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Joseph Luzzi, My Two Italies

New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2014, 204 pp., $ 23.

Q. When is an American not an American?

A. When s/he’s an Italian-American.

Q. When is an Italian not an Italian?

A. When s/he’s an Italian-American.

 

Such are the riddles of immigrant identity, the knots and nots faced by those citizens who dwell in the hyphen nation of betwixt and between, where the language of daily life is accented with confusion. Because I am one such citizen, Joseph Luzzi’s book speaks to me with special meaning, evoking countless conundra of a childhood in which I was introduced to several Italies, and several Americas, too.

Luzzi’s two Italies are, at least on the surface, the southern Italy of Calabria and the mezzogiorno from which his parents emigrated in the 1950s, and the northern Italy of Florence and surrounding Tuscany, where he himself lived, on and off, as a graduate student and a professor of Italian. But in a larger sense Luzzi’s two Italies are, on the one hand, the spaghetti-and-meatballs, Godfather and Sopranos Italy of Italian-Americans, the hardscrabble, claw-your-way through the New World of impoverished newcomers who barely speak English, and, on the other, the dreamy aristocratic Italy of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Dante, Manzoni, and, more recently, Fellini, Antonioni, even Versace and Armani – a glamorous patria from which his peasant forebears were as distant when dwelling in Calabria as they were, later, after settling in Rhode Island. Luzzi shows that to learn Italian – and to immerse himself in Italianità – meant coming to terms with the sun-scorched earth and intransigent dialect of his parents’ original home even while mastering the linguistic and aesthetic terms that shape the elegance of Florence.

As for the multiple Americas, Luzzi examines these mostly by implication, but his two versions of the vexed New World so many immigrants called l’America parallel his two Italies. On the one hand, there’s the oppressive land of «broken English, canned tomatoes…[and] home-made wine,» all «reek[ing] of the Old Country.» And on the other, the yearned-for other land of «leafy New England university» campuses, fetching blonde undergraduates, wasp privilege, and yes, even the meticulous study of Italian tradition. «When Italian Americans claim cultural ancestry in the land of Dante, Galileo, Michelangelo, and the like, they’re engaging in a public act of wish fulfillment» Luzzi explains, since most originally hailed from the oppressed south that «the Italian north has traditionally viewed… as a massive altro.» English travelers from Shelley to the Brownings to D. H. Lawrence, and Americans from Margaret Fuller to the contemporary owners of Tuscan «villas» may well have felt – may well feel – more at home in that classical land than the offspring of Sicilian or Calabrese immigrants.

All this resonates for me, as it will for many others who grew up in an often-confusing hyphen nation. The first Italy I knew was actually Sicily, the island from which my mother, Angela Caruso, set sail at the age of seven, along with her parents and eight older siblings. Another Italy I knew was Liguria, the land that flavored the cuisine of my Nicois grandfather, Amedee Mortola, a restaurateur nicknamed «Frenchy» who married my Russian grandma in Paris and brought my father, Alexis, to New York at the age of two. But the Italy I heard the most about was unfortunately the fascist country led by that scary dictator Benito Mussolini, who joined with Hitler and Hirohito to constitute the trilogy of ogres we were fighting throughout World War II, when I was a little girl. That Italy was a land I didn’t want to be part of: it was wicked, dangerous, and anti-American. And I most assuredly wanted to be a safe American child. How early did I figure out that having a last name ending with a consonant was not the proper way to be an American? By the time I was digging in my victory garden at school, I knew that the bad Italians were our enemies. And yet there was more to worry about: Italians in the movies were upsetting and embarrassing too. Chico Marx, with his humiliating accent and crazy gestures; the impoverished Italian peasants in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I didn’t want to battle American G.I.’s or be rescued by George Bailey, aka Jimmy Stewart. Oh no, I wanted to live in a white clapboard American house and have a name like Smith or Jones or Bailey or Stewart. I wanted to live in Hollywood’s dream of small town America!

Yet even while I wanted to be a stereotypical American – a kind of WASP paper doll like the cut-out Shirley Temples I played with – I was secretly enthralled by the spices of life that infused the kitchens of my Sicilian aunts and my Nicois-Ligurian grandpa. My fantasy America, like one of Luzzi’s two Americas, may have been a leafy white-bread rural town, but it was also an increasingly enticing set of Little Italys in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Arancini! Pasta infornata! Grandpa’s spinach-mushroom-sausage stuffing for our Thanksgiving turkey, so much more celebratory than the austere New England bread stuffings I occasionally tasted in restaurants! As I neared adolescence, Mussolini safely defeated, I began to take pride in my Italianità. I was not an American, I boasted to my classmates, flaunting my European heritage.

But of course, like Luzzi, I discovered when I finally journeyed to what had become a mythic patria that I wasn’t really Italian either. Indeed, unlike Luzzi, who spoke Calabrian at home and learned «real» Italian in college, I had never learned to speak the language with any skill. My Paris-born father was raised speaking some French, my mother spoke Sicilian: English was what my parents spoke to me and each other, and to this day I’m a hopeless Anglophone. In any case, my own various sojourns in Italy have always dramatized my situation in puzzling ways. So much of what I see, smell, taste, and hear, whether in Liguria or Sicily (or for that matter Rome or Naples) is eerily familiar – because deeply familial – and yet it is also, and always will be, as alien as the accents and customs that were already disappearing from the households of my childhood.

«There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American» opined Theodore Roosevelt in 1915, adding that «a good American» is someone «who is an American and nothing else.» Can the same be said of «a good Italian»? What, or who, then, is an Italian (and) American, or a not Italian (and) not American, hyphen or no hyphen? Luzzi’s book brilliantly explores the implications of such a paradoxical identity.

 

Sandra M. Gilbert (University of California, Davis)

 

 

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