Seeds of a Nation

Every form of greatness has its beginning, and the making of a great nation is no different. The rallying cry “Make America Great” is a catchphrase used by more than one presidential contender. But when used with the adverb “again” at the end of the cry, “Make America Great Again,” it implies a vision of a past history that was greater than the present. But this rallying cry of today says nothing about what America has lost or when. It never named a time when America was greater than now nor identified what made America great in the past and lost in the present history. In my search for this lost American greatness, I asked:

  • Was America great when human beings were sold into slavery from its beginning in 1619 until 1865?
  • Was it great when women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920?
  • Was it great when segregation was systematic and legal until 1954?
  • Was it great during World War II when 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps?
  • Was it in the post-World War II  decade when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy produced a series of accusations and investigations of treason to expose a supposed communist infiltration in the U.S. government, and many have been blacklisted without evidence and lost their jobs? 
  • Was it great when Native Americans were displaced from their homelands to Indian territory to open 25 million acres for settlement by European Americans in 1830?

Oh, wait a minute! Those American settlers were Europeans? This begs the next question: What is an American?

In my previous article, “The fellowship of Language and Culture,” I discuss how language and culture are intertwined. With that in mind, I began my search with the origin of the American language.

Shucks! I found no such thing as “American Language.” What Americans speak is a language called English, a composite of borrowed languages broken in the following manner:

  • 26 % Germanic
  • 29% French
  • 29% Latin
  • 6% Greek
  • 10% from other languages

Altogether, French and Latin (both European Romance languages) account for 58% of the vocabulary used in today’s English. So many seeds, sturdy seeds blown by many winds, adapt to wherever they land, and they become Americans without a language to call their own! Yet, they have a strong identity with an existence called “American” that does not speak a language native to that territory.

This gets curioser and curioser.

To answer my first question, when was America greater than now, I conclude that the fundamental ingredient is its people. Americans are a conglomerate of immigrants who have learned from each other, exchanged ideas, absorbed different cultures, and continue to do so with the new immigrants arriving from new corners of the world each day. They bring the panoply of their culture with them and decorate the American fabric. They learn to speak a form of English called American English and absorb the American culture, bedecked and bemixed with ideas of their old world and the new world.

America’s demographic is in flux, becoming American, always making it richer. This is what makes America great not ethnocentrism, for that would be cultural ignorance. It is sharing, promoting, and making progress that makes America great. It is moving forward and not turning back the clock as the word “again” implies.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center website features a page titled “A Nation Built by Immigrants” and subtitled “America is strengthened by the contributions made by immigrants. For the U.S. Economy to flourish to its full potential, outdated immigration policy must be modernized.” In it, significant contributions by immigrants are illustrated and immigration myths are debunked. 

I urge everyone to browse through this website and learn how far this country has come from the days when we dispossessed the Native Americans from their homes and 4,000 Cherokee people died, when we enslaved our fellow man for profit, when we subjugated women to second class citizens, when we segregated our society into white and black lives, when we interned Japanese American citizens, and one in every ten died. No, that was not when America was great. That time is now and it will be tomorrow, always evolving to greater greatness as long as we allow diversity into the nation and open our minds to new cultures, new ideas, and new discoveries.

Where to Find Inspiration

Are you feeling stripped of ideas to write your next story and knuckling your head trying to shake inspiration out of the gobbledygook inside it? I’ve been there, and so have many others, and thumping your head will not hatch creativity. Knuckle no more. Better results are achieved through the power of observation. Inspiration is all around you. Here are some steps to set the gobbledygook in order.

Continue reading “Where to Find Inspiration”

An Author’s Guide to Getting and Using Book Reviews by David Wogham

Writing book reviews is a challenge for many indie authors. Yet, it is an essential skill to learn early on in any publishing venture. In The Book Review Companion: An Author’s Guide to Getting and Using Book Reviews, David Wogham explains the process of getting reviews and why they are essential in a step-by-step manner. From finding the right reviewers to rules and ethics of the game, this guide is requisite in all publishing endeavors.

