Italy is a country with an extremely variegated and troubled history. We’re accustomed to thinking that Italy possesses a distinct and unmistakable identity, but when we do so we overlook the elementary consideration that Italy has only existed as a single, united country for a little over 150 years (and that as a nation it has only included Rome, now its capital, for 146 of those years). And that for most of its history it was actually a melting pot of diverse peoples, traditions, religions, and languages. It has suffered through wars, invasions, and periods of foreign domination. Many centuries before geographers even knew enough about the existence of a small island called Lampedusa to include it on their maps, Italy was the destination of substantial and repeated migrations: waves of Hellenic, Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, Slavic, Arabic, and Balkanic peoples. The Italians are one of the most elaborate and cunningly crafted cocktails that world history has come up with to date: they are Latins and Longobards, Goths and Greeks, Arabs and Normans, Illyrians and Turks, and much, much more. It would therefore be possible (and quite interesting) to compile a multicultural anthology of Italian literature, perhaps following in the footsteps of the one conceived and edited by Werner Sollors for the United States. Such an anthology would feature the contributions of the many authors who, over the course of the centuries, have expressed themselves, in Italy, in languages other than Italian: starting with the Arab poets of tenth- and eleventh-century Sicily and continuing on with the thirteenth-century poets of the Salento region of southeastern Italy who wrote in the Greek of Byzantium, and on from there to Immanuel the Roman, a contemporary of Dante’s, who wrote his verse and his prose—collected in a volume entitled Mahbarot—in Hebrew, Latin, and Italian, and from there to the many authors who composed their works in Spanish or French during the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, and finally coming to Theodor Däubler, a Trieste–born poet and cultural critic who wrote in German and lived and worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Last of all, there is Däbler’s virtual townsman James Joyce, who even came up with the subtitle to his masterpiece while living in Trieste, and framing it in the local dialect: Ulysses or Su mare grega, a clever pun on the Trieste dialect for “his whore of a mother,” and “Greek sea”; in Trieste most prostitutes at the time were Greek. And that’s not to overlook, while we’re on the subject, the substantial heft of Italian literary works produced in dialect. As far back as the sixteenth century, that is to say virtually moments after the most respected men and women of letters set forth the conventional rules of high-flown Italian—in other words, how to write in prose like Boccaccio, and in poetry like Petrarch—genuinely subversive literary giants scattered the length and breadth of the peninsula and islands: the Neapolitan and European master of the fairy tale (the first narrator, among other tales, of Cinderella) Giambattista Basile, whose work was later plundered by the Brothers Grimm and by Charles Perrault, or the Sicilian poet Giovanni Meli and the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, the two formidable nineteenth-century poets Carlo Porta and Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, the former Milanese and the latter Roman. To say nothing of the Neapolitan poet Salvatore Di Giacomo or, among the countless hundreds of others that we could name, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and in particular his youthful poetry in Friulian (a neo-Latin language belonging to the Rhaeto-Romance family, and therefore, necessarily, not Italian), which constitutes what is perhaps the loveliest part of his vast production in verse.
On something like a continuum with that tradition, in a larger body of work that largely defies any “national” interpretative approach, these days Italy can also boast of a healthy crop of “hyphenated” writers, the offspring of the last three decades or so of immigration: Senegalese-Italians, Albanian-Italians, Algerian-Italians, Somali-Italians, Indo-Italians, and so on and so forth. One of the first of these was Pap Khouma, who was born in Dakar in 1957 and moved to Milan in 1984; in 1990 he published directly in Italian his memoir Io, venditore di elefanti (I, the Elephant Vendor), a title that was followed by Nonno Dio e gli spiriti danzanti (Grandpa God and the Dancing Spirits, 2005) and Noi italiani neri (We Black Italians, 2010), establishing himself as an emblematic representative of a “rebirth” in his new adoptive homeland. On the other hand, Amara Lakhous’s first book in Italian was a proper novel; Lakhous was born in Algeria in 1970, where he had previously published two other books. In 2006, that first book in Italian was the richly ironic Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio (Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio), an excerpt of which appeared in Words Without Borders in Ann Goldstein’s translation, which recounts the everyday complications of the coexistence of longtime residents and newly arrived immigrants in Rome. The book was also made into a movie. Lakhous has continued with a similar approach, blending social issues and noirish plotlines, framed in a gently ironic tone; to name two of the four novels that followed: Divorzio all’islamica a viale Marconi (Divorce Islamic Style, 2010) and Contesa per un maialino italianissimo a San Salvario (Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet, 2013). The latter novel is set not in Rome, but instead in the most multiethnic quarter of the northern city of Turin.
