July 3, 2011

Evoking the Mirror: An Interview With Writer Fred Gardaphé

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

Write or be written. No truer statement could express what it means to preserve a culture through literary tradition. For over thirty-five years, Fred Gardaphé has been doing just that for Italian Americana. Working tirelessly as a critic, editor and publisher, he’s served as a major supporter of Italian American writers and challenged the ways in which the literary canon views Italian American literature. Currently holding the title of Distinguished Professor in English and Italian American Studies at Queens College of CUNY, Gardaphé has published a wide range of academic and creative works including From Wiseguys to Wise Men, Italian Signs American Streets and the recent short story collection, Imported from Italy. Along with serving as a writer and Associate Editor of the Chicago-based magazine Fra Noi, Gardaphé is a founder of Bordighera Press, which has published hundreds of titles by and about Italian Americans. As a co-founder and editor of VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, Gardaphé helps foster the continuing dialogue of established and up-and-coming Italian American critics, writers and poets through this much celebrated literary journal. He’s served as President of the American Italian Historical Association and MELUS (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States), and hosts his own live show Nota Bene, reaching an average of 3.4 million Italian Americans in the NY metropolitan area. As a recent 2010-2011 Fulbright Teaching Fellow, Gardaphé spent an academic year abroad at the University of Salerno in Italy, where he lectured on American literature and media, while continuing to support young, emerging writers.

But it’s through fiction where Gardaphé gains new ground. His forthcoming novel The Good Professor draws from very personal experiences growing up with and working for the Chicago-based Mafia. I recently had the privilege to discuss this new work, as well as Fred’s impressions on the significance of the Italian American literary tradition

Olivia Kate Cerrone: In your essay, “In Search of Italian American Writers,” a response to the NY Times article by Gay Talese that bemoaned the dearth of Italian American novelists, you argue that there is not only a wealth of Italian American writers who have been publishing serious works of fiction as early as 1886 with Luigi Ventra’s short story collection Misfits and Remnants, but that it is essential to read and engage with this literary tradition as it teaches the “different ways of being Italian American,” ways that extend beyond Hollywood-perpetuated stereotypes of what it means to be Italian American. You then go on to remark, countering Gay Talese’s initial statement that you are what you read, “If you are what you read, then you are not Italian American until you read Italian American writers.” Why should the Italian American community take literature written by Italian Americans seriously?

Fred Gardaphé: We need to take it seriously because no one else takes it seriously. No one has taken it seriously enough to put it into educational programs, to make it a part of school curriculums. If you look into the mirror of society and you don’t see a reflection, then you don’t exist. I didn’t see a reflection. I saw a reflection through Mario Puzo more than anything else. I certainly never ever thought of an Italian American writer until Mario Puzo came along. That was in 1969. I was a senior in high school then, doing research for my senior thesis on the Mafia because I had always been accused of being in the Mafia and wanted to investigate the matter to understand what it all meant. I wrote the essay and got a ‘C’ because, as I was told, I used all Italian sources. Well, who else was writing about the Mafia? They said I wasn’t objective enough in the approach and used all biased sources because how true could Italian sources be? So I just totally ignored anything Italian after that and consequently, when I started finding my own voice as a writer, I had nothing to write about. I was certainly influenced a great deal by the likes of Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. But when I started writing fiction, I couldn’t draw from Italian American experiences because I didn’t see them in the literary world. I didn’t see anyone writing those kind of stories, so I didn’t think that what I had to say was important.

OKC: From this same essay, you remark how “it wasn’t until I began to submit my own writing to publications that I realized that disseminating my work would demand political action. All the reading I had done told that my story could not only be written, but that it had to be written.” What do you mean by this? When did you first seriously begin to write literary fiction?

