January 1, 2012

Innovating Naples: An Interview with Author John Domini

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

John Domini
A cultural dialogue remains relevant and enriched in the company of voices intent on cultivating new ground and means of expression.  Great artists know this, even if their material might be viewed as abstract or even dangerous.  Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, John Domini is a fierce and unique presence in contemporary fiction, one highly conscious of the value and meaning of style in literature. The author of five books, Domini combines his passion for his Neapolitan roots with postmodernist sensibilities in an exciting new trilogy of books set in Naples: Earthquake I.D.A Tomb on the Periphery, and the forthcoming The Color Inside of a Melon.  Educated at John Hopkins and Boston University, Domini studied under Donald Barthelme and John Barth.  His fiction has appeared in a wide range of established literary journals, including the Paris ReviewPloughshares, and Gargoyle, among many others.  An excerpt from The Color Inside of a Melon recently appeared in the Del Sol Review as “Catwalk Plastique.”  The New York Times Book Review has praised his work as “dreamlike…grabs hold of both reader and character,” and Alan Cheuse of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” described it as “witty and biting.”  In Italy, Earthquake I.D. was published as Terremoto Napoletano by Tullio Pironti Editore press, the same house that publishes Don DeLillo, and was also a runner-up for the prestigious Domenico Rea prize.  Dzanc Books is set to release electronic versions of Domini’s previous story collections Bedlam and Highway Trade, along with the novels Talking Heads: 77 and Earthquake I.D. in 2012.  Outside of fiction, Domini has published book reviews and nonfiction in The New York TimesThe BelieverBookforumGQThe Boston Globe, and many other publications. Recent poems by Domini have appeared in the journal Zone 3, as well as in the anthology Poetic Voices Without Borders 2 through Gival Press. The recipient of a Major Artist grant from the Iowa Arts Council, Domini now teaches writing at Iowa State.  I recently had the enormous privilege to speak with John about his Naples trilogy and his perspective on literary fiction as a Neapolitan American writer.
Olivia Kate Cerrone: In a Bookslut interview with Michael Madison, you revealed that your Naples trilogy emerged after a visit to Naples that you described as having “saved my own life…Naples, degraded and chaotic as it was, got me living again, it got me writing.”  Can you speak to this experience and how it served you?
John Domini: Well, I always wonder if I understand my own experience -- but I suppose we can go on faith.  My visits to Naples started in preadolescence, and it was there, at the age of eleven, that I first began writing.  An adventure novel, this was, a boy's adventure, and ever since the city has been bound up in my sense my calling.  Then as an adult, in the early 1990s, I began to return to Naples on my own and at a very different vantage point.  During that period I seemed to need the city just about every year.  It's clear to me now that it all had to do with the collapse of my first marriage and the search for another life, or at least the next stage in this life.  The collapse of my marriage is pretty humdrum, the sort of growing apart that many people go through, but it does seem interesting that I expressed myself my fledgling single-man status by throwing myself into Neapolitan life.  I wrote articles about it, and all of them wound up in print, a couple in the New York Times.  By the later '90s, something else had emerged, either the New Me or -- maybe better -- a loose trilogy of stories set in Naples.

Of course, over the years that followed, the original vision became riddled with changes. The art, in its making, is always a bucket of worms.  Still, so far as personal changes are concerned, Naples had a single clear impact. It affirmed that I could be an artist and, after such a long time as part of a couple, a decent single person.  I didn't have to be some sort of floundering, troublemaking teenager 30 years after the fact.  That is, I could be the kind of artist who's alert to others more than to myself, psychologically probing.  See, another sort of artist would be writing about reconnecting with his old family.  My experience is not so different from that of Frances Mayes, in her Under the Warm Tuscan Sun and its sequels, but my writing is diametrically opposed to hers.  For Mayes, her personal renewal is the whole book, but for me, even the expression “personal renewal” seems a tad hyperbolic, and bumbly, wrinkled John Domini is only a backdrop to his fiction.  I want to be out there in Naples.  I want the troubled city, not the troubled guy. If my novels are any good, they never reduce Naples to a metaphor for myself.   

OKC: Your trilogy takes place in a contemporary, gritty Naples recently struck by a devastating earthquake that has rendered countless terreomotati, (the earthquake victims) homeless.  Each of these books share the deeply complex and multi-faceted terrains of the city -- Camorra-controlled Neapolitan neighborhoods, ancient archeological sites, and NATO and UN-supported refugee camps teeming with African immigrants, the clandestini, whose presence remains a growing and undeniable reality.  So both Earthquake I.D. and A Tomb on the Periphery create worlds within worlds propelled by the complicated wants and mysteries of their characters.  As an artist, how do you access such material?  Where and when does the research end and the imagination take over, or are they perhaps in a symbiotic relationship of sorts? 
JD: First, thanks; it's wonderful to have a reader experience the fullness I was striving to create.  Second, when I look back on that creation, I can't always trace sharp lines between what came out of research and arose from my imagination.  At most, a few defining shapes come clear.  Certainly, research often sets the perimeters of place.  Research takes us to the space-time continuum and establishes what's possible in what space and what time.  The imagination takes us to extraordinary people in that place and time -- and thus beyond its limits.  In all three of my Naples books, structure and plot develop out of unusual things happening in unusual places.  For instance, in Earthquake I.D., the first, Paul's “healing episodes” remain largely unpredictable and hard to understand. The phenomena itself comes out of my research about Naples, but since there are a lot of local stories about some child performing magic, some grandmother with mystical sight or hearing, these rumors tend to be taken with a grain of salt. The upshot, for my Earthquake I.D.?  While Paul's “miracles” draw a degree of public attention, it falls away after a while.  Beyond the healing and the response lies the challenge to the imagination.  If the novel goes on working, after the initial setup, that's the exercise of the imagination. A narrative has to stand on its own as an imaginative artifact. A more socially engaged fiction like Earthquake, more rooted in research, must both reflect society and nonetheless carve out its own special society. 
A Tomb on the Periphery
OKC: A high-paced energy of chaos and intrigue fuels both books, setting the tone for Earthquake I.D. with the opening consisting of the Lulucita family being assaulted in a violent hit and run robbery to the desperate plight of small-time crook and young Napolitano, Fabrizio of A Tomb on the Periphery, who assists a mysterious and bizarre American woman in a tomb-raiding expenditure that soon involves the likes of the Italian police, Cammoristi, illegal aliens, NATO officials and ghosts.  One cannot help but detect a very specific stylistic choice you made perhaps in crafting together these rich narratives and their highly imaginative plots.  How do you approach style in your fiction?  Is it a conscious choice, perhaps conveying a kind of Neapolitan essence?  If so, how?

JD: From early on I knew that, in order to capture the city's quality, or at least to scrape together a tasty pile of crumbs, the writing had to be sensually rich.  This put all sorts of demands on all sorts of passages: description, meditation, even dialog. Again, looking back, I can make some sense of the process.  I can identify a few useful systems and technologies, such as working from longer sentences to shorter.  The natural impulse, when trying to wrestle Naples into English prose, is to let sentences run on into all sorts of combinations, jamming emotional material together with sensual stuff and even with the more academic touches (like when Goethe came to town).  In later drafts and further edits, though, these sentences needed breaking up, cutting down.  I became more and more concerned about relying too much on outstretched and over-involved syntax.  My concern wasn't so much for the reader, because I never know who will be reading it.  Rather I trimmed and added sharp corners for the sake of the story.   

None of which is to say I've jettisoned the long sentence!  They've got their place, sure.  My current novel, The Color Inside a Melon, opens with long, tumbling sentence in second person, tumbling and distancing in the way that thoughts can be at extreme moments -- and a key phrase in this sentence becomes recurring refrain, popping up three or four times later on. 

And a couple of additional points belong in any discussion of style, so far as Naples books are concerned, at least.  The first has to do with the inner city's layout and architecture.  The Greco-Roman nucleus presents classic structures undergoing constant adaptation.  The classic, everchanging -- isn't that a fitting paradox, and inspirational, for the sturdiness and vitality a novel's style requires?  Then there's the omnipresent sensuality, whether it takes the form of mouthwatering food, heartbreaking trash, or, let's be honest, a smiling openness about sexuality.  My Neapolitans and Neapolitan-Americans are people wholly aware of bodies, their own and others.  They know the body's pleasures and, in finding ways either to strive for that or to work around it, they forge their characters. 
Book reading at Soda Bar, Brooklyn
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
OKC: In an interview with Emanuele Pettener of Rain Taxi, you remarked how “each narrative is a balancing act on sifting cultural tectonics,” one that involves “what Lawrence called its 'subtle interrelationships…' the old expression 'Oriental complexity' suggestive of the Moorish maze that is downtown Naples, might help communicate what I value in literature.”  What did you mean here?  How does this, at all, connect to what informs you as a Neapolitan American writer?
JD: I have no problem thinking of myself as a Neapolitan American writer.  That's the inheritance I was born with, and certainly it's an inheritance that informs my sense of the novel: its complexity, its avoirdupois, its startling linkages. The definition's in my genetic coding. On those rare days when I'm feeling that my work is pretty good, I find aspects in common with Dante here, Sciascia there, or Calvino over there.   

Now, the danger of defining yourself as a Neapolitan American writer or for that matter a Beiruti American, is that people want to define that narrowly, and pin you within its confines.  I'm talking about pigeonholing, a complaint I share with a lot of writers.  In my Naples books, remember, people take in the city from different angles.  There's the American angle, with its clumsy struggle to do good; the Neapolitan angle, on the border of criminal life; and the African immigrant angle, fired by the vision of a better future.  How is the city defined to each of them? What is this city to them?   The answer for each character assigns him or her specific gravity, a weight that breaks right through the plastic label “Neapolitan-American.”  You know, often I need to catch a word or phrase in a character's voice, I need it to hear him or her, in order for some defining passage about them to open up and take shape.  In other words, whatever social insight these books offer must fit within quite specific human parameters, parameters that also, ideally, provide the formal excitement of a unique story.  

After all, I'm never going to be truly Neapolitan.  È davvero impossibile, it's impossible, truly.  I speak the dialect haltingly, if at all, and I don't know all the stories, the vendettas, the songs.  Rather, I'm Neapolitan to the extent that I feel its influences on my imagination.  And there's no denying the place is fascinating. The city may be the longest lasting in the world, if we measure by the continuous usage of a single space, a single downtown.  Certainly there's no downtown so old anywhere west of Damascus.  Athens, Istanbul, and Jerusalem, remember, were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt.  So all my novels' diverse angles on Naples have to reference that same original city.  So too, as a Neapolitan American I'm basically just an urbanist -- what the poet and essayist W.S. Di Piero calls a “city dog.”  

I suppose I should add that I'm also working on a memoir called Cooking the Octopus, which is an old Neapolitan expression: the octopus cooks in its own water.  'O polpo ccuoce in acqua su. There are family secrets to be explored, and the subtitle may be: Discovering Naples, My father, and Myself.  That should be my next book project after The Color Inside of a Melon.

OKC: Barbara Lulucita, the Neapolitan American main protagonist of Earthquake I.D. is a woman who finds herself at odds with her maternal responsibilities as a mother of five and spiritual identity as a lifelong Catholic, as her marriage becomes increasingly strained during her husband Jay's involvement in the refugee camps and the sudden phenomena of her young son Paul's Christlike healing powers.  I found this character to be highly engaging, and not to mention realistic in her rendering.  Did you find it a challenge to access this character or writing from a female perspective?  What was that experience like for you?
JD:  It was important that her spirituality be real, a Catholic faith she experiences palpably.  That was one of the first elements in her to come clear, during the process of creation. But then, working from a female perspective has often opened me up, freed me from my own head.  I must say that Barbara is not my first main woman character.  I did a collection of stories called Highway Trade, published in the late '90s, which was a roughly linked sequence that took place in the very different setting of the Willamette River Valley, in Oregon. In those stories most of the protagonists are women. 

As for Barbara, she emerged as I rewrote the opening of Earthquake I.D. again and again.  This was one of those cases in which that one scene, done over maybe a dozen times, maybe more, finally delivered to me Barbara's crisis and to the essence of the whole novel.  I think I used the word “zig-zag.”  She is very much a bird of prey, as her pet name Owl Girl intones, but also one who is struggling to get away from her husband and his involvement with NATO and the UN.  She both prays and preys.  When I got those contradictions right, that zig-zag, I got the whole story.   

That first chapter is also a challenge in the reading.  As a reader you're challenged to go with this person through this shocking self-discovery, erupting in her heart while her husband is at his lowest point -- the guy could be dying and she realizes that she doesn't want to live with him anymore.  A terrible reaction, but entirely human, isn't it?  Don't we turn on each other in moments of crisis?  We say, I should never have been here; it's someone else's fault.  So once I got into that and was able to set up the challenge right in the first chapter, per carità, the whole thing followed.  

Barbara, well, she's pretty sharp, but she has an all-too-familiar gap in her understanding.  She doesn't know herself as well as she does much of the rest of the world.  So too the conflicts she suffers, such as wanting to divorce Jay but continuing to have sex with him, are common experiences for a marriage in trouble.  The behavior may be complicated, but that doesn't make it any less common.  What else about my “Owl Girl?” I guess I'd add that the antagonism she works through doesn't prove altogether useless; Barbara doesn't wind up in some terrible comeuppance.  She instead emerges with a better sense of self. Doesn't Barbara reject of the confining old Italian American persona of la Mamma?  Doesn't she gain greater access to herself and her world? 
Earthquake ID
OKC: Your previous works of fiction, including two short story collections and a novel, were acclaimed for their brilliant use of language and innovation.  In your early years as a writer, you studied with John Barth and Donald Barthelme, some of America's greatest postmodernist writers, and from the Rain Taxi interview previously mentioned, you remarked how the author “Gilbert Sorrentino argues that Italian art is defined by 'the brilliance of formal invention,' itself rooted in a distrust of any authority, any Establishment version of reality.”  Do you see yourself as strictly a postmodernist? 

