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Chiara Mazzucchelli, The Heart and the Island: A Critical Study of Sicilian American Literature

Albany (NY), State University of New York Press, 2015, pp. 210, $ 26.95. 

 

As the title and the evocative cover art both imply, Chiara Mazzucchelli’s full-length critical study of Sicilian American literature focuses on the inextricable bond between the emotional and geographical ties that inform ethnic identity – in this case Sicilian American identity. As stated in her Introduction, Mazzucchelli sets out to demonstrate how «American authors of Sicilian descent derive inspiration from their ethnic milieu and lay out a recognizable set of Sicilian cultural markers» (p. 1), thus producing a unique body of Sicilian American literature which is related to but in significant ways distinct from the corpus of Italian American literature as it has been considered in previous critical studies (Bona, Gardaphé, Giunta, Tamburri, Viscusi, et al.). By focusing on a regional identity, Mazzucchelli proposes «an interethnic decentering project», aimed not at further fragmentation but intended instead to «expand the scope of (… )[literary] investigations to include new and previously unexplored directions and alternative approaches» (p. 141). Indeed, beyond its regional focus, Mazzucchelli’s study is unique in positing a relationship between Sicilian literary antecedents and the literary production of Sicilian American writers, effectively offering a transnational model for the study of us ethnic literature in its entirety.

The book is organized into five chapters, plus an Introduction and a Conclusion in which Mazzucchelli respectively presents and affirms her central thesis – i.e. that the works of the authors of Sicilian descent she considers in her study (Ben Morreale, Jerre Mangione, Rose Romano, and Gioia Timpanelli) can be understood as «literary manifestations of their ethnogenesis» (p. 138). She defines the parameter of her study as focusing on Sicilian American writers who deal explicitly with their Sicilian American heritage in their works, and proceeds from the premise that Sicily’s islandness not only shapes the way its inhabitants think and behave in loco, but also effectively transcends the emigration process so as to remain imprinted in the psyche of the island’s descendants in the U.S. She writes, «Sicilians show thorough consciousness of being born and living on an island and an exasperated sense of belonging that engenders an amplified sense of community and identity» (p. 22).

Mazzucchelli first explores Sicily’s islandness, defining sicilitudine through the perspectives of the region’s history and culture offered by Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci and Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, citing also the writers Gesualdo Bufalino, Salvatore Quasimodo, and Matteo Di Gesù, among others. Mazzucchelli notes that as an island located on the geographic crossroads separating Europe from Africa and Asia, «Sicily has historically been the strategic epicenter of colonizing enterprises» which has resulted in its inhabitants living in a perpetual state of existential angst in defense of which they have constructed an exaggerated sense of self. In other words, there are Sicilians and then there are «Others», and much of Italian modern history has been predicted on the «Others» trying to make sense of the Sicilians – most often at the Sicilians’ expense. Stressing the empowerment inherent in self-representation versus representation, Mazzucchelli extols how «sicilitudine as a postcolonial discourse heavily informs the literature of many Sicilian authors» (pp. 28-29). Through literature, Mazzucchelli argues, Sicilians have engaged in a process of self-investigation in defiance of the imposed hegemony of «continental» Italy, and this aspect of sicilitudine is similarly reflected in the literary corpus of the Sicilian American writers in relation to mainstream American literature.

In chapter two she examines a trilogy of novels by Ben Morreale – The Seventh Saracen (1958), A Few Virtuous Men (1973), and Monday, Tuesday . . . Never Come Sunday (1977) – which she views as collectively «presenting» sicilianamericanità to an American readership. Having spent significant portions of his childhood in Sicily, and being personally and professionally acquainted with and inspired by Sicilian writers such as Leonardo Sciascia and Elio Vittorini, Morreale serves, in Mazzucchelli’s terms, as a «perfect bridge» between Sicilian, Sicilian American, and American culture. Collectively, the three novels offer a tripartite portrait of sicilianamericanità as constructed through characters that travel between and within Sicily and Sicilian American communities. Each offers the point of view of an outsider through whose eyes the reader is invited to observe sicilianamericanità.

Mazzucchelli then focuses on two autobiographical works by Jerre Mangione – Mount Allegro (1943) and An Ethnic at Large (1978) – which she characterizes as not merely presenting but effectively articulating sicilianamericanità to the American readership. Having «broken free» from the Sicilian American enclave of Rochester, ny in which he was born and successfully integrated into «mainstream» American society, Mangione is viewed by Mazzucchelli as straddling the two worlds and thus serving as a sort of apologist for the sicilianità that his relatives bring to the American cultural landscape while simultaneously reconciling the Sicilian and American components of his personal identity.

Shifting genres, Mazzucchelli next discusses the poetry of Rose Romano in Vendetta (1990) and The Wop Factor (1994). She explores how Romano relates the theme of marginalization to her subaltern Sicilian origins. As a lesbian feminist poet, Romano feels inaccurately defined based on how she is perceived and represented by others. Racially inferior by northern Italian standards, not a «good woman» by Sicilian American standards, and a member of the white oppressor class by American lesbian standards, Romano is excluded on all fronts by how others would have her be classified. In response, she embraces an identity expressed through her poetry as an olive-skinned wop dyke. 

Finally, in the final chapter, Mazzucchelli turns her attention to story-teller and writer Gioia Timpanelli, whose bi-cultural fluency and cross-genre aptitude is evidenced in her work Sometimes the Soul: Two Novellas of Italy (1998). In her original career as a story-teller, Timpanelli combined the Sicilian storytelling tradition she had been raised on with American folk traditions. When she turns to writing Sometimes the Soul, she reproduces a number of traditional Sicilian tales, but places them in a framework which lends them new interpretations imbued with feminist sensibilities. 

Mazzucchelli’s Sicilian American literary choices at first glance may seem rather disjointed and random – with Morreale and Mangione being representative of an earlier and more confessional/expository generation of ethnic writers, while Romano and Timpanelli are not only further removed from the immigrant experience but also work in disparate genres (poetry and folktales, respectively). Mazzucchelli, however, justifies her choices by noting that Sicilian islandness has, in Bufalino’s terms, spawned «an excess of identity» (p. 22), the diversity of which she seeks to represent. «Combined together» she writes, the works of the writers she has chosen «create a melodious cacophony of voices» (p.15). She rounds out her study by referencing numerous other Sicilian American writers whose works she has, however, not chosen to form the nucleus of her investigation (e.g. Guido D’Agostino, Diane Di Prima, Josephine Gattuso Hendin, et al.), and specifically notes that hers is not a semiotic investigation, but rather one concerned with «the deliberate articulation of sicilianamericanità as identity politics» (p. 9). In this regard, Mazzucchelli’s work distinguishes itself for the transnational connection it makes between Sicilian American literature and the literature of the region of its origin (i.e. Sicily) by exploring the «signs of convergence or divergence of (…) two literary traditions» (p. 141). Her stated intent to engage in «an interethnic decentering project», meanwhile, is realized in her having focused her investigation on sicilianamericanità, in contrast to previous investigations of Italian American ethnicity that proceeded from an amalgamated, homogenized construct of italamericanità. One could argue that in its specificity, Mazzucchelli’s approach offers a more accurate view and proposes a model of investigating ethnic identity by further breaking it down into its particulars so as to represent it most holistically. All in all, Mazzucchelli provides an original model for the critical study of both Italian American and other ethnic literatures in the usa, and her work has much to offer anyone interested in American ethnic literature. 

Carla Anne Simonini
(Youngstown State University)

 

 

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