Quotes to Fit the Day

September 9, 2020
“To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others. ”
― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

May 11, 2020  
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them― Ray Bradbury

 

The corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused the largest number of shutdowns of businesses worldwide and  changed life as we know it. In the first week of April, more than half of the world’s population has received orders to shelter in place.  Will our economy and way of life ever come back? Experts agree that it will not until scientists have discovered a vaccine that will be accepted universally. That is not in the foreseeable future.

The world is undergoing a metamorphosis: climate change, rising oceans, weird bugs, rising temperature on Christmas Day and snow on Mother’s Day. As you ponder about what to do, enlighten yourself with reading the “good books”—the books that make you think about life in an alternative world. There are many of them. Here is a short list:

Animal Farm by George Orwell—an allegorical novella that tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury—a dystopian society where books are burned.

The Iron Heel by Jack London describes a futuristic world in which the division between the classes has deepened.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift—a satire on human nature and a parody on travel

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll about a young girl’s adventures in a dream.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley—a dystopian science fiction novel of a consumerist society. Margaret Atwood called it “either a perfect-world utopia or its nasty opposite,” depending on your point of view.

And of course:

The Hand Maid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and any of her other books.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

 

Not everything is dystopian. Check out the following:

Lost Horizon by James Hilton—the mythical sanctuary of Shangri-La.

The Giver by Lois Lowry—a young adult novel about a young man who lives in a seemingly ideal world.

 

I will be posting a quote each day. Hopefully, it will inspire you to read some of the greatest works in literature.

Social Isolation During Pandemics

A Lesson from Giovanni Boccaccio

I am entering my second week of social isolation due to the pandemic of the COVID-19 virus. Home alone for many hours, my mind wanders through the literature of past contagions. A few books come to mind, but none like Bocaccio’s Decameron, written in the aftermath of the Black Death of 1348 in Florence. It is estimated that the plague claimed 40,000-60,000 lives of the city’s inhabitants (about half the population of the city), including Boccaccio’s father and stepmother.

 The Decameron is a book of one-hundred stories told by ten people, seven women and three men, who during the Black Plague, also known as the Black Death, sheltered themselves in a country villa for fourteen days. No one came in or went out in their version of social isolation. To pass the time in the absence of television, radio, recorded music, and social media, they told stories, each person one story for a total of ten stories a day for ten days—one-hundred stories in all. Two of the remaining days were dedicated to personal obligations and two to religious duties.

The Decameron’s translation in contemporary American English by Wayne A. Rebhorn is a delightful read, full of witticism and humor and certain to entertain for many days.

carried the bodies of the recently deceased out of their houses and put them down by the front doors, where anyone passing by, especially in the morning, could have seen them by the thousands. . . . When all the graves were full, enormous trenches were dug in the cemeteries of the churches, into which the new arrivals were put by the hundreds, stowed layer upon layer like merchandise in ships, each one covered with a little earth, until the top of the trench was reached.

Much like today, shops stood empty, and churches shut down. Unlike today, in spite of an intellectual and scientific awakening, there were no medicines or elaborate hospitals to care for the ill.

In the fourteenth century, in the bloom of the Italian Renaissance, the city of Florence, in fact, the whole of Italy, the mercantile class had emerged with economic power and prosperity. Meanwhile, the rediscovery of many ancient texts gave rise to an intellectual current that produced the likes of Michelangelo Buonarotti, (1475-1564), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Christopher Columbus, (1451-1506), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Martin Luther King (1483-1546), Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), and so many more that include William Shakespeare, Nicolo’ Macchiavelli, and John Calvin.

To this long list, I want to highlight two more memorable names: Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) was credited with inventing the printing press and, subsequently, introducing mass communication. The eponymous Project Gutenberg  is a website that I frequently visit to download absolutely free books in the public domain. If you are not familiar with this site, I urge you to explore it and get lost in the vast number of titles. Get inspired.

We all have a story to tell. Awaken your creative fountain and try your hand at story writing. Email your story to toniaburgato@gmail.com if you wish to post it in this blog to share with other readers.

Humanism or Religious Dogma

I was born a Humanist in a religious household, and that created a battle between the values taught at home and school and my developing mind. Parents and church would like say that I was born a Catholic, that I have no choice about that just as much as children born into a Jewish family or in any other faith have no choice about their religion. My mother sent me to Sunday school to learn Catechism with the same fervor and duty that parents of any religion instruct their children in the Torah if they are Jewish, in the Qur’an if they are Muslims, in meditation if Buddhists, and so on.

