Interview with Paul Paolicelli on
Under the Southern Sun
1. What inspired you to write this book?
I was amazed by the number and quality of responses I received from my first book, Dances With Luigi. I seemed to have tapped a nerve with many people who had also been looking into their own family stories, digging into fading records, asking questions. The book brought me into contact with long-lost relatives, caused family reunions, made friends out of former strangers and generated a ton of mail, e-mail and phone calls from readers who wanted to share their own stories and research with me. I realized how important this topic of origins and family history is becoming, especially when you consider that genealogy is the fastest growing avocation in our society. My friends in Utah say that the Mormon Church's family research center is directly responsible for the up tick in tourism to Salt Lake City. It  seems that people can?t get enough information about the past.  I wanted, and it seemed to me that many of my readers wanted, to learn more on the Southern Italian experience.
2. Why Southern Italian?
Over eighty-percent of all Americans of Italian origin are Southern Italian, which was not a well explained story when we were growing up. I tried to find out why that was the case, and why none of that first generation spent a lot of time or effort talking about it. It's not a subject many in my generation, including me, knew much about. And it turns out it's much greater story than the just a matter of red and white sauce.  The relationship between northern and southern Italy is really a story of differing cultures, varying languages and separate histories. But I also try to tell with this book a much larger story, and that's all of our stories, the tales of people who, because of time and circumstance, were forced to leave their homelands and come to this great political and social experience called America. It's not so much the Italian history that I write about, but how those Italians became Americans, and in the extension, how all of us became what we are today.
An ancient castle wall looms above the Calabrian seaside village of Amantea. A fort or some sort of lookout has been on this spot since before the Greeks arrived.
3. Are Italian-Americans your primary audience?
I would hope that anyone could find this book interesting, but of course realize that it has a special appeal to those who share in this heritage. In a broader sense, it's a story of only one of the many tiles that comprise the American mosaic, and that mosaic has always fascinated me, as I believe it does most Americans.
4. How would you categorize this book? Is it history? Memoir? Journalism?
I have had many conversations with a colleague and fellow writer, Fern Schumer Chapman about this very subject of genre or literary category. Fern wrote the book, Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust, A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past. Her book and my first book were released at the same time and were both chosen for the Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers" program, which is how we became aware of each other's writing.  Ms. Chapman wrote an article for "Forward," in which she suggested that our form of writing was being ghettoized and not put into proper context on the part of libraries and book sellers. Fern's book is listed under several categories including Judaica and women's studies, while "Luigi" is mostly under "Travel Narrative" in book stores. Those categories only tell a small part of the story.
Fern and I both believe that there needs to be a firmly established category of American letters which we think should be termed "Legacy Writing." A clear place in libraries and book stores where people can find this sort of writing, this hybrid of history, memoir, journalism and journaling. We're developing a seminar on this topic. Legacy Writing is far more than pure memoir or travel narrative, it's the stories of ourselves told by ourselves. Not formal histories, as such, but like that wonderful Italian word, la storia, it's both the history and the story of our individual experiences in the American fabric, told from a highly individualistic point of view. It's a defining narrative of who we are individually and how we live in our individual identities as well as collectively in the American identity. Legacy writing tells the little stories that overarch the larger historical events and places. It offers a unique perspective on very important pieces of the American puzzle.
5. Can you give another example of this type of writing?
Think of Amy Tan and her superb stories of Chinese-American experiences. Or Edward Ball whose book, Slaves in the Family, dealt with his South Carolinian ancestry and the legacy of both African-Americans and white Americans. Dan Bradley's powerful story of his Marine hero father in Flags of our Fathers. Frank McCourt's groundbreaking books on his Irish roots. In Texas, I was a member of the Houston Writers League and came into contact with several authors writing wonderful tales of the Mexican-American adventure--magnificent stories that have a great deal of difficulty finding their way into the mainstream publishing and media worlds. These books tell so much beyond a data-generated history of dates and demographics. They tell of sub-cultures, of hopes and defeats, of the extraordinary spirit of the individual, of their triumphs and heartbreaks. They tell us who we are. They tell us where we?ve been. And I think they might even be able to predict where we are going.
6. What does Under the Southern Sun tell about that hasn't been told before?
I don't believe there is such a thing as an original story. But I do believe that every writer has their own voice and vision which they try and bring to the subject. I have an ongoing love affair with Italy and an ever deepening appreciation for my heritage. My writing is an attempt to share that passion and attempt to explain both the country that produced my forbearers and the spiritual legacy I have inherited from them. This book is essentially  a ramble in a place beyond beautiful. I've included several stories of its people, hope I discovered some of the elements that formed them, and tried to tell the colorful tales of how those people and ideas came across and became an integral and fascinating part of the American experience.
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