blood from red. The sense of ethnic exclusion, and the need to band together in response to it, haunts Italian Americans to this day. How else to explain the impulse to count stamps, as reported by the Summer 2003 issue of the magazine of the Order of the Sons of Italy? “ITALIAN AMERICANS PASSED OVER BY POSTAL SERVICE: Since 1869, the U.S. Postal Service has honored only 15 Italian Americans with postage stamps compared to 150 African Americans, 36 Jewish Americans and 14 Hispanic Americans.” Such bean-counting comparisons reach absurdity; and yet, at the other extreme, it seems grossly unfair that when Maria Laurino’s smart, funny book on ethnic identity, Were You Always an Italian?, came out in 2000, an editor at the New York Times Book Review was heard to dismiss it by saying, “Italian Americans aren’t a real minority”—this, at the height of multiculturalism.

If the editor simply meant to imply that “they don’t suffer enough to be a real minority,” he may have had a point (so long as he was willing to say the same thing about the Irish). Despite the fact that Italian Americans (like the Irish) were once considered an inferior “race” to the Anglo-Saxons, they and other white ethnic groups benefited enormously from the New Deal and its infusion of funds into government programs that largely excluded Blacks. By the 1950s Italian Americans were well-integrated into a rapidly rising national average, according to Michael Barone in Beyond the Godfather. For the vast number of families who’d arrived just before or after World War I, this was a huge leap from poverty to prosperity in one generation.

If Italian Americans have lagged behind in cultural status, perhaps it is because they have preferred practical to symbolic gains. Helen Barolini, in an essay featured in Don’t Tell Mama, argues that it is the degree to which Italian Americans have imbibed American materialism that has hindered their cultural progress. She compares the social and cultural impact of Black leaders with the “meager idols” of Italian Americans—Sinatra, DiMaggio, Perry Como—whose pictures adorn the walls of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and comments: “What do the ‘famous’ Italian Americans stand for? Money and celebrity status. Not much uplift there, not much for the soul of an alienated and ambivalent people to feed on.” Thus, unlike dozens of commentators, including Gay Talese, who have blamed presumed Italian-American backwardness on the ancestral remnants of a proud but insular peasant culture, Barolini refreshingly claims that Italian Americans have suffered spiritually for becoming too American. If they then enjoy material success but lack cultural “respect,” they have only themselves to blame.

Southern Italians (like the Spanish and the Arabs with whom they share cultural roots) do tend to take “respect” and social honor seriously, and when they hold up the banner of their ethnicity they’re generally seeking not power or income, but respect. The anti-defamation arm of the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) is called the Commission for Social Justice. Devoted to fighting ethnic slurs and stereotyping by the entertainment, advertising, and news industries, it cites polls showing that 78 percent of American teenagers associate Italian Americans with either criminal activities or blue-collar work, and that 74 percent of adult Americans believe most Italian Americans have some connection to organized crime. In reality, the U.S. Justice Department estimates that only .0025 percent of our Italian American population of 26 million is involved in organized crime, while the Census Bureau reports that two-thirds of Italian Americans now work in white-collar jobs. Commentators from John Patrick Shanley in Time and Jack Newfield in the New York Post have written of the nation’s fifth largest ethnic group as “the last ethnic group America can comfortably mock” and prejudice against them as “the most tolerated intolerance.”

Thus, to a large degree these new Italian American literature anthologies are “social justice” projects. Contemporary American literature at its best, however, destabilizes such communal efforts: “the vocation of an artist bears little resemblance to the task of cheerleader,” Regina Barreca writes in her introduction to Don’t Tell Mama, and Reader editor Bill Tonelli clearly feels the same way. The tension between the individualism of a writer’s life and the communal spirit of an ethnic anthology puts these editors in an interesting position.

Tonelli goes at the problem with an overwhelmingly good-natured, hipster-voiced introduction that tries to have it both ways, asserting some generalities about Italian American character but arguing forcefully that no such generalities characterize the members of his club or their work. Pointing out that a long list of Italian American names in popular music have “nothing apparent in common aside from that ultimate vowel,” he argues that the “path of American ethnic assimilation” is to “hang together awhile for protection and sustenance, then, once the weather breaks and the natives warm up, light out for the open road and do your own thing.”

