ACCENTRICITY: WRITING WITH AN ACCENT IN THE AGE OF THE NEW ITALIAN DIASPORA
I have been there before. I was there with the ironworkers, having lunch on the top of the Rockefeller Center. I was there, when I immersed myself in Hopper’s vivid portraits of American life. I was there with the Jets and the Sharks, yelling at the failure of the American Dream. I was there with my imagination long before I made the decision to move. That is what W.G. Sebald calls “the period of my imaginary Americanization” (70). I had never projected myself into that reality, never gone that far… Until I did it.
I moved from Perugia, a medieval town in Italy, to Kingston, Rhode Island in the fall of 2015, with the goal to purse a Ph.D. in English. The moment I landed in Providence, I became a new subject, a newborn creature in a world that didn’t resemble me. I was an immigrant, carrying one suitcase and a folder full of papers to prove my right to study in America. My identity only seemed to make sense in the place it had been constructed. Now that I was in the United States, I had to reshape my own life.
I started experiencing a sense of dislocation, isolation, grief for Italy. I felt like an orphan. I did not miss anything, but I missed being there. I missed la famiglia. By moving to the United States, I lost all the things that were reminding me who I am. My memory. Was it fading? There was no way for me to maintain the first language, preserve my cultural identity, and at the same time integrate into a new culture. And all the things I thought I knew, they suddenly had lost their meaning. I had to translate them—literally and figuratively—into my second language. Can I still be Italian when I am trying to purse a Ph.D. in English? Can I still speak Italian when people around me are expecting me to master my English? Can I fit in? Do I fit in? How much will I lose of my history, my story, and my identity, if I just detach myself from the old world and the old language? My Italian friends call me, “Americana.” In the English department, here at the university, I am “Francesca, the Italian student.” Who am I in this new, estranged life?
In Italy, I was a writer. With three published novels, I was confident about my writing skills. In the United States, every word was flawed. Even my voice sounded different. I was afraid to speak. I was in the limbo of bilingual writers: you know two languages, and they both fail you when you need to express your complex thoughts. I had to renegotiate my role as an Italian writer in the English-speaking world. I had to learn to write, speak, and think again. I had to familiarize myself with the new person I was becoming.
It’s been four years since I moved to the United States, and I am still questioning my identity as an Italian student in American Studies, as an ESL writer, as an instructor, and as foreigner, a non-resident alien in the #MAGA land. Did I become an Italian American? How did I change? Maybe I am just deceiving myself, denying that my identity as an Italian, as a woman, and as a writer who feels sometimes like losing control over her native language, has not and is not being reshaped and changed by the American experience. I am American, wearing snow boots, bringing my mug everywhere. I am American when I order a donut and a large hot coffee with cream, knowing exactly what I want. I am American, with my routine of milk and Cheerios in the morning, and a gallon of orange juice in the fridge. Did America americanize me?
Generally speaking, an Italian American is considered as an American with Italian descendants. That’s not who I am. The next question is: who is a twenty-first century Italian American? What am I, as a new subject who belongs to what scholars call, “the new Italian diaspora?” What about the hundreds of thousands of Italians moving away from Italy every year? Whatever “Italian American” meant and made sense until thirty years ago needs to be reconsidered today, and so I looked for a new definition of the Italian American identity.
In 2018, scholars Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra edited a fascinating collection of essays titled, New Italian Migrations to the United States in which they aim to reshape the definition of Italian Americana. In one of the essays, Teresa Fiore provides a historical overview of the new Italian diaspora. Labeled as a phenomenon until a few years ago, the new Italian diaspora is now the norm, with 150,000-200,000 Italians moving out of Italy every year. 450,000 Italians moved to North America in the past five years; a little less than 100,000 moved to North America last year, only (AIRE, 2018). In the past, an Italian moving to America was considered an immigrant. In 2018, Italians abroad do not necessarily perceive themselves as immigrants, nor they see themselves as emigrants. The notion of migration itself implies the idea of moving from one place to another for a long time. Migration is not temporary. Migration is a permanent concept, and I know, it sounds like a contradiction: migrating means moving, after all. Migrating also means leaving one place for another. Birds migrate when winter comes, and the landscape becomes inhospitable. Similarly, people migrate when the country of origin has nothing else to offer or the future seems uncertain. People who migrated once, migrate forever. Our first country of destination does not have to be the one where we will settle. Some of us will never settle. Some of us will be travelers, maybe explorers. Some others will just keep jumping from one place to another, happy to stay and ready to leave.
In their book, Ruberto and Sciorra provide a list of new terms for people like me: expats, Italians abroad, “cervelli in fuga,” Italians in America. Maybe Ruberto and Sciorra are right: as a diasporic individual in the XXI century globalized economy and society, I am an Italian American and I don’t know yet. Maybe I am resisting this idea. The definition of Italian Americans in twenty-first century America is all but fixed. It is subjected to change. We navigate the liquid society: our identity is complex and fluid, and it adjusts to the rules of a globalized world.
My current status is that of a “non-resident alien:” I am disconnected from the country of origin and estranged from the country of destination. I am not an immigrant, and I struggle to define myself, an emigrant. I obviously emigrated; that is, I moved away from something. From my homeland, my hometown, my roots, my history. And still, I haven’t moved to any place I can call home. It takes a while to turn an emigrant into an immigrant, and I am still not sure where I belong. That is the problem with Italians abroad: we are in-between cultures. That is the problem with those of us who do not identify with the Italian American culture, those of us who do not see themselves as a part of the Italian American community. Some of us are just “abroad;” that is, somewhere in the world but away from home. Some others do not necessarily call themselves expatriate, a term whose implications are political and polemical. Ex–patria. We are not in exile, after all. We did not flee from corruption, poverty, or war. We are different from the immigrants of those black-and-white photographs which illustrate the history of the great migration of Italians in the early twentieth century. We did not move to America in search of the American dream. We did not stand on the prow of a ship, waiting for the Statue of Liberty to show up. We don’t even believe in the new colossus. We were not subjected to any dehumanizing treatment at Ellis Island. We did not carry any cardboard suitcase. Our whiteness has never been questioned.
We moved after we got an offer to work and study, an opportunity to improve our skills and contribute to the society. And yet, when I speak to someone for the first time, I spot their hesitance, like my Italian accent contradicts my appearance. A cashier at my local grocery store told me one day, “I recognize you by the accent.” And there it is. The Italian accent is my birthmark in my new and fluid American life. I know I speak, act, and write “with an accent” (Giunta 2002). My professor gifted me with Edvige Giunta’s book Writing with an Accent during our very first meeting, back in September 2015. I did not fully understand the book, nor the significance of the gift, until much later in my studies, much later in my American experience. I was invited to explore the Italian American literary tradition and look at the works of contemporary female writers. I was asked to read thoroughly and to read critically and empathically. Edvige Giunta’s Writing with an Accent has become my guide into the Italian American female narratives; most important, the book taught me that, in my experience as a writer across languages and cultures, I was not alone. I was not the only adult student moving from a small Italian town to America to complete my studies in English. I was not the only woman who was questioning her own identity, searching for her own voice in a culture that did not speak her language. I see myself in Edvige Giunta when she writes, “working in English departments […] has forced me never to forget my foreignness” (xiv). And because like Edvige Giunta I could not forget, I decided to forgive my foreignness and simply embrace it.
I am exploring the infinite variations of my accent, navigating the nuances of my accentricity. A 2019 podcast defines accentricity as the link “between language and identity” (Durkacz Ryan); but how flexible the English language is? It only takes an “a” to turn “eccentricity” into a new concept. Accentricity. I intend this term as the acceptance of you own ethnic diversity, in all its declinations and forms of expression. My accentricity defines the words I choose, it marks the grammar of my thoughts, it reshapes my language and understanding of the world. My accent is a note, a perspective, a point of view; it is my memory, the unconscious resistance to the mainstream, white American life. I inhabit the space between the words “Italian American.”
AIRE / Fondazione Migrantes. Rapporto Italiani nel mondo 2018. Perugia: Editrice TAU, 2018. Web. http://www.astrid-online.it/static/upload/sint/sintesi_rim2018.pdf
Durkacz Ryan, Sadie. Accentricity Podcast. 2019. Web. https://www.accentricity-podcast.com/
Giunta, Edvige. Writing with an Accent. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Fiore, Teresa. “Migration Italian Style. Charting the Contemporary U.S.-Bound Exodus (1990-2013) in Ruberto, Laura and Joseph Sciorra, edited by, New Italian Migrations to the United States. Vol. 2: Arts and Culture since 1945. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2018, 167-191.
Ruberto, Laura and Joseph Sciorra, edited by, New Italian Migrations to the United States. Vol. 2: Arts and Culture since 1945. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2018.
Sebald, W.G. The Emigrants. New Directions, 1997.
Francesca Borrione holds a Masters’ Degree in American Film History and a doctorate in Education at the University of Perugia, Italy. She moved to the United States in 2015 to pursue her second Ph.D. in English at the University of Rhode Island, where she is currently writing her dissertation titled, True Crime, Women, and Sensationalized Representations in the Italian American Imaginary. Francesca is the author of academic articles, three novels, and one novella.