So far, I have edited nearly thirty issues of Creative Nonfiction, a half dozen of which have been turned into books like this one, along with another three collections published exclusively as books. Some of these projects—books and issues—have come together smoothly and sweetly, without a hitch, while others exploded in a rush of inspiration or a confused clamor to make a deadline. This collection has been simultaneously sweet and explosive and, perhaps because of that, irrepressibly inspiring.
It began in 2001 at dinner at the writer Gay Talese’s house in Ocean City, New Jersey. At least a dozen people, mostly from the Italian American community, were sitting around Gay’s long rectangular table on his screened-in side porch. The Italian consul had come up from Washington, and a surgeon who was president of a prominent international Italian American organization was in attendance, along with the dean of a large college. The details have faded, but the intensity of the dialogue that night, capturing and confronting Italian heritage and identity, was unforgettable—a palpable force that I had never experienced in my own home.
I grew up in a Jewish family, and although we Jews had a religion and a culture in common, I had always felt that we were all freelancers—religious and cultural independents. The glue that might have kept us together—the connection I sensed among these Italians sitting at the Talese table, revolving around roots and heritage—was missing for us. We were Jews, for sure—we felt the bond—but it was never a subject to dwell upon or trumpet. Most American Jews from my parents’ generation did not consider Israel a homeland in the way that Italians do Italy. Israel was more a beacon of belonging—a place to visit, to plant trees, to give money, and to flee to if, God forbid, the dreaded persecution returned. But here, with all of this Italian pride and angst surging like testosterone, I was intrigued and a bit jealous.
The following year I was asked to speak at a conference entitled “Italian Roots/American Soil.” I talked about the evolution of the creative nonfiction movement and how the memoir explosion has invigorated the literary landscape and encouraged nonwriters to look back and preserve what they remember of their past for future generations. After my talk, I took some questions—and again I was flummoxed by the amount of energy and emotion exerted in relation to the Italian American experience. There were many eloquent statements filled with anger, resentment, and love toward the homeland and its magnetism. I decided then that I would one day devote an issue of Creative Nonfiction to this Italian American spirit and experience, featuring writers who dramatically articulate the complicated, powerful, and often unresolved feelings of being American and Italian simultaneously, if such a combination is even possible.
But first, I need financing for this project. In order to do a special issue, we often raise money for marketing to solicit original manuscripts and to offer a cash award for the best original essay submitted to us for publication. In this case, Louise DeSalvo’s essay, “’Mbriago,” was eventually selected from approximately 300 submissions as the winner of the $1000 Laura Pier Prize in Creative Nonfiction, given anonymously in the name of a Neapolitan Jewish woman whose love of the Italian language led her to a life as a scholar of Italian language and literature.
But long before this issue was a certainty and the prize was a reality, I had directed one of the graduate student interns in our office to e-mail people who had submitted manuscripts to us but were not subscribers, to ask if they would like to take advantage of our special rates to subscribe. If they think we’re good enough to publish their work, perhaps we’re good enough to read and put by their bedsides, I reasoned. During this process, this intern, whose married name is Italian, received a return e-mail asking, from one Italian woman to another, why Creative Nonfiction didn’t publish more essays by Italian women writers. The intern asked me how to respond, and I told her to say nationality had little to do with why we accept or reject essays, but that I had, in fact, a special Italian American issue in mind, and we needed funding to get it going.
Eventually the answer came back from Joanna Clapps Herman, a writer of fiction and nonfiction and a professor of creative writing at The Center for Worker Education at City College of New York and at the Graduate Writing Program at Manhattanville College, who suggested that she might be able to help. I met Joanna in New York a few months later, and we forged a friendship that began with a lavish dinner at her spacious Riverside Drive apartment with a cast of at least half a dozen Italian American writers, almost exclusively women, who wanted to hear about my idea for a special issue and tell me about the essays they intended to write for it. Four hours of inspired and revealing conversation and what seemed like dozens of courses of food and unlimited bottles of wine later, we had all forged a bond. Essays by three of the writers I met that night, including Joanna, who is the coeditor of this collection, Edvidge Giunta, and Annie Rachele Lanzillotto, are in this book. Joanna eventually reached out to an anonymous donor, an Italian American woman, to help fund the original essay prize and the marketing that went with it.