It was expected of me to embrace their Catholicism, their beliefs with all the dogmas. But participation in many church functions was often a chore, something I did out of obligation. Those times when I found them enjoyable involved my dressing up like a little bride for the first communion and confirmation ceremonies.

My lessons in catechism had me captivated with Bible stories told by Sister Agnes that were grimmer than Grimm’s fairy tales. But that’s all they were to me—just another type of fairy tales. Sister Agnes wanted me to believe that the stories were true, that they were events that happened long before time, and said that I had better believe them or I wouldn’t get to wear my pretty, white dress. I wanted to believe her stories, but I had many questions, and her answers generated more questions.

Q: If we come from Adam and Eve, where did they come from?
A: God created them.
Q: Who created God?
A: God is eternal.
Q: How do you know?
A: You must have faith.

Then came instruction in the Ten Commandments with its great principles of ethics and morality, except for the first commandment:

I am the Lord your God; you shall not have other gods besides me. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandment.

I had problems from the start. God was merciful, jealous and vengeful. How could that be? My young brain couldn’t put into words what my gut was telling me. If I didn’t pray to this God, then my children and grandchildren and their children’s children will be punished for my “iniquity.” I didn’t understand. I asked Sister Agnes, What is iniquity. She told me I was too young to understand and again told me to have faith. So I prayed to God to give me faith. But the word “mercy” in the same sentence with “jealous” followed by threats of vengeance toubled me. How can a person who is jealous and vengeful have mercy? Punish me, if you please, but leave my children out of this. There had to be a mistake.

The second commandment had me worried.

You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.

My father, a good man, used “the name of the LORD” in vain every time he had an emotional outburst, and he never apologized for it nor went to confession. For all his goodness, he was a damned man. Where was the merciful part of the good Lord?

I pushed aside the first two commandments because the other eight were pretty cool, especially the one about observing the Sabbath. But, wait a minute! Why did I have to go to Sunday school on my Sabbath day? Wasn’t that conflicting? Hypocritical? The questions kept sprouting. I asked, If God is all powerful, Why couldn’t he save my friend Lucy from the whooping cough? Why didn’t he stop the rain that overflowed the river and left people homeless? Why did he allow daddy to get hurt in the war? Why didn’t He stop the war?

Most of my secondary school years were spent in a sectarian boarding school with regimented daily routines and robotic religious services. These were my years of arrested development—educational, emotional, and social. When I returned home after four years of boarding school, I was incapable of independent thinking and acted out my gut feeling with rebellious outbursts.  

I rejected the religious teachings that had been passed on through generations. The dogmatic current of my indoctrination from home and school failed to grab me. Therefore, I did not drift away from religion as I was never taken in by it. This I recall as well as an incident when I was nine years old, when my mother expected me to receive the eucharist every Sunday. This ritual required a clean, empty stomach to receive the symbolic body of Christ. While my mother wasn’t looking, I took a sip of milk and left my white mustache on for her to see. It was my first act of conscious rebellion against her beliefs. 

My religious education continued through the years of middle school without any progress. I could not accept the existence of anything on faith. I needed empirical evidence, and the fact that someone was confined to a wheel chair and suddenly could walk was acceptance in blind faith. I needed something empirical, something to believe.  Who was I without the beliefs that defined generations of my bloodline? Nothing more than a spineless splotch of muscle and gook that couldn’t stand up to anything.

I had to find something to hold me up, that could give me what religion failed—a spiritual identity that I could live with. I delved into any book on religious philosophy and related literature that I could find. I could not embrace a dogmatic religion with dos and don’ts that other doctrines exhort, and I was still lost in nothingness.

I chanced upon The American Humanist Association through the widespread availability of internet searches. The key word that grabbed me to this site was the use of the word “progressive,” in its many ways. It appeared as part of the mission statement on its home page:

Advocating progressive values and equality for humanists, atheists, and freethinkers.

