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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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Fred Gardaphé, “We Weren't Always White: Race and Ethnicity in Italian American Literature,” Literature Interpretation Theory 13, no. 3 (July – Sept 2002): 187 Gardaphé goes on to say that by embracing “whiteness” Italians are not only left out of these discussions of ethnicity, but that they are forgetting their history. He implies that Americans of Italian descent are fooling themselves if they believe that they are white, and that the renunciation of their language, food, culture, and other important facets of their identity contributes to this mistaken notion of “whiteness.” Though Italians may have been considered, as several critics maintain, “white on arrival,” they nonetheless remained racially suspect in the eyes of many white Americans.

Like African Americans, Italian immigrants were subject to violence and hostility, including forced segregation, unfair wage labor, and even lynching. Italian immigration in the South was fertile ground for this type of reaction. On Southern plantations, Italian immigrants worked alongside blacks, and according to what few articles are published on this subject, there was little hostility between the two groups. In Louisiana in particular, Italian Americans and African Americans worked and lived among each other, which put Italians in the unusual position of being not white, not black, but somewhere in the middle. They had the right to vote and to become citizens, yet their proximity and closeness to blacks incited anger in Southern whites. Additionally, even then Italian Americans were associated with criminality and organized crime, and white Americans used this as a justification for violence against them. 25 Despite this collective history, the tragedy is that today many Italian Americans are regarded as extremely racist against African Americans. Many critics attribute this response to the acquired knowledge of the color line witnessed by Italian Americans after For more information on Italian immigrants in the South, see Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press) and Vincenza Scarpaci’s essay “Walking the Color Line: Italian Immigrants in Louisiana,” in Are

Italians White? How Race is Made in America, ed. Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno (New York:

Routledge, 2003), 60 – 79.

they immigrated to the U.S. In Louisiana as well as the north, the obvious privileges afforded to whites and the violent reaction toward blacks prompted a desire in Italian Americans to gravitate towards a white identity and distance themselves from people of color. Stefano Luconi argues this point in his essay “How Italian Americans Became White,” which details how Italian Americans began to identify with a white ethnicity in their shared racism toward black Americans. Luconi refers to much later decades, such as the 1960s and 70s, when, as he states, “Italian Americans put aside their previous ethnic rivalries with Irish Americans, Jews, and other immigrant groups of European extraction in order to join the common fight against busing for racial balance in local public schools and the racial integration of their neighborhoods…In this process they acquired a racial identity as white Europeans that they had until then lacked.” The unfortunate result of a newer, whiter identify among Italian Americans is a forgetfulness of the shared history that Italian Americans and African Americans endured. Therefore in addition to the stigma of criminality, Italian Americans have to counter the idea that they are racist, as their conflict with African Americans is highlighted and their parallels with them disregarded. In this dissertation I bring in De Rosa’s Paper Fish and put it alongside the Caribbean novels because the characters in all the novels share a history of oppression. Though many Americans consider Italian Americans “white,” it is important to consider Italian American literature as ethnic literature.

The subject of gender is important to this dissertation, as all the authors of study are women. As I have already stated, as women, the authors and their protagonists are doubly marginalized as they are labeled as ethnic and Other from a racial point of view Stefano Luconi, “How Italian Americans Became White,” in Close Encounters of an Other Kind: New Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity and American studies, ed. Roy Goldblatt, Jopi Nyman and John A.

Stotesbury (Joensuu, Finland : University of Joensuu, 2005), 268.

and also from their patriarchal position in society. Italian American women are no exception, and their place in literature is tenuous because, as many Italian American women writers have pointed out, they have had virtually no prior tradition of literariness.

Most immigrants were Southern Italians who spoke dialect, (Italian to them was also a foreign language) and illiteracy was high. Additionally, their roles were restricted to the family unit; therefore there was an absence of independence among Italian immigrant women. Furthermore, family matters were considered private and to write about them would be a scandal. Books were regarded with suspicion and distrust, for they were a means of assimilation to American ways. Fred Gardaphé relates how his interest in books rendered him strange in the eyes of his family. 27 In her forward to The Dream Book, Helen Barolini writes that the immigrants’ struggle to survive held precedence over education, and that the tradition of illiteracy and wariness of American culture contributed to the skepticism surrounding books: “When you don’t read, you don’t write.

When your frame of reference is a deep distrust of education because it is an attribute of the very classes who have exploited you and your kind for as long as memory carries, then you do not encourage a reverence for books among your children. You teach them the practical arts, not the


ones.” Even in their own nation, Southern Italians were seen as separate from the educated classes, and when this did not change upon immigrating to the U.S., then it is natural that education would be suspect and that there would be a scarcity of written work from Italian American women.

In the Caribbean, as in Italian American communities, there is a strong oral component to the tradition, although the writing component is often connected to Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets, 3.

Helen Barolini, Chiaroscuro: essays of identity (Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 148.

assimilation as well. Education in colonial societies has sprung from a violent source.

However, in past years there has been a push for literary works from writers native to the Caribbean, and they are giving a voice to the Caribbean experience. Criticism in this field is also abundant, but there is still a marked absence of women. While names like Edouard Glissant and Aimé Cesaire are immediately recognizable, there continue to be few known female critics. The reason for this absence, as is with the Italian Americans, could be because of their restricted roles in the patriarchal tradition. Throughout this dissertation, the role of women and the ways in which they achieve independence beyond their roles as wives and mothers is an important issue.

In his essay “The Double Burden of Italian American Women Writers,” Fred Gardaphé states that women become both writers and critics of Italian American literature because there is a great void in this area of literature and criticism. He goes on to say that Italian Americans, women in particular, are ambivalent about putting individual accomplishment over family and collectivity. This is another similarity to the Caribbean works, for Caribbean authors and critics have maintained that in African culture, it is the collective group, and not the individual, that is deemed important.

However, this sense of collectivity is seen as a unifying force, while in Italian American culture the writers/critics are pressured to put their ethnicity aside in their intellectual

pursuits. In so doing they experience the crisis of displacement, as Gardaphé underlines:

“The earliest Italian Americans who became intellectuals, more often than not, adopted a model in which alienation from one’s birth community, and often one’s birth class, was a requirement for acceptance in the club.” With the absence of their own ethnicity, there is then an absence of work that details the difficulty of being the ethnic “Other,” and so there is no model young Italian American Women have with which to identify. This situation is very close to what Glissant calls a “non-histoire,” in the Caribbean – there are few works describing the plight of the colonial subject, and therefore the role of the writer is to tackle this task. Similarly, the role of the Italian American writer is the same, but the outcry against the “non-histoire” is weak. Writers such as Fred Gardaphé and Mary Jo Bona say this cry must be louder and that Italian Americans must lay claim to their tradition. Edvige Giunta, another important Italian American woman writer, says

that writing is a form of defiance:

Writing often means, directly or indirectly, daring to write of one’s life. It means asserting the right to break the silence imposed from the inside – the family and a culture which, in order to protect themselves, often choose to sacrifice their own – and from outside – the American culture and media willing to accept and reproduce only stultifying images of Italian womanhood. 30 This defiance is present in Caribbean works as well, most notably Wide Sargasso Sea, in which Jean Rhys produces a text which confronts the representation of the West Indies in British fiction. More specifically, she challenges the notion of the Creole woman as an unbalanced sexualized object by rewriting history.

Rewriting history is a technique which creates an important link between Paper Fish and the other novels of study. In each of these texts the protagonists are struggling against traditions set by their culture, rejection from the dominant culture, and fighting

Fred Gardaphé, “The Double Burden of Italian American Women Writers,” in Breaking Open:

Reflections on Italian American Women’s Writing, ed. Mary Ann Mannino and Justin Vitiello (West Lafayette, Ind. : Purdue University Press, 2003), 267.

Edvige Giunta, “Strains of an Immigrant Past: Inherited Habits of Being,” in Breaking Open:

Reflections on Italian American Women’s Writing, ed. Mary Ann Mannino and Justin Vitiello (West Lafayette, Ind. : Purdue University Press, 2003), 275.

for the need to form an independent identity. The authors are not seeking conformity to a new culture, but instead they are filling a literary void by giving authorship to the Other instead of the Other being subjected to the authorship of the dominant tradition. Writing serves as a tool that provides some stability in a life that is teetering between two different worlds. Writing puts into words the point of view of the Other, which standard culture cannot understand, and in so doing allows readers of all cultures to appreciate the feelings of conflict and isolation felt by this Other. As an Italian American De Rosa speaks of her bi-culturalism as a blessing and a curse, but one that fuels her writer’s


I know that where I belong is with myself, knowing that I don’t really belong anywhere. That is the inheritance, that is the curse, of being born into a world and into a family that wants you to enter another. You say partially goodbye to one, partially hello to another, some of the time you are silent, and if you feel a little bit crazy – and sometimes you do – you write about it. 31 The above quotation echoes the sentiment felt by the characters and their authors in the other novels of study. This turmoil of semi-belonging to two cultures is a sentiment that will be explored through various themes found in all of these novels.

An Overview of Chapters In chapter one, Mothers, Mother Tongues and Mother Countries, I explore how each protagonist’s ambivalent relationship to her mother contributes to her feeling of displacement, and how this feeling extends beyond the familial line and into the relationship to her mother country. The theme of motherhood is a common topic in Caribbean literature, most notably with women authors. For example, Haitian author Edwidge Danticat employs ambivalence and motherhood in her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory. The novel’s narrator, Sophie, must leave her native Haiti and her beloved aunt De Rosa, Tina, “An Italian-American Woman Speaks Out,” Attenzione, May 1980 : 38 – 39 to reunite with her mother in New York, a mother who at first could not raise her because Sophie was a product of rape. In this work Sophie longs for her mother country of Haiti, while she feels alien both to her mother and to her new surroundings in New York.

Another example of a novel that incorporates motherhood is Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, which involves a narrator whose mother died giving birth to her. The pain of this absence follows the narrator throughout her life, just as it does Little Cathy in La migration des cœurs.

In Condé’s La migration des cœurs, as well as in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the protagonists fail to establish a connection to their mothers and to their mother country.

This is especially true for Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. Before losing her to illness, Antoinette is rejected by her mother and then by her mother country, England. This issue of failed relationships between mother and mother country can be extended to colonial society, where Caribbeans were encouraged to emulate a European system. However, that same system rendered them inferior, and so they are left with an unclear idea of who they are.

Like Antoinette, the female protagonists in The House on the Lagoon and La migration des cœurs have lost their mothers and are left in a marginalized space.

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