NWSA Journal 15.1 (2003) 165-168
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Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers by Mary Jo Bona. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999, 244 pp., $39.95 hardcover.
Revisionary Identities: Strategies of Empowerment in the Writing of Italian/American Women by Mary Ann Vigilante Mannino. New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2000, 201 pp., $53.95 hardcover.
As recently as 19 September 2001 representatives of the American Italian Defense Association were in a Chicago courtroom attempting to win a lawsuit that they had filed against the producers of the television program The Sopranos and Home Box Office (HBO) for allegedly violating a dignity clause of the Illinois constitution. The violation at hand was the portrayal of Italian Americans in a stereotypical fashion: men as mobsters, women as their scheming Mafia wives and mistresses. The case was summarily dismissed and many civil libertarians recorded their approval at the upholding of First Amendment rights to free expression. Setting aside the arguments for and against the validity of the litigation, what the lawsuit clearly points to is the disparity between the national popularity of the program and the profound concern it has caused for many Italian Americans—including feminist academics—who have been looking for an antidote to the barrage of gendered cultural stereotypes that flourish in commercial advertising, television, and films. Here the older Italian American mama mia can be found endlessly stirring pasta and sauce in a print ad while the younger, dumber ingénue named Tina or Gina or Angie twirls her big hair with no other thought than her nails and the desirable cinematic male achieves his erotic heroism as one of the good fellas. In the two books under consideration here, I urge you to look no further for much needed literary relief and to a fuller expansion of what it means, particularly, to be Italian-descended and female in U.S. culture.
Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers, by Mary Jo Bona, and Revisionary Identities: Strategies of Empowerment in the Writing of Italian/American Women, by Mary Ann Vigilante Mannino, are the first two published, book-length critical studies devoted solely to the analyses of literature by Italian American women writers. In five eloquently written chapters, Bona traces the last 50 years of Italian American women's fiction from Mari Tomasi's Like Lesser Gods (1940) and Dorothy Bryant's Miss Giardino (1978), to current literary trends such as the work of Renee Manfredi's Where Love Leaves Us (1994) and the lesbian writers Dodici Azpadu's Saturday Night in the Time of Life (1983) and Rachel Guido deVrie's Tender Warriors (1986). Throughout her work, Bona reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of the past century's Italian American female [End Page 165] cultural milieu while including additional complex interwoven sociological factors that coincide with gendered ones—including Northern and Southern Italian immigration patterns, cross-generational conflict, class betrayal, religious dictates, and sexual difference. Bona underscores the rich complexity offered in these various writers' post-immigration narratives and their representations of women's lives in major Italian American enclaves in neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Vermont, San Francisco, and New York.
One of the strengths of Bona's study is her rigorous employment of interdisciplinary scholarship where she incorporates ethnography, history, popular culture, ethnic studies, gay and lesbian studies, Italian, and Italian American cultural studies. As a result, this book should appeal not just to those interested in literary theory but to a much wider readership aligned with historical and ethnic studies approaches. Perhaps Bona's most profound feminist contribution is in her unfolding of the sometimes startling ways in which gender has operated for women in Italian American society and how that difference has led to an entire, expanding body of literature—one which has been up to now, as Bona argues throughout, too often ignored.
For example, Bona asserts that narratives by Italian American women writers stand distinctly apart from the driving literary apparatus of the great Anglo journey novels of authors like Charlotte Brontë...