Source: La Voce di New York
This is an interview with Michele Cecchini, author of the novel “Per il bene che ti voglio” in which the protagonist Antonio Bevilacqua, from Lucca, immigrated to California in the 1920s. He becomes Tony Drinkwater and lives in a Middle Earth, that of those who are not yet American and at the same time are no longer Italian.
“I would like to tell you the story of Antonio Bevilacqua this way, not starting from the beginning, but I do not know whether it is appropriate to start right from his dead. The fact is that I would like to start from an end. The life of a man is full of ends and the death is just one of them “. Quote from the incipit of the book by Michele Cecchini, “Per il bene che ti voglio”.
Michele Cecchini, an Italianist, was born in Lucca in 1972 and lives in Livorno, where he is a professor of Italian literature in a high school. After having published his first novel in 2010, “Dall’aprile a shantih”, Cecchini publishes in 2015 the novel “Per il bene che ti voglio”, again for the same publishing house. It’s the story of Antonio Bevilacqua, who at the end of the 1920s he moved to Hollywood for a period of time, where he was cast in a Charlie Chaplin movie as a stand-in. On the set he basically has the task of replacing Chaplin in the preparation of the scenes. In the language as in life, Antonio Bevilacqua, who in the meantime has become Tony Drinkwater, lives in a Middle Earth, that of those who are not yet and at the same time no longer, and speaks Italiese, a language with mixed terms between Italian and English. The novel also has a small dictionary of Italiese / Italian terms, widely used by Cecchini in his narration.
Professor Cecchini, your novel “Per l’amore che ti voglio”, whose theme is the Italian emigration to the United States, is about Antonio Bevilacqua, man from Lucca, who at the end of the Twenties decides to emigrate to San Francisco to make a career in the theater and then, in Hollywood, in the movie field. During the ’30s, did the Italians emigrated only for economic necessities or expatriated for political reasons, such as anti-fascism?
“In my novel we talk about immigration not dictated by economic but artistic needs. I wanted to avoid the cliché of the poor immigrant carrying a cardboard suitcase, on which so much has been said and written. At the end, the protagonist of my book claims the right and freedom to move, regardless the type of need.
Moreover, this is not an anomaly: our men often found fertile ground in the artistic field. Let’s take the cinema example: even without mention great figures of the caliber of Rodolfo Valentino, we find many Italians even among the ordinary people. An example above all: Vincenzo Pelliccione, from Abruzzo, a stand in of Charlie Chaplin in many of his movies”.
Some elements of his novel are based on reality but others are pure fiction. Is Antonio Bevilacqua a true or invented character?
“The protagonist of my book is the result of my imagination. In general, however, the context surrounding it is real, or at least plausible.
In addition to characters from the world of entertainment (Chaplin, Ferlinghetti, Migliaccio …), the book also includes the banker Amedeo Giannini, the entrepreneur Angelo Petri, Carlo Barsotti, Director of the newspaper “Il progresso italo-americano” and many others. All people who actually found the “Merica”, “made money” to indicate the achieved economic well-being.
For this reason, I have carried out research and above all I have read many letters of immigrants, in order to absorb the language and the system of thought. Having the letter of an immigrant in your hands is a very emotional experience: beyond the content, the stunted lines, the crooked, the constant corrections and many other elements tell the effort to remain in some way anchored to the land of origin. It was not that easy: to receive a letter of reply it took months, so much that often half of the content of each letter refers to the contents of the previous letter: “have you received the letter where I told you this … and this other…?”.
““It seems therefore to have found his ‘Merica’ in the ‘muvinpicce’: with this expression, distorted by the English ‘moving pictures’, Antonio indicates the cinema.”
These words highlight an invented language, the Italiese. Can you explain the mixed poetics of Italian with English that highlights the effort by immigrants to integrate into a very different world from their original one?
“Those who left for America (or” Merica “, as they said at the time) inevitably defiled themselves with another world, so it was no longer possible to maintain the identity of departure, which had to be left. At the same time, they were not yet ready for a full integration at the point of arrival. The first immigrants therefore remain suspended in a sort of limbo, end up being “no longer” and at the same time “not yet”.
In this “Middle Earth” the language is also included: here the immigrants are “in the middle”, because they speak ‘Italiese’, which is a mixture of Italian and English. They did not say “lavoro”, but “giobbo” (from job), not “strada” but “stritta” (street), “sciumecca” instead of “calzolaio” (from shoe maker) and so on. This mixture, which may appear clumsy, in my opinion holds a strong poetic charge, because in itself it contains the moving attempt to adapt and integrate into a very different reality – much richer and more evolved – than that of origin. A linguistic middle ground, a symbol of an identity that is not yet American or no longer Italian “.
Few are the fictions that contemplate the use of Italiese, whereas in the Italian-American movies this language is highlighted in a non-positive way. In his novel, are the stereotypes and prejudices faced by Italian immigrants highlighted?
“During the writing, I tried to keep a look as detached as possible – because all the novel is not written in first but in third person, the vicissitudes are told by Antonio’s friend. So I recreated the world of immigrants in the land of “Merica”.
This allowed me to investigate a part of their life, their habits, their professions, the way they spend their free time, even the food they ate. All this was often shared. Instead, the main character, who wants to make a career in the arts, cannot hide behind a small environment that reproduces his community of origin on a small scale: he is forced to face “Merica” directly without mediation, so he is condemned to loneliness. He also had to deal with the prejudices against the Italians: from strict controls to Ellis Island up to the insulting epithets. The most used was “Dago”. This word does not have a certain etymology, but the hypotheses that have been formulated say it is long. To give some examples: from “Dingo”, the australian dog; from “digger”, the knife; from “they go”, to indicate people who did not have a fixed place to live, up to “until the day goes”, because Italians were often hired only for the day.
About Italiese, how many words are integrated into the small vocabulary below?
“A few hundred, those that are inside the text. However, at the beginning I addressed an invitation to ignore the vocabulary as much as possible during the reading, so as to be guided by the sounds of what has been called ‘language of survival’.
In some ways mine also wants to be an operation to safeguard this small heritage that over time is destined to get lost..
For the purposes of the narration it was an obligatory choice: a work that wants to be a memory, cannot but take into consideration the linguistic reality where the narrated events take place.
I have written an article on Italian-American , the Italian-English spoken by the first-generation of Italian immigrants, particularly those in the state of New York. Many readers have contacted me with interest on the linguistic phenomenon. Do you find a difference between the Italiese in New York and the one in Los Angeles? Can you give me some examples?
“Technically, the Italiese in itself varies both in relation to the place of arrival but also to the place of origin: the Italiese of people from Calabria is very different from that of the ones from Venice. This is because the language skills of those who emigrated were often limited to dialect only. Certain linguistic shortcuts concern the Italian lexicon itself: the immigrants said they were forced to cross the great “Luciano”, because pronouncing “oceano” was too difficult.
In any case, being a novel and not a linguistic essay, I was able to enjoy a certain freedom of movement. I took inspiration from studies but also from my private life.
My grandfather Umberto in 1923 landed on Ellis Island and was one of those who ended up working with shovel and pickaxe. Over time, the relatives from my father’s side moved almost entirely to San Francisco. In our area we say: there are more people from Lucca in San Francisco than in Lucca..
Once in a while, these relatives would visit us, they were what we call “uncles of America”, people who seemed to have rained down on me from another planet, dressed so differently from us and speaking their own language. Writing about these people was like brush up a piece of my family history. The novel is dedicated to the first generation of immigrants: to their courage, to their resourcefulness “.
Teaching in public schools in NY I met nephews of Italians who immigrated before the Second World War, who had changed their last names making them sound non-Italian. In his book, “Per il bene che ti voglio”, Antonio Bevilacqua’s name changes and becomes Tony Drinkwater: in your opinion what is the real reason that has pushed Italian immigrants to change their name or last name?
“The name change is fully part of the attempt, which I personally think is very poetic because often desperate, to integrate, to become something else when you do not yet have the requisites.
It was not a matter of having a nickname or a pseudonym, but another proper name, the sign of a new identity. From Antonio Bevilacqua to Tony Drinkwater: the literal translation will make you smile. But if you really wanted to ‘think ‘mericana’, as our compatriots were forced to do, you had to start from your person, then from the name, rebuilding an identity that was not parallel to the previous one but replaced it. Only in this way someone could hope to find a place in America.
This is not a curious anomaly, the cases were frequent. Think of the Morgan or Martin coming from our “Morganti” or “Martini”. It is possible to find Italian origins even in less immediately deductible versions. A guy, Adam Jacknell, was actually called Adamo Giacanelli, Robert Yans was Roberto Iannuzzi. Another from Chierichetti had become Cherchotts, to be pronounced with the sweet ch “.
Professor Cecchini, you have toured Italy for the presentations of the book, host of bookstores, study centers, museums of emigration, tv shows. On November 27th, you presented “Per il bene che ti voglio” at “La Torre di Abele” in Turin. A place known to famous Italian writers: an important book store for Italo Calvino, and a building where De Amicis lived for a few years and wrote the book “Cuore”. Can you describe your emotion in presenting your book “Per il bene che ti voglio” in that bookstore?
“It was a beautiful experience. Certain places are full of a special vibe and charm, being able to access it, was a very rewarding experience. Moreover, I can extend this kind of consideration to many of the places that have welcomed me. It’s a sign of the interest that still goes around the theme of emigration. I can say more: there was no presentation where I was not approached by someone who had the desire to tell me about family vicissitudes similar to those of my characters. Most of times, very painful stories.
Unfortunately I have the feeling that the phenomenon of emigration, which involved millions of Italians, is not well known yet. History manuals devote barely a paragraph to emigration. Understanding and knowing what happened, would help a lot. Just think about the figurines, the little boys who wandered the streets of american cities trying to sell their statues of Garibaldi, Lincoln or some saints. Or the babies who were breastfed: girls who gave birth to a child, entrusted him/her to the “Case della maternita’” (motherhood house) and then left to feed the children of the rich with their milk, giving part of the compensation to the man who had made her pregnant and barely knew. Here, there are so many stories of this kind to tell. Unfortunately, however, the risk is that silence falls and we end up forgetting “.