September 27, 2011

The Last Days of September

The "Four Days of Naples" Remembered
Scene from the siege of Naples (September, 1943)

By Niccolò Graffio

“See Naples and die.” (Vedi Napoli e poi muori) – Italian proverb (variously ascribed to Virgil, Goethe and Humboldt)

The city of Naples is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in all of Italy, if not Europe. Tradition has it Greek settlers from Euboea founded a colony at the site sometime in the 8th century BC. Archaeologists, however, believe the earliest settlers were Greek sailors from Rhodes who established a mercantile colony on the tiny island of Megaride almost 100 years earlier. They named this colony Parthenope.

Around the 5th century BC these settlers were displaced by new arrivals from the Greek colony of Cumae. Reaching the mainland, these displaced settlers founded a new colony they named Neapolis (Gr: “New City”). In time Parthenope came to be absorbed into the growing city, being renamed simply Palaiopolis (Gr: “Old City”).

The harbor setting for this city was ideal, allowing its inhabitants to harvest the fauna of its waters while simultaneously trading with peoples from far away. The wealth this brought in allowed the city’s rulers to construct a formidable set of walls to protect it from invaders. During the Second Punic War with Rome (218 – 201 BC) the mighty Carthaginian general Hannibal was forced to retreat from before them. Although by this time Naples was part of the Roman world, it never forgot its Greek roots. In fact, to this day the people of Naples still refer to themselves as Parthenopéi (“Parthenopeans”).

Under the Romans the city was enlarged and modernized, with the Romans installing public baths and aqueducts. Many of Rome’s elite came to the city to immerse themselves in Hellenistic culture. The notorious gastronome Lucius Licinius Lucullus maintained a villa around the Bay of Naples. It was said the Roman emperor Nero was quite fond of visiting the place.

The history of the city of Naples is closely tied in with the early history of Christianity. According to tradition, the Apostles Peter and Paul preached in the city. Januarius, the patron saint of Naples (in the Roman Catholic Church), was said to have been bishop there. Whether any of this is true, one thing is certain: several catacombs have been found, especially in the northern part of the city, which contain early Christian relics. These attest to the early presence of the faith there. Continue reading

September 23, 2011

The Colossus of Watts

Sam Rodia – Designer and Builder of the Watts Towers

Sabato (“Sam” or “Simon”) Rodia
Photo courtesy of www.Wattstowers.us

“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.”
– Lyof N. Tolstoy: What is Art?, 1898

When I was a teenager my father would take us every summer down south to places like South Carolina and Florida. On one of those trips we visited Coral Castle, a sprawling stone structure located just north of the city of Homestead, Florida in Miami-Dade County.

Coral Castle is a remarkable edifice consisting of hundreds of tons of oolitic limestone that have been shaped into furniture, walls, carvings and a castle tower. The largest of these stones weighs 30 tons. What makes Coral Castle all the more incredible is the fact the entire structure was apparently built by only one man, an eccentric Latvian immigrant by the name of Edward Leedskalnin! The methods Leedskalnin used in building Coral Castle are shrouded in mystery. When questioned he always gave polite but evasive answers. Though some claim to have figured out how he did it, to this day it remains a mystery. If you ever travel down to Miami-Dade County, Florida it’s worth a trip to see Coral Castle.

While certainly it’s worth pondering how he did it, I’m one of those who wonder exactly why he did it! According to one account, when he still lived in his native Latvia he was jilted by his 16-y.o. fiancée the night before their wedding. The story goes he was driven to build Coral Castle in honor of her. Many (myself included) would think she did not deserve such an honor, and would question the sanity of a man who would devote over 28 years of his life to such an endeavor. Yet it’s also worth remembering that whatever his motives, he left us with an astounding structure that’s still admired to this day. He was neither the first or last eccentric to do so.

Sabato Rodia was born in the region of Campania, Italy. Like Leedskalnin, the events of his childhood are not known with certainty. The official website of the Watts Towers gives his birthday as February 12th, 1879 in the town of Serino, Italy in a section called Ribottoli. However, the Social Security Death Index lists it as April 15th, 1886.

According to Giovanni Cecchetti, Prof. Emeritus of Italian Literature at U.C.L.A., though Southern Italy at that time was the poorest and most exploited place in Europe, Rodia’s parents weren’t really that poor. He makes this assessment on the fact Rodia was born in a two-story dwelling. Rodia’s parents also owned a fairly large tract of land where they grew (according to Rodia) crops such as potatoes, wheat, corn, apricots, peaches, pears and apples. If this was true, far from being dirt-poor, his family was fairly prosperous. In Russia, they would have been called kulaks.

In interviews given later in his life, Sabato Rodia claimed his parents sent him to America because of a downturn in economic conditions back in Italy. Relatives here in the states, however, state that he came here to avoid conscription in the Italian Army.

A certain contention exists over what he was called during his lifetime. Some claim he was called “Simon”. It is known that people close to him called him “Sam” and that is how will be addressed for the remainder of this article.

Sam followed his brother Ricardo to America when the former was about 15. Here again, is uncertainty. The most common story is that Sam worked with his brother in the coalfields of Pennsylvania until the latter was killed in a mining accident, at which point Sam headed westward. However, an analysis of census records from 1900 show the only “Sam” Rodia was one of three bachelor brothers who lived and worked together as barbers in Philadelphia.

It is known that Sam eventually headed west to Seattle, Washington where he met and married one Lucia Ucci in 1902. They later moved to San Francisco where they eventually had three children, two boys and a girl (Frank, Alfred and Belle Alvira). In 1906 Sam sent for his sister Angelina and her husband, Sam Calicura. According to relatives, Sam shortly afterwards had a falling out with his brother-in-law over the latter’s abuse of Angelina.

Ironically, by his own admission, Sam himself was a poor husband and father who took to strong drink. Lucia sued him for divorce in 1912, charging him with cruelty and abandonment. Tragically, not too long after their divorce, Belle Alvira died of spinal meningitis.

His activities after this for the next decade are in dispute. He claims he traveled extensively to places like Canada, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Argentina. In an interview, however, a nephew expressed doubts about such claims.

By 1920 census records show a Sam Rodia living in Long Beach, CA with a Mexican wife named “Benita” and working as a cement finisher. Sometime after this, he broke up with Benita, took up with another Mexican woman named Carmen and moved to a small cottage on a triangular-shaped lot located at 1765 East 107th street in Watts, a mostly residential area now located in South Los Angeles. At the time Sam moved here Watts was a diverse city of Whites, Jews, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, with some Asians also in the mix. The socio-economic status of its inhabitants was mainly working class poor, with a large percentage of the population being railroad workers.

It was here in 1921 that Sam Rodia began construction of his towers. He worked alone using hand tools and window washer’s equipment. The towers are constructed of steel pipe overlaid with wire mesh, fastened by copper wire and coated with mortar. The towers were constructed with no predetermined design; Rodia simply improvised as he went along. Art experts who examined the towers, though, state he most certainly was inspired by church spires and gigli, the large, hand-sculptured towers used during religious processions in his native Campania.


Watts Towers (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

He embedded the main supports of the towers with found objects such as bottles, ceramic tiles, sea shells and even bed frames. Sometimes he used objects neighborhood children found and brought to him, but he mainly relied on damaged material he acquired from Malibu Pottery or CALCO (California Clay Products Company), both of which were located nearby. In all the time he worked on his creation, he never once used a scaffold. Instead, he built a stepladder into the lattice of his towers, allowing him to scale them when needed.

It took Sam over 33 years, working part-time, to construct his towers. The finished edifice is a series of 17 interconnecting structures; the two largest of which are each over 99 feet in height. The West Tower contains the longest reinforced concrete columns in the world. Incredibly, it’s set in a foundation of only 14 inches of concrete! Rodia later claimed his reason for constructing the towers was to give people something to admire. He wished to express gratitude to his adopted country by building an art object. He named his towers Nuestro Pueblo (Sp: Our Town).

Though Rodia referred to his creation as a “town”, but according to many who have studied the site, it actually more closely resembles a large boat! Their contention is based on the fact the panel palisade conspicuously resembles a sharp-pointed prow while the towers look like masts. Another structure is said to resemble a lifeboat. Nautical references and symbols are also interspersed throughout the structure.

While Sam was building his towers, the demographics of Watts changed considerably. By the 1940s Watts had become predominantly black as tens of thousands of them left Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas in what came to be known as the Second Great Migration. These peoples left these states for California to escape racial segregation and to seek better job opportunities.

Arriving in Watts in waves, they supplanted most of the previous residents. Sam’s new neighbors viewed him and his towers as oddities. He, in turn, did not get along with many of them. The fact a number of them actively encouraged their children to vandalize his towers did not help matters, either. During World War 2 many people also believed Rodia’s towers were being used to beam “secret messages” to the Japanese, which further added to the vandalism.

During the war the city also built a number of housing projects which added to the “White flight” from Watts. After the war the industry which had provided employment for many of Watts’ residents disappeared and the area quickly became a ghetto.

Why exactly Sam Rodia ceased work on his towers in 1954 is not clearly known. He later claimed it was because he tired of the incessant vandalism by his neighbors. However, others claim he suffered a mild stroke. Whatever the reason, in that year he deeded the property to a neighbor; a milker named Montoya. Sam then moved to Martinez, CA to be close to his family. It is believed he never returned to Watts. Montoya in turn sold the property to Bill Cartwright, a film editor who wished to preserve the towers as they were now attracting interest in L.A.’s art community. Three years after leaving Watts, a fire destroyed his cottage located inside the tower superstructure.

Problems arose when the City of Los Angeles wished to condemn the towers as a dangerous eyesore. By this time residents of Watts, perhaps cognizant of the fact the towers were really the only thing about the area worth visiting, marshaled in an attempt to save them. The City agreed to spare them if they could pass a “stress test”, basically a large truck with a crane mounted on the back would try to pull down the towers. Not only did the truck fail, but the truck and crane were themselves almost completely lifted off the ground by the towers during the test! The towers were saved!

The towers were now attracting notice, not only statewide, but nationwide as well. Interest in them swelled when it was discovered their creator was still alive and living in Martinez, CA. Initial efforts to cajole him into coming into the limelight failed as he really had no desire for media attention. In fact, he surprised many people when he told them he no longer had any interest in the towers and didn’t care what happened to them!

Eventually, though, persistence won out. Sam came out of “retirement” to address over 200 luminaries of Los Angeles in that city’s Museum of Art, to thunderous applause! Again, though, incredibly, the accolades heaped upon him by members of California’s art community seemed to matter little to him. He returned to Martinez where he lived out the remainder of his life in quiet obscurity.

In early 1965 he apparently suffered another stroke and was rushed to the hospital. Never fully recovering, he was transferred to Alhambra Convalescent Hospital where workers said his irascible personality and unpredictable behavior (he was said to be fond of going for long walks off hospital grounds unannounced) made him a difficult patient.


Watts Towers (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In early July of that year one of the nurses in charge of him went on vacation to Los Angeles. While there she visited the Watts Towers. Upon returning and spotting Rodia, she pointed him out to other staffers and loudly announced they had a celebrity in their midst. Sam Rodia was, in fact, a great artist! Witnesses claimed that after hearing this, a large smile appeared on his face. Sam Rodia, the sociable, if eccentric, immigrant sculptor from Campania, had apparently finally achieved his heartfelt desire – the approbation of those he considered his peers. Two days later, on July 16, 1965, he breathed his last.

His fame as well as his towers have endured long after his demise. Less than a month after his death, on August 11th, Watts exploded during the infamous Watts Riots. Interestingly, the towers were left untouched. In 1967 the Beatles put a picture of him on the cover of their album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. You can see him peeking shyly over the shoulder of Bob Dylan in the upper right-hand corner of the album.

In 1975 the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts deeded them to the City of Los Angeles. Three years later the city, in turn, deeded them to the State of California.

In early 1983 the noted American engineer, author, designer, inventor and futurist Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller inspected the Watts Towers. In April of that year, just three months before his own death, he consented to a 40-minute interview with the producers of I Build the Tower, a documentary on the life of Sam Rodia and his towers. Bits of the interview are interspersed throughout the documentary. I have watched both. It is hard to miss the admiration Mr. Fuller had for Sam Rodia and the abject awe he held for his creation. Fuller went so far as to predict that Sam Rodia would eventually be remembered, not only as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century, but of all time!

Of special interest to me was Fuller’s claim Rodia had instinctively deduced things about structural principles found in nature and then incorporated them into his towers’ design; things one normally only learns as part of an advanced education. If true, Sam Rodia must have been innately a very intelligent man. What a pity he was never given the opportunity to go to school to fully exploit that intelligence. One can only speculate what he then might have been able to create.

In 282 BC one Chares of Lindos constructed a huge bronze statue of the sun god Helios on the island of Rhodes to commemorate that island’s victory over the invading forces of Demetrius I of Macedon in 305 BC. That statue, dubbed the Colossus of Rhodes, was hailed by the Greek historian Herodotus as one of the Seven Wonders of the World of his time. It was eventually destroyed by an earthquake in the year 226 BC.

Sam Rodia’s colossus has thus far survived an earthquake, vandalism, a stress test and a windstorm. How long will it endure? No one knows. One thing I do know, however, is that his name will endure even after his towers are long gone. He now joins the ranks of Edward Leedskalnin (who by the way was only 5’ tall like him), Ferdinand Cheval, creator of Le Palais Idéal, and a host of other artistic eccentrics whose compulsions mystify the masses.

In truth, though, there is no real mystery as to why these people do these things. It has been said everyone secretly (or not so secretly, in some cases) desires to feel important. By creating colossal works of art the Rodias of this world wish to distract us long enough from the mundane tasks of our lives to make us realize they were here! We may deride them as eccentrics (or worse), but by stopping long enough to admire their creations we make them immortal, thus fulfilling their goal. When you stop and think about it, there really isn’t that much difference between them and established artists. Without them, life on this dreary ball of dirt would be a lot less bearable.

Niccolò Graffio

Further reading:

Happy Autumn!

Photo by New York Scugnizzo

The fall Equinox has a deep spiritual meaning in Greco-Roman culture and was important around the world since prehistoric times. To celebrate the occasion and the season of Autumn I would like to share a poem by Luigi Antonio Trofa from Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy: Texts and Criticism (A Trilingual Anthology) edited by Luigi Bonaffini, Legas, 1997, p.142.

