«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
Rosario Ferré’s Puerto Rican Novel Rosario Ferré was born in Puerto Rico in 1938, the daughter Luis Ferré, a powerful political figure in Puerto Rican history. Luis Ferré was governor of the commonwealth between 1968 and 1972, and was a supporter of statehood. The debate over statehood or independence is one that remains strong in Puerto Rico and takes on significance in Ferré’s Vèvè Clark, “Je me suis réconciliée avec mon île. Une interview de Maryse Condé,” Callaloo (1989) : 85- 133.
novel, The House on the Lagoon. Puerto Rico is unusual in that the island has never had full autonomy, being first part of Spain but then handed over to the United States because of the U.S.’s victory in the Spanish-American War. Having lost its citizenship to Spain and waiting on American citizenship, Puerto Ricans lived several years with no citizenship at all, which Ferré comments on in her novel: “Not to be citizens of any country, however insignificant, was uncomfortable enough” (15). The House on the Lagoon describes a displacement that is twofold: not only are the inhabitants displaced but they are living on an island that is displaced. The past shifting of ownership has Puerto Rico’s people divided on where they belong, and this lack of unity persists today. According to some historians, the lack of direction is unique to Puerto Rico, for it remains alone in a Caribbean sea of islands that have either obtained independent status or status as an overseas department. 15 Ferré scandalized the public when she went against her father’s political views and wrote an open letter in support of independence. Yet shortly after publishing The House on the Lagoon, which was her first novel written in English, Ferré began to advocate statehood because, as she explained, “The U.S. has evolved enormously in 26 years.” Ferré’s position is that the U.S. would now be accepting of Puerto Rico’s cultural identity, specifically its Spanish speaking identity. The connection between language and identity will be further explored in this dissertation.
The House on the Lagoon develops overlapping themes involving family, politics, history, and literature. At the crux of the novel is Isabel, the unhappy wife of a wealthy
José Trías Monge, Puerto Rico : The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World (Yale University Press.
New Haven, 1997), 142.
Charles Hanley, “Books and Authors: Rosario Ferré,” Puerto Rico Herald, May 21, 1998.
husband Quintín, an amateur historian, finds her manuscript he becomes enraged over what he believes is a distortion of the facts. In retaliation he begins to “correct” what she has written, thus constructing a very unusual text that calls into question the legitimacy of literature and history. One of the dominant issues in the novel is the struggle between independence and statehood, a problem which brings into focus the conflict of identity that is present in all the works treated in this dissertation. Ferré’s novel describes how Puerto Ricans are caught between the need to identify with their island culture and the temptation to assimilate into American culture.
Ferré stresses that women’s rights is a problematic subject in Puerto Rican culture, and her novel incorporates this perspective by depicting women’s struggle against patriarchy. In an interview given in 1991, Ferré speaks about how Puerto Rican women are devalued, and relates her experience of how her gender prevented her from working at the family newspaper: “They wouldn’t let me even consider a career as a journalist. Women weren’t supposed to work at that time, so I got married and had three children. After ten years I got a divorce and then went to the University of Puerto Rico to do my master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American literature.” 18 In The House on the Lagoon, women’s desire for autonomy is a central theme, and this autonomy is not limited to “white” females but also extends to Afro Caribbean women. In her novel Ferré exposes Puerto Rico as a racist society that supports a system of class and color distinction. This exposure is an important addition to her novel, and Ferré’s attempt to bring Afro Caribbean women to the forefront of her book is a positive step in the direction of literature that highlights cultural difference.
Donna Perry, Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univesrity Press), 85.
Tina De Rosa was born in Chicago, the daughter of both Lithuanian and Italian ancestry. Because of her close relationship with her Italian grandmother, De Rosa identified primarily with the Italian side of the family and these images of Italian American life are reflected in her novel Paper Fish. The novel reads like a lyrical poem which describes the relationship between the protagonist Carmolina and her grandmother, as well as the pain the family endures as immigrants struggling in a society that does not accept them. This pain is magnified and symbolized by the other daughter Doriana, who is born with a severe mental handicap and is a silent figure in the work. Carmolina also suffers as she fails to understand her younger sister’s predicament, for since Doriana has no voice, the reader understands that it is Carmolina who is responsible for representing the family’s past.
Italian American and Caribbean: An Unlikely Comparison?
At first glance, author Tina De Rosa seems an unlikely addition to this dissertation. After all, what similarities does Paper Fish, an Italian American work, share with the other novels of study? This is a question I must address, since some readers may think that an Italian American work put alongside the Caribbean works would be an arbitrary insertion. First, I point to the problem of the Other that is present in the three Caribbean novels, and argue that Italian Americans were also considered Other in their American environment. As for Italian American writers, they were not regarded in literary circles as literature worthy of study. In his brilliant book, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of the Italian American Narrative, Fred Gardaphé relates a story of his youth in which he was encouraged to study literature that did not involve his own ethnic background. His experience mirrors other Italian American authors, who, for the sake of “objectivity,” were discouraged from writing about their own culture. As a result, Gardaphé and others did not consider Italian American works in the same category as other American and English works. This view persists today, making Italian American literature almost a non-entity. It is safe to say that Caribbean literature is making great strides and is now being taught and studied in the realm of postcolonial fiction; the same cannot be said of Italian American literature. Paper Fish, like many Italian American works from women, is an outstanding book that has been undervalued and understudied. In pairing it with the more popular works of Caribbean fiction, more light can be shed on the significance of Italian American women writers.
