Strega Nona's Ethnic Alchemy: Magic Pasta, Stregheria and That Amazing Disappearing "N"

By Insana, Lina | MELUS, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Strega Nona's Ethnic Alchemy: Magic Pasta, Stregheria and That Amazing Disappearing "N"


Insana, Lina, MELUS


Introduction

The children's book illustrator and writer Tomie dePaola had already made the grandmother figure the focus of his 1972 Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs when, in 1975, at the height of the season of American ethnic pride, he doodled the character that would become "Strega Nona," or "Grandma Witch." Based in part on his own Italian American grandmother Concetta, and spawning a total of eight books to date, the Strega Nona series of children's picture books has become a fascinating component of Italian American identity creation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and an example of how Italian Americans acculturate their children to this identity within the context of the children's literature genre. That dePaola has chosen this mode for ethnic expression is indicative of his position at a cultural crossroads. Children's literature--and the post-industrial childhood literacy that it assumes--is part and parcel of the affluence to which many Italian Americans now have access, but which was not part of the typically poor Southern culture of their immigrant Italian forebears. At the same time, this genre, as a mechanism of intergenerational continuity and transmission, allows writers like dePaola to perceive and preserve iconic traces of their italianita, or "Italianness."

Both as character and as text, Strega Nona/Strega Nona has much to offer the field of Italian American studies as a clear exponent of what Fred Gardaphe calls the mythic or hybrid age of Italian American literature. The title character's twin attributes of strega and non(n)a grant the title character a unique alchemic power in dynamics of Italian American identity creation by tapping into both the comfortable distance afforded by the grandparent figure and the specificity of Strega Nona's Southern Italian folk magic. (1) Within this context, this article will explore three areas in which the series carries particular interest in the realm of Italian American identity: taxonomies of Italian American literature and ethnic hybridity, the iconic figure of the grandmother and its function in ethnic identity creation, and stregheria's emerging role as a touchstone of the uniqueness of italianita.

Strega Nona as an Italian American Text

Almost from its inception, Italian American studies has been uniquely preoccupied with its own development as a field and with the elaboration of an adequate critical apparatus. Starting with Rose Basile Green's The Italian American Novel (1979), (2) critics of Italian American letters principally have been concerned with matters of self-definition: what is Italian American Literature? Why has it taken so long for the field to emerge? How can we talk about the Italian American writer in ways that are both specific and inclusive, recognizing both what s/he has taken from the host culture and shares with the culture of origin? At the heart of this existential crisis--both for the field and for the individual writer--is the question of italianita, those characteristics of Italian culture that manifest themselves as artifacts of a text's hybridity. The object of prejudice and derision for the first generations of Italian Americans, and the source of ethnic pride for more recent ones, italianita is the basic element of Italian American cultural studies, around which most critical taxonomies have been arranged.

For the earliest exponents of Italian American writing, their italianita was far more than a mere sign of cultural otherness. Insofar as a core value of this mostly Southern italianita was a profound distrust of anyone outside the restrictive family unit, the sharing of personal information in a public forum was frowned upon, even if it was in the service of the creation of a literary self. This interdiction on expressive communication was only compounded by the fact that the overwhelming majority of immigrants from Italy during the great wave of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries relied on oral modes of communication in both the private and public spheres. …

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