Autumn Sun

You Autumn sun,
that set on fire the glasspanes of the houses
as the evening spreads red across the sky,
you that smile at the balconies all wreathed
with small bouquets of shining ears of corn,
does this voice of bells exist for real,
do you hear it... or is this sound a daydream?
It's an enchanted trill that calls my name
and makes me lose my strength and senses;
a cloud of incense now envelops me,
the times of long ago are here again:
my skin is smooth once more, and my hair
is curly as once was and black as pitch!
So many loved ones standing all around me!
... Where do they come from, how did they get here?
A pity that if you only look at them
a little closer, or slowly stretch your hands
and try to touch them...
only the evening light is left behind...
it quivers, and soon the sky turns into darkness!
Autumn sun,
the angel has gone by:
does this voice of bells exist for real,
do you hear it... or is this sound a daydream?

September 20, 2011

A look at NYC's 85th Annual Feast of San Gennaro

A pictorial of Yesterday's (9/19/11) Feast of San Gannaro in New York City's Little Italy. The event is sponsored by Figli di San Gennaro, Inc. (Sons of San Gennaro), a non-for-profit community organization dedicated to keeping alive the spirit and faith of the early Neapolitan immigrants.

Statue of San Gennaro inside Most Precious Blood Church.
A historic standard graces the inside of the church.
Leaving Most Precious Blood Church after the celebratory Mass.
The Figli di San Gennaro color guard lead the procession.
The litter wends its way through the streets of Little Italy.
A statue of San Gennaro illuminates the courtyard of Most Precious Blood Church. Photos by New York Scugnizzo

Sophia Loren – a Living Symbol of Art


Aphrodite of Cnidus (Courtesy of Wikipedia)


The late philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand defined art as “…a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” Since early modern humans first appeared in Europe approx. 40,000 years ago, mankind has “selectively recreated reality” in numerous ways for many different purposes.

Many early civilizations, like Ancient Egypt and Minoan Crete, produced artworks (now mostly in museums) which continue to amaze people to this day. Each culture developed their own style of art.

It was the Greeks of the Hellenic Age, however, who were the first to venerate the human body and to develop the skills necessary to correctly recreate the human form down to minute detail. The Greeks, like the Romans after them, were especially fond of venerating the female human form. Perhaps no artwork better exemplified this than the famous statue “Aphrodite of Cnidus” by Praxiteles. After the fall of Rome, this veneration would not be seen again in Western art until the Age of the Renaissance.

The beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of film as both an art form and an industry, and with it the rise in popularity of what has been termed the “sex symbol.” The century saw a plethora of men and women labeled sex symbols, but only a few, such as Lillian Russell, Rita Hayworth & Marilyn Monroe, who could truly be considered icons. This article is a labor of love to one who is not only counted among the “greats,” but who rose above them to become a true symbol of feminine beauty – Sophia Loren.

Sofia Villani Scicolone was born in Rome, Italy on September 20, 1934. Her parents, both Campanians, never married, and her father left the family shortly after her birth (nice guy), forcing her mother to take Sofia and her sister Maria to Puzzuoli, a town outside Naples to live with Sofia’s grandmother. At the outbreak of WW2, the family moved to Naples. Continue reading

September 19, 2011

Announcing the 2011 Raritan, New Jersey John Basilone Parade Weekend

John Basilone Statue (Photo by John Stavola)
Please visit the John Basilone Parade Web Site for more information.

Friday, September 23rd 
7 PM — Summerswing Orchestra: Playing music from the World War II Era at the Basilone Statue on Somerset Street in Raritan, NJ. After the concert there will be fireworks (Bring your own chair).

Saturday, September 24th
TBA — Fun Run: At the Basilone Statue on Somerset Street in Raritan, NJ.

2 Concerts (2 PM and 7 PM) by the Marine Band at the Raritan Valley Community College (Route 28 and Lamington Road, North Branch, NJ, 08876). Click here for ticket information.

Sunday, September 25th
(10:30 AM) Church Service at St Ann's Church (45 Anderson Street, Raritan, NJ 08869).

(10 AM — 1 PM) The Basilone Museum opens at the Raritan Library (54 East Somerset Street, Raritan, NJ 08869).


Ceremony directly after the parade by the Basilone Statue on Somerset Street.