This same word showed up again in the first sentence that defined “What is Humanism.” Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life . . . Progressive—developing gradually, step by step, defined me best. It suited me like a pair of soft leather shoes with a sturdy sole and perfectly sized arch support that would wear out with use until it was time to update. Progressive. It was the antithesis of religious dogma, where belief in ancient doctrine was literally written in stone. I was reminded of a few lines of Walt Whitman’s poem “To the States.”

To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist
much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever after-
ward resumes its liberty
.

It takes more than courage to resist much. It takes an understanding to know what one is resisting to and, most of all, it takes maturity. It is a process of becoming. To obey little means standing up to authority, to question their dictates. It would be easy to give in to their demands, to live a life without conflicts. So many times I’ve been advised to “roll with the punches,” but I obeyed little and suffered the punches. I wish I had known of Walt Whitman then; I would have found strength in his words.

As humanist, I’m moving forward, wearing out old and tried doctrines, and developing over time. That development doesn’t stop but continues to happen with every breath I take, with every book I read, with every person I meet, with every port I visit.

Somewhere in the literature of Humanism I read that the universe is a dynamic force, that it is in a continuous flux. I’m a part of this force, infinitesimal as it may be on the universal scale but profound in one human being, Me.

Structure of a Novel

Lessons on Structure Learned from Writing My First Book

If there’s one lesson I learned about how to structure a novel is that it involved a lot more than the basic five elements of plot shown in the classic diagram of building a novel.  It took me more than ten years to write my debut book Canaries Can’t Cry, but the real writing was done in less than a year. Most of the time was spent in learning how to write a novel. By that, I mean to build the structure, the framework that would keep my family biography from collapsing before the arc in the story reached its climactic zenith as it did with me many times.

My struggle wasn’t in learning how to write. I have written short stories, feature articles, travel articles, grants, articles on teaching, and even a software manual. My problem was in finding the structure for the family biographical saga—a work that I struggled to keep under eighty thousand words—is set in three countries and spans over six decades. I had questioned whether the novel should be written in the present or past tense, told from the first or third point of view, who the narrator should be, and where should I start.

I tried them all and was satisfied with the progress until each one collapsed, some of them went well beyond twenty thousand words. I abandoned my work many times and filed the pages away in a hanging folder hidden inside a file drawer. I brooded over my failure but believed in the story of a refugee family forced to leave their home in the former Yugoslavia—a history that has been neglected in the literature of biographies. But I don’t believe in failure. There is quitting a project after you learn that the effort isn’t important and move on to other things. Here’s the word “learn” for failure is learning what doesn’t work in the many steps to build the ladder to success. It took Madame Curie many experiments with uranium rays before confirming her hypothesis. She continued because she believed in her work.

I believed in my story and though I tucked away, I always exhumed from the crypt of the file cabinet it to give it another chance to life in print. But I still didn’t know where to begin. I share my experience in the hope to help a newbie writer avoid the mistakes I made.

Where do you start your novel?

  1. At the beginning and work my plot chronologically? This has possibilities, but then, how do you introduce conflict at the beginning to hook the reader?
  2. At the middle and work my way forward with flashbacks? Tricky to structure smooth transitions for a seamless reading experience.
  3. At the end and hook the reader’s curiosity about what led to that ending? That has its own problems.

I tried them all, only to have the story fall flat because the setup—its foundation—was too weak to hold the forward movement. More than once the story moved smoothly until it hit a wall that couldn’t be cracked, and the characters were trapped in a one-way dead-end street.

How I decided on the beginning—a good start is to introduce the setting, the conflict, and the main characters as soon as possible. It’s not important at this point to reveal the conflict if the reader feels the tension of an imminent life-changing event about to occur. I began my story about one third of the way into the plot and introduced the setting, main characters, and tension in the first three hundred words. In the first paragraph, the reader learns that the setting is a fishing boat, that one character needs crutches and another is a baby.

The boat rocked gently against the waves of the night and lulled the thirteen-month-old Antonietta, who lay asleep below deck. This same calming motion, however, brought an unease to Anita that rose from her stomach to the back of her throat. She sat on her traveling trunk, next to Otto, whose crutches leaned upright against the hull of the trawler. His head fell on his chest, not asleep and not awake, leaden with the trapped air of salted fish, overused fishnets and engine fumes.

