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She’s Making Sense of a New Life

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Tina De Rosa wrote her novel “Paper Fish,” the room where she worked was haunted. Not by ghosts and goblins, but by childhood memories.

“It was so frightening,” she says now, “to face that kind of emotion, the power of it--the grief, loss, loneliness and bewilderment.”

Sometimes she cried as she wrote. It took her eight years and numerous drafts. The result is an extraordinary novel. It is about an Italian American family, certainly, but a lot more. It is about the unspeakable suffering of a family in poverty, taking care of a sister who is brain-damaged, cut off from their heritage and trying to make sense of a new culture. It is also about discovery and healing, about the process of creating a new reality.

De Rosa wrote the novel to survive. “In the middle of fire,” she says, “you can always sing.”

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Her book itself is a metaphor for a part of the story it tells. One of its characters cannot speak; “Paper Fish,” too, was silenced for a while. It was published the first time 16 years ago by a small house. Then it fell out of print, rejected as too literary to make money. But devotees kept it alive by photocopying it and giving it to scholars and other writers.

Now the Feminist Press has revived it.

The director of the press, Florence Howe, who is dedicated to unearthing literary works by women, believes that De Rosa had to struggle to publish “Paper Fish” not only because publishers felt it was too literary, but also because she is a member of three minorities: De Rosa is an ethnic woman from the working class.

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Edvige Giunta, author of “Paper Fish’s” afterword, and Fred Gardaphe, author of “Italian Sighs, American Streets” (Duke University Press, 1996), a critical reading of Italian American narratives, argue that De Rosa also must fight the stereotypical images of Italian Americans, established by Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Godfather.” The image of crude and sinister gangsters has created a shell, Gardaphe says, that writers like De Rosa are trying to pierce from the inside out.

De Rosa does not see herself fitting into any of these categories. She refuses to be defined by her sex and ethnicity.

I’m a writer, she says. “It’s a way of looking at the world. It’s in your eyes. It’s in your mind. You can’t label that.” She fears that critics who try to capture her book in dogmatic interpretations will miss its beauty and destroy its mystery.

“ ‘Paper Fish’ is a book that you have to read with your heart,” she says. “You can’t read it with your head.”

It is a book about Carmolina BellaCasa. Her family is in pieces. Its members are overwhelmed by the 1950s socioeconomic forces that have disordered their lives. Carmolina’s father, Marco, is an overworked Chicago policeman who will always be a department peon because of his Italian heritage. Her Lithuanian mother, Sarah, feels disoriented amid her husband’s culture. Carmolina’s grandmother, who emigrated from Italy, spins tales in an effort to order her life.

Carmolina’s sister, Dorina, can’t speak. As an infant, she had a high fever that damaged her brain. She can scream, cry and thrash against the ropes that bind her to her blue-sheeted bed. She is beautiful. She is angry. She is in pain.

She represents the suffering of De Rosa’s bruised and broken characters. “When you are suffering,” De Rosa says, “there are no words.”

Dorina is the heroine of her novel, she says, “just because she survived.” The young girl’s condition is misdiagnosed, and she is misunderstood. Her suffering is pure poetry, De Rosa says. “Dorina is God writing backward. There is a little mystery in the middle of the book, written backward, and it’s Dorina.”

Just as De Rosa wept as she wrote the book, women who listen as she reads from it come up to her afterward in tears. For them, De Rosa not only captures the Italian American blue-collar experience, but she also speaks to all who have been dispossessed. Her nonchronological, multiperspective narrative gives “Paper Fish” mythic resonance.

“That’s the beauty of literature,” Giunta says. “This story is rooted in the specificity and the authenticity of an individual, of one group in history, and is told in such a powerful way that others can connect.”

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Tina De Rosa is a pioneer. She has told an uncommon story in a voice that has never been heard. The Zora Neale Hurston of the Italian American culture, De Rosa has taken the story of her upbringing out of economic, ethnic and literary ghettos, creating a path so that other writers may follow.

“I hope it gives people more courage,” she says, “to tell their stories in whatever voice they have.”

De Rosa’s literary voice is lyrical, emotive and imagistic. Her speaking voice is soft. She is compassionate and playful. She also is serious and opinionated. She is more comfortable chatting with a cab driver than greeting a throng of her fans.

De Rosa lived through most of the suffering in the book--her sister is the brain-damaged young girl who appears in the novel. She identifies most closely with Carmolina, the protagonist. The plot of “Paper Fish” turns on Carmolina’s maturation as she struggles against the constraints of childhood, as well as the forces that blunt her life. During the eight years that De Rosa was struggling to find her literary voice, she also was saying goodbye to a culture that nurtured her in ways her mother didn’t.

Just before she started the novel, her grandmother and father died, and then her childhood neighborhood--Chicago’s Little Italy--was torn down to make way for a college campus. De Rosa had to detach herself from her upbringing through her writing so that her childhood world would shatter, and not her. “It was like a holocaust experience,” she says. The people who formed her were now gone. “I wrote to make them present,” she says. “And then, they would die.”

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It is in her one-bedroom apartment in the Chicago suburbs where De Rosa weaves the values found in the Italian culture into her writing. As a second-generation immigrant, she lives in between two worlds: the Italian agrarian culture that prioritizes emotions and the family, and the American economy that is based on money and the individual. De Rosa believes the American way of life is not something with which she identifies.

“Did I want to be part of this other culture that hurt . . . [my family] so badly,and where I felt like a stranger?”

Gardaphe believes that De Rosa’s bicultural position is one of power. Not wholly subscribing to either ideology, De Rosa can better see how each is constructed. But De Rosa believes that the real duality in herself is not cultural, but ethical. She says that by writing “Paper Fish” she broke a sacred silence.

She explains the Italian concept of omerta. “You never tell anybody outside the family anything that’s going on inside the family.” But De Rosa concedes that she had to tell the story to keep her sanity. “I had to deal with all that sorrow and loss. Remaining silent was not the way to do it.”

The difficulties of her bicultural, blue-collar upbringing may have fragmented her self-image. Yet De Rosa was able to put the various pieces of her heritage together. Her work will stand the test of time.

In the acknowledgments to “Paper Fish,” De Rosa writes, “Time is so mysterious, blessing and robbing.”

She picks up her novel and says, “This was the robbery. Now it is a blessing.”


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