Michelle Reale Interviews Joanna Clapps Herman for the Spotlight!
I’ve admired your work for such a long time, not only because of the exquisite writing, but also because of your Italian-American themes. Your work resonates in such a strong way. Tell me about your preoccupation with your culture and the delights and drawbacks inherent.
Thank you Michelle for your generous response to my work. You are exactly the reader any writer longs for. I originally had hoped to be a fiction writer, writing about things, which resonated with my life but weren’t directly based on my life. However when I became involved with our large complex, rich Italian and Italian American community and began to write for conferences and publications that were based in the Italian American community, I found something that I hadn’t really found before. It’s a voice that really could only come from me. I found that even my closest friends, who had been reading what I wrote for a long time, were not only fascinated with what I was writing then, but also found it richer and more interesting that the other work I’d done. It surprised them and me that it wasn’t the me that they knew as a fellow New Yorker. Those two things combined, finding an intellectual and artistic community of Italians and Italian Americans and my non-Italian American friends responding so strongly to that new work made me reevaluate my work. I wrote more and more along those themes. I found that I had so much to say. It’s such rich material to write about. I still feel, even after almost completing the current manuscript I’m writing for a forthcoming book called How To Build an Italian, (Suny Press, 2018) That I think there’s still a lot I want to write. I think this is a three volume work about the Italian American world from which I come. Perhaps some day I’ll reorder the three volumes into a sequence of themes, which come up in each book but aren’t necessarily together yet.
You write across genres. How do you decide how you will render a topic? Which do you prefer?
Each piece tells me what it should be, what themes, what genre, how long it wants to me. Originally I thought I’d write fiction, as I have been obsessed with fiction since I was a small child. I was mesmerized by the books I got out of the storefront library I went to many times a week. Who wrote those books? Who were those amazing people who created those books? It never occurred to me that I would actually try to be one of those people. I have written a book of fiction called, No Longer and Not Yet, that I’m so pleased to have out in the world. I worked so hard on that collection. In a way I learned to write when I first worked on that collection. There are stories in there that I’m extremely proud of. I have one idea for a novel that I may try to work on at some point. It keeps wandering through my brain and that says a great deal about how my work matures. I love to work on poetry at times and once in a very great while I feel I write something that can actually be called a poem. But more often I use it to work on language, image, idea and or just because it helps me with my writing in general. But ultimately I think that the non-fiction essay is more my genre. It suits me and I still have so much to say
“Quando Sono Italiana” is such a hard-hitting piece, because at least for me, it highlights a sort of dilemma that Richard Gambino highlighted in Blood of My Blood and that is that Italian-Americans have a foot in two cultures, while often never really feeling as though they wholly belong to either. You have spoken previously of the difficulty in asserting one’s individuality in an Italian-American family, because who we are is expected to always be in the service of family. In “Quando Sono Italiana“, you reveal at one point that you think you are trying to hard—perhaps trying to force an identity. Would you say this exemplifies Gambino’s observation?
I love the Gambino’s book as well as Leonard Covello’s book The Social Historical Background of Italo-American, which is very much Blood of my Blood’s predecessor. Both of these books really helped me understand the internal conflicts so many of us feel. Once my father had just had a heart attack while I was a terrified graduate student at City College. I had visited my father of course after the heart attack, but I wanted to stay in New York for Easter to finish a paper. I was reading Covello at the time at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street (he was related to my grandmother, Beatrice Coviello), just after a phone call with my mother where we had discussed this. My mother couldn’t understand how I could not come home for Easter. I thought as I was reading Covello, but he’s our cousin and he explains why I need to put education before family at leasat sometimes. However, as you might guess, with all of this roiling in me I went home for Easter.
There are so many layers to my Italian identity and I love feeling deeply connected to my culture here in America, in southern Italy, in Italy in general. But I know that at times I get ridiculous about this. I am an American after all. So I was very pleased that I was finally able to capture the nuances of that complex identity. My new book is very much about they ways in which I’m rooted in a rich Mediterranean world (even though I grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut) the ways in which I’ve left it and tried to become an American and all of the subtleties’ therein.
