Theodora D. Patrona

A Story for Louise by Eric Lanzieri, Lulu Publishing Services, 2017. 45 p.

Reviewed by Theodora D. Patrona

“Maligned and despised in the past, spoken of and about, the “ethnic folk” now write back with vengeance, deploying their own ‘writing machine’ to make meaning about themselves and the communities they claim to represent” (686-687).

In these powerful words, Yiorgos Anagnostou envisages the multiplication of ethnic writings in a consumerist society. These texts often depict the writer’s identity quest, the luxurious return trip to the ancestral home, the rediscovery of ethnic culture. Such seems to be the scope of Eric Lanzieri’s slim volume, A Story for Louise, whereby this attorney and teacher recounts his personal identity quest inspired by his paternal grandmother, Louise.

Lanzieri retraces his grandparents’ migration story from Scafati, near Naples, in the early twentieth century, their short common life as a married couple, his grandmother’s struggle to raise her son after her husband’s loss. Lanzieri places special emphasis on his father’s teaching him the local dialect of this Italian region, often stressing how crucial this skill was for his research. The author devotes a large part of the book to his repetitive travels in Italy, the discovery of long-lost relatives from both parents, the hospitality, warmth and good food they come to share. He concludes by stating: “I hope that others will enjoy this story, and that they will consider how to lay the groundwork for similar enriching experiences in their own lives, or in the lives of their children and grandchildren” (36). Additionally, he provides his readers and potential family history lovers with practical tips as regards research and approach. In this sense, Lanzieri comes to confirm Arthur W. Frank who in his interesting oeuvre The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics attests:

People tell stories not just to work out their own changing identities, but also to guide others who will follow them. They seek not to provide a map that can guide others — each must create his own — but rather to witness the experience of reconstructing one’s own map (17).

The book concludes with black-and-white family photos.

All in all, Lanzieri’s story, seen in the light of multicultural polyphony, is a rather short ethnic account with the basic “essential ingredients:” the central grandmother figure, la famiglia, ethnic cuisine, stunning Italian scenery, the survival of ethnic language. Though Lanzieri’s emotion and his motivation behind the writing of the book are genuine and they both reach the reader, his narrative could be further enriched and improved with more information on the frameworks of his story: for example how was ravaged Italy for Louise in the mid-1940s compared to the one she left some forty years before? Lanzieri’s rough strokes produce merely the sketch of a tale that ultimately lacks the depth and detail, the “spice” that would increase heartbeats and instigate further thinking. Lanzieri’s story, alas, proves yet again the diachronic quality and importance of Anthony Tamburri’s famous essay “Beyond ‘pizza’ and ‘nonna,’” asking for more, urging for more from Italianamericana.

Works Cited

Anagnostou, Yiorgos “Metaethnography in the Age of ‘Popular Folklore’. Journal of American Folklore 119.474 (Fall 2006): 381-412.Web. 11/02/2010.

Frank, Arthur. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics. Chicago:

 

Orange Peels and Cobblestones: A Novel, by Rose Marie Dunphy.  New York: 2012.

Reviewed by Theodora D. Patrona

“How does a mother give up her child?” This is the central question around which Rose Marie Dunphy, author of five books and numerous essays, constructs her debut novel. A Bildngsroman with an autobiographical basis, as the author admits in her interview with Joyce T. Strand and her blogspot strandssimplytips, Orange Peels and Cobblestones was the author’s first book-long attempt, published in 2012.

Resorting to writing as a way of healing, the author has used her own traumatic childhood and experience of deracination as the prototype for her ten-year-old protagonist Marietta. Given up for adoption by her mother, the child, like the author herself, has to leave her loving grandmother and maternal extended family in Calabria to meet an unknown uncle and aunt in 1950s Brooklyn.

The reader follows Marietta’s coming of age in America– her gradual bonding with the protective adoptive father/uncle  Paul and her tumultuous relationship with her bitter adoptive mother/aunt Teresa, her thriving in a private Catholic school and an American educational system that assists gifted and hard-working children. Through the use of flashbacks, the author reveals Marietta’s unstable previous family background in Italy with a reckless and abusive father and an immature mother.

Dunphy foregrounds beloved motifs of Italian American literature like sisterly love, the fundamental figure of the warm Italian grandmother, the strong bonds between cousins, cooking and female bonding, the trauma of migration and the hardship of adjustment. The heroine’s suffering is prolonged when her biological parents and sister come to live in America and their tension with her adoptive parents worsens the heroine’s confusion and the atmosphere between the two families.

