October 7, 2012

An Interview with Author Anthony Di Renzo

Anthony Di Renzo
By Giovanni di Napoli

We are honored to have the opportunity to interview Anthony Di Renzo before the release of his new historical novel Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily. Slated for publication in November, 2013 by Guernica Editions, the book chronicles the destruction of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies during the Italian Revolution. He was kind enough to provide us with an advance digital copy, and I'm sure it will become a must read for anyone interested in the nonconformist view of the Risorgimento and Italian Unification.

Mr. Di Renzo is an Associate Professor at Ithaca College, specializing in Classical rhetoric, professional writing and Italian history. He is the author of Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and Ethnicity from the Imperial Kitchen (SUNY Press, 2010) and has published numerous essays and stories for various literary journals, including "Eternal Death" in Feile-Festa 3 (Spring 2008), "Lucullan Feasts" in River Styx 76: A Readable Feast (Spring 2008) and "Dark Chocolate" in Voices in Italian Americana 19.2 (Spring 2009).

Many Americans of Southern Italian descent are proud of their heritage, but you have made an extra effort to explore it. Could you tell us how your interest in Sicily began and why you pursue it?

My Sicilian mother, steeped in the island’s legends and folklore, first sparked my interest, but I probably never would have investigated Sicilian history if it hadn’t been for my teachers. I don’t mean that in a positive way. When I was growing up, most middle school and junior high teachers thought it a civic duty to make first-generation Americans as ashamed as possible of their ancestral country. Only then would these students become “real” Americans. There was nothing subtle about this indoctrination. “You people weren’t even human until you came to this country!” one teacher declared. This blatant ignorance about the Golden Door period, this contemptuous dismissal of Southern Italian culture, goaded me into uncovering the facts for myself. I’ve been digging ever since. Whitewashed history is a vast tundra. More bodies are buried there than in the Meadowlands.     

Among institutions of higher education, how does Sicily fare within Italian American studies?

Goethe considered Sicily the key to understanding Italy. It is also the key to understanding Italian American history. In both cases, certain characteristics are exaggerated and distorted in startlingly instructive ways. The Risorgimento’s failures in Sicily, too grotesque to ignore, encapsulate and explain Northern Italy’s exploitation and colonization of the entire Mezzogiorno. This calamity directly caused the Southern Italian Diaspora at the turn of the twentieth century.

When you teach Italian American History, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?

The political, economic, and agricultural collapse of the Mezzogiorno was not a natural phenomenon, no more than Irish potato famine was a natural phenomenon. Both resulted from cruel and arrogant political policies designed to subjugate, even eradicate, a provincial population considered too backwards to benefit the state. That fact explains the impetus behind mass emigration. Northern politicians were quite happy to see Southern peasants leave Italy. It was a form of ethnic cleansing. 

Although Italian businesses and Italian government promoted the New World as the land of opportunity, both treated America as Botany Bay: a place to dump undesirables. We should question, therefore, the conventional myths about immigration and assimilation. These fig leaves cover up the shameful hypocrisies of liberal democracy on both sides of the Atlantic. The betrayal of the Italian Revolution in the late nineteenth century would be repeated by the betrayal of the American Dream in the early twentieth century. 

This double betrayal continues to affect Southern Italian Americans, especially within the Sicilian American community, even in subtle ways among their more assimilated children and grandchildren. Bitter disillusionment explains why many of us can be so insular, continue to suspect all political and educational institutions, and are reluctant to form social and cultural networks, even when they would benefit us. Instead, we should unite, ally ourselves with other ethnic groups, particularly the newest immigrants in Italy and America, and fight for justice at a time when political and financial institutions seem determined to reproduce the imperialism and plutocracy of the early twentieth century. 

What inspired you to write Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily?