A few lines later,

The only sound was the rhythmic chugging of the engine. She stood in the middle of the ladder, with the upper half of her body exposed. How far am I from Sansego? It hasn’t been an hour since I left. Could I still see it? The urge for a last look at the place that was her home possessed her.

In this case, the conflict is a forced abandonment of home. The main character is distressed, her husband uses crutches, and she has a baby. The tension is the hook.

A word about conflict—There is no story without conflict. What does the heroine want? Every episode, every scene in the story is designed to move the story forward EXCEPT that the heroine finds complications all along the way until she reaches a point of no return. She must move forward from conflict to solution, from another conflict to another solution until the climax, a bit more than half way into the book. It is the author’s duty to present these conflicts in pictures, that is scenes that the reader can visualize and feel.

SHOW DON’T TELL. I had to learn that, too. Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” That is the visualization, the scene. With this in mind, I proceeded “bird by bird” in the words of Anne Lamotte, word by word, scene by scene.

Then came the questions: should I write it in past tense or the present? Should I use first person point of view (POV), the third person’s, the narrator’s, or other? In this situation it was impossible to keep the narrator present in every scene. Again, I tried them all, and each time I started over again and tried the next option.

There are many books in the market on how to write a novel, and many blogs with good advice, but there’s no substitute for learning on the job. However, learn the elements of structure.

The classic structure contains five elements identified in the graph. However, plot is much more than that. For additional free information on this topic, nownowel.com  helpful.

 

Interview with an Immigrant

Canaries Can’t Cry

Canaries Can't Cry

Anchored in the Adriatic is the tiny island called Sansego, where people live their lives in heavy labor, faith, and superstition, working the land from cockcrow to vespers and the sea from vespers to cockcrow. This is the birthplace of author Antonia Burgato who, in Canaries Can’t Cry, stitches the stories her mother told of life on the island that, in part one, spans the time between two world wars. The author’s voice changes in the second part, as she comes of age in an America of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Elvis Presley and becomes an adult during the Civil Rights uprising, the VietNam War protests, and the women’s liberation.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

 Q: Your new book, Canaries Can’t Cry, focuses on the Istrian-Dalmatian exodus following World War II. This being a geographical. political and sociological period with which many readers may not be familiar, could you indulge us with a brief history lesson?

A: Dalmatian comprises a group of islands off the coast of Croatia. They belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until WWI, then to Mussolini’s Italy until WWII, and then to Yugoslavia until its breakup in the nineties. Today they are a part of Croatia. By the time my mother turned 32, she had lived in three different countries without ever having moved as far as across the street.

Q: The title alone is compelling. How did you come up with it?

A: When my brother visited me in boarding in school, he told me of a canary he had bought for my mother to keep her company while at home alone. The bird flew on her shoulders chirping while she was at her chores. She loved that bird, but he had a habit of biting. She patted him on the head each time he bit her. One day she patted him too hard, and the bird fell lifeless in her hand. I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with a time when I was eight years old, and she had humiliated me with a public beating in front of the school. I will always remember that as the time she had killed my spirit as she had killed the canary years later.

Q: One of the challenges of penning an autobiographical work is striking the right balance between telling too much, telling too little and finding a place of common ground which will resonate with readers who otherwise have no frame of reference or context regarding the events and dynamics which unfolded. What was your approach to developing this very personal project?

A: In writing an autobiography, the author must expose her inner self. For example, I was still a teenager when I was thrown into the world of Rome alone. It was a painful, growing up experience better left buried. However, I needed to unearth details to take the reader on the journey with me. I chose details that are translatable to any woman too young to be out on her own without guidance.

Q: Your mother escaped from Yugoslavia to go to Italy where your father had an apartment. What did you find there?

A: It was after Italy had surrendered to the Allies and declared war on its former Axis partner. Germany had begun to occupy Italy. Living quarters were scarce for anyone, and my father found his apartment occupied. We had escaped from Yugoslavia hiding in a fishing trawler. When we arrived at my father’s house in Italy, we found his home occupied. We were directed to a local farmer who gave us the chicken coop. When the Germans arrived there, we went to another farmer, and he gave his barn. We lived there until the Germans left and the apartment became available.