September 12, 2011

Fiction as Life: An Interview With Author Tony Ardizzone

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

A culture thrives on its ability to engage with its past and the traditions that help inform its people of their identity.  Novels and short stories serve as an unique art form, where history, language, religious and social traditions are woven together and essentially brought to life on the page.  In the face of neighborhood and cultural dislocation, fiction writing is the Italian American community’s best friend.  We are reminded of and exposed to the influences that have and continue to shape us.  Tony Ardizzone is a brilliant voice in the realm of contemporary literature, one that the New York Times Book Review has described as “refreshingly original.”  He is the author of  seven books of fiction, including the critically acclaimed In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, Larabi’s Ox: Stories of Morocco, which won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and The Evening News, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.  Tony’s work has earned him fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pushcart Prize, the Prairie Schooner Readers’ Choice Award, the Black Warrior Review Literary Award in Fiction, the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction, the Virginia Prize for Fiction, the Lawrence Foundation Award, the Bruno Arcudi Literature Prize, and the Cream City Review Editors’ Award in Nonfiction.  His stories have appeared in literary journals such as Ploughshares, Agni, Epoch, TriQuarterly and many others.  Outside of a long and accomplished career as an author, Tony is also a gifted and compassionate creative writing professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was named the Chancellor’s Professor of English and received the Tracy M. Sonneborn Award for outstanding teaching and research.  His most recently published novel, The Whale Chaser, involves the largely unspoken history of the internment of Italian Americans during WWII.  I recently had the enormous privilege to discuss this new work, along with Tony’s insight into the craft of fiction writing, and some of the ongoing issues at play in Italian Americana.
Olivia Kate Cerrone: Your novels and story collections are driven by rich, compassionate narratives that exhibit a wide and rather provocative range.  Whether you take the reader to the 1960s-era neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side or to Marrakesh, Morocco, or the poverty-stricken countryside of 1900s Sicily, the characters one meets along the way are ripe with intimacy and complexity enough to make it easy for the reader to engage with their stories.  As a writer, how do you inhabit characters?  What specifically, if anything, sparks you to write a particular story?

Tony Ardizzone: When I begin to work with a character, I try to imagine what details make the character particular and unique.  I do my best to see, and I mean this both literally and imaginatively.  Henry James remarked that the writer was one upon whom things, meaning details, weren’t lost.  So I believe that good characterization begins with observation, with details, with particulars.  These are not only physical details, but also actions and gestures, what poker players refer to as “tells,” that offer the observer clues about the character, that suggest more than they actually say.  In early drafts, I’ll give a character an abundance of details – I’ll really clutter things up – and then in later drafts, I’ll cut the things that don’t seem essential.  I try to be logical, and I try not to impose on characters, but rather see what actions and gestures rise from them.

I think that setting can be an important device, so I nearly always give characters a well-described place to inhabit, that reflects or contrasts with aspects of their character.  In The Whale Chaser, I did my best to give each of the central characters a richly described room or place where the book’s narrator, a young man named Vince Sansone, could interact with them.  

OKC: In an interview with John King and Numsiri Kunakemakorn, of the Sycamore Review, you remarked that, “cultures live and define themselves by and through the stories they tell about themselves.  I see one of my responsibilities as a fiction writer as writing those stories, of giving the not-yet-defined some sense of definition, the voiceless a sense of voice.”  Consequently, perhaps, the oppression and discrimination that Southern Italians faced upon their arrival to the promised land of La Merica in the 1900s and beyond, is one that maintains a strong presence throughout your fiction.  From your novel In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, anti-Italianism is revealed to be an ongoing concern, as a group of Italian works learn that they will be paid less than their fellow black and white laborers:

“Being white isn’t something you can get to be,” said the man who could read. “You either are white or you are not.  We’re not, so forget about even trying.” 

Southern Italians are further dismissed as rats with an “inborn inclination toward criminality.”  Yet somehow, Italian Americans eventually attained “whiteness,” but at what cost?  Do you believe cultural balance is possible in the face of assimilation?  Especially now in these contemporary times?

In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu

TA:  Well, we all know that whiteness is a construct, and ideas of ethnicity and race are constantly shifting and relative to cultures.  When I wrote In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I was very conscious of a book Madison Grant wrote in 1916, The Passing of a Great Race.  In it he spoke of the “Mediterranean Race,” which included the Berbers of North Africa, Spaniards and ancient Egyptians as being “racially identical” with Southern Italians, and therefore racially inferior to the master “Nordic Race.”  Grant used this argument to lobby for the Immigration Act of 1924, which would prohibit the number of “unfit” immigrants able to enter the United States, based on these ideas of racial inferiority.  Italians weren’t considered “white” when they first came to the U.S.  So there was a pressure upon Southern Italians – upon all “non-white” immigrants – to become “white” and embrace “white” values.

OKC:  Did you feel this pressure?

TA:  My parents and grandparents certainly did.  And I guess, to be honest, I did, too.  Like every kid, I wanted to blend in.  As a young boy in Roman Catholic grammar school back on the North Side of Chicago, bored to tears in class, I sometimes used to fantasize that I had a different name.  I changed “Tony” to “Tom” and “Ardizzone” to “Arden” and filled pages with my new signature: Tom Arden.  The boy everyone in class worshipped was named James Webb.  He had blond hair, clear skin, and was quiet and smart.  He was never hassled out on the playground, never taunted with ethnic jokes or slurs, like most of the rest of us were.  Everybody, particularly the nuns, loved James Webb.  I really envied him.  Ethnically, he was invisible.
After a while, I came to realize that what troubled me most was really a strength.  When I began writing short stories in college, I realized that I’d been dealt three cards that, if I was smart, I could use for the rest of my life.  The first was my name, Anthony Vito Joseph Ardizzone, and all the connotations that a name like that carries.  The second was that I’d spent thirteen years in Roman Catholic schools.  I had been an altar boy.  I had been a choir boy.  The third was that I grew up in and intimately knew the neighborhoods of Chicago’s North Side.  When one of my teachers assigned us James Joyce’s Dubliners my life sort of came together, at least my life as a fiction writer.  I saw that I could own Chicago in the same way Joyce owned Dublin, and that I could use my religious background in my fiction.  

OKC:  And the third card?

TA:  Well, it was a long time before the Italian-American part of me came out because I didn’t quite know how to use it, to honor it.  I didn’t read Italian-American writers until after I’d finished college, when I was in my twenties.  None had ever been assigned.  As a result, I had no literary models to base my work on and, looking back, at least part of me still felt ashamed of who I was.  My father shared this shame.  He was born in Chicago, the first-born son of Sicilian parents, and grew up in the projects, public housing, on welfare.  He didn’t speak English until he went to school.  His father was hospitalized with tuberculosis, and so since the age of ten, my father was more or less in charge of his family: his mother, two younger sisters, and mentally disabled younger brother.  This was the 1930s, during the Great Depression.  To make ends meet, each day after school he sold newspapers in Grant Park.  He worked two or three jobs his entire life.  When I was older, he told me how much he dreaded every two weeks pulling a red wagon from the projects where he lived as a kid to pick up the groceries the government handed out to the families on welfare.  In a letter I still have, my father wrote, “I nearly died as I walked thru all those blocks (8 to 10) with everyone (I thought) watching me.  My pride was so hurt.  I felt a stigma as I pulled my loaded wagon for the whole world to see.” 

OKC: In the haunting, but beautifully-rendered story “Nonna,” from your early story collection, The Evening News, an elderly, widowed Neapolitan wanders from her tiny, congested apartment through her much-changed neighborhood in Chicago’s West Side, searching for the old bakeries and corner stores that once served as a gathering point for the fellow Italian Americans she knew.  Childless and seemingly disconnected from family or friends, she gazes upon the passing faces and street signs, desperate for any trace of Italian, but finds none.  She is further disturbed by the looming eviction from her apartment, after having been moved several times already in the past, thanks to socio-political motivations toward “progress” in tearing down ethnic communities to build malls and parking lots.  Throughout reading “Nonna,” I could not help but think of Tina De Rosa’s classic novel Paper Fish, where the Italian neighborhoods of Chicago’s West Side are torn down by the abrupt and violent presence of wrecking balls and steamrollers.  How essential do you believe is place in terms of nurturing and/or replanting an ethnic community?

TA:  Place is essential, absolutely, for any ethnic community.  My story “Nonna” is set in exactly the same neighborhood Tina De Rosa set Paper Fish, the near West Side neighborhood Mayor Richard J. Daley decided to devastate so that the city could build the University of Illinois at Chicago.  After I finished college, before I went to grad school, I lived and worked in that neighborhood for two years.

Chicago has a history of destroying its Italian-American neighborhoods.  The neighborhood where my father grew up was on the near North Side, in St. Philip Benizi’s parish.  It was known as “Little Sicily.”  Over time it fell victim to “urban renewal” and piece by piece was destroyed to make room for the Cabrini-Green housing projects.  The  magnificent old church, built in 1904, was eventually torn down.  The Italians of Chicago, like the Italians of Boston and many other major U.S. cities, were eventually driven to the suburbs.  They were dispersed, scattered.  As were their communities.

Dislocation is an ongoing element in my work.  The Whale Chaser involves the relocation and internment of Italians and Italian Americans shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The Evening News

OKC:  The nature of storytelling maintains a strong influence in the narrative shape and structure of your work.  From her book By the Breath of their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America, Mary Jo Bona described you as “a verbal ventriloquist, donning several literary hats, including that of historian, folklorist, magical realist, and contemporary author…[who] unites Italian and Anglo narrative traditions in an effort to simulate the increasingly dual traditions from which Italians in America partake.”  She goes on to suggest that this narrative style mirrors an oral storytelling shaped by the poverty and disadvantages that the great majority of Southern Italians once faced, as she cites you in an interview: “the fact that the characters don’t read, that they tell stories they have heard before and will tell again.”  How might the nature of this type of storytelling be one that shapes the culture of a community and how it interacts with one another, but it also defines what it means to be Southern Italian?

TA:  With the exception of a few letters my father wrote to me before he died, all of the stories I know about my Sicilian family were told to me, were oral narratives, stories told around a dining room or kitchen table.  

When I began to write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I set out to create a book that I felt hadn’t yet been written.  I was teaching ethnic American literature, studying the works of a wide range of other ethnic writers, and I couldn’t find a novel that treated Southern Italian immigration to the New World in a more or less complete way.  I realized quickly that I should write such a book but not realistically, with a more or less objective, descriptive third-person narrator.  So I decided to do it basically in voice.  The narrative tradition that I used came from my nonna’s house, from stories from my father’s side of the family.  I tried to write in the voices of my aunts and uncles, my father’s sisters and their husbands.