A bizarre historical footnote worthy of Leonardo Sciascia. Shortly after Luchino Visconti had filmed The Leopard in Sicily, I was recovering from a nearly fatal bout of dysentery in Villabate, a suburb of Palermo. This was the first time my mother had returned to her hometown since the Second World War. At the time, I was just a boy, battling fever and nausea, but the local gossip distracted and entertained me. Many of my mother’s former neighbors had attended Visconti’s shoot. Some had even worked as extras. Everyone, however, had stories to tell. The most amusing concerned Ciminna, a mountaintop commune 30 miles southeast of Palermo. 

Visconti had used this town as Donnafugata, Prince Fabrizio’s ancestral fief. After the wrap, the mayor and the council had petitioned 20th Century Fox to rebuild the sets. Apparently, the American tourists no longer wanted to see Ciminna’s authentic Greek ruins, a three-thousand-year-old temple to Demeter. Instead, they wanted to pose in front of Burt Lancaster’s fake palazzo and collect autographs.

I had always thought this anecdote was a tall tale, until a documentary on Visconti’s film confirmed it. History, I realized, doesn’t stand a chance against public relations. This insight provided the frame for the novel. Family history and scholarly interest in the Risorgimento supplied the canvas and the paint. Red and gold, of course: the colors of the Sicilian flag. 

When doing the research for Trinàcria, what did you find the most interesting? Was there anything that you would have liked to add that wasn’t included in the book?

It was fascinating to learn how much British and American companies and investors helped to shape the Italian Revolution. Their motives were hardly pure, and their meddling contributed to the debacle that destroyed Sicily. Even today, Sicily lacks a functioning regional economy, thanks partly to this old pattern of internal corruption and external exploitation.

What would have happened, however, if Sicily had achieved independence in 1848? What if it had become a functioning democracy of Sicilians, by Sicilians, and for Sicilians? Either Sicily would have remained a separate country or it would have joined Italy on its own terms. The novel speculates on these questions but never directly addresses them. Ruggeru Sèttimu, president of the Sicilian Republic for sixteen months before his lifelong exile in Malta, barely appears. Even so, these issues are worth considering during the bicentennial of the Sicilian constitution.  

What's next after Trinàcria? Do you have any plans to explore the Abruzzese half of your heritage?

Currently, I’m revising After the Fair is Over, the sequel to Trinàcria. This immigrant saga deals with Donna Zita’s great-grandson, Commendatore Attilio Tumeo, who journeys from his father’s carriage shop in Villabate to the Franklin Automobile Company in Syracuse, New York. Ironically, money from his used car dealership pays to preserve the Marchesa’s crypt in the Catacombe dei Cappuccini.

My last book, Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and Ethnicity from the Imperial Kitchen (SUNY Press 2010) partly discusses the Abruzzese half of my heritage. But I would like to investigate more fully how this remote of regions, Italy’s Yosemite Park, continues to resist globalization. Gas companies, for example, are trying to introduce fracking. The outcome is uncertain, but I’m betting on the mountain goats.

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Any last thoughts?

Eduardo Galeano, a writer I deeply admire, reminds us of the importance of memory. Memory alone can save us from the collective amnesia of postmodern society, a cross between a shopping mall and a concentration camp. We need to wake up from the American Dream before it anaesthetizes our entire planet. Hypnotists have convinced us that all that matters is success. Either you’re somebody or you’re nobody. But instead of trying to be somebodies, Southern Italians and their descendants should embrace being nobodies. We are nobody’s children, owners of nothing. We speak dialects, not language; believe superstitions, not religion; practice handicrafts, not art; have folklore, not culture. We are not human beings but human resources. We do not appear in the world’s history books but in the local tabloids. Nobody will tell our stories but ourselves.

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The following links allow you to visit the book's campaign site and to view its promotional video:

The fundraiser is sponsored by Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere.

For more info visit Anthony Di Renzo

Also see Mr. Di Renzo's interview with the Times of Sicily: "The Past Never Dies — Though God Knows it Tries: An Interview with Anthony Di Renzo"

* Magna GRECE reserves the right to edit submissions for grammar and length needed. The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent those of Magna GRECE.