|"Voices of Italian America: A History of Early Italian American Literature with a Critical Anthology" - ISBN# 0838640168|
Your book presents readers with many primary sources for the study of Italian American literature about immigration. What are the advantages of giving readers direct access to this material?
This is a field where we have to convene, first of all, around what were talking about, otherwise any discourse will sound too abstract. Scouring the archives and bringing back sources to light has been a pleasure of sorts the pleasure of discovery to be sure but it also constituted a duty, a moral and historiographical duty. I feel that too much theoretical approach has stiffened and stifled direct research.
How do you think the literary studies youve uncovered will affect present studies on immigration and the Italian American experience?
It shouldnt be me to answer here, really. I understood pretty early on that there was a whole Atlantis out there. But I am pessimistic too: works like mine, in Italy, that is back home, are not that considered, and as a matter of fact the anthological section is a novelty of the American edition. On the other hand, yes, I do hope that students and scholars, and a wider American public in general, will understand that Italian Americans, to put it simply, were way beyond being Corleones and Sopranos, that there was a whole and stratified world in which arts and entertainment in the mother tongue meant a lot to thousands of people.
You originally published a version of this book in Italian. Why did you think an English version would be of value? What audiences did you have in mind for each version? Can you describe how these values differ?
Originally, I planned the book in Italian, although I did write parts of it in English from the very beginning. But, as I said, Italian publishers were absolutely disinterested in the texts, in part just because it was so much easier and cheaper to print my own essays from a diskette. Petty as it sounds, thats the truth. I was relieved, then, when my American publisher, in his first letter, suggested that we added the "real stuff," so to speak. Thats what I had wanted to do from the start. I have the impression that, in Italy the public is restricted to scholars of literature while in the US the book could reach out to a larger audience, especially among Italian Americans. At least, I hope so. It is ironic though, that in an American version the intrinsic value of these texts gets lost, since they had been written in Italian. I guess this editorial conundrum in some sense reflects the uncertainty and "inbetweenness" of that particular culture. On the other hand, this should be only the beginning of a rediscovery in that case, there will be time and more chances to appreciate the original bilingualism of Italian American literature and culture.
Does the Italian immigration experience offer any lessons to America today, which is experiencing new waves of immigration?
One answer comes to mind straight away: in order to adapt and survive, theres got to be a good deal of irony and self-irony, otherwise youre lost. Southern Italians are usually seen as being sentimental and overly melodramatic: what I discovered, on the contrary, was their great sense of comic realism.
What about immigration in Italy today? Are the experiences of Italian Americans in America relevant to the experiences of current immigrants to Italy? In what ways?
I am not convinced that the two phenomena can be easily compared. Theres an obvious urgency in Italy to come to terms with the big problem of a mass immigration which is unprecedented; but the adage which seems to get the picture here is a cynical observation by our Poet Laureate, Eugenio Montale: La storia non magistra di niente, "History does not teach anything." One would hope that Italians remembered and learned from the past, but despite a growing scholarly output, this does not seem to be the case. I am very disillusioned about this. One continues to do research and write, but that does not mean that the world out of Academe will listen.
You seem equally comfortable in American and in Italy. Can you compare the two cultures today?
Sometimes Im afraid that after so much back and forth, Im beginning to reappreciate the trite half-truths of the common sense. Italy is slow and inefficient, about families, about sticking together through thick and thin. Theres an atavistic sense of belonging; people tend to be bound by common mistrust. America is fast and go-getter; you actually make money here, you come and live in order to produce wealth, but then youre forced to consume it, and in so doing you can risk losing track of other not-so-worldly values. American friendliness is a faade; life is tough here as everywhere else. Interestingly enough, again, immigrant cultures do add quite a bit of flavor and energy to the overall picture. Italians compensate their sense of meaninglessness with a trumped-up sense of historical superiority; Americans do not even need that: they instinctively know they are way above the others, in terms of power. One wishes, all in all, that there could be more real chances of a deep and prolonged sharing of experiences and values: both cultures would have a lot to gain from that.
Are there any other comments or observations that you wish to make?
This book has been a very very big deal for me, in so many ways. Jumping from small-scale Italian academic publishing to a "real" editorial experience meant a lot of extra work and of adaptations. Ill never be able to stress enough all the support I got from my fantastic translator, Ann Goldstein, who, at some point, put my manuscript aside to fly to Rome and work with the Vatican on a translation of a book by the Pope. It made me feel terribly privileged! Also, the book is dedicated to my wife, an American, whom I met while doing research: that alone explains how personal this initiative has become for me over the course of the years. I became better acquainted with not only ethnic America but also, I realized how much of Southern Italian culture is still ignored and looked down upon in Italy; and I realized that a real and fruitful historical work must take into consideration sources from many different disciplines. A simple aesthetic value means hardly anything when we are confronted with the "popular" production of plays, novels, poetry, as it was crafted in the teeming "colonies" of the many Little Italys. In many ways, intellectually, historiographically, artistically, and personally, Voices of Italian Americarepresents an attempt at bridging the gap between the two cultures, the hope that knowledge can explain and unite.