Helen Barolini discovered a void and set out to do something about it. The result of her decision to “circle the wagons” is the anthology The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women, published in 1985.

As a third-generation Italian American woman who has given little thought to Italian American women writers, discovering Barolini’s work has been illuminating, liberating, and comforting. This anthology has introduced me to Italian American women writers I knew nothing about and never even considered existed. Many of their stories resemble my personal cultural experiences, but these are everyone’s stories in their universal themes of human conflict and desires.

A Seed is Planted

“Who are they?” Barolini asked herself when invited to speak about Italian American women writers at a conference.  She could name a few, one being herself with her first novel, Umbertina, published in 1979, but that was not good enough. There were more and Barolini set out to round them up.

This was in the early 1980s, around 40 years ago.

As with most anthologies, The Dream Book consists of a compelling Introduction by Barolini, followed by the presentation of 56 Italian American women writers, spanning the genres of memoir, nonfiction, fiction, drama and poetry.

Yes, this is indeed a dream book, revealing and revelatory, as dreams often are.

“In a very true sense, the Italian American woman writer has to be a self-made person; lacking a literary tradition, she works in isolation without models and interpretive critics, struggling against inner doubts and outer odds to become an author, sustained only by the need and impetus of what she is doing”(36).

Barolini’s Introduction to the anthology is a valuable essay in its own right. I savor what she says, the points she makes that help many of us understand ourselves better. Yet, like a lengthy Italian meal, to work through this one will take some time! So, I begin with the Introduction to the Dream Book and will follow up with a couple of Italian American women authors next.

Why So Late to the Table?

Barolini explains why Italian American women writers have been slower to emerge, make their mark, and come together.

“Italian Americans cannot be conveniently generalized; they are differentiated by a multitude of variables, including class, education, political activism, religion, number of generations in this country, their Italian provenance, and the subsequent area of settlement in America.

“But, by and large, the women have a commonality.

“They are women who, with rare exceptions, have never before been authorized to be authors (of themselves, of the word) – not by their external world, nor again by their internal one”(4).

One of the largest immigrant groups in the early 1900s, first-generation Italians brought their values and traditions as much intact as possible. Many were illiterate and the women in particular had a strictly defined role that consisted of the home and family.

Barolini explains:

“The Italian woman comes from a patriarchal view of the world in which her life was always dependent upon a male – her father, brother, husband, and, eventually, if widowed, her sons. Family was the focal point of her duty and concern, and, by the same token, the source of her self-esteem and power, the means by which she measured her worth and was in turn measured, the reason for her being. Historically, the woman’s role as the center of family life was crucial because of the importance of family over any other Italian institution”(9).

Family was the focus and for the most part, women were the glue. Never fair, but perhaps viewed as means to survival, this system that kept women entrapped was also the sole place they could wield any control. We all long for a modicum of power and stepping out of this family-focused system invited ostracism, an often negating and dangerous scenario.

Cultural imprisonment and ensuing conflict are not unique to Italian Americans; they are to some degree and in some fashion, the experience of most immigrant populations.

Second-generation Italian American, Helen Frances (Mollica) Barolini, dubbed by some the “Madonna of Italian Americans,” was born in 1925 in Syracuse, New York. She was a novelist, essayist, poet and strong feminist who addressed what she considered a “double erasure, both as Italians and as women.” Barolini passed away earlier this year, age 97. (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/20/books/helen-barolini-dead.html)

Identity Crisis

While most first-generation Italians, those who came from the homeland, carried their deeply ingrained way of life with them, their children were forced to assimilate and somehow remain true to these traditions. This complicated transition has had an impact on generations of Italians, in particular on women.

“More than for men, the displacement from one culture to another has represented a real crisis of identity for the Italian woman, and she has left a heritage of conflict to her children. They, unwilling to give themselves completely to the old ways she transmitted, end up, in their assimilationist hurry, with shame and ambivalence in their behavior and values. And this pernicious heritage has been passed on; even third and fourth generations feel the remnants of it” (13).

Barolini points out that the plot thickens even more so for writers:

“For Italian American authors, betrayal was present on both sides – the artist felt guilt in longing for distance from the family, but also anger and resentment for the lack of understanding family gave her or him. If one were different, there was no supportiveness or family loyalty after all, only emotional blackmail”(17).

Often this feeling of disloyalty accompanied by emotional backlash is subtle, but the writer senses it and questions herself. Writing, often viewed as impractical and frivolous by those who rarely had the time and resources for such endeavors, requires a level of separation, time and space away from the family in its traditional sense. And, on top of that, to think that the writer might expose something, reveal a family secret! Oh mio!

Helen Barolini, with her husband Antonio and three daughters in the 1950s.

Describing her own experience, Barolini says:

“By an early age I, too, had a good start on what is a major motif in Italian American writing – the sense of being out of line with one’s surroundings, not of one’s family and not of the world beyond the family: an outsider”(17).

Caught between two worlds: not in step with the demands of the old ways, yet not fully recognized and accepted in this new societal structure causes turmoil, yet it can also propel one to create something original.

Barolini’s experience resembles that of other immigrant and marginalized populations in terms of not seeing herself in American history and literature: that recurrent, damaging void:

“My schooling had provided no text by authors with Italian names, no expectation that the people of my background had a rich literature. We were told, instead, of Italian illiteracy. But never that illiterate people have a culture and social system. Now there is another view on the subject.

“No mention of any Italian achievement in social or humanistic arts was ever provided to dispel the message we were getting of being somehow lesser than the Tom Sawyers and Becky Thatchers around us. This is, as we know, true for all other ethnic groups as well.