Has your sense of being Italian-American increased over time?
I’d say that over time by becoming a more deeply well read and educated person, through grad school, through reading more and more Italian literature, through reading Italian American literature, through attending conferences, readings, other cultural events, through a serious concentration on trying to study and understand the culture from which we come, through dialogue with my Italian and Italian American friends, through so many trips to Italy and the Mediterranean and through therapy with a fine therapist I have come to have a much richer understanding of this world, what it means, what are its riches, its blessings and what are its limitations. I love my world and I applaud it and I know which parts of I have to hold close and which I hold at arms length.
What do you look for in Italian-American writing and who are your favorite writers?
There are literally too many people to name. I could literally look up a list of current Italian American writers and include all of them. I only look for good writing and solid ideas. I adore Edvige Giunta’s work. She’s working on a book right now, which I believe will be one of her masterworks. I’ve learned so much from her, in conversation and in her writing. In some ways she created the Italian American world I consider my female intellectual home now. Maria Laurino’s work moves me deeply. I’ve learned so much from Joseph Sciorra and Nancy Carnevale. Annie Lanzilotto’s writing lifts us off the pages often. There’s Maria Terrone and Maria Lisella’s poetry. Peter Covino is a one the shining lights in our community. George Guida’s poetry and fiction are so near to me and my heart. There’s Gil Fagiani’s work. George DeStefano is a great writer. He wrote a review in a recent issue of your magazine and even when he writes something like a book review I learn a great deal from him.
You’ve listed some powerhouse writer’s there! I happen to be a HUGE fan of all of them, actually!
I hope someday we can have some kind of a connection to the current Italian writing scene. In many ways we are simply a colonial culture and we need to have our writing connect to the motherland.
Your memoir The Anarchist Bastard is quite a triumph. A delicious look into an Italian immigrant family living on the family farm in Connecticut. Most people think of Italian-Americans in the cities—but you lived not only on a fully functioning farm, but with extended family! How did this experience shape you as a writer and how did your family feel about your aspirations?
I didn’t grow up on the farm per se, but very near it. We all lived in a circle around the pivot point of my grandparents’ farm. Only my Uncle Rocco’s family lived on the farm. But the farm was the center point of our world. It was a great life –filled with ancient ways and a rich life. Even though there was violence in parts of our family and of course lots of arguing and all of that, which I address in The Anarchist Bastard, it was also a coherent very European way of life. I had so many cousins to play with all the time. I always felt safe because the world we lived in was whole and held together—so different from modern fragmented secular life. It wasn’t until I was 50 years old that I was able to free myself of the taboo against writing about my family. Of course they turned out to be one of my greatest subjects ironically. Simply putting myself at the center of my own life was so hard to do being an Italian American woman of my generation. We were raised to be wives and mothers. A woman is supposed to live for her family, put them first all the time. You can’t write is that’s how you feel. It took decades of therapy to free me from that prohibition. I was terrified that I’d be ostracized by my family when I published that book because I refused to leave the difficult parts out of it. But they really accepted the book, except for one cousin. Everyone else embraced me even if it took time. The title was difficult for them and now I wished I hadn’t used it. I was already pushing the boundaries—I didn’t have to use the most difficult title of all. I love the title of course, literarily speaking but there were other good titles to be used too.
How important is writing about the Italian-American experience to you and how would you situation Italian-American writing on the writing scene today?
I’m so grateful that I have a real intellectual and artistic Italian American world to live in. More and more great writing is being done in our community. So much that it’s hard to keep up with. And people like you are keeping the flame but sustaining the very difficult work of creating and keeping Italian American magazines going. I think we haven’t broken out into the mainstream really yet. But we’re building a foundation that I hope one day will open our horizons. I’m so grateful to places like SUNY Press and Fordham University both of whom have Italian American lists in addition to places like Bordighera. There are other presses to which have Italian American lists too.