Q: After your father’s death, your mother brought you and your brothers and sister to America. Why did you leave Italy?A: With my father gone, my mother lost her privilege to live in the factory-owned apartment. America had opened a quota system to accept the many emigrants from the former Yugoslavia. Everyone my mother knew from her island in Dalmatia had already gone. She asked her father for her share of the inheritance, and she followed them.

Q: How old were you at the time and what were your first impressions of the country you would now call “home”? A: I had become a teenager in America. We had a living room with television, a washer and dryer in the home, a refrigerator, and there were supermarkets. Wow! I also discovered Bazooka gum.

Q: What was it like being a teenager in America? Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known then?

A: That’s a tough and painful question. I was disassociated with family and with school. I tried hard to fit in with other teenagers from the neighborhood, but I wasn’t like them. I belonged neither here nor there—and I wanted to belong here. I’m thankful that such times didn’t have violent gangs as today. I could have joined a gang, if the opportunity was there, just to belong somewhere.

Q: You also have three older brothers and a younger sister. How did your mother manage such a “full house”?

A: She put us all to work, and she took our paycheck. Some people are stupefied by that. But is it better to go to work and leave the children unsupervised or to send the children to work and let them contribute to the family’s well-being? There are arguments for both cases.

Q: Best advice she ever imparted to you?

A: It’s never one piece of advice but a sum of them. She guided us children to value education and responsibility in everything she did in all her scolding and caring—not always the best for everyone. Our (my siblings) values in strength of character, of compassion, and of a drive to self-improvement emanate from her role model.

Q: Mixed marriages are fairly commonplace in the 21st century but not so much back in the 1960s. How was your marriage to a black university student received by family, friends and coworkers?

A: My family saw his color and his character and embraced him into the family. I had nothing but warm memories of my 14-year marriage to a black man in the sixties. His family and friends were the kindest people I have known. They were academics, belonging to the Harlem black elite. They roused in me a desire to further my education. The story was different in the working world. Some states still had anti-miscegenation laws, and feelings were strong in the southern states. I had been fired twice from jobs for being a “n….r lover.”

Q: Was it a happy, fulfilling partnership?

A: I would not be the person I am were it not for my first husband. He had exposed me to universities and to conversations beyond gossip and frivolous niceties. He taught me freedom of expression and helped me to revive my spirit that had died when I was still a child.

Q: Your move to California ignited a passion to start writing seriously. How so?

A: My husband had released in me a spirit that wanted to fly. My marriage had become confining, and I left a man I loved to search for my own identity.

Q: And your passion for playwriting—who or what was the prominent influence there?

A: I would have to say George Bernard Shaw was my primary influence in playwriting. I went on to major in dramatic literature after discovering his plays. The works of Ionesco, Beckett, Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, and Sartre ignited passion in me. My second husband was a well-known playwright and a founder of the Los Angeles Theater Alliance. I had begun to find my voice with him by my side.

Q: Tell us about reconnecting with your brothers and sister. Would you consider yourselves close-knit or has time and distance pushed you farther apart?

A: My mother had sent us all to boarding school. We did not get to know each other until we came to America. She sent us to work as soon as we could to support the family. We learned responsibility and to care for each other. Today, we are closer than we’ve ever been.

Q: Your mother’s death, with the word “Finally,” had a powerful effect on you, and it seems that it was a turning point for you. How so?

A: In her life, she was demanding of me, trying to mold me in her image of a woman. I distanced myself from her, but physical distance does not break the emotional bond. Her death released her grip on me and my resentment of her. With that gone, I could see her strength, frailty, and courage, and I wish she could be here for me to tell her so.

Q: What was the easiest part of the book to write? And the hardest?

A: It was easier to write about my mother’s story because she told them often and with great passion. Once I switched to my story, I had to do much soul-searching and reveal long buried things. I didn’t want to delve deeply into my rights and wrongs, but if I didn’t, my readers would have felt something amiss.

Q: Did you allow anyone to read it while it was still a work in progress?

A: I had a beta reader. A dear friend and very supportive. I also gave parts of it to a few family members. They knew my mother’s story needed to be told; they didn’t always agree with my version of it. It is the old Roshomon effect when everyone sees the same event differently.

