Hoboken, January 2019
I met Louise DeSalvo at Hunter College in 1982. I was a returning woman student, swept from the Bronx into the vortex of feminist students, professors, scholars and activists that was Hunter, a full decade after my father quashed so much as the thought of college-after-high-school. Women’s Studies was new, not a department but a Program, and the women faculty were raucously creating a framework for and of inclusion. Feminist courses were still “cross-listed”. We “returning” students found one another, shared information and shaped our own educations. We were intergenerational and multicultural and we were at the pulse of identity politics as transformational sociopolitical energy.
I was in Audre Lorde’s poetry workshops (yes, Audre Lorde!) when the word went around, “Take Louise.” Her brilliant lectures drew us women to her. Hooked from the moment we heard her speak, her words changed our lives. We read Woolf, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Muriel Spark, Djuna Barnes, Alice Walker. Reading a text with Louise, even if you’d read it before was mind-blowing. We ate these texts; we devoured her words. Louise was much more than a spellbinding and devoted professor; she was advisor, friend, sister; she could not walk down a hallway or a staircase alone. She wrote us long notes in response to our every paper. Our own Queen Bee, she was always at the center of a buzzing group of women devotees: the real action took place outside of the classroom. She, the mother of sons, claimed us as daughters. We read and we wrote. We circled and were encircled. ‘They think this is working hard,” she joked, “carrying this briefcase.” We laughed and laughed, we who had always worked. She was known to knit through faculty meetings; Louise DeSalvo, our own working-class s/hero.
One of the first poems I wrote in Audre Lorde’s workshop, The Eye-talians are Alone, was about the end of the day in the Bronx pizza parlor in which I’d grown up. I had always been Italian. Bronx Italian. That was my identity, my core, my self.
I needed no more than the name – DeSalvo – to identify her as Italian American — a rare and marvelous connection. Even among our rockstar mentors – Audre Lorde, Johnnetta Cole, Blanche Wiesen Cook; speakers/visitors like Angela Davis, Jesse Jackson, Geraldine Ferraro, Bella Abzug, Toni Morrison, Belle Hooks, Fay Weldon, Bishop Desmond Tutu, discovering and having access to Louise DeSalvo was nothing short of a miracle, me from the Bronx, she from Hoboken (where I have lived since 1981 or so). We met before Between Women (1984) and The Dream Book (1985). She came to Hoboken and we walked the streets she had grown up on. So deep, so beautiful.
We were certainly among the first Italian American feminists to self-identify in early 1980s Hunter College in the center of New York City and to reach out to others of our kind, a community still growing and evolving and of which Louise DeSalvo will always be a mother goddess.
*This piece was written in conversation with Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy who has been a loyal best friend of mine since Hunter. “Get a gang,” Blanche (Wiesen Cook) says, and we did. We discovered and experienced Louise together and Kathleen brought her particular Irish feminist/political/literary knowing to the group. She and Louise went on to co-edit Territories of the Voice (1989) an anthology of contemporary Irish women’s writing. Kathleen and I have shared the details of our lives these many years and are grieving Louise and talking about our years at Hunter together.
Rosette Capotorto is a Bronx-born author living in Hoboken, New Jersey. She is the author of Bronx Italian.