Denise Calvetti Michaels

It's About Time Writers
   the writer's craft

Is This the Way it Was When Emily Dickinson Died?
Remembering Tillie Olsen and Tina De Rosa
                                   Tina De Rosa, 1944-2007                  
                                   Tillie Olsen, 1912-2007

Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series,
Seattle, WA., Thursday August 9, 2007

Part One: Paper Fish, a novel by Tina De Rosa

Tonight we honor two literary foremothers who died this year: 
Tillie Olsen on January 1, two weeks before her 95th birthday,
and Tina De Rosa, this spring, in her early sixties,  

This writers' craft lecture arises from a conversation with Esther Helfgott and the question:  Is this the way it was when Emily Dickinson died?

I will share what I believe to be Olsen and De Rosa's legacies
as writers who write from the core of their working class roots and ethnicity,both impacted by the struggle to find time to write and the challenge in being the first in their families to write. 

I will share what I believe is the essence of their worklyrical language that tells stories of resilience passed down, grandmother to granddaughter, the rich source of emotional sustenance, cultural transmission and the desire to hold hope tangible, in a world that does not see.

Paper Fish, De Rosa's only novel, published in 1980 by Wine Press, and reissued in 1996 by the Feminist Press, begins with the chapter, Prelude, and the opening declaration at the bottom of page one,
"This is my mother," and continues on page two with lines that end with a question:"washing strawberries, at a sink yellowed by all foods, all liquids, yellowed.  This is my mother scalping the green hairs of strawberries, scalping them clean, leaving a pink bald spot where the green hair was, and the strawberries grow bumps under cold water, or were they already there, and nobody noticed?  (Paper Fish p. 1-2)

Not unlike Olsen's short story, I Stand Here Ironing, in which a mother ironing her daughter's dress reflects on her struggles as a single parent, and realizes, "love or longing is not enough, everything must be weighed against forces that are beyond one's control,"

De Rosa locates scene one in a traditional female space, at the kitchen sink in the coldwater flat on Taylor Street where Sarah, a young mother, wife, and former waitress of Lithuanian/American descent, lives with her daughter Doria and Italian/American husband Marco BellaCasa (beautiful house). 

I imagine Sarah at the sink skinning the hairs from strawberries,
at the marrow of reverie, where Carmolina, the second daughter to be born to Sarah, imagines her conception:

"My mother's skin brushes strawberries, her skin will brush my father's, that night their skin will make me, but I know none of this.  I am less than the strawberries, I am less than the carving my father is making with his hands, less than the brown intent of his eyes over wood, less.  I do not see any of this, do not know any of this, because I am less than a fraction, the smallest fraction of time, of moment, of memory.  (Paper Fish p. 2)

As the prelude continues, the portraiture of the small family is more deeply revealed,"My sister has already been born.  She was born the first child.  Over and over the family says:  She was broken early in life, a toy that was too beautiful.No one recognized her, no one saw beyond the black eyes..My sister was a swan, a black swan that flew into the incorrect night, followed the wrong moon, and my family was left with glass eyes."  (Paper Fish p. 2) 

"My father's hands are long, are fine.  The fingers are straight, are perfect.  They are pianist's fingers, carving wood.  They are fingers that were intended to know the skin of the piano.My father will never play the piano." (Paper Fish p. 2)

Like Marco BellaCasa, De Rosa's father works as a policeman whom she tells us in My Father's Lesson, an autobiographical essay, "spent his whole life doing the sad and hidden work of society, then came home and hid his face in the little world of his family," (Paper Fish, p. 125-126, Afterword by Edvige Giunta).

In little more than a page, De Rosa illuminates the events to follow and entwines autobiographical fragments from her own life with that of the BellaCasa family in Chicago and that of the larger immigrant story of Italian Americans and other immigrant groups; where memories of birth and death coexist at the kitchen sink, in the imagination, and on the page, though no one will hear and "No one asked questions," (Paper Fish p. 3) and is reminiscent of the spirit of the duende, poet Frederico Lorca envisaged as that which has black sounds, in his lecture, Play and the Theory of the Duende, "These black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art." (Lorca: A Dream of Life, pp. 332-3, Leslie Stainton, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999).

