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Nancy Caronia and Edvige Giunta, eds. Personal Effects. Essays on Memoir, Teaching and Culture in the Works of Louise DeSalvo

New York, Fordham University Press, 2015, pp. 276, $ 50. 

Personal Effects stands as a superb and multilayered contribution to the scholarship of Louise DeSalvo. Although conceptualized as a festschrift to mark DeSalvo’s seventieth birthday in 2012, the result is a deeply-layered understanding of her involvement with key issues in U.S. and British culture throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as well as to embrace topics as varied as immigration, family, ethnicity, gender, class, feminism, illness, and food. As Anthony Tamburri points out in the afterword to the collection, Louise DeSalvo is one of those rare intellectuals who «has done it all: fiction, memoir, theory, literary criticism, biography, and essay» (p. 251). In fact, her scholarship has significantly contributed to Italian American studies, to Virginia Woolf scholarship, and to the literary genre of the memoir. 

I personally discovered her work when I was an English major and I came across her book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989). DeSalvo reads Woolf’s work through the lens of her own childhood sexual abuse and she explores how Woolf’s views and work were a conscious effort to speak out about her childhood experiences in an attempt to change her environment and the society where those abuses took place. In addition, DeSalvo chose Woolf as a role model and followed her example in developing her own approach to introspective writing. In fact, it is through her work as a Woolf scholar that she was able to discover an approach to writing that is liberating and healing. 

I discovered her memoir Vertigo during a discussion with Edvige Giunta at my first iasa Conference 2006 in Orlando. I read it in one day. Afterwards, I taught it for many years in my classes on the Italian American experience. With each class, I noticed a shift in the class discussions that I had never seen before. This experience mirrors those detailed in Margaux Fragoso’s opening essay; the reading caused both my students and me to become inspired by DeSalvo’s ability to share about her traumatic experiences in beautiful prose and with a dignity that broke the shame of transgenerational trauma that is often left unvoiced in order to maintain la bella figura, a good appearance in the name of the family honor and reputation. Her memoir enlightened us on how being inauthentic erodes and compromises our unique sense of self, prevents us from being fully self-expressed, and keeps us from genuinely connecting with others. DeSalvo tackles the controversial literary genre of the memoir and is able to challenge the Italian and Italian American mindset of «do not wash your dirty laundry in public» (i panni sporchi si lavano in famiglia) that attempts to protect the appearance of normalcy «above all else, sometimes even over life itself» (p. 39), as Margaux Fragoso points out. A survivor of sexual abuse and adultery, DeSalvo refuses to identify herself as a victim of her past and regains control of the narrative of her life. 

The collection gathers sixteen essays by scholars and creative nonfiction writers followed by Tamburri’s afterword. It is divided into three sections: memoir, teaching, and culture. These shed light on DeSalvo’s work as well as on her persona and offer a myriad of perspectives on her groundbreaking work. Each essay highlights different aspects of DeSalvo’s writing, weaving together a seamless narrative of all the themes that inform her writing and the experience other scholars and writers have had with both her work and their own memoir writing. The volume encompasses topics ranging from her work as a Woolf scholar, to her fearlessness in sharing her personal story, her working-class family dysfunctions, Italian-American immigration, her feelings of marginalization linked to her ethnicity, class, and gender, and her ability to claim her voice as a working-class Italian-American woman.

Personal Effects compellingly invites DeSalvo’s reader to ponder how her powerful writing stems from the courage she shows in liberating herself from generational and cultural pretenses, as well as from the traditional beliefs expected to define her identity and self-worth. It becomes obvious that the fear of disclosing unpleasant truths and traumatic events precludes any authentic liberations. Yet once one’s story is acknowledged and spoken, the telling can create new possibilities, rewrite the past, and forge a new future. DeSalvo believes that we are at different stages of our life each time we write and that the same event may be recounted in multiple ways through the lens of memory. The nonlinear journey of the memoir focuses as much on the self as on the collective. The self is understood in connection to different contexts. In fact, «Memoir offers not a complete picture, but instead a fractal image of an experience or related experiences that shape a life…Memoir, with its associative, spiral narrative, seeks to illuminate and understand the ties between the self and the world» (p. 1). 

Particularly striking in this collection are the complex narratives of food that create a connection to family history and also deeply problematize the typical Italian-American space of the kitchen, as John Gennari’s essay underlines. DeSalvo, the truthteller, tells the story of who she is with honesty, even through her meditations on food. Food becomes the lens through which to probe deeper into relationships of love, and also hatred. The kitchen, a space usually associated with emotions such as comfort, joy, communality, and sharing, here becomes colored with negative emotions, «deep sadness and anger of the people who gather there» (p. 235), and becomes the carrier of violence, pain, and suffering. At times, what we do not remember can be more revealing than what we do remember. Becoming food-obsessed later in her life is, for DeSalvo, «a vendetta» (p. 236) against the experiences of violence she endured at the dinner table and against her mother’s bad cooking. «I want the food I make to be perfect. With each perfect meal I make, I can undo the past,» she writes in her memoir Crazy in The Kitchen. We can never undo the past but we can certainly put it back to where it belongs – the past – and generate the future by making sure the past stops with us. And this is what DeSalvo sets an example on how to do. 

 

Patrizia La Trecchia (University of South Florida)

 

 

 

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