Speaking of Representation…

I did an interview recently and one of the questions asked what my background is and whether it influences my writing.

My response explained that I come from an Italian immigrant family and that, yes, it does influence my writing. Children of immigrant parents often have to grow up quickly and take on certain responsibilities in order to help their non-English-speaking parents negotiate a foreign-speaking world and an alien culture. Growing up like that shapes who you are and, consequently, how you write and what you write about. And because of that, I occasionally incorporate characters of Italian descent in my work because it’s a community that isn’t often represented.

At least not in a positive way.

When I thought about it, I realized that the most well-known representation of Italian people is The Godfather. And, goddess help me, The Jersey Shore. Neither one of which is flattering.

In fact, if you look at any facetious representation of Italians, it’s always the tough-acting, undershirt-wearing, ill-spoken lout, and the big-haired, long-nailed, big-mouthed drama queen.

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Well, guess what? Not all Italian men are dumb, brutish Neanderthals, and not all Italian women require an entire can of AquaNet to keep their do popping. (We might all be big-mouths, though.) I will admit to once having big hair, but in my defense, it was the ’80s–everyone had big hair.

There was a time in U.S. history when Italians were considered some of worst dregs of society. They were denied jobs and housing and discriminated against in every way. Then, the image of the violent, slang-speaking mobster became the norm. For years, that was how you’d see Italians depicted in movies, on TV, and even in cartoons. Honestly, it hasn’t changed much.

I was livid when I first heard about The Jersey Shore. I saw the commercials and knew that this show was going to do nothing but perpetuate the bad stereotypes of Italians. But the creators of the show, and the station that aired it, just wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator and make money. And they did. And so did the people on the show. It irked the shit out of me that these people became millionaires just by being air-headed playboys and playgirls, running around getting drunk, turning orange, fucking around, and just acting stupid. What the hell did I go to college for? What did I work so hard all these years for? Those morons are set forlife, and I still struggle to pay my bills and have a little fun.img_0152

Sweet mother of earth, when I found out that  Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi “wrote” a novel that went to #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, a piece of me died inside.

It’s sad when people focus on the stereotypes or negative aspects of a particular group of people instead of the positive aspects. Yes, it’s true that Italians were a huge part of the mafia in the U.S., but it’s also true that Italians did amazing things. For example, it was an Italian who started Bank of America. That financial institution actually began life as the Bank of Italy, opened in 1904 by Pietro Giannini to help immigrants who were being denied financial assistance by established banks. Luca Pacioli and Fibonacci are responsible for introducing accounting techniques and mathematical codes. Antonio Meucci was the true inventor of the telephone. And let’s not forget that DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Dante, and Botticelli were all Italian.italian

Then there was Christopher Columbus…but we won’t talk about him.

Most importantly, Italians gave us fabulous food, exceptional wine, the best espresso, and Ferraris and Alpha Romeos. 

Yet, despite all that, the most famous Italians in pop culture are Vito Corleone and those numbnuts on Jersey Shore. So, whenever it works organically, I’ll include an Italian character in my writing. It isn’t all the time—it has to feel right and work well within the context of the story. But I’ve done it a few times, and they do not fall within the stereotypes. They’re always strong, intelligent, dignified, and ambitious women.

I’ve never watched one single episode of The Jersey Shore. I simply refuse. I know that shows like that appeal to many people (no offense if you’re one of them), but I can’t support it myself. I concede that stereotypes come from a grain of truth, but as long as stereotypes are continued to be blasted to the world, and even glorified, those stereotypes will never make way for reality. So, I feel that I can do my tiny little part by showing my people in a more realistic light. There are no stereotypes in my family (except that my mother cooks for an army and will not allow anyone to leave her house without food to go), and I hope to spread that word. fugged

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11 comments

  1. Hear! Hear! I grew up within the Italian culture and yes it is a wonderful culture of family and food! The first words out of my mother’s mouth every single time I came home or went to visit my parents after they retired in Florida was, “Are you hungry? Can I make you girls something to eat?” Food was equivalent to love! I, too, get ticked off at the representation of Italian Americans in the media. My grandfather was the most loving, gentle man ever to set foot on this planet and literally gave the shirt off his back when he went back to Italy and a poorer relative was admiring his shirt. I have had Italian characters in my books and touched briefly on that wonderful cutlture that I’ve known….but maybe it is time to do something like, “My Big Fat Italian, Gay Wedding!

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  2. Modern accounting- debits/credits- was developed in Italy. It’s a gorgeous country with incredible architecture and art. One of my goals in life it to drive the length of it.

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  3. My mother came from Italy and my father was German/Irish. When I was in college in the late 60’s, the guys in the dorm asked me if my family name was changed from Burkhartino to Burkhart. I learned/told all the bad Italian jokes to let them know that nothing they said hurt me. It was fun!

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  4. I was raised under the light of an Italian grandmother who immigrated here, through Ellis Island, with her family when she was only four years old. She was a wonder, that woman and oh what a cook. She married a man who immigrated from Poland (Polish jokes are the bane of my existence, even more so than whispered warnings about the Mafia). Grandma learned to combine the two cultures into a world of gastronomic delights that my dad’s whole side of the family still carries on to this day, years after her passing. My book, ‘Viva Mama Rossi!’ is a tribute to my Italian grandmother and the spin-off series it spawned features ‘Mama’ so prominently, I cry and laugh with my memories as I write it.

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  5. Planning to honeymoon in Italy (whenever the honeymoon actually happens). It’s a long-standing dream of mine and, fortunately, my fiance likes the idea too!

    Italians and art are intertwined in my mind. I’m not sure you can beat the sheer detail of Canaletto or the shock of Caravaggio. Stunning artists.

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  6. All my grandparents came over from Italy (Dad) and Sicily (mom), so I share your attitude for the Italian stereotypes. Sure I have a couple of relatives that fit the stereotypes, but really, don’t we all know somebody that fits SOME stereotype. Growing up I loved their stories and to this day, I can’t cook anything without feeling my nonna looking over my shoulder. I am drawn to books with Italian named characters. When I finally made it to Italy and Sicily a couple of years ago I wished I hadn’t waited until I was 60 to go. So much beauty in everything and the people were wonderful. Don’t get me started on the food. I look forward to many more trips AND reading about more of my people.

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