“It is a delicate question of balance. We internalized the English literary culture and were enriched by it, but were denied knowing that our own tradition had in fact, its own riches and glories”(21).

Honestly, I didn’t even notice the lack of Italian American figures presented in school, including in literature, as there was very little inclusion and diversity of authors at that time. But if I had read any stories or works by Italian American women in school, I would have been awed by their recounting stories similar to my own and would have benefited by their insight into many of the situations in the Italian American communities. I’ve no doubt it would have had a huge impact on me.

One example Barolini provides of this void is Nobel Prize winning author Grazia Deledda, who was

“not in the schoolbooks as I was growing up, but that is hardly surprising; what is, is that even with the new surge in interest in women writers and the resurrecting of old and forgotten authors, Deledda is all but a forgotten woman”(29).

BUT not forgotten by Nasty Women Writers! Theresa spotlighted Grazia Deledda in this post from 2021: The Second Woman Writer to Win a Nobel Prize in Literature Was from Sardinia.

What’s in a Name?

Names matter. We know this. When ethnic names are changed and when women take their partners’ names that are more Anglo-Saxon sounding, the connection to their cultural background is not easily identified by the reader.

Helen Barolini in her grandmother, Nicoletta Cardomone’s arms, 1926.

It’s both amusing and disconcerting what Barolini says about herself:

“But I kept both my Italian name and my Italian nose and I will never know if I might have had a more brilliant career otherwise. What I do know is that the Italian patronym is rare among American women writers”(22).

One example out of many that Barolini shares is that of Italian American writer Sandra M. Gilbert, literary critic, poet, scholar and co-author of The Madwomen in the Attic (1979):

“Names are still powerful signalers. ‘I am really Sandra Mortola Gilbert,’ Sandra M. Gilbert wrote me, ‘and my mother’s name was Caruso, so I always feel oddly falsified with this Waspish-sounding American name, which I adopted as a 20-year old bride who had never considered the implications of her actions!’”(22).

Knowing writers such as Sandra M. Gilbert (b. 1936) are Italian American provides role models for others to see themselves and the path forward. Names altered and changed limit that access.

Powerful Models

Barolini took on and completed a huge, valuable project for Italian American women writers by creating “a supportive circle” that until then did not exist. Seeing that this had been created by other groups of minority women writers, she knew what was missing and needed:

“Wasps and Jews and Blacks are in the elite writers’ groups; many minority women have their own particularized networks. In Toni Cade Bambara’s words, “What determines the shape and content of my work is the community of writers…writers have gotten their wagons in a circle, which gives us each something to lean against, push off against.” Italian American women who write have no supportive circle”(22).

The Dream Book delivered a solid foothold for Italian American women writers to “push off against,” especially important when discovering new territory, often fraught with doubt and risks. This need is not unusual:

“Self-birthing is well known to women of ethnic minorities who, lacking models, have created their own. Joy Harjo, a Native American poet, defines it: “As I write, I create myself again and again…We have learned to only touch so much. That is why I write. I want to touch more…it frees me to believe in myself…to have a voice, because I have to; it is my survival”(27).

Joy Harjo, former US Poet Laureate, has been instrumental in the creation of several anthologies of First People’s poetry.

Considering the value and purpose of models, Barolini adds:

“Even the relatively few literate and educated Italian women who emigrated to this country would have brought few models of women writers from their culture and few incentives to imitate them. This lack has presented a significant problem to Italian American women. Yet I think that of all the American models available, it is probably to the Black woman writer that the Italian American woman can feel the most affinity. “That’s where all the life is,” Toni Morrison says of Black writing.

“For there is an Italian American pattern in writing that is quite similar in some points to Black women’s writing: the patient strength, tolerance, earthy attitudes, and concern with life-force”(34).

For so many reasons, I have to agree with Barolini on this point.

A Closed-Club Slowly Evolving

The Italian American women writers’ struggle:

“has to do not only with the inner blocks of her tradition, but very much, also, with the external obstacles of the society and the barriers of the prevailing literary hegemonies” (36).

Barolini clarifies that:

“It is not that Italian Americans have not written work of value; it is that the dominant culture, working under its own rules and models, within a tight network of insiders – editors, agents, reviewers, critics – is not eager to recognize and include in its lists that which does not reflect its own style, taste, and sense of what is worthwhile”(37).

Due to the hard work and persistence of many marginalized groups of writers, this “tight network of insiders” has loosened a bit and become more inclusive. No doubt, there’s more to be done, but in a 2014 interview, Barolini herself acknowledged the progress.

In 1985, she said:

“Italian American women who write are in the process of redefining themselves, of redefining family patterns, while all the time they value and hold on to tradition. They are writing to create models that were never there; they are writing to know themselves. They are emerging, not receding, writers”( 35).

The creation and recognition of new literary traditions with their particular stories and experiences move us forward in our understanding of both the diversity and commonality that exist in human experiences. These works cultivate a deeper and better understanding of one another; they reveal a myriad of “riches and glories.”

“Italian American writers are recombining two cultures into something which is of neither one world nor another, but, belonging to both, forms a third realm of consciousness and expression. These new women identify their Italian background and American foreground, thereby doubling their perceptions.”(35).

It takes courageous women with vision, such as Helen Barolini, to spur this growth by creating such collections as The Dream Book.

Two notable offshoots since Barolini’s seminal work are Claiming a Tradition: Italian-American Women Writers (1999), by Mary Jo Bona, and Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian-American Women Authors (2002), by Edvige Giunta.

Helen Barolini is a Nasty Woman Writer.

© Maria Dintino 2023

Works Cited

Barolini, Helen. The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian Women. Schocken Books, 1985.