An equally long path was pursued by Igiaba Scego, who was born in Rome in 1974 to Somali parents. Among her books, all of them with intercultural themes, we can mention Oltre Babilonia (Beyond Babylonia, 2008), the autobiographical La mia casa è dove sono (My House is Where I Am, 2010), and in particular, Adua (2015), a novel whose main character is a female Somali immigrant who, significantly, was named after “the first African victory over imperialism” (the reference is to the Battle of Adwa, a disastrous military defeat suffered by the Italian army in Ethiopia in 1896). Among the many other writers we might rightly mention, here are a few: Laila Wadia, who was born in Mumbai in 1966 and has lived in Rome since 1986 (Mondo pentola, 2007; Amiche per la pelle, 2009; Come diventare italiani in 24 ore, 2010; Se tutte le donne, 2012); Gabriella Kuruvilla, born in Milan in 1969 to an Indian father and an Italian mother (Milano, fin qui tutto bene, 2012; È la vita, dolcezza, 2014); Cristina Ali Farah, born in Verona in 1973, the daughter of a Somali father and an Italian mother (Madre piccola, 2007; Il comandante del fiume, 2013); Ornela Vorpsi, born in Tirana, Albania in 1968 and now living in Paris (Il paese dove non si muore mai, 2005; Vetri rosa, 2006; La mano che non mordi, 2007; Bevete cacao Van Houten!, 2010; Fuorimondo, 2012); Antar Mohamed Marincola, born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and a resident of Italy since 1983; he is a coauthor, with the Wu Ming writers’ collective, of the vast “half-breed novel” Timira (2012). There are so many other names we might mention here, but to give just a few: Muin Masri, a Palestinian from Nablus who lives in Turin; Zhu Qifeng, a Chinese writer who has moved to Padua; Ingi Mubiayi, who was born in Cairo to a Congolese father and an Egyptian mother, and who has lived in Rome since 1977; Barbara Serdakowski, a Polish writer now living in Florence; and last of all, the extremely young Nigerian-Italian author Sabrynex, who was born in 1999 in Castel Volturno in the province of Caserta, and who wrote a romance titled Un’overdose di te. That book became a hit on Wattpad with over two million readers, and was published as a book this year by Rizzoli as An Overdose of You.
These “neo-Italian” authors are often invited to contribute to anthologies and collections. Among the short-story collections, we should mention Pecore nere (2005), Italiani per vocazione (2005), and Amori bicolori (2008). There is even a book published in the United States that explores this phenomenon at considerable length: Mia Lecomte and Luigi Bonaffini (editors), A New Map: The Poetry of Migrant Writers in Italy (Legas, 2011). There is no mistaking the fact that this is a substantial phenomenon. In fact, it is calculated that, as of this writing, almost six hundred new writers who are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, from all over the world, have appeared on the Italian publishing scene. And there are many Italian literary critics willing to bet that it will be these writers, in particular, who will soon constitute the most vivid and lively contingent of Italian literary voices, much as has been the case in other European nations, and especially in England. To say nothing, of course, of the United States, Canada, or such South American countries as Brazil and Argentina.
Still, while there is no doubt that there is a considerable degree of interest in these neo-Italian writers—they are amply represented at the various Italian literary festivals, they are given awards and other acknowledgments, and in a few cases they command a substantial readership—it is equally true that till now Italy has failed to display the same level of interest in its own emigrant writers, those authors who have made their names in the many countries around the planet that took in the two enormous historical waves of Italian emigration: the first, between 1870 and the First World War, directed chiefly toward North and South America, and the second, in the 1950s, with destinations in the Americas, but also Australia and such European countries as Switzerland, Germany, and France.
