Writing by lesbians & gay men of Italian descent
Edited by Giovanna (Janet) Capone, Denise Nico Leto and Tommi Avicolli Mecca
Three Guineas Press, 1999
Hey Paesan! is a startling and awesome anthology.
I was always proud of my Italian heritage, but at the same time, I never really thought about it. It was something that was always there, but only as a little extra flavoring in my life. I was proud that nobody could ever pronounce my name, and learned to spell it at an early age by hearing my mother patiently spell it over and over on the phone. ("N as in Nancy, u, cci....") I have a grandmother who immigrated from Italy in the 1930s, who still has a very strong Italian accent. But I never knew many stories about her life. I never noticed when other people were Italian, or thought about the connections between our lives. (Halfway through this book: "Oh my god! Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian!")
This anthology has changed all that. Now I understand so much more about the different things that it means to be Italian, and I understand that what I know is only a tiny drop in the bucket. Hey Paesan! is a book to be read in small doses, especially if it speaks to your own heritage. At least, that's how I had to read it. Every few pages, I would come across some new idea, image, or fact which I had never before discovered, and have to stop to take it all in. It is packed with oral history interviews, poems, political analyses, stories, and personal essays.
And All Gaul Was Divided into Three Parts....
The anthology is divided into three sections: "Reclaiming: A Lifeline to Our Cultural Identity;" "Coming Out: Guinea Queers;" and "Mezz' E Mezz': Weaving Two Identities."
The first section is particularly political. There are many poems and essays which touch on the in-between racial status of being Italian: not a person of color, but "ethnic," as one author puts it. Poet Nzula Angelina Ciatu has a particularly pointed reading of the situation:
She's been watching
the world map
across her basement
after happening upon
one too many
maps of Europe
after the white Quebecoise
rubbed her black woolly hair
like gum between
fingers painfully arthritic
her dark skin
after they sneered
anything south of Rome
is part of Africa
after he snubbed
mixed race peasants
are all alike
that Sicily is:
off the coast of Africa
east of Tunisia
straight above Libya
from Southern Italy
I had never heard that Sicily was sometimes left off maps, and told my roommate about it immediately.
"Well...," He paused, clearly trying to find a way in which this made sense. "I mean... do they include all the cities on the map?"
"It's an island." (long pause) "You know, the mob, the boot looks like it's kicking it, Italy hates Sicily, it used to be its own country...."
"Oh." And he tried to salvage the mapmakers again. "Well, but, do they put all the islands--"
"It's, like, huge! It would be like leaving Hawaii off the map!"
"Oh.... Well, I don't know that much about Italy."
The next offering in the book is perhaps the most political: Giovanna Capone's "A Glass Ceiling for Italian-American Academics." She describes the history of Italian American inclusion at the City University of New York. Despite the facts that 25% of New York City (and of the student population) was Italian and there were more and more Italian Americans with doctorates, only 5% of the faculty was Italian American. Even when they were hired, they weren't promoted and experience discrimination in the workplace, and Italian American students were reporting "ineffective counseling service and an unfair distribution of student activities fees."
This is a tricky issue; it would be easy, under our "divide and conquer" society, to go in as people with white privilege and demand resources allocated for people of color. It would be all too easy, for that matter, for any of the authors in this book to slip from celebrating their ethnicity to claiming "people of color" identity.
And yet not one of them does. This book consistently addresses issues of race and ethnicity and culture, honestly and directly, without crossing that line. Even more importantly, that makes it the first book I've read in a long time in which white people actually talk about these issues, and share their experiences, instead of veering into racist language or the racist act of erasing it.
Before I read this book, I was extremely hesitant to acknowledge the ways in which Italian was really a separate identity. I knew that Irish people, while being white, had experienced discrimination for being Irish, and that they were explicitly considered people of color by the white mainstream for quite some time, and that that ended less than a century ago. And I knew that people didn't like Italians then either -- and that's pretty much where I cut it off. Even as I read the essay about the glass ceiling, I didn't understand how Italian Americans could have been discriminated against in academia.
But authors like Linda Strega, in her essay titled "The Unassimilated Heart," reveal many of the ways in which they've encountered people's bizarre assumptions and offensive behavior toward Italians.
"On my first office job when I was sixteen, the WASP personnel manager grabbed my hand painfully tight one day and he told me to stop talking with my hands. I did. I needed the job. I had enough privilege to get that job, and to keep it by changing my actions, but even so, I lost an important part of myself there."
