Italian American Writers
When Gay Talese raised the question, "Where are the Italian American Novelists?" on the front page of the March 14, 1993 New York Times Book Review, I believed that he might be bringing, for the first time, national attention to the possibilities that there might be a literary tradition that is distinctly Italian American. However, hindered by his lack of familiarity with the vast body of literature created by American writers of Italian descent, Talese reduced the experience of Italian-American writers to his own, and offered a number of explanations which sound plausible, but which, in reality, do not reflect my belief that you are what you read. Since he had not read Italian-American writers, he could only ask the question.
The history of the reception of literature produced by Italian Americans can be seen in microcosm through the Talese episode. From the earliest contributions found in Italian language newspapers to the first appearances of Italian-American writers in mainstream American publications, the poetry and prose produced by American writers of Italian descent has been viewed as singular achievements by anomalies. Why then, in spite of the fact that such prominent American critics as Frank Lentricchia locate the origins of Italian-American fiction in Luigi Ventura's 1886 collection of short stories Misfits and Remnants, did it take nearly one hundred years for a sense of a tradition to be realized? One answer lies in the fact that until recently, Italian-American culture has not depended on a literary tradition for a sense of cultural survival. Yet, it was a literary tradition which literally saved my life.
If it were not for reading, I would have become a gangster. This I know for a fact. I grew up in the 1950s, when the only Italians you saw on television were either crooning love songs or singing like canaries in front of televised government investigations. In my neighborhood, we never played cowboys and Indians. Inspired by television programs like The Untouchables, we played cops and robbers, and none of us ever wanted to be the cops. While there might have been Italian-American cops in our town, there were none on television. It is no wonder then that many of us young Italian-American boys became so infatuated with the attention given to the Italian American criminals that we found our own ways of gaining that notoriety and power.
Once, while I was being chased by the police for disturbing local merchants so my partners could shoplift, I ran into the public library. I found myself in the juvenile section and grabbed a book to hide my face. Safe from the streets, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading, believing that nobody would ever find me there. And I was right. So whenever I was being chased, I would head straight for the library, which became my asylum.
The Godfather was the first book with which I could completely identify, and it inspired my choice of the Mafia as a topic for the dreaded senior-year, semester-long thesis paper that my Irish-Catholic prep school required. One way or another I had been connected to the Mafia since I left my Italian neighborhood to attend high school, so I decided it was time to find out what this thing called Mafia was.
This was the first writing project to excite me. The more research I did, the more I learned about the men I thought I had known. Whenever I saw familiar names I would be amazed that they had done something so important that someone had taken the time to write about them. People never talked, in public at least, about these men.
One night I was in the back room of a restaurant for a private party given by my employers. I was the youngest employee, and as we were being served my boss turned the group's attention to me by proudly asking what I had been doing in school. I told them, quite loudly, that I was doing a research paper on the Mafia. When he asked what I was reading, I blurted out, The Valachi Papers. Everyone stopped talking and turned to me. I was shocked by the sudden silence; my eyes went around the table and I realized that there were men in that room who had their names in that book. Someone changed the subject and nobody said another word about my project.