Dante scholar Joseph Luzzi recounts his immigrant childhood and his complicated relationship with his parents’ homeland in a captivating new memoir, My Two Italies.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I’ve wanted to write My Two Italies for some 20 years now, ever since I began my graduate studies in Italian at Yale in 1994. From the moment I decided to turn my love for Italian into my career path, I felt a strong desire to share my fascination with the immigrant southern Italian world I came from and the cultural treasures from northern Italy I was studying. But, of course, back then I wasn’t nearly knowledgeable or capable enough to write a book of this nature; I had lots of learning ahead of me.
So I kept this project in the back of my mind for many years, until finally, in 2011, the year of Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation from the premiership amid a welter of controversy, the time seemed ripe. I had by then started writing about Italy and culture for non-specialist audiences—mostly essays and reviews—and I sensed that something momentous was happening in Italy, some transition that would fundamentally affect the nation for generations to come. At that point, I felt I had to tell my story and share my understanding of Italian and Italian-American culture because I truly believed that it was impossible to understand the crises that Italy was undergoing—its political struggles under Berlusconi, its ongoing battle with corruption, the tensions between its youth and an aging population—without going back (in some cases way back, all the way to Dante) in Italian history. It was then that I believed my family history could bring readers inside some of the mysteries of Italian culture writ large.
You say that you’re “Italian and American” as opposed to being an “Italian-[hyphen] American.” What’s the distinction—as you see it?
When I was growing up, I wanted nothing to do with either the “Italian” world of my parents and older siblings—all of whom were born in Calabria in the Italian south—or the “Italian-American” world of spaghetti and meatballs, Godfather movies, and bocce tournaments that surrounded me. Like most kids, I just wanted to fit in, blend in with the other americani. It’s impossible to overstate just how not typically “suburban American” my parents were, even though we actually lived in the lovely coastal suburbs of Rhode Island. My parents raised their own livestock (there seemed to be slaughtered chickens everywhere I turned), cured sausage and prosciutto in the cellar, and made me bring to school these horrifying pepper-and-egg sandwiches on homemade rolls that would drip grease on the aluminum foil when I sat down to eat them in the lunchroom. I imagined that all the other kids were staring at my freakish meal—I would have given anything for one of their bland, patriotic peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on Wonder Bread. So I was in between two worlds: too much a child of my Calabrian parents to fit in with the kids in the cafeteria, yet too attuned to the English language and the American games and sports of my classmates to be as authentically “Italian” as the Calabrian branch of my family. There was no hyphen for me, with its implication of seamlessly blended ethnicities. That feeling of being both a bit—just a bit—Italian and American reminded me that I inhabited an ethnic limbo, separated from my parents’ Italian homeland while also wondering if I would ever truly fit into this new American world.
What was your relationship with your father like during his final years?
It was not an easy one. After I graduated from college in Boston, I moved back home for a while, and he would drive me to my job at a local copy shop on the University of Rhode Island campus. For a full forty-five minutes on the road he wouldn’t say a word to me. He would just stare ahead, grimly focused on the drive, listening to Salty Brine spin the oldies on a crackling AM radio station as we rolled past the turf farms of URI. The ride felt so symbolic: growing up, we never had those normal father-son conversations that, I imagined with wild jealousy, all my other friends enjoyed with their dads (at least that’s the way it appeared to work on TV). And yet I worshiped him. He had an aura about him, with the absolute command he emanated at home, and the astonishing care and perfectionism he put into everything he did, from his manicured garden and oversized vegetables to his legendary homemade wine. Even the waves of his salt-and-pepper hair fell perfectly into place. I realize now what I could not fathom then: we were from completely different worlds, and understanding between us was impossible. By my mid-20s I had graduated from college and held a series of half-baked jobs, just like the one at the copy shop he drove me to; by his mid twenties he had endured soul-crushing poverty, fought for Italy in World War II, and survived years as a military internee—essentially forced labor—in Nazi Germany. I think the ease of my life—which he must have seen as frivolity—embarrassed him.
I remember once, when I played for the number two spot on my high school tennis team, he showed up at the Weekapaug courts in his Chevy Malibu (the same one in which we would ride in silence). He had sworn to me before the match that he was going to pull me off the courts, “davant’ a tutti,” “in front of everyone,” because I was burning expensive holes in my sneakers that we could not afford to replace. He wanted me to play in work shoes. I tried to stare down my archrival, whose wealthy family had a tennis court in their backyard—but I couldn’t focus on his white Rossignol racket with my father haunting the parking lot, just an overhead smash away from the Atlantic Ocean. My father silently raged in the car while I played, my mother expressionless beside him. She must have talked him out of his plan: after the match he just drove away. Needless to say, I lost in straight sets.
Your daughter Isabel will turn 7 this year. Are you teaching her Italian?
I have tried to teach Isabel Italian in fits and starts, but I’m embarrassed to say that thus far I haven’t been able to put together a sustained plan. Part of the blame, I guess, is on my own laziness—since I teach Italian language and culture for a living it is hard for me to stay in work mode when I come home from campus and see Isabel. And I admit I find it somewhat artificial to speak to her in a different language from the English that’s being used all around us.
But there may be a deeper reason that has held me back. Growing up, I desperately wanted my parents, with their heavily accented attempts at English (for example, “she’s a’ no’ home” for “he’s not home”) to speak proper English, and I felt that mastering the language of our new American world would be the most important and effective way of assimilating. Plus, I fell in love with English. Books became a second home to me, as Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Joyce, and other masters of the English language became passports to alternate realms, past and present, that my working-class family could not afford to travel to. Although the Italian language is profoundly important to me, I wonder if the English I speak with Isabel is somehow making up for a connection to the “American” language that I felt was missing from my own childhood all those years ago.
Has your daughter taken on any of the Calabrian traits and values of your mother?
That’s a great question. . . . Yes, I do feel my parents in her in a way that sometimes floors me. Calabrians can be known—not so flatteringly—as teste dure, “hard heads,” capable of some pretty profound stubbornness. But I think it’s more than that. For centuries, life in this impoverished southern Italian region was extremely demanding, so much so that it became synonymous with la miseria, literally “the misery”—a term denoting pervasive hardship and scarcity that bred a fatalistic worldview about the inevitable suffering life entails. To survive in this world, you had to be tough—real tough. And my family had this quality in abundance, especially my father, who endured World War II, Nazi Germany, immigration, and a life of severe labor, both as a factory worker and a landscaper. I feel that, in my own life, when I’ve faced particularly challenging or daunting circumstances, I’ve been able to draw on this instinctual “Calabrian” residue of will, even hard-headedness, in confronting a problem and making it to the other side. My daughter Isabel is a wonderfully sweet and loving kid, but she has this iron will—she simply will not give in on certain things, no matter how much she is asked to do so. This has made for some trying moments as a parent—but I can also sense her Calabrian ancestry speaking through her, and deep down I pray that this “testa dura” quality will stay with her (or at least fully blossom when she’s 18 and away at college!).
Do you view “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore” as legitimate expressions of the Italian-American character—or is there such a thing?
Yes, I do believe that in some ways “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore” are legitimate expressions of the Italian-American character, and that’s partly why I find them so potentially troubling—and not because I think that they promote dangerous stereotypes about Italian Americans. I believe that most who watch these programs understand that they are not fully representative of the Italian-American “experience.” After all, Italian Americans have produced two Supreme Court justices, four mayors of New York City, a woman vice presidential candidate and a president of Yale, to name just a few of the more prominent. But I do think that “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore” strike a cord deep within the public about Italian-American culture—just as, before them, the Godfather films did. Most Italians are descendants from poor families in the Italian south, and thus were cut off from a lot of the cultural developments in northern Italy. Moreover, many southern Italians viewed Italian unification itself—a belated political process that only took place in 1861—as the spread of northern political power into the south (and thus, no cause for patriotic celebration). I think that many Italian immigrants carried with them, out of Italy and into America, this sense of alienation from both “high” Italian culture and a cohesive sense of Italian national identity. These immigrants—my parents among them—tended to identify more with their region than with Italy as a whole.
I don’t think it’s a surprise, therefore, that so many of the popular programs about Italian-American culture—including “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore”—often celebrate the more folkloric and popular aspects of their ancestors’ Italian lives, without going deeply into questions of how the immigrant Italian world relates to Italian history and culture outside of the south. As I write in My Two Italies, Italian-American culture is essentially southern Italian culture imported to the United States. Our southern Italian heritage is something to be celebrated. But I also think it would be interesting for Italian Americans to go beyond the usual pop-cultural clichés about the “Old Country” and ask ourselves what it means to be “Italian” in the context of the troubled relation between the Italian north and south, and how this relates to massively important Italian issues like its centuries-long political fragmentation and quest for a unifying language that stretches back to Dante.
Was there any particular event that prompted you to specialize in Italian studies?
It wasn’t so much a single event as a general awakening I experienced, a few years after college, pushing me in the direction of my parents’ world and all the memories it held. When I decided to get a Ph.D. in literature, there wasn’t any particularly compelling aspect of my background that suggested it should be in Italian. I hadn’t majored in Italian as an undergraduate, and though I did take a few courses in Italian as part of a Master’s program I had enrolled in before my doctorate, it was still an open question as to which path I would pursue. But when it came down to making a career decision, it became clear to me just how much sense it would make to combine my love for literature with the mysteries of the “two Italies” I had grown up with—the customs and traditions of my parents, with their alien acts like the blood pudding they made from pigs they slaughtered, and the dreams that Italy inspired in me, especially during the life-changing junior year abroad I had spent in Florence amid its Renaissance splendor. I didn’t know this at the time, but I was compelled along by a desire to reconcile these two worlds—to show how, for all their differences, they are still part of the same, single Italian culture.
My studies would in fact teach me that the Italian quest for a national tongue that obsessed such authors as Dante and Alessandro Manzoni also shaped the lives of immigrants like my father, who had to abandon his Calabrian dialect after immigrating to the United States, a move that would essentially make him a linguistic orphan (he lost Calabrian, never learned standard Italian, and could barely speak English). So the decision to specialize in Italian studies was one of those rare and wonderful instances where my heart and my head were in sync: rationally, I knew it would be wise to focus on a literary tradition that I both admired and had cultural roots in; emotionally, I felt pulled by my deep love for my parents and their lost homeland, and I wanted to dig into our family’s past and see just where the poetry of Dante and the blood puddings of my people could connect.
Do you ever feel that Italy—apart from its art—has little new to offer you?
Another very good, tough question. Obviously I love Italy, as I have made teaching and writing about it into my life’s work. I’m aware, however, that at times my connection to Italy has been affected by the experiences of my parents and the distance that they set between themselves and Calabria after emigrating from it in the late 1950s. For example, I’m often asked if I would want to apply for dual citizenship in Italy to go along with my American passport, and my answer has always been no, I would not. It’s very difficult for me to imagine myself as a citizen of any country beside the United States, including Italy, because I think of the incredible sacrifices that my parents had to endure to become American. They had to give up their Italian citizenship when they immigrated to the United States; more than that, they had to leave behind all their friends and families, basically their entire lives, so that we, their six children, could have a better life filled with more opportunities in America. And that has certainly been the case: just one generation after my father, who had only the slightest of a grade-school education, I was lucky enough to be able to go on and receive a doctorate. The idea, in a sense, of reversing the vector and reclaiming their lost, abandoned Italian citizenship seems somehow to do an injustice to all that my parents had to sacrifice.
Of course, I realize that one could argue just the exact opposite: by reclaiming the Italian citizenship my parents had lost, I would be restoring to our family a tie to Italy that my mother and father had been forced to sever. Perhaps. But it just doesn’t quite feel that way. . . . As I wrote in my book, my mom said something to me once that truly shocked me: my father, she said, had been happy in Calabria, even carefree. That is decidedly not the image of my overworked, overstressed father that I knew growing up. He and my mother had left a Calabria that, despite its poverty, was a relatively “happy and carefree” place for them, in order to build a new home on the other side of the world. Their journey has always seemed arduous, ferociously demanding, even cruel at times—and yet, more than anything, it has been a remarkable gift. Their gift to me, one that no child can ever repay, has been a life of boundless opportunity free from the hardships of Calabria.
I’ve been surprised by the evolution of My Two Italies. When I started writing it, I imagined it would be exclusively about Italy and Italian America. I now see that it is a book about la famiglia, the family, especially in its connection to the American experience and how profoundly linked that has been to immigration. I’m in awe of my parents’ courage and resolve in embracing immigration and all that it would take from them, and I hope that my book will honor their journey.
A portion of this article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of this book.