Monday, October 1, 2012

Review of "Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives"

Joseph Sciorra, ed. Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives

New York, Fordham University Press, 2011, pp. 288, $ 28

If immigration and ethnicity entail a process of becoming, the vernacular serves as a key resource in personal and cultural transformation. This volume powerfully brings this point home with insight and conviction. It does so in an interventionist spirit, entering a terrain where immigrant folkness has been historically reified along a rigid polarity either as an undesirable sign of vulgar backwardness, or as a sanitized marker of celebrationist pride. Italian Folk, edited by Joseph Sciorra, effectively moves beyond this duality to reclaim folk expressivity as an agent shaping meaningful lives, informing artistic communication, and offering means for coping with cultural dislocation. It underlines its role in contesting hegemony, but also notes its capacity in reproducing hierarchies.

It is only appropriate, therefore, that the editor’s introduction situates the vernacular as a contested expression, to subsequently advocate a particular scholarly location of exploring it: «listening with accent» (p. 7). This calls for a research practice that is attuned to the multiplicity of experiences associated with living between cultures. Heeding this invitation, a host of folklorists, ethnographers, art historians, historians, literary scholars, and ethnomusicologists set out to chart the importance of Italian-American expressive culture in a variety of contexts. This review discusses three prominent threads in the book, namely the significance of the vernacular in a) making Italian-American landscapes; b) in reclaiming, even inventing, family and ethnic inheritance; and c) in forging transnational links and ethnic genres. The creative appropriation of folk resources is a theme running throughout all three trends.

Landscapes and the built environment are sources of deep human attachment, yet the least transportable. Immigrants, it turns out, often creatively transform places in the host country to establish a sense of transnational continuity. Significantly, the vernacular arts have been vital in easing immigrant dislocation, as Kenneth Scambray shows in his discussion of two «ethnic» landscapes in California, Baldassare Forestiere’s Underground Gardens, and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. Folk art here provides the expressive means for immigrants to inscribe upon the landscape memories of a life abandoned yet not forgotten, mobilizing a poetics of built environment.

The residential landscapes of urban and suburban Italian-American yards in the New York Tri-state region provide yet another example of creative transformation of place shaped by folk knowledge. As Joseph Inguanti notes, «the aesthetics of labor, thrift, and abundance» shape the ways in which Italian Americans express religious affiliation and mobilize recollections of horticultural knowledge, including water and land use, to produce public «landscapes of memory» (p. 84) within open residential spaces. What is more, as Lara Pascali illustrates, the past enters into conversation with the present in the organization and usage of domestic space, this time in the interior architecture of the ubiquitous two kitchen homes of postwar immigrants in three cities, Toronto, Montreal, and New York City. If the upper floor of these dwellings represents «dream spaces» (p. 59) of formality and social distinction, the basement kitchen sustains vernacular activities associated with traditional food preparation, consumption, and sociability, while embracing the material comforts of American modernity in a hybrid combination of cultural influences.

It is not only artists and homeowners who ethnicize space. Ethnic collectives have also an interest in claiming a presence in places of national significance. Joan Saverino navigates the politics to assert an Italian presence during the interwar period in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the ethnic manipulation of national symbols, like the figure of Columbus, were instrumental in redefining national spaces into «ethnic sites of memory» (p. 153).

Inheritance, the claiming of deep connection with the past, centers ethnic identities. It establishes, oftentimes invents, family and cultural continuity to address contemporary concerns. Simone Cinotto, for instance, discusses the economic and social imperatives leading to a particular invention of the ethnic family in Italian Harlem (1920-1940), which, he argues, must be understood in the context of immigrant adaptation, including the socialization of the second generation into ethnicity. Reacting against the idea of naturalized familism in Italian culture, he points to the ideology of the ethnic family as a site of cohesive ties and mutual support, actualized around domestic food rituals in the context of a public sphere hostile to new immigrants’ foodways and values. The invented dimension of continuities is also the focus of Luisa Del Giudice’s contribution. In her deeply personal narrative, she delves into the legacy of female healers in her family to confront «broken lines of inheritance» (p. 194) across generations: through this «spiritual archeology» she identifies the self-healing power of folklore. 

The reclamation of inheritance, this time ancient folk-magic practices in the context of neo-paganism, is the focus of Sabina Magliocco’s piece, which connects Stregheria (Italian-American revival Witchcraft) with identity politics in the 1990s. Access to folk-magic among Italian Americans entails identification with «the forgotten and the oppressed» (p. 213) thus aligning ethnicity with the subaltern to rebuff accusations of white ethnic dominance.

The personal and the scholarly are entangled in this volume when researchers further incorporate their own family inheritance in their analysis. Thus Peter Savastano’s thick description of the ritual changing of St. Gerard’s clothes at St. Lucy’s in Newark, NJ, demonstrates the power of enactment in religious observances to reclaim heritage and for him personally «to arouse emotionally and physically what had been dormant» (p. 176) during the years of personal lack of involvement with the Catholic religion. Savastano renders visible the multiple perspectives circulating among the Saint’s devotees who often challenge the Church’s teachings, particularly those connected with alternative sexualities. Ritual spaces may function as sites of contesting hegemony. Similarly, John Allan Cicala’s insider status enables a nuanced exploration of his family’s relation with the traditional preparation and consumption of a ceremonial meal, Cuscuszu. Tradition here requires that family cohesion is maintained, albeit in a highly controlled setting to prevent the eruption of past conflicts. Certain aspects of the past are animated while others are suppressed, bringing to the fore the analytical importance of family biographies.

Ethnicity, of course, is never a self-sustained entity. It is produced through transnational connections, cross-fertilizations with the host society, commerce, and social contingencies. Marion Jacobson’s analysis of the making of Valtaro musette is paradigmatic in this respect. It traces the emergence and eventual consolidation of a new musical genre, simultaneously fluid in its capacity to enter in cross-cultural exchanges, but also static in its folklorizing claim of representing an ethnic essence. The negotiation between the past and the present propels creative change. This point is at the heart of Sciorra’s analysis of Vincenzo Ancona’s (1915-2000) art in relation to life history. A multifaceted immigrant artist, Ancona grappled with the trauma of displacement, animating vernacular poetry as a venue for self-transformation. «Self-authoring» here entails engagement with history, memory, transnational connections, the experience of the present, and the prospects of the future, encapsulating a host of attachments, and registering art as a site of critique as well as a place for the self to inhabit cultural betweenness.

In its attention to expressive diversity, Italian Folk documents the pervasiveness of the vernacular in ethnic lives without losing sight of power relations, opening up rich prospects for research. Folk ideologies not only anchor lives but also sustain regional, class-based, and inter-racial hierarchies. Ethnic foodways, for instance, may be celebrated at the expense of alternative culinary traditions. The question of pedagogy, appreciating expressive culture while simultaneously critiquing its ideological potential to harm Others, presents the challenge of translating this dynamic to an «ethnic» audience that increasingly understands the vernacular via the apotheosis of heritage as a positively valued resource. A new scholarly territory takes shape in exploring the interface between the vernacular and wider social discourses. How and in what ways, for example, the receding immigrant knowledge about horticulture could be animated in relation to contemporary environmentalism? How to appreciate the aesthetics of the vernacular without asserting cross-cultural hierarchies? These trajectories inevitably guide questions about the ways in which the personal, the familial, the ethnic, and the transnational intersect with wider discourses beyond the «ethnic community». Engaging with this task, Italian Folk positions Italian-American folklore as an interdisciplinary endeavor that charts the vernacular as a usable past not merely in the service of ethnicity but also social movements committed to environmental causes, anti-racism, and the empowerment of historically stigmatized identities.

Yiorgos Anagnostou (The Ohio State University)

Altreitalie 44, 2012


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