This is part of the second section, "Coming Out: Guinea Queers." It is as full of awesome personal experiences and family stories as... a minestrone is of beans. And that example reflects my own experience of the book: that even though it is about being queer and coming out and similar issues as well, the emphasis is fully on being Italian -- either solely on what it means to be of Italian descent, or about how being queer has affected and been affected by that. But there are some notable exceptions.
Co-editor Tommi Avicolli Mecca, for example, has an essay in the third section which brilliantly analyzes the way that Italian heritage is treated in gay white male porn. "In gay porn, white American men are rarely identified by their ethnicity. They are characters without an ethnic origin. Generic, all-purpose, average folks, the pursuers of pleasure, the voices readers are supposed to identify and sympathize with, the heroes.... But Italian or Sicilian American men are immediately identified as such. Just as Latino, Asian, and African American men are. Like the Latino character, the Italian/Sicilian one is usually oversexed, well-hung, beefy, muscular, macho, working-class, dark, hairy and aggressive.
"In fact, one could easily replace 'Italian' with 'Puerto Rican' or 'Mexican' because the stereotypical descrption of the Latin lover and his behavior is the same. Note also that Italian/Sicilian characters are rarely the narrators. They are usually the object of desire of the white man, as Latino, Asian and African American men are."
He proposes the idea that Italians and Sicilians have "never been seen as completely white" in the United States, and quotes author Daniela Gioseffi: "'Hardly anyone remembers the murders and lynchings of Italians that took place in New Orleans in 1891 and continued as far west as Colorado on through the 1920s'.... As Italians and Sicilians, we live in the gray area of race and ethnicity, defined and redefined by others."
My own lack of understanding of these issues comes from assimilation. But before I read this book, I did not understand that. I was glad to be Italian because I had a vivid cultural background to draw from, but I never drew from it. After reading so many people's different childhood and family stories, I can see many of the ways in which my heritage has influenced my family and my life. And I can see what's missing.
Many people in the book talk about how glad they are to have grown up with passionate emotions and the message that they were supposed to express them, but that was never there for me. Perhaps it's because of my parents' assimilation into repressed American society, but my Nonna never seemed stormy and passionate either. Maybe Northern Italy, where she comes from, is different, or maybe she's just not like that. Or maybe it's just one of those things that only gets mentioned when it's present.
One of the early poems in the book mentioned something that I do have: the sense of knowing words of Italian instinctively without having spoken them. In part, I'm sure this is because I know Spanish and French. (And it has never before occured to me to truly question the fact that I have learned three languages, besides English, without ever learning Italian.) But there is something else there that ties together the few Italian words I learned from my father: ciao, arrivederci, manggiamo, formaggio, basta, culino, bacala.
This is a very powerful book. It presents a brilliant spectrum of knowledge and experiences. Everyone can learn something from it; possibly more importantly, it will touch your heart.
A short note on availability:
Wiccanpiper says How nice! I'll have to get this, I'm half Calabrese myself!
katanil says Cheers, my Italian heritage tells me to pick up this book in the library next time I have a chance.
Oh, my pipe dreaming friends, it takes more effort than that!
Three Guineas Press is based in Oakland, California, and was (to the best of my knowledge) formed by the editors for the sole purpose of publishing this book after it was turned down by everyone else.
It is therefore difficult to find. I half-remember maybe seeing it in some local queer bookstores when it came out, but my copy was lent by one of the editors when she learned I was Italian.
Libraries are unlikely to have it, although I certainly urge people to buy copies to give to their local libraries. And if yours has it, let me know!
I have not found any independent online bookstores which carry OR can order it, because it is such a small press. The fabulous Dutchess reports that "Alibris, a used book site, has copies ranging from $13 to $30. The address: http://www.alibris.com/search/search.cfm"
You can also buy it directly from Three Guineas. As editor Giovanna Capone explained,
"...If you would like to order more copies, best to go through me. You could try amazon, but they will just contact us anyway. Glad to hear you are getting a lot out of reading it. We sure learned a lot when we were putting together the manuscripts. So many folks were saying the SAME things
about their life experiences, although they were writing in isolation of each other."
So I recommend hitting either Alibris or the contact info on their website. Hurry up - she says they only have 25 copies left! (Personally, I aim to pressure them into a second edition.)