March 6, 2013

An Interview With Santi Buscemi

Santi Buscemi
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli

Santi Buscemi teaches English at Middlesex County College in Edison, New Jersey. He received his B.A. from St. Bonaventure University, and completed studies for his doctorate at the University of Tennessee. He developed an online course on Sicilian literature for The Dante University Foundation of America and is the author of several college textbooks including A Reader For Developing Writers (McGraw-Hill). In 2009, Dante University Press published his translation of Luigi Capuana's acclaimed collection of fairy tales C'era una volta under the title Sicilian Tales. He has also contributed translations of Capuana's work to The Journal of Italian Translation, Italica, and Primo. Dante University Press recently published his translation of Capuana's verist masterpiece, The Marquis of Roccaverdina. He was generous enough to share some of his thoughts about Sicily and his work with the readers of Il Regno.

It's been my experience that Sicilian Americans are usually proud of their heritage, but your work has gone beyond personal pride and brings us elements of Sicilian literature and folklore not usually found in English. What started you on this path and why do you pursue it?

It started when I was a child.  My father reminded us of the richness of our Italian heritage, and I went through my formative years having to fight off the negative stereotypes of Italians in the popular media. I am certainly not unique in this. However, I also started to encounter some prejudices against Sicilians and southern Italians in general from other Italian-Americans, most of whom, by the way, had little knowledge of their own origins. Their people, they were in the habit of claiming, had come from Rome! Right!! While most of them could not utter a word of Italian, they insisted that their ancestors had spoken the “real Italian” (as if there is such a thing) and their demeanor made it clear that the Sicilian my family and I spoke was a poor bastardization of la bella lingua. Then, the Godfather and a slew of other Sicilian gangster movies came out, and that made matters worse. Whenever I discussed this issue with my father, however, he emphasized the great accomplishments that Sicily, like all of Italy’s children, had made to western civilization, and I took comfort. And after my first trip to Italy and Sicily in 1976, my eyes were opened even wider and my appetite for all things Italian—especially southern Italian—became insatiable. I started reading the history of the Mezzogiorno—delving especially into the Greek, Roman, Byzantines, and Norman patrimonies of the south, and I was amazed that what my father had told me was true. My pride grew and grew.

Shortly after my mother and father passed, I experienced a career change, which allowed me more free time to read and research topics dear to my heart. First on the list was Sicily.  One of my ideas was an anthology of Sicilian literature in translation (I am the author of several college anthologies used in freshman English). I found, however, that few Sicilian authors—other than Verga, Pirandello, and Quasimodo—had been translated at the time. During my research, I stumbled on Capuana who, for reasons explained later, caught my attention.  

All of this led my pride to grow, as it continues to do to this day.  

In your introduction to Luigi Capuana's Sicilian Tales, you said that prior to your visit in 1976 you thought of Sicily as a "stagnant backwater." Sadly, this popular misconception persists. What do you believe caused you to feel that way and what was it like to discover otherwise?

As I said above, the effects of the media and my contacts with other Italians and Italian-Americans created a negative image of Sicily in me. In fact, until I graduated from college, I had made every effort to fit into the stereotype of the modern American male. Back then, it simply wasn’t fashionable to embrace one’s ethnicity. I can remember, asking my mother not to pack me eggplant sandwiches for lunch! I wanted peanut butter and jelly, like the other kids in school. And I couldn’t understand why we had to have pasta every night. I thought fried chicken, greasy pork chops, French fries, hot dogs, and cheeseburgers were healthier than pasta fagioli, or spaghetti with lentils, broccoli, asparagus, escarole, Swiss chard, or any other vegetable you can name. And I craved pasty Wonder Bread, like all my friends ate, not that fragrant, crusty manna from heaven that they made hot and fresh at the Italian bakery down the street! Can you believe it? Now that I look back, I realize that the narrow mindset I had adopted was a result of my desire to fit in with the restrictive and often insulting social environment I had to navigate. I also realize that many of my actions may have saddened my parents, and I believe that, in a way, my celebration of Sicily in my writing and in other endeavors is an attempt to make it up to them. The first college textbook I wrote carries the following dedication: “For Joseph and Theresa Buscemi and for the other Sicilian heroes who came to this country to make a better life for their children.”       