Q: Is there a message you want readers to take away from Canaries Can’t Cry when they finish?

A: Live your life to the fullest but do not trample on others. Your accomplishment is attained through your own efforts. If someone has given you a position, be grateful for the opportunity but question what you’ve done to earn it. If you throw someone under the bus to get somewhere, you have cheated.

Q: Define “home.” Is it the place you were born, the place you live now or the place that holds the fondest memories?

A: A home is where you find love and fulfillment. That place for me, at this time, is in California with my third husband, surrounded by encouraging and caring friends.

Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?

A: I did quite a bit of reading about traditional publishers and decided to go hybrid because, at this stage of my life, I didn’t want to spend the lengthy time in submissions and rejections. It took me 10 years to write this book and I wanted this baby out.

Q: What are you doing to market the book?

A: In addition to this interview, I do much social media contacts, book signings, and speaking engagements to immigrant associations, especially to those engaged in second language learning.

Q: What have the reactions been from family, friends and fans?

A: Their encouragement motivates me to write my next book. Some have expressed a shared feeling, especially in the various “me too” scenes. They didn’t know that about me. I had never talked about them before for two reasons: First,  I thought that was just normal behavior for a man; and, second, I though that I had done something wrong, that I was guilty.

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: A few of my readers have remarked that they didn’t know what an interesting life I have had. I’m not so sure it was more interesting than anyone else’s life. I’ve lived with curiosity, adventure, and risk. That is my wealth.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: My next book, The Secret Life of the Very Old, is now in its editing phase. I’m already thinking of more projects. Four years ago, my husband and I took a year off to live in Italy. It’s in my mind to write that memoir. Another one is my displacement after my house burned to the ground from one of the California fires. I’m still displaced with lots of emotions.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: People say their life is boring compared to mine. I’d say no one’s life is boring. Even an uneventful life has its unique story. Live life to fill your cup and shout it out. Thank you for this opportunity to talk about my book.

 

The Challenge of Writing in a Second Language

Writing in a second language is a challenge, for sure, but the result is often superior to that of writing in the comfort of the first language. Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright and novelist, said that he wrote in French “out of a need to be ill equipped.” Indeed, there’s something to that. I am never comfortable writing in either of the two languages that I speak fluently. Italian is my native language, but my knowledge of it has never progressed beyond the basic communicative level necessary to carry on a social conversation. So for me writing in that language is out of the question.

English is my primary language—the language spoken where I live and in the country of my academic studies. I make a distinction to call English my “primary language” as opposed to my “second language” because of the assumption that the native language is always the primary one. In fact, I find that my native language falls deeper into the recesses of my psyche as the passage of time moves me farther away from the language of my birth, and my secondary language moves into the primary position. I talk about this process in Chapter 30 of my book Canaries Can’t Cry

Unlike Samuel Beckett who chose to write in his second language, I will always be ill equipped to write in any language. I doubt myself in every printed word and sentence that I write. Have I chosen the proper word? Have I used “that” in place of “who?” Is it, The man who won the race is Italian, or is it, The man that won the race is Italian?” I search the Thesaurus for choices and scour the dictionary definitions and examples of the word used in a sentence. Writing in a second language can be frustrating, racking, and intense. But this is the same process as writing in any language. The vocabulary search may be more intensive, more taxing, and outright exhausting, but that should be the same process for any serious writer, only more so for a foreigner.

Scholars of Teaching a Second Language agree that the process of writing is the same in any language—a continuum of thoughts in the active voice that follows a natural sequence. Thought B must follow thought A and thought C must follow thought B and so on to thought Z. This continuum of thoughts, one following the other, of cause and effect, of struggles and conflicts, leading to the final thoughts of resolution and dénouement is the same in any language. Whether you write for enjoyment or to break the boundaries of convention, the process of writing must follow the continuum.

Who are the authors who write in a second language?

