Italian American Writers on New Jersey

edited by Jennifer Gillan, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Edvige Giunta

Rutgers University Press. © 2003. 290 pgs. $21.95 ISBN: 0-8135-3317-1

I admit it is suspect for an Italian American from New Jersey to review this new book but it would be more outrageous not to; and I put aside all dangers of criticism to say, Let us now praise famous women! Maria Mazziotti Gillan and her daughter Jennifer Gillan, have joined forces again, this time with Edvige Giunta, to create, assemble, edit and make permanent some 40 voices with stories of the neighborhood, the family, the struggle, and the glory of growing up Italian in New Jersey.

Maria is no stranger to the poetry scene. She is the presiding force over much that happens on the East Coast, with a long-standing record as impresario of the literary world from New Jersey to New York State. Her daughter and Edvidge are both Professors of English. They have brought a compendium of American works in an anthology where cultural imperatives provide a common world, but where – because of it – the individual voice sounds clearer and more singular than ever before.

The book has four sections: Looking Back, Blending In, Crossing Bridges, and Changing Direction. Some of these have sub-sections, i.e. “In Depth.” One can only imagine the difficulty in culling the material for such an anthology, as the heart center is the real locus and that which criss-crosses all topics and artificial boundaries. The editors did a good job, identifying, while they were unifying, the various themes.

There are few fledgling writers here. All are published, and most represented are seasoned authors such as Carole Maso, Gay Talese, Diane di Prima, Daniela Gioseffi, to name a few; and many are of national and international reputation. I am touched by the way that their internal geographies are defined throughout…as a way to shape experience, to gain perspective in the misshapen universe of growing up within and without understanding. The safety of home is always compared to the danger beyond a line drawn in the dirt. Who knew what lay in wait for us, coming from a parentage not shared by the dominant society, if we crossed that line.

But kitchens, foods, streets, notwithstanding, this book is filled with the compassion we came to know, even if we had to resort to inventing it ourselves.  Here are the kinds of words we remember most. Gay Talese “Ocean City: Unto the Sons.” Who can forget such writing as this where the speaker tells of the longing for intimacy. …”Once during my preschool day…I tried to hold on…to put my hand inside her pocket of her coat not only for the warmth, but for a closer feeling with her presence. But when I tried this I felt her hand, gently but firmly, remove my own. (Pg. 29)  Such courage is the keynote of the book. If there is one thread that binds all the narratives it is emotional honesty. Not a bad thing this election year when more words need to be rinsed and hung, made fresh, with such clean rain. When a writer tells us so with certainty who he is, we finally know ourselves better. This is the power of the storyteller.

And who would not be haunted by Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poems. Here is  “Growing Up Italian In Paterson, New Jersey” (pg.106)  ” When I was a little girl/I thought everyone was Italian, / and that was good…” Thus the poem begins and in those 3 tiny phrases we have the knowledge of all that will then happen. Or the poem “Daddy We Called You” (pg. 117.)  And the piece  that is renowned, making Maria  indelible in American culture,  “ Public School No. 18, Paterson, New Jersey.” (Pg.103 )

Mary Ann Mannino’s poem (Pg.163) starts  “My mother loved me/ one week a year/on the beaches of/ Wildwood, New Jersey.” … All we need to know is there and in two short pages, a socio-economic declaration without self-pity but which, once again, adds to our own self-knowledge. There is even within this collection an entire play. “Pizza” by Michele Linfante (Pg.191.) Janet Zandy’s “Liberating Memory” (Pg.235) is an exploration of the ways we transcend limitation and what we meet along our way toward achieving intellectual excellence; and finally the insights that lead us all the way back home.

Overall, instead of making stereotypes, the work here breaks them. It could be studied as a political treatise with 40 case studies revealing what can be known about being raised in dual cultures; yet, there is little polemic, and that is comforting – proving the collection is, first and above all, a showcase for literature. The fact that the roots go deep into soil others may not know, adds a rich abundance of material. Do not believe ethnicity necessitates a parochial or regional approach to our personal experiences. It is the depth and the source of individuation.

One of my favorite prose pieces is Jennifer Gillan’s  “Third-Generation Hawthorne.” Several of the writers here I had read before, and indeed some authors’ works I know quite well, but I had perceived Jennifer only through her reputation. This piece establishes her in my eyes as one of the talents, creatively and critically, we will be seeing long after the platform provided in this book. I understand why editors often do not include their own works in anthologies. It’s always an internal debate we engage. But it’s commendable that these editors didn’t fall for false modesty, or we would have been the poorer for their omission.

The frustration of this reviewer is not to be able to quote from 40 pieces of writing published within the book. Maybe that’s all the more reason why you should purchase it and read for yourself. It shows how historical particularity crafts the individual. It is not only Italian American Writers on New Jersey; it is writers on writing, on living, on suffering, triumphing, spanning the gap of society, and coming out whole.