There has been a bounty of scholarship on the history of Italian emigration—unquestionably the most spectacular mass phenomenon in the entire century and a half of Italian history since unification—but it has largely focused on historical, social, economic, and statistical aspects of that emigration. There has been far less interest in studying the literary realm of Italian emigration throughout the world, and in practical terms it has only been in the last twenty years that books have begun to fill in this startling gap. The scholarly community that studies these things is numerically negligible, and the author of this essay is the only professor in Italian academia to hold a chair in Italian-American studies (it is called, to be exact, “Cultura e letteratura degli italiani d’America,” or “Culture and Literature of the Italians in America,” at the Università Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples). There are few “hyphenated Italian” writers who have to date enjoyed significant popularity in Italy: among the Italo-Americans, chiefly John Fante, Mario Puzo, Gay Talese, and Don DeLillo. Many other authors have been translated into Italian and published, but the translations have limited sales and are hard to find, even when they are the subject of considerable media attention—as in the cases of Richard Russo and Salvatore Scibona and their novels Empire Falls (2001) and The End (2010).
And if that is the situation where second- and third-generation writers are concerned, what happens to first-generation writers is far more serious. What we’re talking about are writers who were born in Italy and then emigrated to America or elsewhere, and there wrote and published, by and large in Italian. No one in Italy, with the exception of a few specialists, has ever read any of the novels that Bernardino Ciambelli set in New York at the end of the nineteenth century (I misteri di Mulberry Street, La trovatella di Bleecker Street, I sotterranei di New York, and so on) or the poetry of the bard of the International Workers of the World, Arturo Giovannitti, the hero of the great 1912 textiles strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. For many a long year, these and other authors have been the victims of a deep-rooted cultural prejudice: it was felt that the emigrants who left Italy in their millions were individuals completely devoid of any real culture, and therefore incapable of producing significant literary works. In the 1930s, the prominent critic Emilio Cecchi (in those years one of the arbiters of Italian literary taste) had no difficulty stating that it was not in the pages of a book or in the notes of a sheet of music or the images of a painting that one should seek the masterpieces of Italian emigration, but rather in steel and cement, in the physical creations of Italian labor. The same views were held by Giuseppe Prezzolini (who even lived in America, at Columbia University’s Casa Italiana) and many others. Material culture was set against intellectual culture, in other words. And so it was that, with the end of the first chapter of Italo-American immigration just before the Second World War, everything that that generation had produced in the realm of literature was funneled into a sort of literary cul de sac: the children of these emigrants didn’t speak Italian, the Americans never had, and millions of pages of Italian-language newspapers and magazines and stacks and stacks of Italian books published in America wound up stored in attics where (it is to be hoped) they remain today, or in the best of cases, in libraries where they have been salvaged. When it comes to the books, there are some truly startling figures. To give a single example, only one copy of Camillo Cianfarra’s Diario di un emigrato, published in New York in 1904, is now known to exist on earth, and it is at the library of the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center.
What are the explanations for such a profound lack of interest? Why has the memory of this body of literature been so appallingly suppressed in Italy? And why, for that matter, has the body of Italian literature produced in Italy been so lukewarm to the great subject of emigration, that is, the colossal spectacle of thousands and thousands of people every single day, for decades on end, crowding the piers and wharves of Genoa and Naples to take ship and depart?
