On one hand, there is this romanticized notion of Italy,” says Joseph Luzzi, professor of Italian at Bard College and author of the recently published My Two Italies. “It’s a place where you go for the Tuscan sun, to fall in love; an antidote to a modern world’s problems. On the other hand, you have The Sopranos and Jersey Shore, the glamorization of violence and some of the more negative stereotypes associated with Italian-Americans. How are they connected? That’s one of the questions I asked myself when I started the book.”
Luzzi will be at the Italian Center in Poughkeepsie on Thursday, October 2 at 7 p.m. to do an author talk and book-signing presented by Noi Italiani D’Oggi (NIDO) – “We Italians of Today” – a nonprofit Italian-American organization that promotes Italian culture and language. Copies of My Two Italies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2014) will be available for purchase at the event, which is free and open to the public.
Luzzi will also appear at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck on Sunday, September 28 at 1:30 p.m. to present film clips and a discussion on classic Italian cinema. Tickets for the fundraising event cost $35, which includes a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres at the Market St. Restaurant afterward (where the discussion will continue) and a signed copy of My Two Italies.
The title of the book refers to the contrast between the earthy immigrant world of Luzzi’s family – Calabrians from southern Italy who brought with them their folk culture and traditions – and the “high” cultural riches of the northern region that he has devoted his adult life to studying, teaching and writing about. “In a way, I grew up not in an Italian-American household, but in an Italian and American household,” he says. “My parents were deeply connected to the place they had left; they spoke the Calabrian dialect at home and they raised animals and grew their own food, just as they had in Calabria.” After a junior year abroad in Florence – an experience that he says left a lifelong impression – Luzzi decided to combine his love of literature with his desire to know more about his Italian background in a career as a professor of Italian language, literature, film and art.
When he first began writing My Two Italies, it was intended to be about life in present-day Italy, especially the years after former Prime Minister Berlusconi resigned in 2011. “I was going to use my perspective as a scholar to sort of animate the broader issues in contemporary Italian life. Italy is a country of great regional differences and strong local identities that don’t always harmonize smoothly; the local is often in conflict with the national. So the plan was to write that kind of book and use my family’s history as a kind of added vignette to this broader look at life in Italy. But as I started to write, the personal started to take over. It became much more personal and became more of a memoir.”
But My Two Italies is a cultural history as much as it is a memoir, he says. “There’s nothing in the book about me personally or about my family that also isn’t somehow about broader issues in Italian-American culture. By the same token, there’s nothing about Italy, Italian-Americans or Italian culture and history that also isn’t somehow deeply personal.” For example, “Dante had talked about Italy’s need for a common language – that it needed linguistic unification before it could have political and cultural unification – and I saw that in my own family, who considered themselves Calabrians first, before they were Italian.”
And how does one reconcile the perceptual divide between da Vinci at one extreme to Tony Soprano at the other? According to Luzzi, Italian-American culture dates back to a particular historical moment. “Most of the Italian-Americans immigrated to the United States after Italian unification in 1861, at a time when there was a great deal of poverty and social unrest in southern Italy. Most of those who came here were from the southern region, and tended to be poor, as my family was, and tended to identify with their local region, as my family did. A lot of them were uneducated and had not had access to the cultural riches in the north because of difficult socioeconomic conditions. So I think what the immigrants brought with them was this rich, vibrant local culture that was kind of a world apart from the world of Dante and Michelangelo that had not been a part of their lives in Italy. When they came here, they perpetuated another equally rich version of Italian culture, but something more folkloric – something outside of the academy, outside of the museum.”
And the emphasis on family above all else? “The family is definitely important in all of Italy, but certainly the southern Italians brought with them an extremely strong sense of family. The virtue of family and what family means in a deep sense is so much a part of being Italian, and I think especially so for many southern Italians. They relied on their families to survive in really difficult economic conditions and times of great scarcity. Your family was not only your main source of support; for many, it was all they knew. Many poor southern Italians didn’t travel; they spent their lives in the same village they were born in, and their family was their universe.”
Writing the book helped him see his parents’ lives as the people they had been in Italy, says Luzzi, not just as his parents. “I realized that, like so many immigrants, they gave up all they knew and loved to give their children a better life. It was a profound lesson to see what exile is – what their self-exile, in a sense, had entailed for them. And it is personal, it is a memoir; but so many American families have stories of immigration in their background, people giving up their lives so that future generations can build a life here in the United States. My hope is that it resonates way beyond the personal to connect with these bigger issues that so many people have faced.”
My Two Italies author talk with Joseph Luzzi, Thursday, October 2, 7 p.m., free, Italian Center, 227 Mill Street, Poughkeepsie; (845) 454-1492, https://www.theitaliancenter.com. Classic Italian Cinema reception, Sunday, September 28, 1:30 p.m., $35 including book, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street/Route 9, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, https://www.upstatefilms.org.