Intermarriage is looked down upon by Italian Americans in Brooklyn during this era, and this is seen through the presence of a young doctor of Irish descent, John Sullivan, who, in a prince-like manner,  is willing to free the young adult woman from the diverse limitations that Paul and Teresa have been imposing upon her. Having her own family and finding answers for all her childhood troubles is what ultimately liberates the heroine.

Dunphy’s initial idea– the drama and trauma of adoption/immigration– is definitely an unexplored area in Italian American fiction. Her writing, sensuous and colorful, especially when describing culinary adventures and childhood memories, flows successfully, recreating for the reader the three spatial and temporal settings: Calabria, Brooklyn and California. The hurdles of young ethnic women in the transitional decades of the 1950s and 1960s are also accounted for, providing food for thought and, possibly, future scholarly commentary from the prism of women’s studies.

The author also does not neglect to touch upon important issues that have long troubled Italian Americans, such as la famiglia,  la nonna, and  la cucina. However, the plot could have been further improved and enriched with unexpected twists and turns along the road and a faster pace that would keep the reader on his or her toes. In the same vein, the climax of the final chapters is never really reached and, as a result, the potential of the story remains to some extent unexplored. Finally, Marietta’s thoughts and feelings are constantly at the forefront, proffering self- analysis that is incommensurate with her age, background knowledge and maturity. On the contrary, all the other characters, central as they may be, are rather underdeveloped with their conscience and profiles in need of more depth, space and development.  

Irrespective of these pitfalls, not a rare occurrence in a debut novel, Dunphy’s novel remains vivid reading material touching the reader with the heroine’s heartache and utter loneliness in a fictional world where family and roots are such elusive concepts.

Daughters, Dads, and the Path through Grief: Tales from Italian America by Donna H. DiCello, PsyD, and Lorraine Mangione, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Theodora D. Patrona

It can be hard to force yourself to read through something as profoundly depressing as experiences which discuss the loss of one’s father. As a Greek daughter who has always cherished her father and the uniqueness of our relationship, while reading Daughters, Dads, and the Path through Grief, tears kept filling my eyes when the voices of the interviewees spoke to my heart. I could not stop nodding as to the brilliance of wording that analyses a bond I am often unable to describe. Donna H. DiCello and Lorraine Mangione’s volume, which bridges psychology and Italian American culture, is a wonderful and original addition to both fields, ably chronicling “what it means to be an Italian American daughter who has lost her father” .

The authors center their book on the interviews of 51 Italian American women who come from various backgrounds, ages, family structures, sexual orientations and religious practices. DiCello and Mangione also add their personal testimonies regarding their lives before and after the loss of their fathers. Assisting the psychology novice with the diverse theoretical perspectives, the authors rightly incorporate explanations in the text.

Acting as a self-help volume, this hybrid book also includes a section with exercises aimed at inciting further thinking and self-empowerment. With Part One “Defying Stereotypes: Who Are Our Fathers?” the authors shed light on the interviewees’ fathers, their dreams and aspirations, their successes and failures that turned them into the parents they came to be. Part Two, “Learning, Doing, Being, Early Ties with Our Dads” is enlightening in terms of the ethnic cultural background and its clear projections in the father-daughter connection. Part Three, “Stepping Into Adulthood With Our Fathers: Connection and Disconnection” is most stimulating as it envisages the usual conflicts in teenage years between the fledgling daughter and the often overprotective father. Besides its psychological interest, this section covers a crucial period for female self-identification and the usual clashes which are also often recounted in numerous Italian American memoirs and works of fiction. DiCello and Mangione’s insightful approach serves to disentangle several key issues concerning female ethnic self-delineation like career choices, dating, self-expression, creativity and independence, starting a family early in life. Part Four, “Holding On, Letting Go: Our Fathers Through Illness and Death” is the most powerful of all, as it laments the loved one, reverberating with emotion, uniquely stamped in the Italian American traditions of grief and mourning. The two final parts, “Aftershocks: Missing our Fathers Through Time and Space” and “Living With Our Fathers in Our Hearts” reveal the rocky path overcoming grief, the changes in one’s life, self-perception and ethnic identification when the prominent father figure is physically gone.

Daughters, Dads and the Path Through Grief is an inspiring work that explores the father-daughter relationship through the examples of Italian American women and the ethnic cultural legacy that molded their lives. While the two authors succeed in their goal to write a book about “how our fathers shaped our lives, and shape us still, even in their physical absence,” they effortlessly come to shape the readers’ thoughts and feelings regarding their own fathers, promoting forgiveness, acceptance and emotional strength.