There are basically two masterpieces that Italian literature has managed to produce on the theme of mass emigration at the time of peak expatriation toward the Americas. The earlier of the two is the piece of nonfiction narrative by Edmondo De Amicis, Sull’oceano (On Blue Water, published in 1889 and translated by Jacob Brown This is practically a logbook of a steamship journey made by the author from Genoa to Buenos Aires, as well as an in-depth social analysis, and yet it never tries to conceal its powerful urge to become pure narrative. In short, De Amicis is at once a passenger, a journalist, and a protagonist of the crossing, which lasts twenty-two days. What emerges is a portrait of the people on the boat who, taken as a whole, represent Italy itself: “Workmen, peasants, women with children at the breast, little fellows with the tin medal of the Infant Asylum still hanging around their necks, passed on their way, and almost everyone was carrying something. They had folding chairs, they had bags and trunks of every shape in their hands or on their heads; their arms were full of mattresses and bedclothes, and their berth tickets were held fast in their mouths . . . ” It is a poor but, all things considered, dignified country going in search of fortune outside the national borders: “But the greater part, it must be allowed, were forced by hunger to emigrate, after having struggled vainly and for many years in the clutch of want.” De Amicis, a writer who was very popular in his day—among other books, he was the author of the uplifting Cuore (Heart: An Italian Schoolboy’s Journal), which for many generations remained an obligatory step in the coming-of-age of Italian adolescents—was also an intellectual with humanitarian and socialistic inclinations. On Blue Water should be considered one of the first and fully engaged documents in which Italian literature, historically elitist, was able to come directly to terms with the lower classes without a trace of arrogance or horror. A former garibaldino, which is to say, a proponent of the Italian republic, who was traveling on the same ship, gave De Amicis his opinion of who the emigrants really were: “The only merit they have . . . is their not trying to put on that mask of patriotic and humanitarian rhetoric. Otherwise . . . the usual egoism of domesticated animals. Their stomachs, their pockets. Not even the ideal of elevating their own class. Each would like to see the others worse off so only he might get on better himself. If the Austrians came back and made them rich they would be for the Austrians.” A fairly strong view, considering the book was written at a time when the myth of the Italian Risorgimento had not yet been tarnished. De Amicis retorts: “And yet . . . when they are in America they remember and love their native country.” But his disenchanted interlocutor has an even more pointed response: “Their native land, yes; not their country.” In this book, among other things, we find one of the very first instances of an encounter with the new languages of the emigrants. Aboard ship, De Amicis becomes acquainted with a stockbroker who is very experienced in crossings of that nature, and who appears to know more or less all the prominent characters traveling on that ship. The author addresses him and: “‘Do you know any more?’ I asked. ‘Why not?’ (Y como noo? Pure Argentine, in sing-song tone. All Italians take it up.)”
And this, the language of the emigrants, combined with a humanitarian sentiment toward the humbler members of society, is also the most distinctive trait of the second literary masterpiece to which I was referring, the poem Italy (1904) by Giovanni Pascoli, which bears the eloquent subtitle: “Consecrated to the Italy that goes roving.” Leaving aside the difference in artistic quality, since Pascoli was certainly the true, great father of modern Italian poetry, we can still compare him to De Amicis in many ways—the two authors shared a pro-socialist political orientation, and a certain, wholly compatible, love of country. Italy, four hundred and fifty lines of verse subdivided into two cantos, recounts the tribulations of a peasant family forced to emigrate to the United States, and it explores the subject of the distance, the caesura, that is created between those who leave and those who stay, between those who live in a new and modern world, and those who are still bound up with their practically atavistic traditions. The gap emerges in all its enormity at the moment when little Molly-Molly, sick with consumption, returns to her hometown in the Garfagnana to be given the appropriate treatment and care, and comes face to face with her aged grandmother. It is possible to read in filigree the tragedy of both the emigrants and the homeland that awaits the emigrants’ return, “in a dazzling dawn to come” (that is, in the light of that “sun of the future” so beloved in the mysticism of the Proletarian International), from the many far-flung locations where its children have scattered to work away like slaves.
