Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers
by Mary Jo Bona
Mary Jo Bona reconstructs the literary history and examines the narrative techniques of eight Italian American women's novels from 1940 to the ... Show synopsis Mary Jo Bona reconstructs the literary history and examines the narrative techniques of eight Italian American women's novels from 1940 to the present. Largely neglected until recently, these women's family narratives compel a reconsideration of what it means to be a woman and an ethnic in America. Bona discusses the novels in pairs according to their focus on Italian American life. She first examines the traditions of "italianita" (a flavor of things Italian) that inform and enhance works of fiction. The novelists in that tradition were Mari Tomasi ("Like Lesser Gods," 1949) and Marion Benasutti ("No Steady Job for Papa," 1966). Bona then turns to later novels that highlight the Italian American belief in the family's honor and reputation. Conflicts between generations, specifically between autocratic fathers and their children, are central to Octavia Waldo's 1961 "A Cup of the Sun" and Josephine Gattuso Hendin's 1988" The Right Thing to Do." Even when writers choose to steer away from the familial focus, Bona notes, their developmental narratives trace the reintegration of characters suffering from a crisis of cultural identity. Relating the characters' struggles to their relationship to the family, Bona examines Diana Cavallo's 1961 "A Bridge of Leaves" and Dorothy Bryant's 1978 "Miss Giardino." Bona then discusses two innovative novels--Helen Barolini's 1979 "Umbertina" and Tina De Rosa's 1980 "Paper Fish"--both of which feature a granddaughter who invokes her grandmother, a godparent figure. Through Barolini's feminist and De Rosa's modernist perspectives, both novels present a young girl developing artistically. Closing with a discussion of the contemporary terrain Italian American women traverse, Bona examines such topics as sexual identity when it meets cultural identity and the inclusion of "italianita" when Italian American identity is not central to the story. Italian American women writers, she concludes, continue in the 1980s and 1990s to focus on the interplay between cultural identity and women's development.