***

Pirati Supra La Nivi/Footprints in the Snow: A Collection of Sicilian Poems.

By Nino  Provenzano.

Translated into English Verse by Gaetano Cipolla.

By Theodora D.Patrona

 

“On reading his poems one has the impression of opening up a treasure chest made of memories, anecdotes, interests, pearls of wisdom, curiosities”. These are some of the words of praise that Professor of Etruscan Studies Enzo Vitale rightly utilizes to introduce Nino Provenzano’s latest poetic collection in the book’s Preface. Indeed, along its atmospheric cover image of a man walking towards the sun while leaving his footprints in the lavish snow, what is immediately striking about Provenzano’s third collection is the way his poems, always digging deep into his Sicilian roots, reflect on diverse moral, spiritual, emotional as well as artistic issues, encompassing both personal and public footings.

As a well-known literary translator, an awarded poet with two previous publications of Sicilian poetry Vinissi/I Would Love to Come and Tornu/The Return, the poet is the Vice President of Arba Sicula. Widely anthologized, Provenzano has been recognized as an eminent figure of Sicilian American letters and not only among Italian Americans. Footprints in the Snow constitutes the third fruitful collaboration with Professor Emeritus Gaetano Cipolla who did the English translation.

The spectrum of topics discussed in the collection is wide and fascinating. Here are poems of existential meanderings projected through naturalistic imagery like the eponymous Pirati supra la nivi/Footprints in the Snow (18-21), and the bitter thoughts about ageing and sickness of Lu Compleannu di l’anziannu/The Old Man’s Birthday (110-115). There are also poems addressing important humanistic and social questions like the despair and frail hope after the apocalyptic destruction of Dopu l’ uraganu/ After the Hurricane (58-61) and the Christian love and charity of Eu lu dicia ch’eravu parenti!/ I knew you had to be related! (30-33). On the antipode, the poet displays his humorous side, often drawing from his Sicilian heritage, cauterizing for example stinginess and matrimonial strife through Lu sparagnu/ Savings (66-69) and Lo giudici e li persichi/The Judge and the Peaches (78-79). Pulsating with naturalistic beauty, Provenzano’s verse confirms his D’Annunzian influences through the sensuous imagery of touching works like the most powerful Sutta lu suli sicilianu/ Under the Sicilian Sun (34-37) and Innu a la ficurinia/Hymn to the Prickly Pear (70-71). The range of themes is completed with the poet’s meta-poetic and artistic concerns like those expressed in L’architettu/Disignaturi /The Architect/ Designer (98-99), L’Artista chi Pitta/ The Artist who Paints (116-117), and Comu Si Fa/How Do you Write ?(119-120.)

Undoubtedly, what gives Provenzano’s poetry its distinctive flavor is his writing in the vernacular, honoring his Sicilian background. Straight-forward and effective in his use of contemporary Sicilian diction, the poet resorts to realistic expressions without flourishing or exaggeration, allowing his reader, even the one not knowing Sicilian, to instinctively sense the sonority of his idiomatic twang. Cipolla’s translation ably maintains the linguistic style of the original while wonderfully communicating the earthiness and the emotion attached to Provenzano’s imagery.

Among the jewels of the collection, Senza Paroli/Without Words (22-24) is a testament to the significance of extra-linguistic elements with the overwhelming presence of the silence the persona reflects on touching the reader deeply. As a hymn to the immigrant’s homeland, Nun Ponnu/They Cannot (26-27) conjures beautiful imagery. It delves into the everlasting ruggedness of the landscape, its unchangeable character irrespective of time, historical or social conditions in a unique expression of the persona’s attachment to his ancestral land. On a similar note, Sutta lu suli sicilianu/ Under the Sicilian Sun (34-37) is an exquisite account of the persona’s passionate love for Sicily, abundant in sensual imagery and ending with the voice’s utter completion. Finally, one of the most intense poetic creations of the volume, Sciogghiu gruppa/I Untangle Knots (48-49) becomes a cry of anguish: through the use of a potent metaphor, the voice ponders over the diverse ways people choose to face their own personal and existential nightmares and the importance of persisting to struggle till the end.

Playful or thoughtful, reflecting on art or mere life troubles, reminiscing about the magical topos of origin while living on a new land, Provenzano’s poems in Pirati Supra La Nivi/Footprints in the Snow are so much more than their title: they are here to stay as indelible marks on Sicilian American culture.

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