FG: When I first went to Italy, I was twenty-five going on twenty-six years old, and there, I finally found my material. I wrote an 800-page novel called The Generation Removed that involved my grandfather’s coming to the United States, the second part involved my parents’ story and the third part involved my own experiences in Italy. I sent it off to one publisher who said, “Dostoevsky’s dead. We don’t want anymore 800-page novels.” Another publisher said that “if this was a book about Jews, I would buy it, but no one buys Italian American fiction unless it has the Mafia in it.” I thought to myself: wait a minute that can’t be right. In the meantime, I decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Chicago and was working on my Masters thesis on Walt Whitman when I stumbled into Rose Basile Green’s study, The Italian American Novel. And then I thought here’s evidence, here’s proof. I decided to do my dissertation on Italian American writers. My professors thought I was crazy. One told me to “get out of here. Don’t even try this because no one will support you. I’ll be the only one who will agree to be on your committee. Nobody else because they don’t believe that it [an Italian American literary tradition] exists and there is not enough research out there. There’s one book. How could you build an entire dissertation on one book? We want our PhDs from the University of Chicago to go on to teach at Stanford and Yale, and you would never do that if you did this dissertation.” This was all politically sound advice, but it was the worst thing I’d ever heard and I was defiant enough at that point to go tell them to go screw themselves. I left and got a job teaching. But I continued researching Italian American writers for two main reasons: to find them number one and two, to see if anyone had written the book that I wanted to write. I’ve read hundreds of such books and not one is anywhere near my fiction. This idea of the Italian American literary experience comes down to basically me trying to uncover my own presence in literature: what I wanted to study.

OKC: You have also written two one-act plays: “Vinegar and Oil,” produced by the Italian/American Theatre Company and “Imported from Italy,” produced by Zebra Crossing Theater and are currently completing a memoir Living with the Dead. What compels you to write fiction? What does fiction allow you to express about the Italian American experience that other art forms cannot? Do you find yourself haunted by themes and characters that reoccur again and again in your work?

FG: Fiction to me is much like the difference between a photograph and a painting. A painting you don’t always get what’s actually there, but if you’re good, you get at something that was greater than what was there. When I take a photograph I get what’s there, but if I sketch or do a drawing, you get something that is based on truth but goes beyond the actual experience of being there. It’s the same thing when the Italian American experience is translated through fiction. No matter what I write critically about Italian Americans, it’s not as satisfying as when I write short stories. Consequently, I write what I call “friction,” a blending between fact and fiction, and find this form most freeing. Fiction stimulates the imagination in a way that nonfiction doesn’t. That doesn’t make it easy. It’s as hard as hell.

I became an intellectual as a way of putting distance between me and my past. I have really kept the gangster stuff in the shadows except for my book From Wise Guys to Wise Men, which I thought would’ve purged the need to tell my story. I thought I could do it academically. While I’m very happy with that book, it’s just too intellectually safe. I can talk about this stuff now, and in fact, have spoken at conferences, but I didn’t talk about much at all before the age of fifty and started therapy. Up until then, I would say something that was common knowledge. I never even told my wife of twenty-one years before we divorced. Right when we were going through the divorce, I started telling her, to which she said, “Wow, well you’re really fucked up.” So, I realized that it’s not enough just to tell this story now; I need to understand it more, which is when I wrote From Wise Guys to Wise Men. I needed to do it from a distance to see what is it like, to understand what does this gangster experience do. I did my research having the insight behind that experience, while looking at the outside images of the other people that are created. That was a little hard to do, but it was easier for me. It was ironic that I started going through psychotherapy when The Sopranos came out, so me and Tony Soprano were in therapy together. I was a nut for The Sopranos. I watched it every single Sunday night and when I couldn’t, I made sure that I saw the episode before the next one came out. In my earlier fiction, there’s a few instances where these “large guys” surface, but I’ve done a good job of repressing them in my work until now.

Professor Gardaphé at the Italian American Museum

OKC: Which leads me to my next question. How does your current novel, The Good Professor draw from your experiences working for the Mafia? What initially led you to its conception?

