Arts and Culture / Talking Italy
Arts and Culture / Talking Italy
Take a look at the way Italian is used in the fiction by Italian /American writers and you’ll learn something about the culture and the role the language plays in fashioning ethnic identities. The tension in the search for identity of Italian Americans has always been a dominant theme in Italian/American fiction.
Jerre Mangione has said that he wrote to create a third world, one in which he could feel he belonged. This cultural tension is reflected in the use of the Italian language by Italian/American writers and surfaces when we compare the way Italian words are presented individually by the more recent writers and in connected sentences and phrases by their predecessors.
When that tension eases as Italian Americans lose the Italian language it creates a significant loss of one of the means of being identified with and connected to Italy. Think of the family as sentence and the individual as the word and you will have a clear picture of how Italian/American literature reflects its culture. To become American is to be dispersed, to move quickly and fragmented, to emphasize the individual in society. To become Italian suggests that we remain integral, move slowly, and maintain the solidarity of the sentence, like the Italian used by the earlier Italian American writers. If Italian identity comes from name only, then individuals are nouns, disconnected from time and heritage in search of interactions in order to build and maintain cultural identities.
In the novels published between the years 1930 and 1955 the appearances of the Italian language are numerous. These were mostly written by children of immigrants such as Garibaldi LaPolla, John Fante, Pietro di Donator and Joe Pagano. The amount of Italian found in these early novels suggests that these authors were very close to the Italian language.
During the Middle period, from 1955 to 1980 we begin to see a slight decrease in the number of appearances of Italian language in the fiction of Italian Americans. Here we can still locate a connection between writers such as Mari Tomasi, Mario Puzo, Ben Morreale, and Helen Barolini.
It is during the Contemporary Period, 1980 to the present that we begin to witness a sharp decline in (in fact a near abandonment of) the use of Italian language by Italian/American authors. Most significant is the absence of complete sentences. A common characteristic of this group of writers is that the use of Italian is nearly restricted to fragments and single nouns.
Here writers such as Tina DeRosa, Tony Ardizzone, and Kenny Marotta represent the disintegration of the Italian language in Italian American fiction.
Along with the decrease in the number of appearances of Italian language in the Italian American novel, there has also been a decrease in the quality or sophistication of the word usage as the Italian/American novel has developed. Italian American writers, up to Helen Barolini, show a greater frequency in the use of complete sentences.
Earlier generations of Italian/American writers used Italian in their lives and thus were more likely to use it in their writing. Later generations had heard the language and it became a part of their memory, but that memory is fragmented and shows us in pieces the Italian part of the Italian American experience. The literature produced by a culture is also the preserved memory of that culture. Good literature helps the individual understand him or herself better, because it connects them to the collective memory of humanity. Reading becomes a way of knowing the self. Fiction, by its very nature creates myth, and the greater distance the author is from the Italian language, the more likely it is that the immigrant experience will be heroically or mythically presented.
What does this mean for writers of the next generation? Will their Italian/American characters become more mythic as the details fade? And what does this mean for the readers of the next generation? Will their search for an ethnic identity begin or end with the myth?
While Italian/American literature can help Italian Americans find their culture and strengthen their identity through stories, we need to understand what this use/or non use of Italian language in fiction does to the reader. If language transports culture, then loss of it could halt the progression of a culture. When a language is lost, we seek other means by which to identify with our ancestral heritage, and one of the ways is through the arts. An increase in the use of Italian by our writers could result in a renewal of an identity with Italy.
* Distinguished Professor of Italian American Studies, Queens College, CUNY/Calandra Institute