I remember being seven or eight years old at my nonna’s house, listening to the men talking in the front room, as they sat watching a baseball or football game on an old black-and-white TV, then running back to the kitchen where the women talked as they worked near the sink or stove or sat around the kitchen table, and all of them were telling stories.  As I listened, I came to understand that more often than not they spoke indirectly.  Of course part of the reason was because there were kids like me around, kids with big ears.  But another part involved their wit, their clear and simple oral art, the joy they’d take when they could say something cleverly.  I learned that there were ways to talk without being literal.  And I learned that there was language that, if you wanted to understand it, you had to be smart, clever.

Perhaps this indirect way of speaking is a defense mechanism tied to Sicily’s past, a way of survival against the many foreigners, the invaders, who ravaged the island.  As the old saying goes, whoever ruled Sicily, ruled the world.  You could tell the history of much of Western civilization by looking at the history of Sicily.  

OKC:  Were there other influences at play in writing In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu?
TA:  I was reading a lot of books for my ethnic lit classes, and there were two books in particular that influenced me.  The first was Italo Calvino’s marvelous collection Italian Folktales, which gave me the idea of ending each of my novel’s chapters with rhyming couplets, like the Sicilian folktales, and also gave me the inspiration to use folktale as a way to tell a realistic series of stories.  The second book was Maxine Hong Kingston’s incredible China Men, in which she not only tells the history of a people, but also imagines three different ways that her grandfather might have come to the Americas.  I really liked what she did, and I was impressed by the boldness of her imagination.  

I also felt, after watching The Godfather II, that there would be no way a realistic novel could compete with the amazing landscape that Coppola captures in the backstory section of that film.  One of the obligations of writers, of artists of any type, is to make things new.  So I gave In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu a ruling narrator, a woman named Rosa Dolci, whose stories begin and end the book.  She’s a woman with a harelip, the wife of the family’s third son.  I imagined that each of the book’s chapters was told by a different character from the local village sitting in a circle at night around a fire, and so the novel makes a circle as each passes the torch of story from one character to the next, until dawn, when Rosa ties the knot.

OKC:  In a previous email exchange, you mentioned to me that writing Larabi’s Ox: Stories of Morocco enabled you to write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, a novel you mentioned in your interview with the Sycamore Review as one you’d tried writing as early as the 1970s, but was unable to execute in a satisfying way.  What was it about writing Larabi’s Ox that inspired you to write a novel so heavily entrenched in Sicilian culture and folklore as In The Garden of Papa Santuzzu?

TA:  When I went to Morocco for the first time, I was shocked by how familiar things there seemed to me.  People would tell me things that they claimed were uniquely Moroccan, and I understood them almost immediately.  For example, they’d talk about the Hand of Fatima, which wards off perception and protects against the evil eye, and I connected that with the corno, with the mano cornuta and the mano fica.  They’d talk about water and the spirits that dwelled within water, and I knew about that from the Italian folktales I’d read.  I’d be invited into someone’s home and served a vegetable dish that my host claimed was uniquely Moroccan, and it would be carduni, prepared exactly the way my godmother, my Aunt Eva, made it.  Once I was in Ouarzazate staying with a Berber friend, whose family lived in a house that was probably a thousand years old, a house made of immensely thick earthen walls, and they gave me a plate of sweets that were exactly like the biscotti made by my grandmother.  I could list each ingredient in them.  I recognized so many Moroccan things that I came to realize that what I was really knew was a Mediterranean experience.  By that time, I was already reading the work of Italian-American writers – Pietro di Donato, Helen Barolini, Jerre Mangione, John Fante, Ben Morreale, and others – and of course I’d watched the Godfather films many times.  I knew that if I was able to write about Morocco maybe I could write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu.  I realized that my father’s parents came from the African face of Sicily, and so like an Arab my approach to Sicily and Italian themes came from Africa, from the south.

At the time I was writing Papa Santuzzu, I hung up old pictures of my grandparents and would often just look at them, asking them for help in how to write their stories until I finally felt I could do it.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been my grandfather, whose name I carry as my middle name, as he stood in Menfi, on the shores of the sea separating Sicily from Africa, as he said goodbye to his parents, who he would never see again, as he made the trek to Palermo where he caught the ship that in 1911 took him to the New World.  

The Whale Chaser

OKC:  In your latest novel, The Whale Chaser, young Vince Sansone is driven from his home in Chicago by his violently abusive father to a tiny fishing village of Tofino on Vancouver Island, where he works as a fisherman like his father, before falling into the local drug trade, and then finally finds his place as a whale guide, or whale chaser.  Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1960s, Vince undergoes his own intense transformation through wrestling with the demons of his family’s past, including those of his grandfather, who was one of thousands of Italians and Italian Americans whose property was seized, and one of hundreds who was interned in a prison camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  What inspired you to write this novel?  With regards to the experience of Vince’s grandfather, how were you able to depict the realities of this tragic, but little-known piece of Italian American history through the lens of fiction?