Part Two Literary Odyssey: a personal record

I find Mary Jo Bona's anthology, The Voices We Carry, Recent Italian/American Women's Fiction, Guernica Press 1994 and meet with her, the former professor of American literature at Gonzaga University, before presenting at an early childhood conference in Spokane, 1996.

She generously shares the importance of knowing ones literary history and provides a reading list: 

Paterson, New Jersey poet, Maria Mazziotti Gillan's collection, Where I Come From, Guernica Press, a poet of Southern Italian/American roots who reclaims Maria as her name, and writes in her poem addressed to her father Arturo, "I smile when I think of you./Listen, America,/this is my father, Arturo,/and I am his daughter, Maria./Do not call me Marie."

Leonard Covello's, The Heart is the Teacher, a cutting edge dissertation, still relevant today, on education and the immigrant experience in which Covello recounts his work at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem where he built a community school infrastructure geared to educating young people as agents for a more just and humane society, where every facet of the program focused on civic educatron, reinforced the high school's instructional program and community work, and modeled engaged public work citizenship.  (Education as if Citizenship Mattered:  Leonard Covello and the making of Benjamin Franklin High School, Temple University Press, 2007).

Ms. Giordino, by Dorothy Bryant, the story of a public high school teacher of Italian American descent who is about to retire and reflects on her life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Italian Signs, Italian Streets, Fred Garadaphe, a collection of critical essays with homage paid to the place of women in the enfolding Italian American narrative.

Louise De Salvo, Vertigo, a must-read memoir recently reissued by Feminist Press.

Helen Barolini's The Dream BookAn Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women, the first IA woman to gather IA women writers under the same book cover.

"But, for sure, order Paper Fish by Tina De Rosa," Mary Jo insists, "the story of Italians in the 40's and 50's in Chicago on Taylor Street, and the writer's desire to "rescue the memory of what is inexorably gone." as Edvige Giunta explains in the Afterword to Paper Fish, p. 135. "Liberating this kind of {working-class} memory involves the reconstruction of a set of relationships, not the exactitude of specific events" (Liberating Memory p. 3, Janet Zandy).

I attend the American Italian Historical Association (AIHA) conference
in Cleveland (1998), and meet: Diane Di Prima, Robert Viscusi, Fred Gardaphe, Edvidge Giunta, and see Fuori,a film by Kym Ragusa (The Skin Between Us, 2006)and immerse in Italian American literature.

I pilgrimage to ancestral Italian villages and experience the instinctual call to return to the gravel roots of my grandmothers, find camaraderie with other writers going deeper in their work, a way for my poetry to surface issues of identity, enjoy collections of essays such as Liberating Memory, and What We Hold in Common, Feminist Press, Janet Zandy, ed.

I write memoir about the story of polenta, its meaning to my family, that explores the significance of the popular Italian corn dish as a repositiary of family history and send to Louise De Salvo and Edvidge Giunta, co-editors of The Milk of Almonds, Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture, Feminist Press.  The anthology is meant to dispel stereotypical notions of Italian American women's lives.   

1990, I'm writing the thesis for the MA in Human Development at Pacific Oaks College, examining the interruptions in  finishing creative work and connecting to other women's lives, difficulties in completing degrees, books, fulfilling careers. 

I return to my journal entries, explore writing as a tool for reflection. I peruse independent bookstores and find contemporary women writers on their own shelves.  I reflect on interruptions in women's lives (Catherine Bates, Composing a Life) and include This is the Story of the Day in the Life of a Woman Trying, (Susan Griffin), as a way to see myself as a writer, writing in fragments that are knit together later. 

I read Fred Gardaphe's critique of De Rosa's fiction as an example of the novel of self-discovery, the novel of awakening, as described by  Rita Felski in "The Novel of Self-Discovery," where self-discovery is understood as "the 'awakening' to an essential female self." (Fred L. Gardaphe, Italian Signs, American StreetsThe Evolution of Italian American Narrative, Duke University Press, 1996)

MA advisor, Betty Jones, adds Silences by Olsen to my booklist, an analysis of author's silent periods in literature, including writer's blocks, unpublished work, and the problems that working-class writers and women in particular have in finding time to concentrate on their art. 