Pascoli’s poem is also noteworthy for its linguistic experimentation: the free commingling of Italian, dialect, and words in English, of which we have a clear bellwether from the very first lines: “To Caprona, one February evening, / people were coming, and were already well up the slope, / coming up from Cincinnati, Ohio.” In the evening’s chill, the sickly little girl enchants her grandmother who watches her and listens to her speak: she strikes her as similar to a little bird—a luì, or common chiffchaff—twittering on a tree branch. But the girl “… spoke her language from overseas: / ‘a chicken house’ ‘un piccolo luì’ / ‘for mice and rats’ ‘che goda a cinguettare, / zi zi’ ‘Bad country, Joe, your Italy!’” In fact, in Pascoli’s enchanting composition, he even makes use of Italo-American slang. The grandmother, for example, sets out bread and milk for the little girl: “Homemade bread and milk fresh from the udder. / She said: ‘Bambina, state al fuoco: nieva! / nieva!’ And here Beppe adds, sadly: / ‘Poor Molly! qui non trovi il pai con fleva!’” The two lines in Italian, respectively, “Little girl, stay close to the fire: it’s snowing! it’s snowing!” and “Poor Molly! Here you won’t find pie with flavor!” are joined in a brilliant rhyme between “nieva” (which means “it’s snowing” in the dialect of Garfagnana) and the “fleva” (flavor) that the girl misses in her beloved pie (rendered phonetically in Italian as pai).
But De Amicis and Pascoli were not alone, among the great Italian writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in treating the topic of emigration. The list, actually, would be fairly lengthy, including for instance the novels Gli “Americani” di Rabbato by Luigi Capuana (1912) and Emigranti by Francesco Perri (1928), many short stories by such famous authors as Giovanni Verga and Luigi Pirandello, and of course a great deal of poetry. Nonetheless, it is surprising to see just how devoid that list is of truly significant works, capable of rising to the level of “classics.”
In the field of theater, on the other hand, a one-act play from 1918 does seem to approach that level: Scalo marittimo (’Nterr’ ’a Mmaculatella) by the Neapolitan author Raffaele Viviani (the title in English would read: The Port of Naples). This piece of theater depicts the events that occur over the space of thirty or forty minutes prior to the departure of the steamship Washington, bound for South America, from the Immacolatella Vecchia wharf in the port of Naples (the chief point of embarkation for transoceanic travel in those years). From the very beginning we are brought face to face with the reality of southern poverty, with a mass of emigrants, by and large from the inland region of Lucania, who are seeing the sea for the very first time. One of them expresses his amazement at the sight of the enormous ship: “Mamma mia! It’s a great big house that goes right on top of the water!” And in the meantime an entire city buzzes around this herd of down-and-out travelers, trying to rob them, to prey on their good faith right up to the last instant, to sell them stale or rotten food or mercenary love affairs. Miss Mary, an American tourist, is astonished to see all these people about to sail away, and exclaims, in fractured Italian: “Why, all you Neapolitans have no idea how lovely Naples really is!” All the while, a customs officer, who serves throughout the play as a sort of running commentary or “chorus,” reflects bitterly: “Poor people! All that fine energy forced to scatter across the globe!”