With its commandingly cool aesthetic, sleek as a glossy magazine, The Italian American Reader cleans up its Italians and shows them in the khakis, buttondowns, and loafers they in fact often wear nowadays, but rarely lets them show any chest hair or do anything embarrassing to American sensibilities, like weep, or embrace, or walk holding the backs of each others’ belts as they still do in Brooklyn. In the interest of avoiding the “minstrel show” of stereotypes, Tonelli eschews typically Italian tropes—to the point that many pieces would seem essentially unchanged if the Italian names and a handful of ethnic details were removed. The “ultimate vowel” as sufficient marker also allows him to include at least one distinguished writer, (presumably Richard Russo), who at first rejected Tonelli’s invitation, for “this particular writer has always despised the idea of hyphenated citizenship . . . and feels actively insulted by the Italian American label. Perfect, I replied—this book needs that kind of bad attitude.”

Tonelli writes that he decided to choose the “best” writing rather than works “intent on telling anyone what it was like to be Italian American. . . . If ancestry counts for anything meaningful, I figured, then it must count no matter what a writer writes.” That’s an oddly essentialist comment. A writer’s Italian-Americanness must bleed through in everything he or she writes? How so? Not in style or sensibility, the diversity of these writers demonstrates perfectly well. In some creepy biological or metaphysical sense? Let’s assume Tonelli was well-intentioned and didn’t really mean anything by it but was just trying to justify his own preferences, as we all do. He wanted an Italian American anthology that says simply “we’re here and we’re just as individual and just as good as anyone else”—not one that tries to say anything in particular about the Italian American experience. That’s fair enough. A bit defensive, a bit outdated, a bit dull, it seems to me now—without the angst, what’s interesting about being an ethnic?—but fair enough. Other ethnic anthologies have done much the same thing.

Yet with its Huck Finn–like optimism about “lighting out for the territories” and going it alone, The Italian American Reader is pervaded by celebration of the great American individualist myth—even when its selected authors are the same as those in the other large-scale anthology, Don’t Tell Mama. Tonelli’s anthology and Barreca’s overlap by about a third, but even where these editors choose the same writer, they tend to select different pieces of writing. In Tonelli’s selection the authors have strong individual voices, yet with few exceptions their ethnic or communal identity is oddly unproblematic, causing little pain or inner conflict. The emphasis is on the macho side, in pieces characterized by direct prose and muscular narrative rather than reflection and lyricism (or pedantry and sentimentality, as Tonelli might reply). The Old World with its demanding system of values is a sometimes intrusive, unpleasant, or awkward presence, but it doesn’t deeply challenge American identity or beliefs.

If we assume that a writer’s ancestry does not in fact count for anything meaningful—except as it shapes affinities and experiences, and thus choices of subject matter—then Regina Barreca’s choices in Don’t Tell Mama generally make more sense. Barreca’s background as a writer and editor of humor books (as well as a professor of English literature and feminist theory) makes her anthology less self-serious in tone, funnier, and also darker than The Italian American Reader. She is less concerned, too, with avoiding “typically” Italian material, so her choices allow readers more possibilities of moments of recognition or self-discovery. The doors of her social club are thrown wide open to include Beats, comedians, scholars, and feminists (and in general, many more women, quite a few of whom are also included in the DeSalvo/Giunta and Barolini anthologies); more older writers, therefore more scenes from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s; and more meditative, meaning-seeking pieces, as well as more than one piece by the same writer. Despite some eccentric edits and an alphabetical organization which seems a cop-out (Tonelli’s is organized by theme, not an ideal solution either), Barreca’s free-for-all is a rich, exotic brew, while the Reader, despite Tonelli’s best intentions to host a rowdy party, is stuck with a WASP-ier atmosphere, like cocktails at the University Club.

Still, from The Reader one would never want to miss Michael Martone’s surreal “Ten Little Italies of Indiana.” Or “Mildred, Is it Fun to Be a Cripple?”, Robert Orsi’s powerfully moving and disturbing essay on the Catholic idealization of suffering. Or George Panetta’s “Suit . . .,” about two Italian Americans in advertising, one of whom buys a suit that he thinks is tan or grey but is actually white—thereby eliciting the joyful disdain of all the “Anglo-Saxons” in the office. (Panetta, whose works are mostly out of print, was a great discovery of both anthologies for me.) Likewise, in Barreca’s collection I’d hate to have overlooked the piece by Flavia Alaya from Under the Rose: A Confession, both powerful and bittersweet, an intense intermingling of Alaya’s story of a lonely and regretful abortion at 40 and her imperious, evasive father’s final confession that he had had an illegitimate son he abandoned. John Fante appears in both books, but Tonelli chooses a more typically writerly piece about the difficulty of writing for money, while Barreca alights on Fante’s strange and magnificent “Hail Mary”: “Oh, those were the days! Oh, I loved you then! You were the celestial blue, and I looked up at you when I walked to school with books under my arm, and my ecstacy was simple and smashing . . .” Barreca also catches Beat icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti looking out on the old men in San Francisco’s Washington Square, near his City Lights Bookstore, in “The Old Italians Dying”:

the ones with old pocketwatches
the old ones with gnarled hands
                                         and wild eyebrows
the ones with the baggy pants
                                   with both belt & suspenders
the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn

And she brings to our attention Mario Puzo's revealing preface to a reissue of his first novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, in which he not only admits that the heroine of that book was based on his mother but that so too was the character who emerged when Puzo became determined to make a living by writing a bestseller: “Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother. I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself, qualities not valued in women at the time. The Don’s courage and loyalty came from her; his humanity came from her.”

Puzo’s confession is both surprising and not surprising: it is usually the women who are the enforcers of family and ethnic values. It is they who are the arbiters of culture; as Tonelli comments, gangsters and grandmas have in common a “wisely self-protective villager’s mindset,” and it is the grandmas who threaten to bury indiscreet Italian American writers in the tomato patch. It is also women who feel most profoundly and painfully the tension between family or group solidarity and individualism; for without women’s tacit agreement to control the sexual and marriage choices of younger women, and to prepare the foods and continue the traditions that nurture the group physically and spiritually, there would soon be no group at all.

Thus it is the women in these anthologies who best capture the struggle between communal loyalty and individual freedom at the heart of so-called ethnic identity. Perhaps it is their engagement in that struggle that seems so notably absent in the Reader, where older women characters—those oppressive mothers and grandmothers—are generally held at a bewildered arm’s length: in the Mario Puzo excerpt, a mother “blind to reason” in a crisis nonetheless “held the scales of power and justice”; in a Stephen Varni story, the mother is hospitalized for mental illness—her breakdown heralded by arranging and rearranging family photos, as if doing a puzzle (expressing the collapse of her traditional role?); in Lisa Lenzo’s “Within the Lighted City,” the Old World grandmother mutters about “respect” to her Americanized family’s complete incomprehension.

In contrast, Don’t Tell Mama foregrounds the internal conflicts of women. Lina del Tinto Demarsky writes of a young woman trying to justify to her lover her allegiance to a mother she knows is manipulating her: “What words could she use to explain to him that in the world she lived in, there was no such thing as ‘your own life’? She could not make him understand that you did not throw aside your family’s traditions and rituals, just because you wanted to.” Josephine Gattuso Hendin and Joanna Clapps Herman, like many of the women writers in these collections, write of the necessity of breaking away to lead independent lives as intellectuals, but never without regret and a powerful need to justify the decision. As Hendin writes, “I will probably always be haunted by the tumult of memory—the depth of my feeling for my family and my sense, even in their midst, of isolation. For years I could not escape feelings of suffocation, of being trapped in a world frozen in time . . .” Herman writes about the contrast between the artsy, intellectual culture of her neighbors on the Upper West Side and the Italian neighborhood where she was raised: “There people care about food, kids, gardens, fooling around, the loss of which burns in me still. But I had to leave because only my father, who had been an ironworker, had been a serious reader.”

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison suggests in her essay in Don’t Tell Mama that this ambivalence about remaining part of the club, or leaving it for more solitary satisfactions, is even at the heart of the popularity of the Godfather movies: “I’ve spoken to Italian friends and they agree: Coppola, who gave us in Godfather I the romantic family idyll we all craved, forced us in Godfather II to test all our own troubled, troubling feelings about family. What he gave us was not entertainment, not a mythical romance that released us, briefly, from the oppression of our singularity and aloneness, but necessary pain.” That “necessary pain”—not the names with vowels, nor the sausage and peppers—is what seems to me central not only to Italian American writing but to all effective representations of ethnic experience (even in comedies like Bend It Like Beckham and the new Canadian film Mambo Italiano, in which the family, finally, proudly joins forces behind the convention-busting, homosexual son, underlining how rarely this happens in real life).

Tonelli’s tendency to veer away from that “necessary pain” and related themes and Barreca’s to highlight them even turns up in their respective selections from Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The protagonist of Tonelli’s excerpt is an intellectual, observing at some narrative distance the activities of his neighborhood; the protagonist of Barreca’s is an uneducated woman taking in the largeness of the woman’s role embodied in something as simple as “gravy,” or tomato sauce for macaroni: “. . . the women talk about making gravy, speaking to a husband or child, and Rosemary understood the significance of this. It meant, Don’t you dare come home late. It meant, This is serious so pay attention. It was a special summons, a call to family duty. The pleasure, yes, of familiar food, the whole history of food, the history of eating, the garlicky smack and tang. But there was also a duty, a requirement. The family requires the presence of every member tonight. Because the family was an art to these people and the dinner table was the place it found expression.”