TA:  One of my friends, the writer Charles Johnson, who is perhaps best known for his National Book Award-winning novel The Middle Passage, told me that James Allen McPherson once told him that it was the obligation of every African-American writer to put into each story or book they write a little bit of unknown or untold African-American history.  I like to think that this suggestion might apply to every writer working with a subject matter or experience that’s marginalized, that writers have an obligation to give voice to stories that are still untold.

When I wrote the earliest drafts of The Whale Chaser, I struggled with pieces of a puzzle I didn’t yet understand.  I knew I wanted to write a novel about a boy who leaves the U.S. for Canada in the late 1960s for reasons other than the draft, and I knew I wanted to write a book that was partly set in Canada.  For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel each summer to the Pacific Northwest, and as a result I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.  I wanted to write about that experience.  I also wanted to work with the theme of abuse, both physical and sexual abuse.  There’s a psychological dislocation that happens in those situations.  It seemed right for the book and its larger themes.  And of course I knew I’d be working with my three givens: Roman Catholicism, Chicago, and my ethnic background.

One of the first lines I wrote was a line that is still in the novel’s first chapter:  “Like my father and my grandfather, I draw my living from the sea.”  You can see that I was still affected by the image of my grandfather standing on the shores of the sea.  But then I wondered why was this family living in Chicago?  Why wouldn’t a man who took his living from the sea live on a coast?  Then, eventually, the novel’s backstory came to me.  The family had been displaced from the West Coast.

One of the historical facts that The Whale Chaser raises concerns the seizure of property and the internment of Italians and Italian Americans shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  February 24, 1942 is known as la male notte, “the bad night,” when tens of thousands of Italians and Italian Americans were arrested as “enemy aliens,” and when hundreds were arrested and later interned in camps, some for a period of over two years.  

Several vibrant Italian-American fishing communities in California were destroyed in a single night since the fishermen’s boats were seized and impounded.  The government feared the boats could be used for spying.  Curfews and prohibited zones were created.  Due to the travel restrictions placed on Italian Americans, Joe DiMaggio’s own parents couldn’t even go to his restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.  Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who helped create the atomic bomb, was prohibited from traveling freely along the East Coast.  Consider the reaction to 9/11. Consider what governments are capable of doing.

One of the great ironies in all of this is that the ethnic group that served in greatest numbers during World War II was Italian Americans.  I imagined Vince’s father coming home to Monterey after the war, coming home to a boarded-up house, finding that the family boat had been impounded, finding his mother desolate, his father imprisoned.  And while I don’t want to make excuses for the violence with which he treats his son, I hope the book’s readers will at least understand some of his frustrations.  He is balanced, by the way, by one of the most gentle characters I’ve ever written, Mr. Santangelo, the neighborhood butcher, whose lovely daughter Vince falls in love with.  So in The Whale Chaser we have the son of the fishmonger falling for the butcher’s daughter.  As I was writing the book’s early drafts, details and motifs like these began to click into place, and soon I realized that when Vince runs from the U.S. to Canada he had no other choice but to go west.  In a karmic sort of way, he needs to recover what was taken from his family, what was stolen from his grandfather.  So Vince goes as far west in Canada as he possibly can, to the town of Tofino on the West coast of Vancouver Island.  It’s the literal end of the road, the western terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway.

OKC:  You mentioned in a previous email exchange about a new collection you are working on called The Calling of Saint Matthew, that is set in Rome circa 2004-05, “with each story generated by one or more of Rome’s churches.”  Could you speak to this new project and what inspired its creation?

TA:  The Calling of Saint Matthew begins in late December 2004, at the time of the devastating Southeast Asian tsunami, and ends the following April, with the death of Pope John Paul II.  Each of the stories in the collection focuses on at least one of Rome’s churches, with its art or history serving as a triggering point, a generative subject.  Those familiar with Rome will recognize that the title story is concerned with the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, where three of Caravaggio’s paintings hang.  The title story focuses on an investment banker from Boston named Matthew who visits Rome, and San Luigi dei Francesi, with his wife, Elena.  

Stylistically, I’m returning to third person, much as I did in Larabi’s Ox, with a narrative stance that relies more on description than on voice.  God willing, I hope to be able to finish this book within the next year or so.

OKC:  Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your experiences.  Any last thoughts?

TA:  I should be the one thanking you.  We all know that the landscape for writers, particularly with the closing of so many newspapers and the death of so many book review sections, has changed drastically, and now readers are hearing less and less about books and writers who aren’t best sellers.  Nearly all writers concerned with ethnic experiences fall into this group, so let me thank you for your time and the gracious attention you’re giving my work.  I’m so complimented that Il Regno is giving me this space to discuss my writing.  Critics like you are so important to the continuation of our art form, our culture, and our literature.

Please visit Tony Ardizzone at: http://www.indiana.edu/~girgenti/

Tony Ardizzone with be reading from The Whale Chaser at the John D. Calandra Institute in New York City on December 8th, 2011 at 6pm. This event is free and open to the public.

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at:  Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com