Another common link between Italian American works and Caribbean literature is the emphasis on the pressure to assimilate to the dominant tradition. This is exemplified in the Caribbean characters of my novels of study who attempt to show allegiance to France or England. For example, in La migration des cœurs, Cathy rejects her confidante and childhood friend, Razyé, in favor of the European model. She does all she can to suppress the African influence that is present in her culture, which is achieved by the suppression of her native language: she adopts proper French in place of her native Creole. Critics such as Glissant speak against assimilation, arguing that the colonial power presents itself as generous to the colonial subject, when in fact the opposite is true.
In Puerto Rico, for instance, the “gift” of the American passport may be what lulls the commonwealth into complacency, preventing it from uniting in a demand for independence. The same could be said for Martinique and Guadeloupe in their Fred Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of the Italian American Narrative (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1996), 7.
relationship to France. In the case of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea, the Creole who has more familiarity with island culture is rejected from the English circles, a similarity to the experience of Italian Americans who, because of their birthplace, do not fully identify with their mother country and are rejected by Anglo Americans. The first Italians who immigrated often did so because they were unwanted by their home country, most notably Southern Italians. Imagine the difficulty, then, when they arrive in the U.S.
and are rejected by American culture. What choice is there but to try to assimilate, and shake off the influence of the country of origin? Fred Gardaphé writes about this need to blend in with American culture, explaining that “without a strong show of leadership by Italian American intellectuals, Italian Americans will opt to assimilate into mainstream American culture at the expense of losing contact with both the past and the present of Italian culture.” As in the Caribbean, a linguistic shift is characteristic of this assimilation. Later generations of Italian Americans were not taught Italian in their households, or forbidden to speak it.
Another parallel between Italian American culture and the culture of the Caribbean is the question of race and color. The idea of race may seem like a surprising similarity, yet it is important to remember that historically, Italian Americans were not always considered “white,” nor do they necessarily consider themselves “white.” In fact, for many Italian Americans, to be considered “white” is to be seen as having assimilated so far into American culture that they reject elements of their Italian tradition. This brings to light the notion of “passing,” which blacks have done in order to avoid discrimination (a subject present in many works of African American literature), and Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets, 6.
Italian Americans have done the same. The idea of passing for Italian Americans did not begin when they immigrated to the United States; the strategy existed in Italy as well.
Southern Italians were often considered inferior in regions of Northern Italy, and their
dark complexions contributed to this racist attitude:
Italy’s history of African, Arab, Greek, Norman, and Spanish settlements defied all theories of racial purity, but southerners’ dark complexions and “primitive” cultural practices were, to many Northerners, evidence of their racial inferiority. Southern Italy was more than a geographical space with flexible boundaries, it was a metaphor for anarchy, rebellion, poverty, and the lack of “civilization.” Indeed, the saying “Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa” can still be heard throughout Europe, and these ideologies of southerners as backward continue to inform national political movements. 21 This type of racism is eerily consistent with American attitudes toward blacks and European attitudes toward Afro Caribbeans. Because of these discriminatory practices, educated Southern Italians were presented with the temptation to pass as Northern Italians, leaving behind certain aspects of their Southern culture. In her essay “Figuring Race,” Edvige Giunta recalls how her mother forbade her to speak Sicilian dialect, and how her unaccented Italian was applauded in the North. Giunta writes about the unusual position of suffering discrimination by Italians when she was Italian, and her ambivalence towards passing: “… I became acutely aware that passing is a strategy for survival adopted to escape damning racial identification, but one adopted at a certain cost in terms of one’s sense of cultural and personal integrity. I may speak Italian, but there is something inauthentic about my Italian identity: I have adopted and adapted, but remain an outsider.” 22 Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America (New York: Routledge, 2003), 9.
Edvige Giunta, “Figuring Race.” in Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America, ed. Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno (New York: Routledge, 2003), 228.
The depiction of Italian Americans in literature and mainstream media is another example of how they can be seen as Other. This stereotyping is also suffered by Afro Caribbeans and African Americans, who in literature and media are reduced to housekeepers, servants, “mammies,” and, more recently, gun-wielding drug dealers.
Similarly, Italian Americans are often depicted as mafiosos and “wise guys,” or the heavily accented and ignorant street Italian. These personas are so ingrained in American society that almost everyone is culpable of conjuring these types of images when hearing the words “Italian American.” If one considers Italian American literature, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather perhaps is the first to come to mind, while his novel The Fortunate Pilgrim, a work that focuses on the Italian immigrant, is barely recognized. However, (and one could argue that this is because Italian Americans are now viewed as “white”), these negative representations of Italian Americans are largely accepted by the American public and they are rarely viewed as harmful or discriminatory. For these reasons, it is important to reconsider the notion of ethnicity and how it is represented in Italian American literature. In his article “We Weren’t Always White: Race and Ethnicity in Italian American Literature,” Fred Gardaphé writes about how Italian Americans’ whiteness is a result of “making it,” in America, and how this whiteness is contingent on
As long as they [Italian Americans] behave themselves (act white), as long as they accept the images of themselves as presented into the media (don’t cry defamation), and as long as they stay within corporate and cultural boundaries (don’t identify with other minorities), they will be allowed to remain white. This has caused many Italian Americans to be left out of most discussions of multiculturalism. 24 In these more recent depictions, I refer mainly to American media.