Like DeLillo, Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta see the dinner table as the principal locus of Italian-American expression and belonging; the crossroads of history, sensuality, and morality. The thematic focus on nurture—or lack thereof—in The Milk of Almonds includes tales of eating disorders, sexual abuse, men beating wives and children, drug addiction, illness and the suffering of old people, lesbian eroticism, and empty romances where “all we shared was appetite,” as in Agnes Rossi’s “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.” The physicality here is raw and real enough to include, in Adele Regina La Barre’s “Pomodori,” the details of cleaning an elderly woman’s privates: “Oh, the folds to be washed—lifted like sheets from the furniture.” Other pieces celebrate the sustenance given by the community to the extended family and the satisfaction that can come from feeding someone else a food loaded with cultural memory, as when filmmaker Nancy Savoca gives her dying mother a bite of fresh fig in “Ravioli, Artichokes and Figs.” But overall, this is indeed a more ambivalent mixture of writings than either of the other two anthologies, full of “necessary pain” and even bitterness. One sees in this club of women only, more vividly than elsewhere, the costs and benefits of family and group solidarity.

Scholars weaned on hardy American individualism have been slow to perceive—even as they and some of their peers argued for a new “communitarianism” in American life—the strong communitarian philosophy that has persisted in Italian immigrant culture, a moral philosophy that condemned selfishness and self-centeredness and thus was at odds with modern American ideas of self-fulfillment. (Or, as Bill Tonelli calls it, “an energetic skepticism where nonconformity is concerned.”) Such a morality has often been caricatured as insularity and suspicion of the world outside the family; in writers’ memoirs it shows up consistently as disapproval of the solitary activity of reading. It is in fierce friction with everyone’s independence, especially the independence of women. Such a morality, determined to eschew self-indulgence, could not be but skeptical of the American idealization of individual achievement, and of the American mythology of artist and entrepreneur as lone wolves, pioneers of the self, throwing off the shackles of convention, family, and history in the pursuit of truth (or the dollar).

Surely that Old World mentality offers a critique of American individualism worth taking seriously, though it is also worth questioning the clubbiness of “ethnic identity,” a weak substitute for the genuine security of belonging and mutual aid. We must find some alternative to the most insular tendencies of ethnic social clubs, but not white-bread homogeneity or the romance of going it alone. If Italian American writing as such has anything to offer the wider world at this moment in history, it should be precisely this: some reckoning with the effects of a break from a traditional culture in little more than a generation or two; a questioning of the American myth of striking out on one’s own, but also of the reactionary nostalgia for security in the lap of an ethnic or religious “community”; some steps along a third way between selfish solitude and collective oppression and between assimilation and separatism. In a world of global economies and global immigration, these issues are in play almost everywhere. Italian Americans, particularly those with roots in the South, are well positioned to grapple with them—not because of some mythic “Roman” heritage but because they have so much in common with the new immigrants, Arabs and Africans, Hispanics and Asians. The group that saw Sacco and Vanzetti railroaded to the death penalty because of society’s fears of Italian American “anarchism” should be alert to what is happening today to Arab Americans denied civil liberties because of our fears of terrorism.

*  *  *

As Italian American clubs, all the recent anthologies can’t help but look a bit johnny-come-lately, arriving at a cultural moment when our ideas about ethnicity need some radical revision. None of them quite manages (though the Feminist Press book, with a different agenda, comes closest) to transcend entirely the “us versus them” or simply “us too” school of ethnic affiliation—an end-of-last-century identity politics by now outdated. Soon, I suspect, ethnic literature will no longer focus on issues of “majority” versus “minority” cultures but on “mixed minorities” and the challenges of being, in historian Donna Gabaccia’s phrase quoted in the introduction to The Milk of Almonds, “not a multi-ethnic nation, but a nation of multi-ethnics.”

At that point, too, we might begin to acknowledge that ethnicity has little to do with blood, or “the ultimate vowel,” and everything to do with the affections. We are Italian American, or whatever else we are, because of whom and what we have loved longest and most powerfully. The marks that these loves—and sometimes hates—leave on our behavior and our sense of ourselves are what we should call ethnic identity. To the extent that such personal affiliations are generational and have social consequences, it is a shame that none of these anthologies makes use of a chronological organization, so that one might see how ethnic concerns might follow a process of historical and economic change. For if ethnic identity indeed “counts for anything meaningful,” it must have to do with relationships that are shaped by time and place.