Italian society has historically looked upon mass emigration as a great national shame. It looked upon the outcome of that emigration with the incredulous gaze of those who were astonished to see this sudden reversal of the progressive paradigm represented by the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy. The fact remains that, at the very moment national unity was being achieved with the conquest of Rome in 1870, the poorer classes began to emigrate in ever-swelling waves, first from the regions of Northern Italy (Liguria, the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, Lucchesia or Piana di Lucca, Piedmont, and then Venetia, Trentino, and Friuli), and subsequently, to an even more dramatic extent, from the central and southern regions (Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, southern Lazio, and Umbria). This convulsive population shift was considered by many to be the result of a great and tragic illusion. The unification of Italy had been opposed by the higher orders of the Catholic church, which never tired of accusing the secular government of having abandoned so many of its children. The church also took every opportunity to exploit the phenomenon of mass emigration for purposes of propaganda, as unmistakable proof of the failure of the anticlerical project of national unification. It further feared that the faith of Italian emigrants, especially those sailing to North America, would be corrupted upon contact with Protestant preachings (for that express purpose, an order of missionaries, the Scalabrinians, or Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, was founded in order to minister to Italian emigrants abroad). The Italian government, in contrast, exploited the phenomenon of mass emigration for its own utilitarian objectives, in the hopes that emigration might actually serve the purpose of ridding the country of vast numbers of undesirables. To a certain extent, the government encouraged the expatriation of people in trouble with the law: common criminals first and foremost, later followed by vast numbers of “subversives” fleeing a campaign of brutal repression instigated by the administration of Francesco Crispi. Positivist anthropologists and criminologists, following in the wake of studies by Cesare Lombroso and other scientists of the period, had identified in the inhabitants of southern Italy “proof” of an inbred criminal tendency. Further evidence was found in the ranks of the brigands who led an uprising against Italian unification, which they derided and defied as little more than an invasion guided by opportunistic northerners, or “Piedmontese” (Italy’s first capital was in Turin, in Piedmont). Another scientist, the (ironically) Sicilian anthropologist Alfredo Niceforo, actually referred to the “accursed race” of southern Italy and its islands, explaining the problem as the result of a prevailing admixture of African and “negroid” genetic components in the southern population; in contrast, according to Niceforo, in the northern regions it was the Euroasiatic Aryan race that dominated. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Lombroso was Italy’s best-known and most influential scientist, and he was widely respected throughout the world. It was on the basis of these principles of “scientific racism,” and in particular, the distinction between the two racial stocks of Italy, that by the 1890s the US immigration authorities actually began to accord different treatments to Italians, depending on their place of origin (with preference accorded, of course, to Northern Italians).
Crime rates in nineteenth-century Italy were stunning: murder was common, and for the most trivial of motives. It came as no real surprise, then, that even in their new homes across the ocean, Italian immigrants should stand out as social menaces. Nowadays, of course, we know that it is practically foreordained that the newest arrivals—the most disadvantaged, the most marginalized, those forced to live in the most challenging conditions—should also be those most likely to engage in criminal activities. In modern-day Italy, more than thirty-five percent of the prison population consists of non-Italians (and especially immigrants from North Africa): a statistic that faithfully reflects this “inevitability” factor in the link between immigration and criminal behavior.
But what seems most surprising, in the case of Italian criminals who emigrated to America, is that their country of origin should have done so little to combat the spread of a criminal stereotype that so redounded to the detriment, all things considered, of the Italians who hadn’t emigrated themselves. The press in the United States began to talk about the Mafia and the Camorra as early as the 1890s. The exploits of the “Black Hand” became a juicy morsel proffered regularly in pulp fiction and featured in banner headlines. The 1909 murder in Palermo of Detective Joe Petrosino, head of the New York Police Department’s “Italian Squad,” provided evidence for the first time of a transatlantic Mafia connection, arousing horror and alarm. With the advent of Prohibition, criminal figures emerged like Alphonse Capone, and in his wake all the other “families” that, if nothing else, helped to shift the locale of the American film epic from the Western frontier to the great metropolises of the Midwest and the Atlantic seaboard . . .
But what strikes us as most surprising, I was saying, is that the Italian homeland put up with all this so unprotestingly. That the immigrants shouldn’t have protested against the stereotype—the overwhelming majority of them after all were poor, uneducated, and marginalized from the everyday life of their new homeland, which by and large coincided in any case with the borders of the Little Italy they happened to live in—was actually quite predictable. But even the voice of the immigrant elites (the many Italian newspapers in New York, the consular authorities, the early businessmen, large and small) failed to ring out loud and clear, and as for the voice of the Italian homeland, well, the silence was almost deafening. As a result, the “dagoes” were destined to remain “dagoes” for many years, surrounded by an aura of grim, unsettling dread. If we compare the way things went with Italian immigrants to the parallel experiences of Irish and Jewish organized crime, it’s impossible to miss the clear disparity. Dutch Schultz or Meyer Lansky are, still today, much less notorious than Al Capone, and this, in my view, is in part due to the differences in the resources that the various immigrant communities were able to bring to the defense of their respective honorability.