What are you working on now?
I have one more essay to write for the book I’m working on now that’s called How to Build an Italian. It’s a collection of non-fiction narrative. I’ve been working on an essay for the last month or so about my best friend who was murdered when we were both only 26 years old. It’s been so painful to write, so filled with reawakened mourning for her and for what was lost when she died. The last essay I have to write to complete this book is about another tragedy. When I was in college and an au pair for a family one of the small children died in a bizarre car accident. It’s hard to have to write both of these essays at the end of this year and a half, but I feel they are both essential to this collection. I really like this book. It has some pieces in the book which are accounts by my family on various topics, how to make capicola, how to make various kinds of cheese and sausage. So it’s not all in my voice. It includes a great piece of fiction written by an Italian relative that really captures the town my maternal grandparents. I think the essays by me are well written but I love the communal nature of this collection. While my own essays are the bulk of the book I think it makes for a very fresh approach.
Do you write every day?
When I’m working on an ongoing project I work for anywhere from two hours to twelve hours. It depends on where I am in the process. Sometimes it takes me over and I’ll write and put the computer down, write and put it down all day long, my mind is really not thinking about anything else. If I’m having trouble breaking into a new piece I force myself work for five to ten minutes every day until it “takes”. It always does. If I don’t know how to begin or if I’m uncertain about what I’m trying to do, I’ve learned that anyone can do anything for ten minutes. And then I’m freed for the rest of the day. It works every single time. After only a few days the uncertain is gone and only writing problems are in front of me. I’ve learned what the stages of the process are for me. They are all so clear to me, so I know how to get around my own roadblocks. That use to terrify me and stop me. But now I know it’s just a matter of staying with the work. It always opens up when my fingers are on the keyboard.
I taught creative writing for decades, so I know every trick in the book to get myself about problems. I use all of them. I love when a piece has enough stuff going for it that it’s just pulling me toward it all the time. But sometimes I’ll take time off just to do nothing for a few days. I’ve been working on this book for a year and a half. And at one point this fall I just felt so tired or pushing pushing, pushing that I took off thinking I wouldn’t write for a couple of weeks, but in a couple of days I was back. But it was important to have given myself the leeway to stop. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come back so quickly.
This year over thanksgiving weekend I stopped because writing for about five days about the death of my friend, Elizabeth, made me so blue I thought I was going to go under. On the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend I had a large note to myself taped to my kitchen cabinets, ELIZABETH, WRITE! I knew I had to settle back in in a very disciplined way and I did. It makes me very happy that I taught myself how to be a disciplined writer who doesn’t have to wait for inspiration to write, but to settle down like as the work-woman that I am. I come from farmers and artisans and I feel I learned how to work from them. I love writing and it gives me great pleasure that it’s in my control. I don’t write when I travel or if something important is going on like my son’s wedding this fall.
What would you like Ovunque Siamo readers to know about you, above all else?
I think our culture with all of its ancient roots and its modern sensibility is a gift to us as well as a trial with all of its traditional confinements. Being a southern Italian American woman, family is central to me. I love babies, children, food, wine, gardens, eating under grape arbors even if that’s mostly a dream now. I know it’s a cliché but it’s true for me. But without having learned to take myself and my writing seriously I’d be a very much diminished version of myself. It makes a center that is more alive and makes me a much better, mother, mother-in-law, stepmother, sister, aunt, cousin, colleague and friend. The St. Thomas saying that purports to be Jesus speaking is so real to me:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
I think there’s so much wisdom in that saying. I love my life, all of it, where I come from and where I am now. I’d say that’s my central piece of advice to anyone: Find what is within you and make sure you give it all the room it needs.
Good advice, for sure. Joanna, thanks so much for answering these questions. Thrilled to have you in the “Spotlight!”
Thank you for these wonderful questions Michelle. They made me think about things I enjoy thinking about. I’m so grateful to you for starting this magazine.
You can read more about Joanna Clapps Herman’s life here!