Paul Paolicelli:
    "What is an Italian American?"  

                       Remarks by Paul Paolicelli
                   At An International Colloquium

"Italic Idnetities and Pluralistic Contexts”
                           Catholic University, Washington, D.C.

October 23.2003

When I was first asked to participate in this conference I accepted the invitation with the caveat that I am a journalist and writer, not an academician, and not necessarily skilled or prepared for such a broad and important topic. In fact, I’ve had to immerse myself in an attempt to define some of the basic terms being discussed. I think, as the grandson of Italian immigrants, I do understand “italicity.” If only because I’ve written a book in an attempt to define Italian values that have been transported and translated to the New World.

I’m reminded of a cartoon I once read that showed a little girl excited over a pending visit by "the Italians.” “The Italians are coming,” she repeated to everyone in her acquaintance. When the big day finally arrived the child was beaming. She told one of “the Italians” that she was “part” Italian. “What part is Italian?” the visitor asked. “My stomach,” she said, proudly.

Well, if I had to say what part of me is Italian, I’d have to say my heart. For if I understand the sense of “Italicity,” then it comes from the heart and from the values of our culture and heritage which rest in the heart as much, as if not more than, the psyche.

A few years ago, as I was in Sicily researching my second book, “Under the Southern Sun,” I had the privilege of interviewing Nené Troncale, the nephew of the American film director Frank Capra. The Troncale family is the last remaining branch of the Capra family in Italy. I was fascinated by the story of a poor Sicilian boy who could come to the United States without wealth or letters and, within a generation, define though the art of motion pictures, nothing less than America for Americans. “You have to remember,” Nené told me, “my people didn’t bring valuables to America, they brought values.” It’s those values that I believe are at the core of “italicity,” if I understand it correctly.

As a result of those values and of our history, I do not think that Italian Americans can be approached from the Italian side of the equation.
  A Sons of Italy Book Club "Recommended Reading" Selection
Now in its ninth printing...
Rather, I think any approach or discussion of their “italicity” now needs to stem from the American experience. We are more than a century away from the great wave of Diaspora that began in the early 1880s. After two world wars, several lesser wars, a moon landing, a presidential assissination and resignation, and countless other “American” experiences too numerous to mention, any contemporary linkage for Italian Americans with the political entity of Italy is tenuous, at best. Our young people have a definition of “being Italian” that is sensibility more than memory or, sadly in some cases, facts. Many of us dealing with the American part of that experience are trying to find the way to reach our young people with a meaningful and significant set of definitions to retain the “Italian” part of our culture. Those definitions must be broader than a “Godfather” or “goomba” image, or we will lose the links with our heritage in another generation. Many of us believe those links must come from, in great part, our literature; Italian American literature, so long ignored by the general American publishing houses and general reading public.

As Helen Barolini has so eloquently pointed out, there has been a great mythology about Italian American readers and an aversion to publish our literature based on that marketing strategy and mythology. We are making some inroads into that bias, but the truth remains that Italian Americans, by and large, don’t seem to demand a literature of their heritage, but prefer to stay within the confines of oral family histories.
With daughter Cara at a signing in Columbus, OH.
The Italian American story is an important and essential part of the American story, yet it hasn’t received the same attention, distribution, promotion or readership that general historians enjoy. I believe part of the problem lies with the insistence on “genre” for marketing of literature, and the assignment of “genre” that is often misleading or inaccurate.  Much nonfiction writing that tells the stories of our Americanization process, writing that details the lives of our own families, has generally been relegated to intellectually ethnic and political ghettoes and neatly restricted to those byways by publishers and public alike. We need to bring that literature out into the broader market place. To define it for what these tales truly are; the stories of how Americans are and were made, and why. It’s time for publishers, book sellers, readers, academics and authors alike to ask that the designation of “ethnic” or marginal perimeters be lifted from an entire field of vital literature, and that writing become better identified for what the American experience is and has always been; we are the greatest living symbol for diversity, its success and failures.

