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Mafioso circa 1930...

Recently someone read the sample chapter of my memoir Nightfall in Verona  posted on May 29 on this blog– Of Awnings and Peaches–  and commented that I am stereotyping  Italians and engaging in racism.

I didn’t approve the comment as it’s pure neurotic vitriol– here’s a slice: “I was annoyed by your writing about Italy, you make it sound all so stereotypical and crass, like a bad Soprano episode, exoticizing the experience and depicting the people as if they were animals in a zoo— both alluring and disgusting…Such writing about Italy has been a staple of that foreign travelers’ accounts and has not much changed in tone since the 17th century….your depiction of Italians is also implicitly racist…unidimensional and stereotypical.”

Really?  How unpleasant a rush to judgment. Have you read D.H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy on the Italian sensibility?  Leaving aside the fact that this is one chapter–albeit, perhaps the sauciest one– out of a memoir that validates all that is exceptional and beautiful about Italy and her people,  I spent time in northern and southern Italy in 1973 and I have done my best to give a portrait of the culture I experienced then.

The women I met were housebound and domestic, but also unique, wonderful human beings.  The men were macho, testosterone-loaded and on the move, defying stereotype in many ways– my lover was as manly as they come, and he was also a med student at the University of Turin and the first in his family to go to college.  Love abounded, the wine flowed, the music and art were spectacular.

Elsewhere in her comment the writer bashed my account of the feminine hygiene challenges I faced in Turin- an extremely poor, teeming city at that time.  I stand by all of it. The things I bought in the farmacia were precisely as I described them and the chapter in question is hilarious– to many, not just to me.

With respect to current angst in the Italian-American community over Italians perceived as mobsters and otherwise stereotyped, the Mafia in Italy and around the world, including the U.S., are a clear and present danger to all. I get that giving kids a chance to play online games like Mafia II in which they can be mob figures has the potential to glorify violent crime and get a kid interested in things bad for him.  However, this is what the FBI has to say about Mafia presence in the U.S.:

“We estimate the four groups have approximately 25,000 members total, with 250,000 affiliates worldwide… There are more than 3,000 members and affiliates in the U.S., scattered mostly throughout the major cities in the Northeast, the Midwest, California, and the South. Their largest presence centers around New York, southern New Jersey, and Philadelphia…their criminal activities are international with members and affiliates in Canada, South America, Australia, and parts of Europe. They are also known to collaborate with other international organized crime groups from all over the world, especially in drug trafficking.”

I wonder if Italian Americans raising the hue and cry over stereotypes in literature have considered that they are putting forth stereotypes of the non-Italian writer, overlaying their polemic on any and all writing of Italy by anyone but themselves?   Unfortunate words like “exoticize” meant to bolster an argument are so emotionally loaded that they cannot be admitted into rational discourse or serious literary criticism.  My detractor will love my novella if it ever sees the light of day:  the premise is that a young American lights a fire under apathetic Calabrians under mob rule.  I suspect that she hates the film Moonstruck as it so beautifully elucidates Italian American culture with characters of many dimensions, colored in with love.

There are indeed more pressing problems for Italian Americans on a mission to fly to the defense of  the “mother country” that would seem to mandate the community’s  attention than bitching about being stereotyped. Italy’s beautiful southern region has been and continues to be violated by organized crime— drug and gun running and extortion.  On July 13, 2010, the Italian Carabinieri launched a dragnet resulting in 300 arrests of known and suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta, the the Calabrian Mafia.

According to the blog La Rete per la Calabria, this was the tip of the iceberg and is likely to continue to be, as the codes of honor and silence in Mafia families are in force. Despite the bust, Italian bloggers anticipate that the annual meeting  in which new members are inducted  into the ‘Ndrangheta and commendations for criminal activity given, is on at The Madonna of the Mountains shrine in Polsi, high in the rugged Aspromonte.   Recently the ‘Ndrangheta sank a ship filled with toxic waste in the waters off the exquisite Costa Viola, where the swordfish live and play and sustain the fishing villages along the coast.

When I learned these things about Calabria, the mythic location of the best experience of my life, the region so revered by Homer, D.H. Lawrence, other writers, I was deeply distressed.    But it was heartening and amazing to learn that the youth movement Amazzatecci Tutti came into being several years ago spearheaded by Rosanna Scopelliti, daughter of the judge Antonio Scopelliti.  Scopelliti was presiding over a trial of the Cosa Nostra, the infamous Sicilian Mafia,  when he was gunned down in front of his vacation home in Calabria.  His killers have yet to be brought to justice.

Meanwhile,  one Roberto Saviano infiltrated the Naples Mafia, the Camorra, publishing the best-seller Gamorrah; he and other anti-mafia Italians live under police protection.

My memoir is the account of a relationship with a southern Italian and with Italy.  I stand by its integrity and that I love Italy and have the utmost respect for the Italian people.  I am thankful that this country welcomed its arms to the thousand of Italians emigrating here; there is no question that our culture is enriched.

Writing on memoir, the Italian-American writer and critic Louise de Salvo makes the point again and again that memoirists write their own version of the truth.  I approached and approach my memoir as a poet, romantic, coloratura soprano who can belt out “Visi d’Arte” with the best and far from denigrating Italy, not knowing of early Mafia activity in Calabria when I was there at 25 years of age, I elevated my experience by recasting it via the art of true memoir– looking back from 37 years out.

Regarding my spin-off novel, The Rose of Scylla, in which a young ex-Viet Nam War activist/writer joins the Resistance,   I know of no other way to affirm and embrace my Italy– that place that is part of me and my literary sensibility– to portray her multi-dimensional men and women, to imagine a victory over the darkness and sickness of poverty and crime.  Italy belongs to the world.

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