Maria Laurino is the author of the new book The Italian Americans: A History, a companion to the PBS series that will air in February. She also has written Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America and Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom. She teaches creative nonfiction at New York University, and she lives in New York City.
Q: How did you end up writing The Italian Americans, and will the upcoming PBS show present much of the same information?
A: The two-part, four hour PBS documentary, which will air February 17 and 24, was in the works for many years. I was tangentially involved with the project, occasionally having coffee with several of the producers to discuss topics they planned to include.
I was also interviewed for the documentary and its writer, producer, and director John Maggio came to that interview. John had read my memoir about Italian-American identity, Were You Always an Italian?, and asked me at the end of the interview if I would be interested in writing the companion book to the series.
John provided me with the scaffolding for this book – the chapters (except for one that I added on the Italian-American counterculture) correspond to segments in the documentary. I explored the documentary’s material more deeply. Even PBS’s generous four-hour time frame was not enough for the extensive exploration of a subject matter that a book can provide.
Q: You write, “Myths about Italian-American culture run deep into the fabric of American life, obscuring the complicated, nuanced, centuries-long story of the Italian-American experience that demands to be told.” What are the most prevalent myths, and what do you hope readers learn from the book?
A: I believe there are several prevalent myths. First and foremost is the association of Italian Americans with the mafia, which films like The Godfather cemented into the American imagination.
Accompanying this Hollywood depiction of the mafia don is the Italian-American dimwit, the not-too-bright but sympathetic character, such as Tony Manero, played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Shows like Mob Wives and Jersey Shore have more recently reinforced both of these depictions.
There is also an inclination among some hyphenated Americans to romanticize the immigrant journey, creating a kind of hazy nostalgia that fails to honestly explore the immigrant experience in America.
I hope that my book will help to dispel some of these myths while giving readers insight into an immigrant history that is not well known. I had written two books on Italian-American culture before writing this one and still I learned many things about my ethnic group’s history researching this book.
Q: How much of the experience of Italian immigrants to the United States is particular to them, and how much do you think is more universal and applicable to other immigrant groups?
A: I think many aspects of the Italian-American experience are universal. Historically, America’s predominant groups have accepted its newest immigrants warily.
In the late 19th century, when a police chief in New Orleans was killed, Italian Americans were accused of the murder. Although a jury exonerated them, citizens were so furious with the jury’s decision that thousands marched through town, broke into the jail, and lynched 11 Italian Americans.
The Italians of New Orleans were cast together under a net of criminality. They were among the first victims of a troubling and persistent American tendency to target entire immigrant communities for the crimes of the few.
The hatred against southern Italians by the academic establishment and Anglo Saxon elite at the beginning of the 20th century was also truly shocking, and I think that many other immigrants can relate to this kind of prejudice aimed at a single group.
Mid-century, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared 600,000 unnaturalized Italian Americans enemy aliens the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was linking grandmothers who didn’t speak English, and therefore couldn’t take the citizenship test, with disloyal Americans.
I recently gave a lecture about my book and I was extremely gratified when a man from Taiwan who emigrated to America and Sephardic Jews living in Britain came up to me afterwards to say how much they saw of themselves in the material I presented.
Q: The book includes interviews and profiles of various Italian Americans. How did you pick the people to include?
A: All of the contemporary people included in the book – figures such as John Turturro, David Chase, Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts), Nancy Pelosi – were interviewed for the documentary. There were so many interesting stories in the transcripts that didn’t make it into the documentary. I decided to use some of this material for the book.
I additionally chose historical figures to profile. Most of them came up in my research and I wanted to learn more about them. For example, when I wrote about Fascism, I became intrigued with Arturo Toscanini and his brave anti-Fascist stance.
When I wrote about the mafia in the 1960s, I wanted to find community leaders who took these guys on and came across Chicago community activist Florence Scala, who also challenged Mayor Richard J. Daley’s plan to demolish the city’s Little Italy section to build a campus of the University of Illinois.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I haven’t started a new book yet. I’m going back to some writing I was working on before beginning this book to see if I will develop it further.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just one more thought about the importance of Americans knowing their ancestral history. Child of the Seventies that I am, I like to think of this book and documentary project as, “Our Histories, Ourselves.”
I believe that to better understand who we are and why we act in certain ways, we need to know the history of our ancestors, what they faced in America, and how, generations later, their experiences may have impacted our own.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb