«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
The strangeness that Carmolina encounters also makes her a double of her sister Doriana, whose illness is described by Grandma Doria as dislocation. Doria believes that America is portrayed as being responsible for Doriana’s illness. In a later passage, Doria
describes Doriana’s illness as being lost:
Doriana she go into the forest to look at the birds. The birds they sing in the trees, they sing, they turn into leaves. Doriana she have a key to the forest. It a secret.
Only Doriana know where she keep the key. One day Doriana go into the forest. She forget the key. She get lost in the forest. She get scared…She try to come home.
From the forest. She no find her way. (100) Carmolina is also lost in a new strange world, similar to the one her sister inhabits in her mind. Carmolina refrains from going home even when she encounters hostility as a result of her ethnicity. A man in a diner throws her out because of her ethnicity, claiming, “Ain’t no dago kids live here…Ain’t no dagos here anywhere” (77). During this journey Carmolina sees herself as “Other” for the first time, but she cannot bring herself to call her parents for help. When finally she approaches a policeman and is brought back to Little Italy, Carmolina believes that her family is a group of strangers trying to play a trick on her: “They weren’t really her family at all. Her family went away and left all these strangers who just looked like them in their place, but these were pretenders” (106). After being displaced, it is not the family that has changed of course, but Carmolina. She is not completely Italian, like her grandmother, and her experience outside her Italian neighborhood proves that she is not completely American either. She and her sister represent cultural displacement, a condition that the grandmother embodies as an Italian immigrant living in America. This feeling of displacement causes her to view her family differently. Her father attempts to reaffirm where Carmolina “belongs” by forcefully telling her that “this is your bed,” “this is your bedroom,” and “You are never going to leave us again” (107). Carmolina counters his vehemence with her own determination, “When I grow up, she said, I’m going to go away forever” (107).
Carmolina’s journey underlines a conflict felt by many Italian Americans who are tempted to leave their origins behind and assimilate to American culture, such as the case of the second generation which I expanded upon in chapter one. Edvige Giunta claims that this problem is also true for Italian American writers, and that this conflict is present in their writing: “Italian American women writers have variously and creatively articulated, in oblique ways, the visceral attachment to an idea of home linked to ethnic origins and the urge to leave that home behind. Often they end up plunging into a space in-between, in a virtual condition of homelessness.” One can argue that De Rosa is one of the writers who has felt this conflict. In her essay “An Italian American Woman Speaks Out,” she affirms her identity as an Italian American writer, but she later contradicts this view in an interview with Lisa Meyer. During this talk, De Rosa claims
that she does not want to be identified as Italian American:
But I think the larger context is American Literature. Not feminism, nor ItalianAmerican female writing. I’m a writer. I happen to be a woman. I happen to be writing about the Italian-American experience. I am uncomfortable with being Guinta, Writing With an Accent, 76.
defined by my sex and ethnicity. A hundred years from now, Paper Fish will be read as part of the canon of American literature because it is beautiful. Not because it is written by a woman. Not because I am Italian-American. 28 It is noteworthy that De Rosa feels that her book should belong to the “larger context” of American literature and thus not be singled out as Italian American. In a newly defined literary world where the Caribbean establishes itself as separate from France or England, where the larger American canon has not fully recognized the work of Italian Americans, it seems unusual for De Rosa to dissuade readers from viewing her work in light of her identity as an Italian American woman. De Rosa appears to be occupying the “inbetween” space of which Edvige Giunta speaks, feeling an Antoinette-like anxiety of living life through two cultures and wanting only one; therefore her act is to silence herself on the subject of her italianità. In his study of ethnicity, William Boelhower explains that being “ethnic” is not easily defined, and that many scholars who have attempted to define the term admit to not being satisfied with their definition. As explained in the introduction, while people of “ethnic” origin may have a collective unity in what characterizes them as “ethnic,” they are Other in the eyes of the entity that labels them as such. They are different from the standard, and in the case of Italian Americans, the standard is the entity that is considered “American.” However, as Boelhower explains, this terminology becomes difficult because “being American and being ethnic American are part of a single cultural framework.” 30 This inclusiveness is possibly why Boelhower warns readers against dividing American literature into categories of “mainstream” literature and “ethnic” literature. He suggests that rather than draw more Meyer, “Breaking the Silence,” 228.
Boelhower, Through a Glass Darkly, 32.
attention to a work on the basis of its ethnicity, compartmentalizing the literary work will
instead increase its quality of otherness:
They [ethnic advocates] might argue, of course, that by separating ethnic literature from the mainstream canon, it will finally get its due attention. Yes and no. No, because for the dominant critical matrix ethnic literature in such a framework will remain poor, minor, ephemeral, local, aesthetically inferior, and thus easily dismissible. 31 Boelhower answered both “yes and no” to the wisdom of separating ethnic literature from the mainstream. He makes a valid point; however, the truth remains that much literature that is considered “ethnic” has not been accepted as part of the “mainstream.” In her forward to The Dream Book, which is a collection of writings of Italian American women, Helen Barolini writes about how the lack of Italian American writing in the American literary canon is an act of exclusion. The Dream Book is a way to raise awareness in American literature of the existence of such talented women writers, not necessarily to be separate but “rather as an act of inclusion and completion, restoring to the body of the national literature the names of women authors who had been overlooked even as men were being documented as the only examples of Italian American writing.
For when the record is not recognized, it is in effect denied.” As Barolini explains, these authors have not deliberately separated themselves but were never “included.” In addition, ethnic Americans are finally embracing this term, and their writing reflects the anxiety felt in the face of “mainstream” culture, as well as an acceptance of themselves within that culture. The experience of not being the standard has given rise to innovative work. Should it still be considered American? Yes, but is there really a need to erase the ethnic component from American literature?