In the final analysis, then, this criminal history is at least in part, in my view, a product of the neglect, the disregard, the age-old lack of attention that the country of Italy has always paid to the greater Italy that lies outside of its national borders. It’s as if criminal organizations such as Cosa Nostra had taken the trouble, on their own, and of course in their own fashion, to fortify relations that the official government of the nation had for too long neglected, though that nation could doubtless have benefited enormously from proper care and tending of those ties.
That said, let us return to the heart of the problem: the bitter consideration of the fact that Italy viewed the huge issue of emigration as the inescapable destiny awaiting an unmanageable mass of the disinherited, a fate that concerned that mass alone, and was of no concern to their homeland. Italy at the turn of the twentieth century could afford at the very most the luxury of shedding a tear or two over these stories of families torn apart, heartbroken mothers, distant sons and daughters, the incurable ache of homesickness. Excellent raw material, no doubt, for certain tearjerker popular songs, such as the Neapolitan canzoni “Santa Lucia luntana” (1919), “Lacreme napulitane” (1925), “’A cartulina ’e Napule” (1927)—though only the last song in that list was a genuine product of the great emigration, since it was composed in New York and was turned into a hit by the singer Gilda Mignonette, who was better known as la regina degli emigrant, “the queen of the emigrants.”
I no longer recall on what occasion, at which literary festival or scholarly conference, but I clearly remember hearing a respected expert in Italian-American studies opining that “the Italo-Americans are, after all, i più terroni fra i terroni.” The most terrone of all the terroni. Terrone, in Italian, is a charming little word with the same general significance as other ethnic slurs directed at Italians. It’s a pejorative term for southern Italians, underscoring their ties (as if some condemnation) to the land (“la terra,” hence “terrone”), and therefore their peasant origins. The Italo-Americans, then, are by and large the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those long-ago terroni, and they have supposedly therefore maintained in their cultural baggage something of that original, primordial universe. Something that the Italians from Italy, whenever they have dealings with Italo-Americans, cannot fail to detect immediately: it’s in the way that the Italo-Americans pronounce their Italian, with an unmistakable whiff of dialect, or else, for instance, in the way they think of “Italian” cooking, such as the belief that spaghetti and meatballs is an authentic Italian recipe (whereas in reality that dish is nothing other than the opportunity so many poor emigrants finally had to add a little meat—blessed luxury!—to their normal diet of pasta).
Italy, in other words, experienced emigration as a source of national shame, and shame is something you do your best to forget, as quickly and completely as possible. That is what we as a nation have done, even though nearly every Italian family has at least one relative who emigrated. That is why a fundamental page of our nation’s history has remained shrouded in the shadows for so long, at first submerged by the guilty conscience of a country that thought of itself—with some justification—as one of the foremost nations on earth, later by the thunderous rhetoric of the Fascists, and finally, in the aftermath of the Second World War, by the natural dissolution of memories and by the sudden onset of the “economic miracle” that in the Fifties produced “the magic of Italy” and “La Dolce Vita.”
These days, now that Italy has become a yearned-after destination for thousands and thousands of migrants, that past should serve as a lodestar for us Italians. It should help us to understand how we can manage an array of fundamental questions, first and foremost the issue of integration. We know, of course, that there is no form of mass migration that won’t produce problems of some sort, that won’t stir racism and intolerance, that won’t create social fractures. But we ought to remember how we can try to limit these negative effects, even when to do so might seem impossible. We ought to remember that in the late nineteenth century, in the United States, the idea was widely accepted—thanks to the agitation of nativist factions and even by broad sectors of the labor movement—that Italian immigrants were actually the first wave of a Papist plot designed to undermine the free institutions of the American republic. Veiled women who were confined to the home, meeting places attended by men only, strange culinary customs, unheard of religious and devotional rituals: from an American point of view, in other words, the Italians of those days could very much resemble what the Muslims look like nowadays to people in the West. A few generations—no more than three—were plenty of time to eradicate (almost) all of this. Let’s hope such a thing is still possible.
© Francesco Durante. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Antony Shugaar. All rights reserved.