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«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»

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The truth is, I didn’t realize that more silence surrounded the experience of ItalianAmerican women than – say – that of African-American women, Latina women, Native-American women, or Chinese-American women, whose work had begun to find its audience, to command critical attention, to be taught…I for example, didn’t have the courage to recognize that my experience was valuable, and to invent both the form for containing this experience and the language appropriate for it without the force of tradition behind me. 21 The silence of which DeSalvo speaks involves the anxiety felt by Italian Americans about their ethnicity, and the temptation to suppress customs based on that ethnicity in order to better assimilate into the American mainstream tradition. In so doing, the Italian American walks the line of imperceptibility and self-hatred, much like African Bona, “Broken Images, Broken Lives,” 87 Barolini, Chiaroscuro, 149.

Louise DeSalvo, “Paper Fish by Tina De Rosa: An Appreciation,” Voices in Italian Americana, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 250.

Americans who have used “passing” in order to avoid discrimination. In her book Writing With an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Authors, Edvige Giunta contemplates the dilemma faced by Italian American women who go unheard in the literary community, and remain silent in the face of mainstream tradition. Giunta believes that in so doing, Italian Americans sacrifice a much needed cultural identity, and even when the ethnicity is embraced, this ethnic tradition is not acknowledged.“On the one hand, the self-silencing that acculturation entails resonates in language, seemingly purging it of ethnic ties, at least on the surface; on the other hand, for those who maintain the signs of ethnic identity in their language, lack of recognition generates a perception of cultural invisibility.” Whether the Italian American chooses to assimilate or not, the response is the same: silence. In De Rosa’s novel, silence is a palpable force that is connected to suffering, as she presents the reader with characters that are the antithesis of the stereotypical chattering Italian family. Instead, the reader sees a family wrought with conflict, and the finger of blame is pointed at America.

Paper Fish is a novel that relies heavily on memory. It contains surreal images and a non-linear story line. At the center of the novel is Carmolina, a vivacious third generation Italian girl growing up in Chicago who attempts to cope with the suffering in her life, which stems from her distant parents and her mute, handicapped sister. As I mention in the introduction, some elements of the novel are taken directly from De Rosa’s life, and she has said that many of the novel’s events parallel those of her childhood. In the book, Carmolina connects with her Italian culture through her grandmother Doria, who tells her what life was like in the Mezzogiorno (a term for Edvige Giunta, Writing With an Accent, Contemporary Italian American Women Authors, (Palgrave, 2003), 73.

Southern Italy). In his book Italian Signs, American Streets, Fred Gardaphé claims that the grandmother figure is a common one in third generation Italian writers, and that this figure establishes a link to the Italian American’s ethnic past: “Just as the godfather represented the attempt to gain the power necessary to negotiate success in America, the immigrant figure – in this case the grandparent – serves as the mythic figura who is the source of the ethnic stories created by the third generation.” 23 Grandma Doria’s stories are rooted in the oral tradition, and she passes on these stories, her memories, to Carmolina. In this way, the past will be embedded in Carmolina’s memory and she will be able to pass on the legacy of the family’s history.

Carmolina early on adopts the storytelling role by recounting stories to her sister Doriana (29). The idea of text and memory is important because memory is assured immortality if it is recorded to text, which differs from the way memories were preserved in Doria’s


She watches Carmolina singing in her small broken Italian; she is growing up with the music tooled inside her brain. The sound of Carmolina’s growing is filled with music in her head, of the laughter and quick tears of her large family around her. The sound of Doria’s time was quiet, was patient, the sound of her growing up was slow and deliberate. The time of Doria’s was marked by usual, small events, but her people had their own way of remembering. They sat in the dusk of Italy and made their lives slowly, measuring out the days like milk or salt. They kept picture books of their lives, and in them they pasted likenesses of themselves. The pictures were bound in corners of black paper. The people in the pictures had skin the color of onion; they were dressed in shades of brown…Their skins were not truly the color of onion, their clothes were not really shades of brown (19).