There is now a growing and persistent body of literature that defines that process. What it is
not is Italian-American, or Greek -American or Irish-American or any other form of hyphenated segregation, but rather our history, the ‘songs of ourselves’ to borrow from the poet, told on the broad and vivid canvas of the American experience.
A reading at the Midcontinent Public Library in Kansas City.
We want it labeled for what it is;  “Legacy Writing.”

A few years ago, when my first book, “Dances with Luigi” was published, I adamantly insisted that it be marketed in the general marketplace and not be marginalized as an “Italian-American book.” For one thing, I didn’t know anything about Italian-American organizations and, for another, I never thought of myself as part of that group, but rather as a professional American with an ethnic past.  It was that past I was trying to evaluate and educate myself about, not any sort of active present tense community in my life.

For another thing, as Helen Barolini has also said, I’d been told consistently as I wrote the drafts for that book that publishers didn’t believe there was an Italian American reading public; publishers say Italian Americans don’t read or, if they do, it’s periodicals that are mostly sports oriented. If they did accept manuscripts dealing with those themes, they were only good for a 5,000 issue run at best and would never get reviewed in the serious or major periodicals or broadcasts. Sadly, my research showed that most of this is true about the New York publishers’ attitudes, another reason to try and avoid the Italian American label. I was more fortunate than many others. I had an agent who knew "a guy who likes books on Italy." That "guy" turned out to be Thomas Dunne of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press. Tom does like books about Italy and was willing to take a chance on "Luigi."

“Dances With Luigi” defied that stereotype, went through three hardback printings and is now out in soft cover. Not because of any altered marketing strategy on my publisher’s part, but in part thanks to Barnes and Noble having selected the book for its “Discover Great New Writers” program and, in part, because I was an established journalist with a lot of contacts. The book surprised them. Meanwhile I met hundreds of folks earnestly trying to discuss and learn about the Italian American culture, enough so that I thought the publishers might be wrong about Italian American reading habits.

As it turns out, and after having published my second book, “Under the Southern Sun,”  with a similar theme this year, my strategy for “Luigi” was the correct marketing strategy. I’ve learned the hard way with that second book, and which I did try to actively market as an “Italian-American book,” that no such market exists. That’s not to say that, like all other things in dealing with Italian Americans, that there aren’t contradictions; there are some very strong pockets of individuals out there who are completely dedicated to finding and celebrating the literature and other matters relating to the serious discussion of their culture and ethnic origins. But they function independently. There are no overriding links between them and the millions of others who share their heritage and gene pool.

I don’t know why this is, but suspect it has much to do with our history and timing in coming to this country. We came from people who functioned best on the family and small community level. That native psychology seems to have permeated our way of looking at the world without our ever even being aware of or being capable of articulating those thoughts. Italian Americans just don’t think in terms of broad linkage with other Italian Americans. Blame Woodrow Wilson and his war against hyphenation, blame Sacco and Vanzetti, blame Al Capone or Mario Puzzo, but for whatever reasons, we don’t think in larger community, only smaller ones.

We can’t answer much about ourselves...

For example; how many of us are there? Some organizations say 20 to 22 million while others claim as many as 32 million. Where do we live? If you believe the majority of the popular literature and films about us, the we mostly live in New York, despite that fact that even if the lowest figure of 20 million is accurate, that means that the overwhelming majority of Italian Americans, at least 14 or so million, don’t live in New York or its environs. When I did a talk in Kansas City this summer, we had a full house of mid-westerners with vowels, seemingly rabid for information about their culture and history that didn’t have a thing to do with the Brooklyn Bridge, organized crime, or gambling casinos in Las Vegas. They thought of themselves as Midwesterners and identified with the sense of isolation that I’ve found, as a journalist, to be common among the political thought of the middle of the country. What they liked about my book, or said so at least, was its inclusiveness and the fact that It wasn’t a product of a New York writer or thinker. They’ve felt neglected in that their definition of themselves as Midwesterners with an Italian origin is largely overlooked in the popular media.