FG: I use fiction to tell the truth. I spent ten years working with organized crime. I could’ve written a Gomorrah if I had the balls to do it, but I didn’t because I was a good boy, meaning I didn’t say a damn thing during those years I was exposed to it, from the age of ten to twenty-four. These experiences were not entirely like those as portrayed in Goodfellas and The Sopranos, though there were elements here and there that were true. But really my experiences were mirrored in the film Gomorrah. That’s the real way. You do things right, you get rewarded. You do things wrong, you get killed or hurt. I was involved in things that were never murders or anything like that. There were things that happened that no one ever knew anything about. Usually stories involving the Mafia focus around violent crimes. That’s only a small percentage of what these people do in the scheme of things, but that’s what everybody gives their attention to. What people don’t realize is that more people participate in organized crime than anyone can ever imagine. People who do participate in organized crime don’t even know that they’re doing it. Maybe you’re buying a car from that dealership or eating at this restaurant. You’re giving organized crime money. It’s not like how it is in the movies where these guys are all about killing and stealing and robbing. No, these guys are so integrated in the society, it becomes the society itself. I worked for ten years in a legitimate restaurant supply business. Now how they did their business and the impact they had and the people that had to do business with them, that was all done in private offices with threats sometimes. Sometimes I did some vandalism. Especially when I was under the age of 18, when I technically could not be tried as an adult. Petty things like ripping down the posters of candidates who were running against those Mafia-backed candidates to intimidating people at the poll. Just things that punk teenagers do because older people tell them to do it. But even the girl who sold mozzarella cheese in the store was involved. Everybody. The people who bought it and they knew and nobody ever protested. There was never an Anti-Mafia movement like there is in Sicily which people die for. Yet, what kills me is that these Italian Americans spend all this money to do this Anti-Mafia in the movie stuff. They wouldn’t risk their lives to go against the real Mafia, but put money, energy and time into protesting the fake Mafia that they see on TV? It just blows my mind. I want to take this notion of the Mafia and make it sit in people’s living rooms because people keep it on TV, at a distance.

I decided when I became appointed as Distinguished Professor that I was either going to write The Good Professor or I was not going to ever write it. Damned if they take away the Distinguished Professorship for writing it or not. But I did care earlier. The first twenty-five years of my career, I hid this stuff and wouldn’t talk about it. I never talked about it to my best friends, I never talked about it to the people I was involved with. When I’d come back from college and see those people, we wouldn’t sit around and say remember when we did this? Remember when we did that? Now we do. Forty, fifty years later. I’d written a memoir detailing my experiences with the Mafia but I couldn’t bring myself to have it published. Even though the guys I worked for are all dead, their children live on and I don’t want to be the person to say this is what your father did. So I’ve decided to turn that into fiction. I didn’t want to be interviewed on Good Morning America or have another Mafia thing come out. I didn’t want to go that route. But I wanted to write a story about a kid who is involved in this who grows up to become a professor in order to hide it and what happens when people begin finding out after he’s become this distinguished professor. Fiction was the only way to go. The only way to free myself from my past. It’s not me. I created this character and he hides, he uses his intelligence and work to hide away from his past, and yet it continues to inform his present, the way he acts, etc. That was a more interesting thing to deal with, and something I could only do through writing The Good Professor.

OKC: Does your father’s murder play a part in writing The Good Professor?

FG: Of course. I’ve always told people that my father, my grandfather and godfather were murdered. That’s something that either draws people toward me or pushes them away, but I’ve never gone into the details. My godfather was killed robbing a country club, part of an organized crime group that went around stealing. Somebody shot him and his buddies took him and threw him outside a hospital, where he died a few days later. That was very early in my life. Then my father was murdered in 1963. It was unsolved, peripherally investigated. I did my own research and thought I found the guy who killed him, and came very close to killing the man myself, but I couldn’t. It’s a good thing I didn’t, but it wasn’t the guy. Years later, after doing some more research, I found my father’s killer. It was this same guy that used to bug me and my father whenever he’d come into the pawnshop. He was a distant cousin of ours. I remember seeing the hairs on the back of my father’s neck go up straight when I was kid, standing behind him, whenever this guy walked into the store. My father was a tough guy. He punched out a movie star in the local theater because the movie star took a kiss from one of the girls he wanted. He was a tough guy that got into fights.