I reread the last chapter of Silences several times,
"Creativity: Potentiality.  First Generation,"
and begin to see other women including my mother-in-law with a different lens.  My mother-in-law, adopted at age four along with her four siblings to separate families; subject to anxiety, depression, and the inability to leave a destructive marriage; who played the piano and sang throughout.

One of Olsen's findings was that all of the great women writers in Western literature prior to the late 20th century either had no children or had full-time housekeepers to raise the children.

Olsen challenges the reader to fathom that, "Born a generation earlier, in the circumstances for their class, and/or race, and/or sex, no Chekhov, Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Maxim Gorky, no D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Sean O'Casey, No Franz Kafka, Albert Camusthe list comes long now:  say, for a sampling, no A.E. Coppard, Charles Olson, Richard Wright, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, etc. etc. etc. etc.

And within Olsen's etceteras inscribe the names:  Tina De Rosa, Zora Neal Hurston, Diane Di Prima, Carole Maso, Louise DeSalvo, Carolyn Forche, Martin Espada, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Fred Gardaphe, John Fante, to name less than a dozen.

In Writing  with an Accent, Giunta concludes, "Chosen foremothers such as Zora Neale Hurston, whose brave embracing of language and culture, of language as culture, makes her a model and source of inspiration not solely for African American women writers; Italian American women whose works may lay buried in dusty libraries and archives of immigrant history.p. 142. 

I now see myself within the context of working class people, women writers, myself, a woman of Italian/American working class roots and the first in her family to go to college who aspires to write poetry and memoir. 

Part Three: Tell Me a Riddle, Grandmother, Nonni, Grandmere

In Tillie Olsen's novel, Tell Me a Riddle, Eva is dying of cancer, has one year, perhaps, to live, and her husband of 47 years is distraught, though he'd been needling her prior to the diagnosis that is being kept from his wife, to move to a community center where she could live an easier life from the one that seemed to have betrayed hermother to seven, making do on her husband's meager salary, putting aside her own interests and development for that of care-taking.

This is a novel that many of you are familiar with as it's frequently a required text in college literature courses, sociology, studies on agingthe list is long. 
What I want to connect to, tonight, is the relationship between Eva and her granddaughter Jeannie
and how in the last stage of Eva's life their relationship demonstrates reciprocity and reconciliation in which both generations are a gift to the other as Eva lies dying in a hospital bed, away from the home she'd raised her children in and where she imagined herself free at last to do as she pleased, not probed and prodded to another task of care-taking, and Jeannie, a vibrant young woman with an artistic sensibility who realizes through her love and caring for Eva that she will set aside her nurse's uniform with its demands for order and protocol to chose art. 

In a particularly poignant scene, Jeannie arrives at her grandmother's bedside with Pan del Muerto, Bread of the Dead, fashioned by the mother of a three year old girl who has just dieda family that is part of Jeannie's caseload. 

When Eva asks Jeannie if she is well enough to return home, Jeannie understands at a deeper level, "Of course, poor Granny.  You want your own things around you, don't you? Look, I've something to show you," and from her purse unwrapped a large cookie, intricately shaped like a little girl. (p. 142-3) 

Here follows an exchange in which Eva marvels at the artistic details inscribed in the Pan del Muerto, and asks if she may keep the "little Rosita".  After her grandmother has fallen asleep, Jeannie confides to her grandfather that she will resign her job as a nurse's assistant because, "I let myself feel things".and, "I just don't know what I want to do, maybe go back to school, maybe go to art school."

By this stage in Eva's illness, there is a noticeable shift in her capacity to grasp the core of what needs to be spoken, and though for Eva, silence has offered a way to manage her disappointmentsas she lies dying, she opens to granddaughter Jeannie who is there to  assist her grandparents to feel, and sketches her grandparents in their hospital beds, as their hands, "his and hers, clasped, feeding each other." (p. 157)  And we can only imagine what may have been spoken between them, as it is Jeannie who helps her bereft grandfather understand on the last day what her grandmother has told her

"On the last day, she said she would go back to when she first heard music, a little girl on the road of the village where she was born.  She promised me.  It is a wedding and they dance, while the flutes so joyous and vibrant tremble in the air.  Leave her there, Grandaddy, it is all right.  She promised me.  Come back, come back and help her poor body to die." (p. 158)

De Rosa and Olsen provide us powerful narratives of relationships between granddaughters and their grandmothers as the site for meaning and transformation.  In both novels the granddaughters deepen their understanding of themselves as they come to realize that something within their grandmothers has been imparted. 