The “Order of the Sons of Italy” bills itself as the largest organization for Italian Americans, it claims “more than 600,000 members and supporters.” I’m proud to be a member of this organization and am deeply indebted to my local chapter in Columbus, Ohio and the national organization for all of the enthusiasm and attention they’ve paid to my writing. In March, my second book was honored as one of four initial “recommended reading” volumes at the inaugural of that program in Washington, D.C. And while they’ve gone out of their way to suggest reading to it’s membership, the fact is that the organization itself is in a struggle for definition at the moment and attempting to shift away from the old and fraternal nature of the group into a more streamlined and culture-based society. It isn’t an easy task nor smooth transition. Mainly because the generation that now controls the organization doesn’t seem to have found the secret to attracting the younger generation and, without them, there will be no “Sons of Italy” in another twenty five years. And as far as cultural activities go, it really varies widely from group to group. The notion of a recommended literature has yet to take significant root as the individual chapters, more than 700 scattered about the United States, still try and cope with declining membership and geographical agenda. Trying to contact these organizations for attendance at readings I gave over this past summer proved to be all but impossible, despite the genuinely appreciated recommendation from the national offices. Literature just isn’t something on most local calendars or horizons at the moment.

Now I realize, it’s not the job of the Sons of Italy to promote my or any other author’s books. But it is their job to help define the culture and to promote themselves to our children as a relevant organization. I empathize with their frustrations in finding that relevancy.

Not too long ago, I spoke with some folks up in New Jersey who were putting together an “Institute for the Study of Italians in America.” Their first priority was funding language classes in New Jersey elementary schools to teach the Italian language. That’s a terrific endeavor. I think our kids absolutely need language study and that they should be learning languages like their European counterparts, from elementary school on.

But I have a concern about the Italian language vis a vis my culture, the Italian American culture. I was forty-five years old before I could speak a simple declarative sentence in the Italian language. Does that mean I wasn’t a full or real Italian American, despite the fact that all of my ancestors came from Italy?

In fact, Italian Americans speak English.

There are very important historical reasons for this language shift in my grandparents generation, history that I and dozens of others have written about, explaining why the language was abandoned. Explaining why it wasn’t spoken in our homes. So, if we’re going to “study Italians in America,” should language training be the first priority or the key to accessing our culture?

I think the key to understanding is through our factual and annotated history which remains largely ignored by the very groups purporting to be representative of the culture. In part because that literature itself is largely inaccessible. One has to hunt for it on the Internet or in the book stores. It’s categorized by whim or marketing strategy, and ultimately it becomes a word-of-mouth process, the very hardest way to sell books. (“Luigi” was put in the travel section because Frances Mayes wrote a book about Frances Mayes and her husband adjusting to a new life in Tuscany that became a best seller, yet “Luigi” has little to nothing in common with that book other than the central geographic location).

I think we’ve reached a cultural crossroads.
My culture isn’t Italian. It’s Italian-American. Knowledge of my culture doesn’t require the formal study of the Italian language or the history of Italy nor understanding, per se, of contemporary Italy.

The core culture is, of course, Italian and any study of Italy’s language, politics, history and culture is enlightening, but completely unnecessary in trying to evaluate the Italian experience in America. In fact, I believe the linkage and emphasis on that linkage intimidates or repulses millions of people who only know their culture through the American experience and don’t want to be reminded of their lack of language skill or told how their parents and grandparents’ dialects weren’t up to educated standards. My father, and millions like him, refused to speak Italian with an actual Italian because he felt inferior and had been told repeatedly that his Italian language skills weren’t sufficient – it was a source of shame, not pride, for his generation. They were reminded of how poorly educated most of their parents had been. And they were reminded of how Italy had rejected them, failed them. The link with Italy could stir painful memories and even avoidance.

And that’s the same dichotomy I see in the Italian American organizations of today. I'm not sure we appealing to the "average" Italian American interest, or have defined our local characteristics well enough to understand an appeal broader than a hot sausage sandwich at a yearly festival. The biggest success story I’m aware of in the Sons of Italy is in Dayton. My friend, Tony Spazziani, the chapter president, built a bocce court and trebled his membership. I don’t oppose the building of bocce courts, either, but it’s a weak link at best to a culture that is comprised of, let’s say, 26 million Americans who need a more compelling reason to connect with one another. We’re not going to do it through the conjugation of verbs or the tossing of balls. We need an overarching definition that reaches out and allows people to identify with the core elements.

