- Return Narratives: Ethnic Space in Late-Twentieth-Century Greek American and Italian American Literature by Theodora D. Patrona
Theodora D. Patrona’s study elaborates a reflection on the literature of Greek Americans and Italian Americans in a parallel perspective, emphasizing common elements. Exploring these groups comparatively makes sense because of their geographic and cultural proximity, humorously summarized by the adage una faccia una razza (one face, one race), which, as Patrona herself points out, is “used both by Italians and Greeks” (xxiii). As suggested by the title of this work, the overall emphasis is on the notions of either literal or metaphorical returns to the ethnic space represented by the old country.
Patrona’s study follows three pairs of Greek and Italian texts in as many chapters, each related to a specific theme. The first two authors are two highly significant within the early development of their respective groups’ women writers, Daphne Athas and Helen Barolini. Both Athas’s Cora (1978) and Barolini’s Umbertina ( 1999) focus, as implied already by their titles, on key female characters who allow the forging of a connection with Greece and Italy, respectively. In her discussion of Athas’s novel, Patrona introduces the interesting concept of chora, which comes from Plato’s dialogue Timaeus and can be identified as a “primal space” (21). The chora is associated with Plato’s concept of being and becoming and provides a “seat for all that has birth” (Plato 2016, 42). This notion will be reutilized throughout Patrona’s work, reinforcing the overall theme of a supposed return to the ancestral homeland. Moreover, while somewhat ironically Athas’s titular Cora is actually an Anglo-American widow spending time in Greece, the discussion of this character unavoidably brings up the figure of Persephone (sometimes also called Kora in mythology). As will become more apparent later in Return Narratives, the goddess of the underworld, whose myth is closely associated with states of transition and cycles, can be used as a powerful symbol of the immigrant condition, especially for women.
While in Cora the ethnic character enacting a return narrative to Greece is male, Umbertina elaborates a more traditional multigenerational family saga, focusing on the women of the Calabrian American Longobardi family. Nevertheless, also in this context Patrona highlights the notion of transformational chora in relation to Barolini’s novel, pointing to the emblematic role played by the family village of Castagna and by the symbolism of the rosemary plant, which fourth-generation Tina transports to her in-laws’ Cape Cod home, thus “graft[ing] ethnicity to the ‘heart’ of WASPness” (54). [End Page 202]
The use of the figure of Persephone becomes more prominent in the next section of the book, dealing with two more recent examples of women’s writing: The Priest Fainted by Catherine Temma Davidson (1998) and No Pictures on My Grave by Susan Caperna Lloyd (1992). Both these texts refer to Greek mythology (whose legacy is, of course, strongly present also in Sicily, where Lloyd’s memoir takes place) and in particular to Demeter and Persephone. It is significant to observe here that Persephone has great importance in a variety of texts by Italian American women, including the African Italian American Kym Ragusa’s memoir The Skin between Us: A Memoir of Race, Beauty, and Belonging (2006), where paradoxically it is the protagonist’s black grandmother who introduces her to the myth as a way to get in touch with the Sicilian culture of her absentee father.
Adopting an innovative approach, Patrona places two male authors at the end of her study rather than presenting women’s writing as a kind of reaction to better-established male literary figures. The two novels discussed here are When the Tree Sings by Stratis Haviaras (1979) and In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu by Tony Ardizzone (1999). In this section, the emphasis is not only on the element of return but also on that of storytelling. Whereas Haviaras’s representation concentrates on the disruptive experiences...