Family in Waterbury

From New York, with the Basilicata in the heart

by Ilenia Litturi

There are no words to describe the intensity of every single word that leaves the unmistakable pen of Joanna Clapps Hermann. An Italy-wonderful American, deservedly award-winning teacher, born and raised across the world, in America, with a wealth of feelings and passions, unmistakable reminders of her roots in Lucania. Her story is the story of many others who have gone in the hope of a better world elsewhere. Some have made ​​it some do not. Many have returned, many stayed. It was an honor to interview Joanna on her latest literary effort: The Anarchist Bastard, released in the United States in March. A memoir written from the heart. It should be emphasized that the text is set with gems written in the Lucano dialect which is another sign of her love for Basilicata, the home of her family.

What drew you to write this book?

My Italian family has always been central to the way I look at life, to everything I care about, to what I think is important even if at times they are so very intense I don't think I can possibly live up to everything each and every person is expected to do to be a good Tolevese or Aviglianese. So all the ideas and customs and habits which I grew up with lived in me and ultimately I realized became something I had to write about. I was compelled to talk about this absolutely most important aspect of my life. This way of life that I both escaped and which formed me and about which I am passionate.

A pretty strong title...

I had originally named the book From Another Time and Place. That title for only the one essay about my anarchist grandfather. And he was a tough guy, full of vitality and life and hard work and anger too. But then my editor said you have to use that as the title of the book. It's so dramatic and it will get people's attention in a bookstore. I agonized about whether I should use it. Every writer friend in New York said, you have to use it. It's such a great title. I'm still ambivalent about it because it offends some people and I don't wish to offend anyone. But my family has been kind about it and no one has given me a hard time about it from within the family. I didn't exaggerate anything I said about my two old time patriarchal grandfathers.

Victor Hugo wrote once: "Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots." Is it true?

I've never heard of that Hugo saying. I think I'd say one really doesn't have a choice about that — the roots are what they are, without them we don't live and thrive. If we try to change them we die. I like my roots. They are rich and exciting, dramatic and operatic, exciting and warm. I love where I come from and I love my people and I love my roots.

Part of your book is written in Lucanian, why is that?

My grandparents all spoke their dialect language. The language they used was their true language. It wasn't bad Italian — it was Tolvese and Aviglianese. Only now do scholars truly understand the importance of those dialect languages. I have a dear friend Nancy Carnevale, who is a historian and a scholar, who has written a book about just this subject entitled: A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States 1890-1945. (University of Illinois Press).

I only wish I were fluent in the dialect. I only knew certain words but I didn't speak it fluently.My Aunt Toni still speaks it fluently but there aren't too many of my people left who speak it. These old languages are so embedded with history and the by ways of a time gone by. I know that when my mother and her sisters visited Basilicata in the 1990's our parenti were delighted and surprised to hear that old language because by now they all speak "regular" Italian. It's a loss as you know. Every word I have is precious to me, a precious piece of my history and culture.

What does it mean growing up Italian in America?

In many ways I was truly Italian — not as you might define it in Italy, but I lived in a colony of America — where Italians lived. It was a culture unto itself. It wasn't as if I was American. Of course I knew I was American. But another part of me, the intimate, the most important part was Italian — living according to the mores and the customs that my grandparents brought with them. Even today the violation of those mores and customs is difficult for me. I still feel uncomfortable when I break with those codes — for example allowing my editor to talk me into using that title for my book. Or telling the stories about my family that they wish I wouldn't have written about.

So in that sense one part of me is Italian forever.

Who are the Italian-Americans today?

Italians in America are so many different things. The Italian American community of which I am a part in the metropolitan area of New York are professors and writers and poets and artists. We all feel viscerally connected through our origins to one another but we also care about the larger world and our place in the larger world. My original Italian world was fabulous but not worldly. Just exciting and vitally alive. But we lived in our own corner of the world. Now I am a part of the world as are my friends.

Then there are the people who stuck closer to home and who carry on all the traditions of the various seasonal and holiday foods and processions etc. etc. the everyday vernacular cultural life. Sometimes I envy them and sometimes I'm glad I live where I live.

There are of course many ordinary working class Italians and many highly educated Italians and many Italians in the arts and law and medicine. But most Italian Americans have a deep and passionate connection to their cultural origins even if we disagree with each other as to what that means.

What do you think about Jersey Shore?

I think it's silly and outrageous. And I'm sorry that those young people have been so badly undereducated. But I don't take the show seriously and I don't think it makes Italians look bad. It's just a stupid television show. There will always be stupid television shows. Those young people rightly saw it as an opportunity in some weird way to go beyond their confined lives and what I think of it doesn't matter. I can't bring myself to disapprove of them. I can see that they think it's a good thing that they are doing this. And I am not here to judge them or to feel ashamed of them. Leave them be.

What's the American Dream in your opinion?

The American Dream is to have an individual's dream, to have a dream that isn't defined by the institutions of authority, such as for example, the church. It's to locate in each of us what is that fire that burns in us that we have to allow to have air and live.

What do you like the most about Italy?

What I love most about Italy is almost everything: the food, the way it is always fresh and tastes better than food anywhere else and the way of life, the passiagiata in the evening, the paintings, the sculpture, the films, (I'm crazy about Visconti among so many others). I love the stones of the buildings and the colors that the buildings are painted. And I love the old medieval viale and passages and stairways and the tiny streets and the big boulevards. I love Roma and Napoli and Bologna and Palermo and Cefalu`and I love Venezia and Torcello, and I love Ravenna and Torino and all the tiny Piemontese towns and the Langhe and I love the eighteen course Sunday dinners and the mercati and the musei. I'm crazy about the literature, Sciascia and Natalie Ginzburg, Carlo Levi and Primo Levi. And I love the way work isn't the only thing that matters but going to have dinner with your family on Sunday matters too. And having a cup of coffee with your girlfriend in the middle of the day matters too. And that the women who are 65 are still so sexy and gorgeous. And I love the fact that coffee tastes better and I love they way the tiniest detail is so often aesthetic, even if it's a sheet of orange†plastic tied with a blue rope†someone takes the time to make it just so. I love that men love babies in that delicious playful, intimate way and that's not seen as just for women. I love the way even a teenage boy will tease a young child with such love. I love the way men go arm in arm with their friends down the street and stand in the middle of the street at night after being in the cafe for hours, still not wanting to go home, still joking and having one more laugh as they block the foot traffic.

I love that so many cultures have influenced what is now Italy — making such a layered and fabulous place. I love that we are just as connected to Africa and the Middle East as we are to Europe.

Define with three adjectives the Basilicata region.

Wild and remote and stunning.

Plan on visiting Italy/Basilicata again?

My sister and niece and two cousins and I are coming this summer to visit in August. I'm thrilled to be coming back. I want to wander every tiny switch back road and travel everywhere in Basilicata, but I know it will be too short a time to do that. Still every hour that I'll have will please me.

Is there something you would like to say to the Italian people?

I consider myself a woman first and a southern Italian woman next. I'm so proud to be from such strong and resilent people.

Do you have a life motto?

Seeing comes before words. I like to let life exist and come to my senses on its own and only after that to begin to tell myself what it is named or called or seems or means.

Thanks for bringing Italy to America.