All of this took place a couple of years ago, as I said; anthologies can be slow in coming together. And we at Creative Nonfiction, like many other literary journals, seem to suffer from a slowness syndrome ourselves—until our anonymous donor, represented by my impatient coeditor, Joanna, began to scream and yell. Facing the wrath of an angry Italian New Yorker, we got moving—fast. Joanna was and is a rarity—a force of energy and commitment. Although we advertised and solicited manuscripts in many venues for more than a year, Joanna’s personal connections brought the bulk of the best pieces in this book, including her own, “Words and Rags.”
I make a point now to say I have never been involved in an issue or an anthology in which the entire ensemble—writers, editors, and benefactors—invested so much emotion and energy in nearly every phase of the project, from the selection of the essays down to the barest and most minute details of copyediting. I even had the husband of one of the writers we initially rejected telephone me at home one evening to beseech me to change my mind and accept his wife’s essay, for she was distraught; she needed to be part of this select group of Italian American voices. There was no alternative; I acquiesced. The writer revised her work repeatedly and is now included in the collection.
Many of the editorial suggestions made by my staff at Creative Nonfiction and the editors at Other Press, which is co-publisher of this collection, were rejected outright by some of our contributors—with shock, resentment, and threats of withdrawal, as if we were all clueless as to how to edit. (We did not, a few of the writers said, have a sense of history.) One thing I know: for good or bad, the writers in this book believe in themselves and their words and ideas, down to the barest minutiae of punctuation. Under other circumstances, I might have wielded my limited editorial power and insisted, as I have done in the past, once or twice, that it has to be my way or no way. The editors at Other Press could actually have acted similarly.
But faced with the writers; fierce passion for their ideas and commitment to their prose, it is accurate to say that we—editors at Creative Nonfiction and Other Press—acceded almost every time. And, in fact, we have been delighted to do so. I have been writing, editing, and teaching writers, young and old, for many years, and if there is one thing missing in much of the nonfiction work I read today from students and highly experienced professionals alike, it is what the writers in this book vividly and universally exhibit: the passion of conviction—the cacophony of emotion with which I was first enamored at Gay Talese’s dinner.
For a long time—more than a year—the working title of this collection was to be Old Ways in a New Land. No one, Joanna especially, was completely satisfied with that title, but I always assumed that something better would come along when least expected. But as time passed and the deadline to go into production crept closer, we couldn’t collectively find the appropriate words to capture the deep and magical essence of the Italian American experience as reflected in the essays we were about to publish, until the Tony- and Emmy-award winning actor Joe Mantegna provided the answer.
A friend, the writer Paul Paolicelli, had participated in a panel about Italian American Literature moderated by Mantegna, and I asked Paul to connect me with the actor so I could ask him to read our anthology and perhaps write a foreword to the book. Obviously, Joe agreed. I knew him as a great actor whose extensive career has spanned television, theater, and film roles, but I didn’t quite understand, until I received his foreword, what a brilliant and incisive writer he is.
Joe Mantegna perfectly captures the mood and the deep power of reflection, observation, and confession inherent in this collection. I knew this the moment I began reading his contribution. Each sentence struck home with raw warmth. But when I read that special phrase, buried in the middle of the text, I understood that Mantegna belonged in this book and that he had expressed with clarity and empathy the very essence of all the words published in these pages: Our Roots Are Deep with Passion.
Joe Mantegna nailed it in a powerful and definitive phrase. There is nothing more to add, except my appreciation to Joanna Clapps Herman, to all of the writers in this beautiful and passionate collection, to Other Press for seeing the strength in this work, and to Mantegna himself, who recognized the living tissue of passion that ignited all of our voices.