In the Mezzogiorno, memory is kept alive through storytelling and photographs. The oral tradition is what is used to educate future generations about the past. According to Fred Gardaphé, the peasant population of Italy had little use for books to record the family past, therefore the literary and the oral did not overlap. This changed through Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets, 120.

immigration, where Gardaphé says “Italian oral culture collided with the literary traditions of Anglo-Saxon culture.” The merging of the two entities is often cultivated through the first generation immigrant and third generation Italian American, as is the case with Doria and Carmolina.

In the quoted passage, Doria muses over the photographs of Italians found in old picture books; however, the photos are incapable of keeping a tradition alive. The images do not give a complete account of who the subjects are; they are one-dimensional and, as Doria observes, the colors are an inaccurate depiction of what the people looked like. This passage is marked by silence, for Doria’s quiet memories are starkly contrasted with Carmolina’s vivacity and noise. Carmolina is described with music, laughter and tears whereas Doria speaks of growing up in a time that is quiet, patient, and slow. This notion of silence engulfs the novel, and it is shown most clearly through Carmolina’s sister, little Doriana. The rest of the family also suffers in silence, which is shown through the lack of dialogue in the novel; they pinpoint Doriana’s suffering as the source of their pain. In her interview with Lisa Meyer, De Rosa comments on the subject of


There’s very little dialogue in the book. They don’t even talk to each other. In the book, everybody explains suffering through Doriana. For example, if Doriana were well, then maybe we wouldn’t be a happy, chattering Italian-American family. But nobody understands it. And that is the definition of suffering. When you are suffering, there are no words…All of them are speechless and Doriana is carrying the brunt of their speechlessness. 25 Doriana’s silence pains Carmolina, for she is unable to understand why her older sister cannot communicate. In one powerful memory, Carmolina vents her anger on a doll, an obvious symbol for Doriana, who is described as an extraordinarily beautiful, but silent Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets, 25.

Meyer, “Breaking the Silence,” 233.

child who sleeps much of the time and is essentially lifeless. Her face is often described as an infant’s face or as having the look of porcelain, which also recalls a doll.

Carmolina destroys the doll, yet her mother does not get angry and instead gently gathers the broken toy in her arms (97). By destroying the doll, Carmolina attempts to break the silence that pervades not only in Doriana but also the rest of her family. She will eventually break this silence with her text.

Doriana takes her grandmother’s name but not her legacy, because her inability to speak and comprehend prevents her from sustaining the Italian memory, and this places the burden on Carmolina to bring her family’s past to life. The Italian music is, as her grandmother says, “tooled in her brain,” something that cannot be forgotten and thus will always make up part of her identity. Grandma Doria’s stories are another influence on Carmolina, and one that particularly interests her involves her grandmother’s girlhood fascination with gypsies. Doria tells Carmolina that she dreamed of running away to the circus to meet them. Though this childhood dream was not fulfilled, Doria embarked on another kind of journey by immigrating to the United States. However, she does not feel

at home in America, and even blames the city for Doriana’s illness:

In Italy, it would be different. In Italy little Doriana would run in green fields under the healthy sun, would play in the white sunlight…Doriana would run free, she would touch the bark of the olive trees and receive her health…It was the city that did this to her…It was the empty gray light like a spider sucking the blood of the wonderful child, the child bled out her brains, her smiles, her own words into the empty gray light of the city and there was nothing to feed her. The buildings of the city were bones crushing against little Doriana, giving her pain. (64) The description of the city is similar to Condé’s description of Paris as an arid prison of street and stone, in contrast to the rejuvenating tropical setting of Guadeloupe. For Doria, the Italian landscape functions in a similar way. The destructive nature of the city is directly applied to Doriana, but it can also be applied to all Italian immigrants in America who experience difficulty. If the city is harsh enough to handicap a child, then it has the capacity to ruin other lives. In contrast, the mother country of Italy is a picture of health and security. The immigrants’ suffering in the work is often represented as broken pieces or shards of glass. This brokenness is always signified by the streets in America, whereas Italy is what is whole and good: “All along the street, rich dirt runs beside the curbstones.

This dirt reminds some of the men, when they drink too much wine, of Italy, and then they go down on their knees in the dirt and dig their hands into it. They find no olives, only chips of glass” (40). In the afterword of the novel, Edvige Giunta defines the imagery of the city as breaking a life to pieces, and De Rosa’s novel as an attempt to

reassemble those pieces:

Through the use of body imagery, De Rosa represents the urban monster as driven by a deliberate and ineluctable force, greedily devouring the fragile Doriana, reducing the family to “little pieces.” If the city crushes the immigrants like a giant, De Rosa defies its destructive power and puts back together the little pieces through the redemptive force of vision and language. 26 De Rosa does create something out of this destruction, for though Sarah and Marco’s lives appear broken, Carmolina’s life will repair some of the damage by exposing the reason behind their suffering and allowing them a voice. The image of “little pieces” that Giunta speaks of is an interesting observation when one considers the format of De Rosa’s novel. Non-linear and fragmented, the novel jumps from one period of time to the next, from one encounter to another; it offers glimpses into the lives of the characters and slivers of the Italian American experience. It never presents any life as whole, because the reality of the Italian immigrant’s life is one wrought with struggle and difficulty. De Rosa accomplishes the act of putting pieces together to form a work that comments on Giunta, “A Song from the Ghetto,” 135.

the immigrant experience, but by making the format so fragmented, she emphasizes the displacement felt by each of the characters.

Carmolina’s grandmother undergoes much suffering as a result of her emigration from Italy, and Carmolina emulates this painful experience through a miniature immigration of her own. Influenced by Grandma Doria’s story of gypsies, Carmolina runs away for fear that she, like her handicapped sister, may be sent away. When she sneaks onto a train, Carmolina watches her neighborhood go by, filled with images of

Italian immigrants from her everyday life:

Outside the window was old Gustavo and his blind horse. Outside the window was Tony the barber and his bald head shining in the sunlight, and the dizzy barber pole going red white and snakey in its glass tube. There was Anna, Pasquale’s Indian wife, with her long hair and black gums. Anna’s daughter zipped by on roller skates, her black pigtails flying behind her in the wind…Outside their kitchen windows, the brown faces of all the mothers bobbed like burned apples to the surface, letting the sun shine on them and make them browner while they called out to each other across clotheslines and flowerboxes. (74) The above quotation recalls the passages in Wide Sargasso Sea and The House on the Lagoon where so many images of home are strung together in one agonizing paragraph.

The observers are moved by what they are witnessing, and it is often a turning point in the work. For instance, in Wide Sargasso Sea it is this scene that prompts Antoinette to “do what I must do” (190) which is to truly set fire to Thornfield Hall, and in The House on the Lagoon it is this scene where Isabel decides to finally take action against her husband, Quintín. For Carmolina, the action that ensues is leaving her neighborhood of Little Italy and going to another neighborhood that is foreign to her. She also views this new neighborhood from outside the train window, and this view contrasts with what she observed earlier: “This part of the city was brand new; it had never been in Carmolina’s eyes before. Augie the grocer was not around the corner. No one that she knew was behind any of the windows. It was like being locked up in a stranger’s house, in one room, and you weren’t allowed to leave the room” (76). The difference that Carmolina feels between her familiar neighborhood of Little Italy and the foreign neighborhood can also be compared to Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette’s voyage to England is not a return home but a trip to a strange, foreign place that is hostile toward her. In the above passage Carmolina compares the strangeness of the neighborhood to being locked up in one room of a house, which is Antoinette’s exact experience. The only England Antoinette sees is the attic of Thornfield Hall.

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