Perhaps De Rosa’s view is similar to Boelhower’s, accordingly De Rosa does not want her ethnicity or gender to be considered, but Barolini’s statement about inclusion and exclusion is equally compelling. While De Rosa wants her book to be considered in the American canon, for it to be considered without regard to her Italian American culture would, I believe, also be an exclusionary act. Not to recognize, or, as Barolini puts it, deny facets in her writing that are distinctly Italian American, De Rosa emphasizes the silence that overwhelms the tradition. Fortunately, and possibly despite her intentions, Paper Fish has taken on a life of its own, becoming a voice for Italian American women. This sentiment also appears to be present in Carmolina, who, despite her childhood threat, will not shed her italianità and go away forever but will instead become self-reliant while staying close to her culture. At her “wedding” her grandmother tells her, “Now it your turn. You keep the fire inside you.” Her grandmother is dying, and in the epilogue the Italian neighborhood is destroyed, but Carmolina will keep her culture alive through memory, as her grandmother has done.
The importance of memory is not only a subject in Paper Fish, but it is important to Caribbean writers as well. For example, in Searching for Safe Spaces, Myriam Chancy explains how memory has helped her through a life of exile: “It has been through memory – my own and that of family members – that I have been able to keep a vital link to Haiti.” Carmolina’s grandmother is also living a life of exile; a life away from her native Italy. She, like Chancy’s family, imparts her recollections of Italy to Carmolina, whose efforts are revealed through a concrete form of memory which is the text.
Chancy, Searching for Safe Spaces, xiv.
A Look in the Mirror: Memory as Text in Paper Fish To fully appreciate the merging of creative imagination and recognition of culture in Paper Fish, the reader must understand that many events in De Rosa’s novel are based on memory. The work is stylistically unlike any other in Italian American literature, as it experiments with several literary devices such as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and stream of consciousness. Events are never in chronological order, a characteristic of memory.
The novel instead demonstrates Carmolina’s struggle through the multitude of perspectives with which she views the world. The mirror is a symbol used in the work to link memory and perspective, and Carmolina’s use of the mirror enables her to have authorial control while at the same time reflect upon the images put before her.
As previously stated, Carmolina, unlike her other family members, is not a silent figure but rather a loud and expressive one, and she uses the mirror in conjunction with the text to express herself, but her use of the latter is uncommon. For example, she experiments with writing after reading about a famous figure in Italian history: Leonardo da Vinci. Carmolina learns that he often wrote backwards, so she begins to imitate his technique by writing a message on a bag that no one in her family can understand, until she tells them to read the message in the mirror: “This bread brought to you courtesy of Carmolina BellaCasa” (29). The parents cannot read Carmolina’s message at face value;
they must look at it in a different way. However, rather than be amused by her wit, the family is perturbed by the trick, just as they are fearful when Carmolina tells stories to her handicapped sister. At times they feel that Carmolina may “catch” Doriana’s disease, but more often they are ill at ease with Carmolina’s intelligence rather than her sister’s lack of it: “Too bright. The littlest one too bright. She had stolen the brains of her sister” (29). Carmolina’s precocious talent for written and spoken language sets her apart as strange. This image is repeated when Marco is looking for his daughter after she has run away. He imagines that he sees her through his rearview mirror, but he cannot understand her: “In the spray was the small form of his daughter, laughing, dripping in her dress, waving at him from behind her dark eyes. She was talking backwards to him in the mirror, he could not understand the words, she was talking backwards and laughing because he could not understand” (30). Carmolina is both literally and symbolically lost to Marco, a second generation Italian who cannot comprehend the importance of words and the self. For Carmolina, however, these words aid in defining the self, as critic Mary Jo Bona explains: “Carmolina’s interest in the capacity of words to empower the self stems from her reading the words of a Northern Italian artist, words that are provocative in this example because of the emphasis on the ability of words to protect, even transform the self.” Bona mentions that words, in addition to helping define Carmolina, also protect her. This protection is also offered through the image of the mirror, which Carmolina uses as an observational tool. In viewing her family through reflective objects, she realizes that she has a certain control over herself and the object that she observes. For example, she uses a gold earring to view the reflected images of her mother and grandmother: “Through the golden hoop she watched Mama sitting next to Grandma. She squinted where the sunlight sliced sharp off the golden edge. Inside the earring, Mama and Grandma were small. They were talking, but she could not hear them. She could turn the earring any way she wanted; she could make them bigger or smaller” (59).
Bona, “Broken Images, Broken Lives,” 97.
In another section of the novel, Carmolina views her sister and mother through a drinking glass. The memory is somewhat painful, for Doriana is having a fit and her mother is crying. Yet, by looking through the glass, Carmolina is able to separate herself from the action and become an observer, not a player, in the scene: “Carmolina watched through the bottom of the milk glass. Doriana looked far away and small; the bottom of the glass was white” (72). Carmolina has authority when she looks through the glass, for she is able to minimize her pain by separating herself from the action and controlling the size of the images that she observes. Carmolina is looking at her life like a writer would by thoughtfully examining her experiences and deciding what to focus upon. This is, of course what De Rosa is doing: taking autobiographical events from her life and recreating these images in prose. In an interview with Lisa Meyer, De Rosa speaks about this combination. When Meyer mentions that the book is a collection of memories, De Rosa responds, “Memories and imagination. Just as my poem that I used as an epigraph says, ‘Our imagination and memory face each other in a mirror. Who’s to solve the mystery?’” 35 The most memorable mirror images occur during Carmolina’s marriage to self.