Our literature should be a natural bridge to the study and appreciation of our culture.

But before you can read about the culture, you have to be able to find what’s being written. I believe the fundamental marketing category is wrong: it’s American history, not Italian history. It’s the American experience, not the Italian experience. It’s inclusive, not exclusive, and we invite all to read it, not just those of a specific heritage or ancestry.

I can tell you that there’s something going on in my American generation – “Baby Boomers” – whose sixties psychedelic mantra of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” is giving way to a broader search for substance. Genealogy is the fastest growing hobby in this country today and the internet is used for the search on this subject – used more than anything else on the internet except pornography—which might mean that mantra from the sixties has been only slightly modified. But there is no denying a shift in values among my contemporaries, probably a companion and inevitable part of the aging process, but what fascinates me is how universal our search into our collective pasts seems to have taken over. There is no empirical standard for this, at least none that I’m aware of, but I am convinced that we Americans have always searched for spiritual truths that go beyond the confinement of organized religion or the brayings of punk rock. What I’ve heard in my travels, over and over, from groups I’ve talked with and individuals who have contacted me after reading my books, is that they have found both pursuit and meaning in the attempt to understand that generation that died in a land where they had not been born.

Perhaps this has always been the case? What makes this topic unique is the American experience, not the countries of origin. Being Italian American adds a colorful, dramatic and flavorful dynamic to the American experience, but it’s the American experience that defines our culture, and not vice versa. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons contemporary Italians seem so unconcerned with our experiences and why so many Italian Americans are disconnected from the Italian part of their heritage? How do we reach these people, these isolated Italian-origin islands, as writers or artists or journalists?

I believe the contact must come through their American roots...

As the Italian American activist, Sam Patti said,
“Italian American history is American history.” We were not merely divorced from Italy, or descended from Italy. We were, in many cases, rejected by Italy, or our grandparents themselves rejected their native land, and thus those first ocean-crossing adventurers left Italy behind them.

Can we reconnect to a sense of heritage by learning Italian? Somewhat, I suppose. I studied the language, and fumbled in it long enough and well enough to mange many of my interviews for that first book in Italian. However, while it is certainly a beautiful language and the study of it or any language can only lead to better understanding of the world and its people, the Italian language is not part of the Italian American culture.

We speak English and teach it to our children, for solid historical, financial, cultural and even existential reasons. We weren’t taught Italian, nor was it offered in schools when my generation was young and attended schools which required language courses. The reasons for the absence of that language makes a statement as strong as any reason for having it taught. Those reasons only reinforce the American part of the journey, the American part of the equation. We weren’t taught it because of prejudice. We weren’t taught it because we were descended from people who never learned the “proper” form of their own language in the first place, who spoke dialect and who were taught to be ashamed of their lack of language skill and formal learning. We weren’t taught it because they didn’t want us jabbering away in Calabrian or Sicilian or Abbrusese language forms, they left those places behind and they chose this place, this America, for their family. They accepted the fact that their language was part of what they had to sacrifice for their children's future. They created Americans, gave birth to Amerigani, to English-speaking kids, not to Italian raggazi.

We can only  reach these “kids” today by broadening our reach and definition, by reaching out to them as Americans and explain that our stories are their stories, their families, their place in the American tapestry. And reach out simultaneously to all other Americans who undoubtedly have similar interests and histories.

We need to call this emergent genre in American letters, “Legacy Writing.” My colleague and friend, Fern Schumer Chapman, author of
“Motherland,” and I have developed a series of articles attempting to define this label. Ms. Chapman’s book, subtitled, “Beyond the Holocaust, A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past,” deals with the author’s trip to Germany with her mother, one of only 1,000 Jewish children admitted to the United States in the late 1930s to escape Hitler’s anti-Semitic programs and eventual extermination. Her book is richly textured and layered dealing with both the author’s and her mother’s lives and thoughts as Americans returning to the horrors of Europe We want it labeled for what it is;  “Legacy Writing.”
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