In Paper Fish, grandmother Doria is the one who explains to Carmolina in Broken English the story of her sister Dorianna's illness and subsequent disability perhaps from meningitis, though we're never told:

"In the forest the birds are.  Ah, such beautiful birds.  White birds. Blue and pink.  Doriana she go into the forest to look at the birds.  The birds they sing in the trees, they sing,they turn into leaves.  Doriana she have a key to the forest.  It a secret.  Only Doriana know where she keep the key.  One day Doriana go into the forest.  She forget the key.  She get lost in the forest.  She get scared.  Her face it turn hot like a little peach and she scream and try to get out the forest.

She try to come home.  From the forest.  She no find her way." 

and when Carmolina cannot answer her grandmother's question of why her sister's face is so beautiful,  Doria supplies the reason, "because Doriana fight so hard to come home.  She look out her eyes every day and try to come home.  When you fight to come home, you beautiful."

Carmolina the lyrical explanation for her sister's illness, a received knowledge that grows in meaning until the time, later, when Doria informs her granddaughter that she is dying and Carmolina realizes that , "One day when she looked, Grandma would be gond, she would blink her eyes for a moment and Grandma would be gone like a whisper, like something beautiful someone said once, a long time ago." 

and Grandma tells Carmolina. "Now it your turn.  You keep the fire inside you."
And when Carmolina looked into the mirror's silver face:, "It gave back to her her own. face."

Part Four: Questions

What is the role of the grandmother in your cultural heritage? 

Have you read, for example, the story of Carolyn Forche writing about the legacy of her Polish grandmother in shaping her activism, her poetry?

Who are the literary mothers, yet to be acknowledged in your family? 

Where are her letters, journals, unfinished manuscripts? 

Who will take care to see that her work is accessible to readers?

What will you do to bring your work forward?

Works cited as they appear in the text

Paper Fish, Tina De Rosa, Wine Press 1980, and The Feminist Press, City University of New York,1996.

I Stand Here Ironing, Tillie Olsen.

My Father's Lesson, Tina Rosa.

Lorca: A Dream of Life, Leslie Stainton, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999.

The Voices We Carry, Recent Italian/American Women's Fiction, Mary Jo Bona, Guernica Press 1994.

Where I Come From, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Guerna Press, 1995.

The Heart is the Teacher, Leonard Covello, McGraw Hill, 1958.

Education as if Citizenship Matters:  Leonard Covello and the making of Benjamin Franklin High School, Temple University Press, 2007.

Ms. Giordino, Dorothy Bryant, Berkeley, CA: Ata Books, 1978, and The Feminist Press, 1997.

Italian Signs, American Streets, Fred Gardaphe, Duke University Press, 1996.

Vertigo: A Memoir, Louise DeSalvo, Dutton, New York, 1996, and The Feminist Press, 2002.

The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writing by Italian American Women, Helen Barolini, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1985.

Fuori, a film as memoir, Kym Ragusa, 1996.
The Skin Between Us, A Memoir of Race, Beauty, and Belonging, Kym Ragusa, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 2006.

Liberating Memory, Janet Zandy, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1995.

The Milk of Almonds, Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture, editors: Louise DeSalvo and Edvige Giunta, The Feminist Press, 2002.

Composing a Life, Catherine Bateson,

This is the Story of the Day in the Life of a Woman Trying, Susan Griffin,

Silences, Tillie Olsen, Dellacorte Press, New York, 1965.

The Riddle of Life and Death, with an introduction by Jules Chametzky, which includes Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen, The Feminist Press, 2007.

Denise Calvetti Michaels teaches Psychology and Human Relations at Cascadia Community College and has received the Crosscurrents Prize for Poetry from the Washington Community and Technical College Humanities Association.  In 2001 she and her colleagues at King County Child Care received the Dr. Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award for addressing institutional racism. Her work has appeared in numerous publicatrions, including The Milk of Almonds, Italian American Woman on Food and Culture, Feminist Press, 2002. 



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