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Mary Jo Bona, By the Breath of Their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America

Albany, State University of New York Press, 2010, pp. 314, $ 24.95 (Paperback)

Taking the title from Psalms 33:6, which appears as the epigraph of the book, and adapting it to the plurality of Italian American voices, Mary Jo Bona, Professor at suny Stony Brook, delivers solid and compelling analyses of some of the most powerful «narratives of resistance» in Italian American literature. The volume is divided in eight chapters, each dedicated to a different theme, or «problematics», as the author herself, following Gregory Jay, prefers to refer to both the material conditions and representational forms inherent in the Italian American texts discussed (p. 226).

The variety of issues, texts, genres and authors covered allow for a veritable mapping of the major concerns of the field of Italian American literature. At the same time such a wide net inevitably contains critical examinations and assessments that are more provocative and groundbreaking than others. Given the title of the book, the precedence is conferred to the vernacular quality of Italian American literary texts and their fondness for orature and performance, i.e. their ability to express the folk traditions and working-class roots of the migratory communities that shaped them in response to cultural displacement and discrimination in the United States.

In the first chapter, devoted to «Justice/Giustizia», it is precisely the resistance to a hostile environment that fuels what Bona interprets as «acts of survival» (p. 2) borne out of an already ingrained distrust of authorities and institutions that had characterized the life of (mainly Southern) Italians before their emigration. In this context, writers resort to the healing power of stories of «furberia» (shrewdness, p. 17), drawing from popular lore and wit that date as far back as Boccaccio’s tales. Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete (1939), Mari Tomasi’s Like Lesser Gods(1949), and Jerre Mangione’s Mount Allegro (1942) are thus read as oppositional counter-narratives, along with Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), Tina De Rosa’s Paper Fish(1980), and Tony Ardizzone’s In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu (1999). Bona returns to some of the same novels in other parts of the book as well, concentrating on different aspects and emphasizing their extraordinary richness.

The influence, and repression, of Catholicism on Italian American women is the focus of the second chapter on «Faith/Fede». While Italian religious practices, with their peasant/pagan reinterpretations and Marian myths, sustained and anchored families, the clash with a rigid, sexist and hierarchical Catholicism dominated by Irish orthodoxy, took its toll, especially on young women. Bona examines Helen Barolini’s Chiaroscuro (1997) and Mary Gordon’s Good Boys and Dead Girls (1991) as «Catholic girl narratives» (p. 42) that, despite being a generation apart, highlight the self-loathing and internalized «ethnic shame» (p. 44) suffered by the autobiographical protagonists. The negative depiction of religion in these authors is counterbalanced by the analysis of works where other empowering religious expressions take precedence. Bona explores the «popular Catholicism» (p. 50) in Octavia Waldo’s A Cup of the Sun (1961), De Rosa’s Paper Fish, and Susan Caperna Lloyd’s No Pictures in My Grave: A Spiritual Journey in Sicily (1992).

The «art of storytelling» (p. 73) is at the center of the «Story/Racconto» of chapter three, focusing on the genesis of Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant (1970). The story of Rosa, from her birth in a village of Lombardy in the late 1800s, to her unlikely oral performances at the Chicago Commons in front of a genteel and patronizing audience, encapsulates well a variety of «libratory» (p. 90) and folk narratives of migration. Bona carefully interprets the various mediations at play in this unique book that documents the outstanding oral «communal narrative» (p. 77) of Rosa Cassettari transcribed and edited by Marie Ets Hall who appears as the sole author of the book. The same archival fervor that animated Bona’s analysis in the previous chapter is reflected in the next one on «Land/Terra», co-authored with JoAnne Ruvoli, dealing with the works of a lesser known Italian American author, Guido D’Agostino, and his «agrarian idealism» (p. 95). Of the same generation as Di Donato and Fante, D’Agostino enjoyed some notoriety when his first novelOlives on the Apple Tree appeared in 1940, but his other works are virtually unknown. Bona situates D’Agostino’s fondness for the pastoral mode in relation to other American authors, Emerson and Thoreau above all, while also viewing in his protagonists seeds of Gramsci’s organic intellectual (p. 116).

Chapter five and chapter six exhibit perhaps the most potential for innovative critical approaches as they offer comparative analyses crossing ethnic and sexual boundaries. In the former, entitled «History Singer/Cantastorie», Bona reads Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstone (1959), along with De Rosa’s Paper Fish. By highlighting the importance of Caribbean and Italian vernacular traditions centered on female protagonists, who eventually become central artistic figures in their communities, Bona shows how closely the experience of Italians in the United States is related to that of other discriminated and racialized groups. Even more relevant is the fact that the issues dealt with in these works resonate with literature currently produced by second generation authors in Italy (writers like Ubax Cristina Ali Farah, Gabriella Ghermandi, and Igiaba Scego) and would merit to be discussed within a postcolonial framework that Bona embraces for American literature only in the final chapter. Placing all of these authors and texts in conversation with each other would greatly expand our understanding of the transnational connections of women’s conditions, exploitations, and practices of resistance across ethnic and racial lines.

Similarly, in chapter six entitled «Precursor/Precursore», Bona tackles feminist, albeit not separatist, texts that in their genres – memoir and poetry – and content disrupt homogenous and patriarchal narratives of the Italian American community. She pairs up Louise De Salvo’s Vertigo(1996) with Mary Cappello’s Night Bloom (1998), and Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s Where I Come From(1995) with Rose Romano’s Vendetta (1990) and The Wop Factor (1994). Here again the engaging examination of these works, presented with Bona’s characteristic gusto, could have benefited from the incorporation of more recent critical studies of race, gender and sexuality, and a queer theory approach.

Bona devotes chapter seven to the treatment of «Death/Morte» in numerous Italian American works including Garibaldi Lapolla’s The Grand Gennaro (1935), Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, Tomasi’s Like Lesser Gods, Dorothy Bryant’s Miss Giardino (1978) and A Day in San Francisco(1982), Josephine Gattuso Hendin’s The Right Thing to Do (1988), and Carole Maso’s The Art Lover (1990). In the eighth and final chapter entitled «Revival/Risorgimento» about the institutional field of Italian American Studies, Bona is at her best, exuding passion for her work as a cultural critic and often inserting herself in her writing to underscore the stakes of this type of cultural operation as well as her personal and professional commitment. She considers the practice and politics of canonization of Italian American literary works, often supported by word-of-mouth and underground efforts, and provides illustrious examples that acquired visibility thanks to this process, like Christ in Concrete and Paper Fish. Bona also clarifies the pedagogical implications of inserting these and other texts in Italian American, Ethnic Studies and, indeed, English and American Literature syllabi, and of teaching them in the classroom as counter-hegemonic acts of resistance. One wonders how differently By the Breath of Their Mouths would have read had this chapter been the first and not the last. Its relevance as an introductory reading, especially in an Italian American course, is made evident by its ability to articulate what is usually left unsaid about how literary canons are constructed and how an entire nation and its diverse communities come to understand and define themselves according to lines of inclusion and exclusion. On the whole, Bona’s book is accompanied by an impressive and detailed array of notes and bibliographical references that expand and enrich her discussion and encourage even more groundbreaking work in Italian American Studies in the future.

Clarissa Clò (San Diego State University)


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