Interview with Josephine Gattuso Hendin
Award-winning author Josephine Gattuso Hendin is a former Guggenheim fellow and is currently Professor of English and Tiro a Segno Professor of Italian American Studies at New York University.
Professor Gattuso Hendin, how has NYU embraced the field of Italian American Studies?
“NYU and the Department of Italian Studies have welcomed Italian American Studies, both officially and in terms of student response. Each spring I teach the course, “Italian American Life in Literature,” to our undergraduates. The course attracts students majoring in English, Italian, Cinema Studies, History, Dramatic Writing and many other fields. They are not all of Italian heritage but all have an interest in knowing more about Italian American history, art, film and fiction. Italian American distinction in filmmaking, and the use of Italian American culture in film, spur many students from the Tisch School of the Arts to take the course. There is widespread student involvement across disciplines.
My focus is on Italian American fiction and film as it interacts with mainstream writing. The course begins with “classic” texts such as Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, but extends through beat poetry and memoir, contemporary fiction and poetry, and ethnic postmodernism, concluding with Don DeLillo’s Underworld. My aim is to show the prevalence and power of Italian American art, and the shapes our assimilation took during our long history in the United States. I also use Italian American films at each stage – including documentaries, classic films, such as The Godfather, clips from films by Martin Scorsese, and relevant depictions from television – to convey current forms of stereotyping and visual self-expression. Students are enthusiastic about the course and the demand for it is very great. In addition, the Tiro A Segno Foundation’s ongoing generosity funds Visiting Fellowships for scholars in Italian American Studies from other institutions and fields to come to NYU to offer courses for graduate students in Italian Studies and non-specialist undergraduates. This is invaluable. It brings additional courses to NYU in Italian American history, literature, or sociology, or cinema studies that enable us to expand our offerings. Additionally, the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at New York University provides extensive cultural programs."
How does Italian language figure into your work?
“The course I teach and my own scholarship focuses on the impact and interaction of Italian American writing within American mainstream writing and therefore stresses literature written in English. However, many of the concepts taught throughout the course are best expressed in Italian phrases, proverbs and ideas conveyed through the use of Italian. Many of the students understand Italian from their families, but many of Italian heritage do not and have not grown up with Italian-speaking parents. The course actually inspires them to elect Italian as the language they study in college and many have become minors in Italian as a result of the course. I use some of the Italian folktales compiled by Italo Calvino and translated into English to illustrate Italian storytelling styles and to establish a baseline for their development in Italian American writing. Many of the students who have Italian-speaking parents or relatives are so entranced by them that they hunt for the Italian version of the folktales for the perfect gift for their families. The students whose Italian is fluent and/or are majors in Italian Studies often become engaged in identifying affinities between Italian American and Italian literature.”
What are the difficulties an American or an Italian American would face in studying Italian?
“NYU is a great venue for the study of Italian. In addition to the intensive and lively courses in Italian language we offer, we have an outstanding program in Florence utilizing La Pietra, the magnificent villa and gardens donated to NYU by Lord Harold Acton. Students can study there during the summer or enroll for a year abroad and avail themselves more fully of the cultural offerings of Florence and the opportunity for immersion in speaking Italian on a 24/7 basis. The obstacle Americans face in learning Italian is, of course, the lack of such an opportunity for immersion in speaking and hearing Italian, a problem that causes students who may have a solid grasp of grammar and a reading knowledge of Italian to lack fluency in speaking. Italian Americans often have that problem too, but added to it may be a defensiveness about having picked up Italian pronunciation or phrasings from relatives who may be two generations away from the way standard Italian is currently spoken in Italy. I think there is also shyness about sounding “incorrect,” or knowing only their parents’ dialect, or even embarrassment at sounding unsophisticated that makes Italian Americans unwilling or diffident about taking the social “risks” involved in learning how to speak more fluently. We should all get to spend a year in Italy to solve that problem!”