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Italian American Issues, Literature

When I Am Italian

with author Joanna Clapps Herman

November 7, 2019
6:30 pm

When I Am Italian
Quando sono Italiana

(2019, SUNY Press)

by Joanna Clapps Herman

The author in conversation with authors:
Mary Ann Carolan
Maria Laurino
Edvige Giunta
Nancy Carnevale

With the participation of
Michela Musolino

The four women writers, scholars and friends discuss what it is to be Italian in America, what it means to write about this complex and sometimes confusing identity in the context of this book and their other works.

Joanna Clapps Herman is the author of The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America and No Longer and Not Yet: Stories, both published by SUNY Press. She is also the coeditor (with Carol Bonomo Albright) of Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana and (with Lee Gutkind) Our Roots Are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian-American Writers. She lives in New York City.



Can a person born outside of Italy be considered Italian?

“My ancestral Italian village in America was in Waterbury, Connecticut.” In this sentence, Joanna Clapps Herman raises the central question of this book: To what extent can a person born outside of Italy be considered Italian? The granddaughter of Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 1900s, Clapps Herman takes a complicated and nuanced look at the question of to whom and to which culture she ultimately belongs. Sometimes the Italian part of her identity—her Italianità—feels so aboriginal as to be inchoate, inexpressible. Sometimes it finds its expression in the rhythms of daily life. Sometimes it is embraced and enhanced; at others, it feels attenuated. “If, like me,” Clapps Herman writes, “you are from one of Italy’s overseas colonies, at least some of this Italianità will be in your skin, bones, and heart: other pieces have to be understood, considered, called to ourselves through study, travel, reading. Some of it is just longing. How do we know which pieces are which?”

“In When I Am Italian, Joanna Clapps Herman asks, ‘Can a person born outside of Italy be Italian?’ Scholars have long been interested in how ethnic identity is constructed within specific historical contexts. In this collection of evocative essays, Clapps Herman illuminates the complex process of ethnic identity formation as she takes the reader on her life’s journey starting with her girlhood ‘up the farm’ in rural Connecticut with her extended Italian family. Stops in her ancestral home in Basilicata, and Torino—‘the opposite of Southern Italy’—reveal that being an American of Italian descent in Italy poses its own challenges.” — Nancy Carnevale, author of A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890–1945

“A beautiful book. It takes us through the decades of the last century and into this one to ask what it means to be Italian long after one generation’s arrival, and to consider how deep and elemental the facts of that are. This is a subtle, moving, and original piece of work—to read it is to see the world around us differently.” — Joan Silber, author of Improvement: A Novel

“When I Am Italian, Joanna Clapps Herman’s exquisite new memoir, begins with her rich, cocoonlike childhood inside an extended Italian American family in Waterbury, Connecticut. With its all-encompassing rituals of food, talk, and work, her family has transposed the rhythms of southern Italy to the new world. It’s only when Clapps Herman leaves home—to escape the restrictions and claim her own life—that she realizes that this part of her identity does not necessarily reflect how the rest of America sees itself. With beauty and insight, When I Am Italian gives us Clapps Herman’s fully lived understanding of the complex interweaving of culture and finding self.” — Lisa Wilde, author of Yo, Miss: A Graphic Look at High School

“A vital voice in Italian American literature, Joanna Clapps Herman sings the subterranean stories and voices of her community. Steeped in archaic rituals, The Anarchist Bastard resonated with the echoes of ancient bards and cantastorie. When I Am Italian continues her exploration into the heart of cultural identity as it has survived and mutated in the country to which her ancestors migrated, yet with a difference: here the narrator visits more private, intimate selves. Traversing the genres of memoir and essay, Clapps Herman brings to the page a woman whose gestures, language, and memories are filtered through the sieve of being Italian, an identity she understands as inherited and chosen, fixed and fluid. Anyone who has inhabited the ‘liminal space’ of an ethnic community—not only readers of Italian descent and persuasion—will be seduced by the exquisite writing and will relish the tenderness and vulnerability with which this splendid book pulls us into a world where everyone can be Italian.” — Edvige Giunta, coeditor of Embroidered Stories: Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora