November 15, 2011

Terroni e Polentoni, A Rare Opportunity

Pino Aprile
By Giovanni di Napoli

Last Thursday (Nov. 10, 2011) I attended the Terroni e Polentoni conference at St. John's University in Manhattan featuring Pino Aprile and Lorenzo Del Boca. Mr. Aprile, of course, is the celebrated author of Terroni, an impassioned look at the history of the South after Unification from a Pro-Southern perspective. A best seller in Italy (over 200,000 copies sold), Terroni was recently translated into English by Ilaria Marra Rosiglioni and published by Bordighera Press. Mr. Aprile was born in Puglia and works as a journalist.  Mr. Del Boca, also a journalist, is from Piedmont. He's a prolific writer and his latest book, Polentoni purports to show that Northerners faired no better and in some cases actually had it worse than Southerners after Unification. Sponsored by The Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance (ILICA) the event was billed as "A different look at Italy and its controversial process of unification 150 years later." Needless to say, I couldn't wait to hear what these esteemed authors had to say. 

I would like to point out that St. John's was extremely welcoming and a gracious host. They offered hors d'oeuvres and wine before the event. To my surprise and relief—since the conference would be bilingual—headsets (so we could listen to interpreters) were available for those of us who could not speak Italian. Professor Anthony Julian Tamburri, Dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, City University of New York, moderated the conference.

After the introductions and opening comments (each author was given about ten minutes) my excitement began to wane. Instead of allowing the authors to talk about their books the discussion kept getting sidetracked by other panelists, who, it seems, were invited to discuss the merits of the Italian language. Except perhaps as an example of Northern Italian cultural hegemony, I did not understand the relevance of the Italian language to this discussion. In light of the fact the event was also a celebration of the launching of Mr. Aprile's book in English, it made even less sense to me. To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

Lorenzo Del Boca
With all due respect to Italian, it is not our language. The people of Southern Italy spoke their own tongues before Unification. Sicilian and Neapolitan are not dialects, as they are often erroneously labeled (including at this conference). In fact, Sicilian is older than Tuscan, the language from which modern Italian originates. "Aside from the Tuscans," as Mr. Aprile points out, "at the moment of the Unification, only 200,000 people spoke what would eventually become the nation's official language out of 22 million." (Terroni, p. 110) Admittedly, at another venue I would have been interested in learning more about the Italian language, but at this event the topic seemed out of place and distracting.

On a personal note, as a Neapolitan-American who does not speak Italian or Neapolitan, I do not feel any less Neapolitan. Language is not key to my identity, and like millions of other Southern Italians in America who don't speak their ancestral tongue, it does not change our ethnicity. We did not magically turn into Englishmen because we learned to speak English, just like our "terroni" kinfolk back in Italy did not turn into Italians by learning to speak Italian.

It’s hard for me to critique Mr. Del Boca. I have not read his books and he got to say very little at the event. He does not deny that terrible things were done to the South. However, he wanted to focus on the terrible things that happened in the North.  Since he's from Piedmont, that is understandable. As far as I know, no one denies that terrible things happened in the North.  The difference is—and it's a major one—whatever damage was done to the North was rebuilt with the wealth stolen from the South. The so-called Northern "miracle" could not have been achieved without the exploitation of Southern Italy.

Mr. La Boca cited the violent suppression of the 1898 food riots in Milan, known as the Bava-Beccaris Massacre, as an example. Unlike in the South, this tragic episode was an exception, not the rule. As reprehensible as it was, the massacre does not compare to the carnage inflicted on the South—not by a long shot! Of course this doesn't mean it should not be remembered, but complaining to us about it without empathizing with our plight is more than a little discourteous.

Anthony Julian Tamburri
Which brings us to the question and answer session. One gentleman in the audience took offense to Mr. Aprile's comparison of the Risorgimento with the Holocaust. He accused Mr. Aprile of being insensitive and insulting to Jews. I found it interesting he did not get offended when Mr. Del Boca compared the victimization of Northern Italy with Southern Italy. I also think the audience member took the analogy too literally. Mr. Aprile is trying to drive home the point that Southern Italians were the victims of genocide and according to the CPPCG's definition he has a point.(1)  With tens of thousands killed (some estimates go as high as a million), millions more forced to emigrate, and our languages and culture constantly denigrated as "inferior," the claim is more than justified. 

This same gentleman, who called Aprile's book "disgusting," also didn't like the fact the author was sympathetic to the Bourbon Dynasty or referred to the Piedmontese as "foreigners" and "cretins." Like them or not, the fact remains that the Bourbons were the legitimate rulers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. They made the Regno an independent and sovereign Kingdom again after hundreds of years of viceroyal servitude under the Spanish and Austrian Empires. The Bourbon monarchs ruled the nation for almost 130 years. They spoke Neapolitan, were fairly popular and ruled as benevolent despots. 

Mr. Aprile also correctly pointed out that Piedmont was a separate state with a different king (Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia). They spoke a different language and had different laws. The invasion of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Piedmont is the very definition of foreign invasion. 

As for the "cretin" accusation, I assume the gentleman was referring to a passage about emigration: 
"...Nearly no one emigrates from the South in the years preceding the invasion (only a few thousand), while millions leave the other regions of Italy, from the Alpine Northwest to the Northeast from the Padania area (where due to malnourishment, many suffer from pellagra and cretinism) down to large areas of the Center. Only after the occupation, the plundering, and the useless resistance movement do the Southerners begin to emigrate by the millions." (Terroni, p. 109)
Saying many people suffered from pellagra and cretinism due to malnutrition is a far cry from calling people cretins, which was more than the people of the South could expect from Northern criminologist Ceasre Lombroso and his brood of charlatans, who labeled Southerners as deviant. I was amused to learn from Mr. Aprile that after his death, Lombroso's skull was analyzed and it was discovered that he had a smaller than average brain and his skull showed the same atavistic signs he used to label Southern Italians as inferior.

In summary I was pleased to have attended an event that had both Pino Aprile and Lorenzo Del Boca in attendance, but disappointed that it didn’t focus more on comparing their viewpoints. The topics of the other panelists would have been interesting to listen to at another time.  However, it is not often we get to hear a discussion about such books by the authors themselves. This was a rare opportunity and I’m grateful that I was able to see them at all. I want to thank Professor Tamburri and Bordighera Press, ILICA and St. John’s University, who gave me that opportunity.

(1) CPPCG (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide)

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
• (a) Killing members of the group;
• (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.