You have an online course called “The Literature of Sicily: A History.” Can you tell us a little about it and what you hope your students will learn from it?

The course covers the beginnings of Sicilian literature to the end of the 20th century. It also contains some history so as to explain political and intellectual motivations affecting the culture and literature of Sicily. Great attention is paid to the medieval Scuola Siciliana, which began during the reign of the Norman kings and then reached its apex in Palermo at the court of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily. The poets of this school pre-date Dante and are the first to write literature in an Italian vernacular. In fact, Dante pays them homage in his On Eloquence in the Vernacular and credits them for starting Italian literature. Among the finest of these was Giacomo Lentini, the inventor of the sonnet. That’s right, it was a Sicilian who invented the sonnet; it wasn’t Petrarch. 

The course also devotes a great deal of space to the veristi, the nineteenth-century Naturalists including Verga, De Roberto, and, of course, Capuana. For me, the veristi produced the finest literature in Italy since Mazzoni, and Capuana especially, made enormous contributions to modern literary criticism.  

As to what I would like students of the course to take from it—I would like them to learn what I learned. That in literature, and in many other fields, Sicilians have made a tremendous contribution to Western culture. I want them to be able to prove to their friends, their colleagues, and especially their children that Sicily is no “cultural backwater.” 

With so many great Sicilian authors to choose from, what inspired you to translate Capuana?

When I first visited Sicily in 1976, I stayed with my Aunt Nina and Uncle Ignazio in our ancestral town of Menfi (Prov. di Agrigento). They lived on a street called Via Capuana. My aunt explained that the street honored a Sicilian scritore. Years later when I began planning my anthology of Sicilian literature in translation, I came upon the name Luigi Capuana, and I remembered what my aunt had said. Unfortunately, I could find only one short poem by Capuana in English, but I soon discovered that he had been very prolific. My reading of Italian was quite limited; however, Capuana had written several books of fairy tales (“fiabe’) for children, and I tried my hand at these. It was tough going at first, but with the aid of a dictionary, I got by. My confidence grew when I was able to get a few of my translations published in Forum Italicum, Italica, and The Journal of Italian Translation. I continued to work, and when I had finished the 20 tales in C’era una volta, I submitted them to Adlofo Caso of Dante University Press, who took a chance on me and published them under the title Sicilian Tales. He has recently published my translation of Capuana’s Il Marchese di Roccaverdina

What were your biggest challenges when translating Sicilian into English?

My biggest problem is finding a comprehensive dictionary of Sicilian. The Basic Sicilian-English Dictionary by Joseph Bellestri has been invaluable, but it is not comprehensive. So I found and Italian-Sicilian Dictionary online. It has helped a lot. In addition, however, the meanings of words in Sicilian can vary from area to area. So, a word I learned a home might have a slightly different meaning when it appears in one of Capuana’s dialect plays. I still need to find a good source of Sicilian idioms, not to mention a comprehensive source for Italian idioms. Two other sources of assistance are my friends Nino Russo, whom I met online, and Ninni Maglione, my good friend in Capuana’s home town of Mineo, Sicily. 

What's next after The Marquis of Roccaverdina? Do you have plans to translate other works by Capuana or perhaps a different Sicilian author?

I have read and started to translate Capuana’s Giacinta and Frederico De Roberto’s I Vicere. I am half way through both, but have had to put these aside to prepare the final manuscript for Il Marchese and to complete some smaller projects. I intend to pick up on Giacinta soon. Also I have translated several of Capuana’s Sicilian plays and am looking for a publisher. Finally, I am working with a private translating firm in New York on a scholarly book on the history of Neapolitan music. 

Other thoughts?

I just finished reading a dissertation entitled Luigi Capuana and His Times by Eugene Scalia (Justice Scalia’s father). It provided me with innumerable insights into the author. I plan to do more reading in the scholarship, but most of it is still in Italian. So, oh well, I guess I’ll have to go to Italy again!! 

You can contact Santi Buscemi at

English Dept.
Middlesex County College
Edison, NJ 08818
732-548-6000 ext 3254