Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers

Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers

Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers

Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers


Mary Jo Bona reconstructs the literary history and examines the narrative techniques of eight Italian American women's novels from 1940 to the present. Largely neglected until recently, these women's family narratives compel a reconsideration of what it means to be a woman and an ethnic in America.

Bona discusses the novels in pairs according to their focus on Italian American life. She first examines the traditions of italianitá (a flavor of things Italian) that inform and enhance works of fiction. The novelists in that tradition were Mari Tomasi ( Like Lesser Gods, 1949) and Marion Benasutti ( No Steady Job for Papa, 1966).

Bona then turns to later novels that highlight the Italian American belief in the family's honor and reputation. Conflicts between generations, specifically between autocratic fathers and their children, are central to Octavia Waldo's 1961 A Cup of the Sun and Josephine Gattuso Hendin's 1988 The Right Thing to Do.

Even when writers choose to steer away from the familial focus, Bona notes, their developmental narratives trace the reintegration of characters suffering from a crisis of cultural identity. Relating the characters' struggles to their relationship to the family, Bona examines Diana Cavallo's 1961 A Bridge of Leaves and Dorothy Bryant's 1978 Miss Giardino.

Bona then discusses two innovative novels- Helen Barolini's 1979 Umbertina and Tina De Rosa's 1980 Paper Fish - both of which feature a granddaughter who invokes her grandmother, a godparent figure. Through Barolini's feminist and De Rosa's modernist perspectives, both novels present a young girl developing artistically.

Closing with a discussion of the contemporary terrain Italian American women traverse, Bona examines such topics as sexual identity when it meets cultural identity and the inclusion of italianitá when Italian American identity is not central to the story. Italian American women writers, she concludes, continue in the 1980s and 1990s to focus on the interplay between cultural identity and women's development.


In her 1977 Douglass College Convocation speech, Adrienne Rich urged female students to think of themselves as claiming an education, not as passively receiving one. She defined "to claim" as "to assert in the face of possible contradiction" and in contrast defined "to receive" as "to act as [a] receptacle or container for." The way a female student approaches her education is vital: "The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death" (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence 231).

Much of the same can be said for Italian American women writers. Their work has come to light because of the assertions of writers and scholars seeking to place them within both their Italian and American cultural and literary traditions. Even in the 1990s, however, claiming a tradition for Italian American women writers is an act of assertion in the face of possible resistance. As late as 1993, the Italian American writer Gay Talese was asking "Where are the Italian-American novelists?" and offering an essentialist argument to answer his own question: Italian Americans are harnessed by a heritage of omertà (silence) and cannot extricate themselves from it.

As early as 1949, Olga Peragallo had produced Italian-American Authors and Their Contribution to American Literature, reinforcing the fact that Italian Americans did not abide by the cultural code of silence. More of a biographical listing than an examination, Peragallo's book nonetheless put Italian-descended writers on the literary map. Rose Basile Green 1974 The Italian-American Novel. A Document of the Interaction of Two Cultures offered a so-

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