My father was killed in a particular brutal way with a knife and an axe. It was a message killing, there’s no doubt about it. Later in life, when I discovered my father’s killer, I learned, for the first time about that guy who came into the pawn shop, the one who always got my father’s defenses up, was an expert with knives and axes. That was his way of killing people. This guy was subsequently killed not long after my father’s death. They found him in a trunk. He’d been one of the big hit men for one of the top guys in Chicago.

So I went to this guy I used to work for and told him that I think I know who killed my father. My friend said: “Oh come on that was so long ago.” I didn’t care; I needed to know. My friend said so what’s your story? I gave him the name of the guy I think did it and told him how the pieces added up. My friend looks at me and goes: “Well look, I’m going to say this and then we’re never going to talk about it again. I’m not going to tell you he did it but I’m not going to tell you he didn’t do it." So in typical organized crime translation, he did it. How could you say he did it, he didn’t do it. I knew by the body gestures, the way his face was, the way he held his eyes back, held his hand out, as if he were communicating to me: you got it, but I ain’t saying anything more than this. He also knew that there was nothing that anyone could do, but there is something I can do. I can incorporate this material into my fiction.

Once these gangsters came looking for me at the University of Wisconsin, and I knew who they were. I was in the library. They were afraid to come in the library. This was way before there were cell phones. They came all the way from Chicago because they had to ask me some questions. But they were so intimidated by the library, that they were afraid to come into the library. They were that intimidated. I sat inside a study room and felt so safe, so protected. Of course, I’m going to use that in my fiction too. I’m blowing this thing out.

OKC: Thank you so much, Fred for sharing your time and experiences with Il Regno. As a closing note: what can the Italian American community do to create a more viable access for readers to become more consciously aware of our cultural literary history, and engaging as readers with this tradition, as to create a cultural dialogue between the Italian American past that informs us of who we are and where we stand today?

FG: Read, buy and write. Write or be written. Read, read, read. Buy the books by Italian American authors. Give them as gifts. Even for people I know who have read one or two books by IA authors, the experience of reading those books has changed the way that they look at themselves, and other people. That’s the key that needs to happen. The Italian American community doesn’t even know that these writers exist. Very few people know. I teach the course in school. I’ve tried to get Italian American writers integrated into mainstream literature courses; I work with organizations like the MLA, MELUS. I’ve been president of MELUS and I’ve done everything I can to make sure that these people understand.

I never asked any questions why I had to read African American, Jewish American, Irish, Latino Literature. I just read them. This is what I tell other people: I’ve read all of your literature, why don’t you read some of mine? Then there are Italian American female authors who don’t read male authors. This infuriates me. Why do you just get to read women writers? I read everyone, regardless of gender. Subsequently, this has turned a couple of critics around and they are starting to do criticism on Italian American male authors. Bordighera Press was established as a way of making sure that quality literature that fell through the cracks of other publishers who find a place to be published. We’ve had quite a number of our books picked up by other presses. That’s fine. We just want to make sure that the books that we believe in that don’t get published find at least a vehicle so that the writer can distribute their books. Now with Print on Demand, it’s become a bit easier. The technology has really helped us. It’s a matter of getting the awareness out there and then doing the work: reading. The key is getting it out there.

** You can catch Fred live on his show Nota Bene, which premieres the third Wednesday of each month at 8:00pm EST, where you can follow on: livestream.com/italics
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at olivia.cerrone@gmail.com