In delightfully rich and unexpected personal essays, Carole DeSanti in Don’t Tell Mama and Pamela E. Barnett in The Milk of Almonds make it clear just how contingent ethnic identity is on quirks of history, of pride, of individual affection: DeSanti writes of being raised as Croatian, told the original family name was “Desantic,” only to find a paternal family line going back to Venice; Barnett of learning to be Italian not from her Italian grandmother, who longed to be a WASP, but from her Jewish grandparents, who loved Italian culture and playfully called themselves “Italian Jews.” Barnett’s “Italian” identity served her well in working with Palestinians, who in turn identified with her as a long-lost cousin of “Mediterranean blood,” exclaiming “The Italians and Greeks are the Arabs of Europe!” We don’t yet know what to do with such multiple identifications: DeSanti puts it, “A nation of hybrids, our minds and hearts seem not yet up to the task of truly living in the global world we have been so instrumental in creating.”

Even Italy is remote in these anthologies—and Italian language and literature, which writers especially should value, even more so. There are a few exceptions. In Barreca’s anthology both Maria Laurino in “Words”—in which she travels back to Southern Italy with a list of her family’s favorite dialect terms, seeking their origins—and Joanna Clapps Herman in “The Discourse of un’ Propria Paparone,” in which she translates and invents Italian dialect for her Jewish husband, write with real warmth about the immigrant language so long devalued by the intelligentsia. Fred Gardaphé writes on how a trip “back” to Italy inspired his appreciation of his own roots and led to his discovery of Italian American writers like John Fante, whom he describes as “my Hemingway.” The best piece in Tonelli’s anthology, perhaps the “best of show” for sheer literary virtuousity, Michael Martone’s “Ten Little Italies of Indiana,” does suggest a writer who has read Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”—although a direct influence would be impossible to prove, since Martone’s sophisticated, hilarious “Little Italies” are brilliantly American and his own.

At the other end of the spectrum from these living links to Italianness, we find the heartbreaking litany of isolation and rootlessness in young Loryn Lipari’s memoir of crack addiction, “Cracked” (from The Milk of Almonds): “I know nothing about people in other countries, or about my own family, even less about me.” For such a narrator, knowing more about the individual and communal experiences of the Italian American “family” of writers embraced by these anthologies might be essential, even lifesaving. In addition to the statement these books make to the larger society and the genuine reading pleasure they might bring, it is a good thing that they now exist for whomever needs them, and especially for young people, for whom “identity” in America is so important and so elusive. In America, we do need ethnicity—for a personal mooring in a mass society, to assuage our guilt about straying off traditional paths to seek our independent fates or fortunes, to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others, to be as good as the members of other groups jostling for their piece of the American pie. But we need to know ethnicity as an emotional rather than an objective or biological reality, and to recognize that the comforts provided and problems posed by belonging to an ethnic group—those strange social clubs of inheritance—have different value for each of us at different stages of life. Tonelli admits that his anthology began when he was a kid looking for Italian names in the magazines—“you’re looking outside, hoping to find some plausible version of yourself already functioning in the world of adults.”

But in the world of adults, what good are social clubs of literature, especially when based on ethnicity—itself a kind of social club based on ancestry? Sure, you get to meet some good writers whom you’ll want to spend more time with outside the club, and that is surely a good thing. But as a political project, ethnic advocacy for Italian Americans now seems trivial. It is at least partly because the academy and American culture generally has been so focused on “multiculturalism” in America that it has failed so utterly to prepare us for multiculturalism in the world—a much more challenging path of study, requiring knowledge of foreign languages and foreign literatures and histories and the will to undertake the hard work of translation. We need to get beyond questions of personal “identity” and move on to those of “with whom can you identify?” Let’s hope the answer is large; our literature should make it larger.

So for those of us who have done some thinking about what it means to be Italian American, it’s time to get over ourselves. There’s no excuse for a navel-gazing preoccupation with ethnic identity in America today, except as our various ethnicities can help connect us to the world. The world! It’s not all about us. Even the Italians exist not to tell us who we are as Italian Americans (as we all somehow expect when we “go back” to find the places and people and potential selves our grandparents left behind), but for reasons and pleasures and purposes all their own. Getting to know them for real might help to educate us in the independent realities of people who don’t share our “culture,” or our “blood,” or our resurgent American nationalism.

The complexities and conflicts of heritage, then, should be a way of starting from home to reach out beyond it. After all, our most loved and familiar foreigners are those in our own families—a truism in all families but especially those with historical and cultural roots in other countries. Our bonds to these aliens in our midst should lead us outward. Eventually, we might be able to embrace the “ethnic” parts of ourselves not out of need, but out of love—love for that which is foreign in us, and foreign in others. <

Alane Salierno Mason is an editor at W. W. Norton & Company.

Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review



Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2006. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |