In Search of ‘Italian American’

I am surprised by the push back I often receive from other Americans of Italian descent when I use the term Italian American. The strongest reactions seem to come from people like me, first generation American-born or those who emigrated before they were old enough to remember life in Italy. We were raised to be “Good Americans,” to speak English well, to vote, to serve our country: to fit in, but not too much, you should never forget where you came from.

I have had argued with friends who insist that Italian American doesn’t exist. Others who take umbrage to the term prefer to say that we are Americans of Italian descent, as though anything else is treasonous. This is particularly laughable because that is precisely the standard definition of Italian American. That was the assumption beyond Martin Scorsese’s 1974 documentary, Italian American, which opened a window on his family’s life and history as, well, Italian Americans.

I first encountered the term in the early eighties in its Italian form, Italo-Americano. I was ten and had just been relocated to Italy, my father’s homeland, for his job. Since the plan was to return to the States in a few years and could only speak a few words of Italian, with the obvious exception of my father, we were enrolled in the American School of Milan. Many of my classmates at ASM were like me, American citizens of Italian descent. Others were Italian citizens whose parents were either diplomats or wealthy business executives who wanted their children to have a command of English and the prestige of a private American education. Then there were the Italo-Americani. These kids bridged the American and the Italian. Through one circumstance or another, they held dual citizenship: either one of their parents was an American citizen and the other an Italian citizen or their Italian-born, American naturalized parent had returned to Italy and lived there long enough that the Italian granted them the rights of citizenship and because they did not request it, they were allowed to maintain their American citizenship as well.

These were the cool kids in my school. They were intelligent, well-rounded and generally classy at least to my eyes, peeking out from above a nose that had just started growing faster than the rest of the features on my pimpled face and still wearing clothes from Sears. Unlike the rest of us who either spoke English like Edward R. Morrow and Italian like James Caan or Italian like Marcello Mastroianni and English like Father Guido Sarducci, they spoke both in measured tones and without a hint of an accent in either. When we all got back from school holidays while my friends and I chatted about whether our grandparents had sent us Jiff or Skippy in our Christmas care packages the Italo-Americani casually mentioned sunning in Tahiti with Mick Jagger’s family or skiing in Austria with Princess Stèphanie of Monaco.

But since I was neither stylish nor polished and we would be back in the US long before the Italian government would get around to offering my father his citizenship (although even at eleven I know that dual citizenship would not clear up acne or make my ears an appropriate size for my face) I stuck with the designated American crowd, at least they knew who the Yankees were.

When I returned to my homeland a few years later the question of whether I was Italian or American took a backseat to my efforts to eliminate that heavy Queens accent I had had all my speaking life. My accent had never been a cause for concern in the multi-national environment I had in Italy but gave the powers that be in my new school yet another reason to shove me into the lockers of my New Jersey high school. Granted this was the same cadre who didn’t know the lyrics to the national anthem, couldn’t find Trenton on a map of New Jersey and had no clue that there were actually homeless people living less than 35 miles away in the cities of Newark and New York, but reminding them of this would only get me wedged into an even smaller locker.

But there was no denying that my time in Italy has changed the delicate balance between my American and Italian sides. I could now speak what my Abruzzese grandparents referred to as ‘good Italian’ fluently. And while this made my nonni proud, it didn’t do much to endear me to my “American” cousins who, in spite of being younger than me, were all allowed to wear makeup and date.

For the next ten years I waffled between two minds: “I’m Italian” vs. “I’m American.”  But what I wanted is to find a way to be both.

It didn’t help that I fell in love with and eventually married an American so far removed from his Irish German roots as to make the designation irrelevant. While the thought of losing a piece of his history tragic by beloved found my background a little overwhelming. Like all newlyweds we build our own traditions out of our respective backgrounds. I gave up Sunday afternoon dinner and he accepted lasagna on Christmas and ravioli with a rosemary roasted turkey at our early Thanksgiving dinner (the late dinner, a few hours later, includes a “traditional” turkey and all the frozen vegetables you can eat). To the Dotzmans I am “the Italian.”

Their assuredness didn’t help me; in fact it only compounded my struggle to find my place. I saw myself as too Italian to be American and too American to be Italian. Through writing I started to find clarity. Not my own writing, at first, but by other women like Helen Barolini and Rita Ciresi whose characters fought to find their places. With these women and many others as inspiration I started to feel comfortable writing stories true to my own experience.

By the time I finished the first draft of Of Asphalt and Earth I realized what Italian American means. Being American means that I am a citizen of the United States, carry a US passport, pay my taxes, vote and celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. And none of these things conflict with the spectrum of Italian American culture that colors the words I use, the foods I eat, the way I relate to my family and the way I look at the world. It is a spectrum because it includes me, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Geraldine Ferraro, Dean Martin and as much as I hate to admit it Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. There’s even a place on the spectrum for those who refuse to believe that there is a spectrum.

Just like at Sunday dinner, there’s always room for one more.


A Modest Parenting ‘Always’ List

A little while ago I took issue with the ‘Never’ list that features so prominently in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and as much as I hate to admit it, I was inspired. Not to suddently force my son to stand out in the winer cold (I suppose summer heat would have much the same impact with the added benefit of not having to wait until December to discipline my child) until his will is crushed, but rather to define my own views on parenting. Unlike Chua, I do not blame my parenting on my ethnicity, although other Italian Americans may find something familiar in my list.

          Create, even if it makes a mess
          Think for yourself
          Ask questions, respectfully
          Eat whatever is placed in front of you
          Finish what you start
          Listen to your grandparents’ (and great-grandparents’) stories
          Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’
          Work hard
          Have faith

What makes your ‘Always’ List?

Join Us in Danbury

I hope you will join me as I read from my novel, Of Asphalt and Earth.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011 @ 7pm

Westside Classroom Building, Room 218
Western Connecticut State University Westside Campus
3 Lake Avenue Ext.
Danbury, CT 06811

I will be joined that evening by the amazing Dan Pope, author of In the Cherry Tree.

Of Asphalt and Earth is a story of immigration and it’s impact on generations of one family. Cristina cannot remember a time when she didn’t feel out of place despite a successful career in writing and academia. Her perception of herself and her place begins to change as her grandmother shares her storia of escaping Nazi occupation, uprooting herself from her beloved central Italian village and her struggling to find her place in her new world while attempting to hold her family together. In her nonna’s life Cristina finds the wisdom and the courage to take her place in her own storia.

A View from the West

Call children “garbage” when they don’t live up to your standards.

Leave them to stand outside in the middle of a New England winter without a coat until they bend to your will.

Of course, in extreme situations when they are frustrated after a week’s hard work on a piano piece they still cannot master, continue practice through dinner without stopping and do not let them up for any reason, not for water, not to go to the bathroom (admittedly the former does makes the latter more bearable). All the while, continue screaming at the top of your lungs until you lose your voice.

That’s good parenting, according to Amy Chua. And my kids think I’m strict.

This is a brave account. Chua details events that would make the NJ Department of Youth and Family Services actually show up for a scheduled appointment. I am convinced that Chua genuinely believes that she has always acted in her daughters’ best interest, although she does acknowledge that her opinion has changed somewhat and maybe it has, but this book certainly doesn’t support that. Granted, that is probably more a factor of her being a poor writer than an unchanged parent.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been marketed and attacked as an apology for and celebration of Chinese parenting. However, it is primarily an un-engaging memoir of Chua’s struggle to reconcile her Chinese culture with the dominant American culture, of which she is also a part. This is something to which I could relate if it weren’t for a number of other idiosyncrasies that get in the way: namely her need to continually remind the reader of her success and importance, her shaky ability to convey humor and what seems to be a general misunderstanding of how to construct a memoir.

According to publishing wisdom in order to be published an author needs a platform. In short, something that makes someone an expert. Something that a person knows better than anyone else. This could be something monumental, think Stephen Jay Gould on evolutionary biology or Dr. Oz on heart disease; or completely insignificant, I can think of no other reason someone would actually try to read a novel by Snooki. How much value does being a self-proclaimed guidette add to society? Amy Chua is the successful child of Chinese immigrants. That’s enough for me. I don’t need the constant reminder of her Ivy League education or the classes she teaches at Yale. I can remember where someone works and where she was educated without being reminded every five pages.

I don’t usually seek outside sources when reviewing books because I like for works to speak for themselves, but in this case I couldn’t help myself. The book’s message was immediately confusing. Chua opens her work by giving readers a list of her personal parenting ‘Don’ts’ that have resulted in successful children. The whole list could be boiled down to the following:

1. Without question, do everything your parents force you to.
2. Have no life outside what your parents demand of you.
3. Be better than everyone else (particularly the progeny of Western parents).

 I wasn’t sure how to take this. It sounded vaguely like someone who has no inherent sense of humor trying to be funny. If this were the case it would also explain Chua’s comment that playing drums leads to drug use. I found an interview of Chua by Alison Stewart of Need to Know on PBS that confirmed my suspicions. Although she used terms like “comedic” and “tongue in cheek” it amounts to the same thing: comments that are too ridiculous to be taken seriously and not over-the-top enough to be funny.

Generally in memoir a reader can expect the protagonist to develop over the course of the work. I don’t see it in Tiger Mother. Chua starts out as the domineering mother of two exceptionally talented musicians and by the end she is the domineering mother of one exceptionally obedient and talented musician and one strong-willed, up-and-coming tennis player. This is obviously an earth-shattering transformation in Chua’s eyes, but not so much to mine. And that’s the main problem: audience. As a Western parent (albeit a daughter of determined immigrants) I can’t relate to Chua the way she needs me to in order to engage my attention and sympathies for this disjointed narrative.

What do you think?