JD: I have no trouble considering myself Neapolitan-American -- and the same goes for being a postmodernist.  I mean, I'm of the age.  Barth, Barthelme, I grew up with those guys.  But I'm the kind of postmodernist who, at least in the novel, is asserting the value of social understanding, even the value of character and plot. I like a busy, active novel with a lot going on, though I say this as someone who can enjoy a novel that trashes conventional narrative. I very much admire, for one, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a novel that hardly tells a story at all.  His Marco Polo is no particular kind of man from a particular part of Venice, going on a journey that delivers both man and city to a greater understanding.  Rather, what holds Invisible Cities together, is its recurring imaginative space, the many cities that carry us finally not to mere insight, but to infinity.   

Now, Gilbert Sorrentino provides something similar, and he's American of course, Italian-American. Let me just say that the line you quoted comes from his essay, “Genetic Coding,” in his collection Something Said.  Useful as his definition is, though, and much as I admire the man's work, I can't entirely agree with what he says about the nature of Italian art.  I can't agree that it comes down, finally, to the baroque.  What is Michelangelo without torsos twisted by conflict, or Fellini without faces distorted by pain?  Still, I can agree with Sorrentino about the absolute centrality of language.  If a novel is going to work, its imaginative freedom and muscularity must be felt in the language too.  Only, Sorrentino too loved good American shoptalk; he too didn't refine every sentence to the utmost, to the baroque at its most suffocating. 

Language often takes us to that critical term 'tone,' which is the emotional tenor of an event.  Myself, I tend to a brimming emotionality, feelings on the verge of spilling over, and that I would say is Italian and Italian American.  A denatured tone, flat, almost absent of emotion -- that's been done pretty well in American literature, but it's not my thing.  The most famous example would be Raymond Carver, and he did do marvelous short stories, but it's just not my thing.  I want more in there.  If I'm describing how a Christmas tree looks, I want the prickle of the branches and the stickiness of the sap.  
John Domini and Fred Gardaphé at Soda Bar, Brooklyn
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
OKC: During the recent 2011 “Delirious Naples” conference at Hofstra University, the critic and professor Fred Gardaphé cited your work in his paper, “Go Make Naples: Lessons from Italian-American Artists.”  Gardaphé remarks upon the uniqueness in your approach to writing about contemporary Italy, in that you go beyond the traditional Italian American literary approach: “their art, more often than not focuses on the family and their own reactions to returning to the home of their ancestors.”  Why did you choose to write about Naples in this way?
JD: I'm deeply gratified by what Gardaphé has to say.  Part of what he's praising is how my writing goes beyond family and home, and my characters are aware of objectives outside the bedroom and kitchen.  Look, nobody needs me to tell them that family is central to the Italian ethos.  Sociologists and anthropologists have written at length about how our native culture puts allegiance to the clan -- which doesn't necessarily mean the Mafia, but can, with tragic results -- anyway, they put that allegiance before whatever they feel for community or the country.  There's no getting around how much family means to Italians, si sicuro.  Still, my Neapolitan presepe include figures that represent issues other than family.  Mine do take country and community into consideration.  Barbara in Earthquake, Fabbrizio in Tomb, are aware of a social contract that goes beyond Mamma e Papa, and by extension their stories suggest the frailty of the supposedly inviolable Italian family.  When there are breakups in Southern Italian families, they can be irrevocable and terrifying.  Never darken my door, that sort of thing.  We see that even in pop story forms, don't we?  In the Godfather, Michael Corleone has to kill his own brother.   

All over Southern Italy, you have families that turn on each other or suffer deep rifts.  Such rifts are only to be expected, aren't they, when there just isn't enough to go around?  Inner squabbles become vicious, because if you should lose the fight, you lose everything. I should point out that the “Delirious Naples” conference was dedicated to the memory of the anthropologist Thomas Belmonte.  His book The Broken Fountain is about the Fontana del Re slum in Naples, and focuses upon a poor family in that is breaking apart; only one son survived adolescence, and he became a drug addict.  Now, the city is also home to many lovely families, with many lovely things to say about them.  Other writers can point these out (foremost among recent Italians would be De Crescenzo and his Cosi parlò Bellavista), but my own imagination reaches beyond the nuclear family and its hothouse psychology. I'm more interested, or also interested, in other social pressures, including some specifically 21st-Century pressures, and how identity yields and changes under those.

OKC: Thank you so much for talking with us. Any last thoughts? 

JD: I just want to thank you and Il Regno.  I've never had such in-depth treatment.  I value the kind of questions that take me to basic issues, yet allow so much room to breathe.  It helps me to understand myself as a writer, as well as helping whatever readers there may be out there.  Grazie mille, davvero.  

Please visit John Domini at http://www.johndomini.com/

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