As one author who confronts the challenge of writing in a second language, I stand in good company. Among the most well-known writers are:

  1. Samuel Beckett—born in Ireland, writes in a foreign language “out of a need to be ill equipped.” He received the Nobel prize in literature in 1969.
  2. Eva Hoffman was 13 when she moved to Canada and eventually to USA from Poland. She is the author Lost in Translation: A life in a New Language and several other fiction and nonfiction books.
  3. Jack Kerouac, French-Canadian, spoke a French dialect. He became a seminal figure of the literary beat movement with his On the Road, published in 1957.
  4. Milan Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia. He wrote in French The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Czech.
  5. Vladimir Nabokov, born in Russia, described himself as “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library.” Lolita sold 100,00 copies within the first couple of weeks of publication and is considered a classic of American literature.
  6. Joseph Conrad was born in Ukraine. His novels Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness rank among the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. He wrote in English, his third language. His native language is Polish.
  7. Khaled Hosseini was fifteen when his family emigrated from Afghanistan and was fluent in English within a year. He has chosen to write all his novels in English. Both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, his best known works, are novels set in his homeland, as is And the Mountains Echoed.
  8. Jhumpa Lahiri, was born in India and raised in the United States. She currently lives in Italy and started writing in Italian. Her first book (in English), Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. She claims that she has “felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.” A sentiment that I expressed in the title of my first book, Canaries Can’t Cry: Living with two flags in one heart.
  9. Junot Diaz was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 2008 for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. His native language is Spanish. Born in the Dominican Republic, he now lives in New York.
  10.  Ha Jin from China, Louis Begley from Poland, Edwidge Danticat from Hait, Aleksandar Hemon from Bosnia, Viet Thanh Nguyen from Vietnam. The list goes on

In a previous article I wrote how culture and language are intertwined. Some authors choose to write in a non-native language precisely because of the challenge of writing in the second language. They are not bound by the rules and convention of their native country. Romance languages for example, Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French, while sharing a common Latin root, they manifest their peculiar differences in stress, cadence, intonation, and pitch. However, they have a reputation for beautiful, flowery lyrics—a “no-no” in writing English. More on this in the following blogs. (Click here to subscribe).

Do these authors transfer their multicultural experience to their writing style? James Joyce wrote in English but away from his homeland. He had put a distance between the subject of his characters and their home. Could he have written Dubliners while still living in Ireland? One wonders! But it cannot be denied, the richness of cultures is reflected in the breadth of their works.

 

 




Galani Venice Style

Galani Venice Style

Whether it’s galani or crostoli, this fluffy, crispy, and mildly sweet delicacy is a staple in many home gatherings of families and friends from the Veneto-Dalmatian region. This region broadly includes northeast Italy from Verona to Trieste and all the Croatian coast and the many islands in the former Yugoslavia governed by Italy in the period between the two world wars.

It’s a cultural thing

I recently made a plateful of galani for a book signing event to share with my readers. I talk about galani in Chapter 25, Nostalgia, of my book Canaries Can’t Cry. It is a common occurrence in social gatherings to place of big bowl of galani in the center of the table with a jug of red wine, much the way Americans would put a bowl of potato chips and a pitcher of beer, except that the galani are always homemade. In the chapter Nostalgia, I meet for the first time my uncle and cousins from Sansego, now living in Hoboken. In the middle of the table, they had a big bowl of galani and a jug of Gallo wine.

I remember this gathering as a warm get-together that ended in folkloric songs of Dalmatia. For this reason, I will always have a soft spot for galani in my heart and a warm place for a bowl of that pastry strip on my table. I now fully embrace my American culture together with my Veneto-Dalmatian heritage, and on, occasion, I heartily put of bowl of potato chips on the table. It’s as heartwarming and as satisfying as galani. 

This blog is to share a bit of the social culture from my Dalmatian roots. I would be amiss if I did not include my family’s recipe in here.

Galani/Crostoli

1 cup flour, sifted, plus more for rolling the dough

1 egg

1 tbsp of sugar

1 tbsp of grappa

oil for frying

confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Optional: To the batter, you may add the zest of one lemon or orange, one tablespoon of butter, a pinch of salt

Method

To make the galani dough, place the flour in a large bowl. Add the eggs, sugar, salt, lemon zest, and grappa.

Knead the dough with your hands until it comes together into a smooth, even ball (it should bounce back when gently pressed with a finger). Wrap the dough in a damp kitchen towel and leave to rest for one hour.

Next divide the dough into small portions and roll them thinly using a pasta machine (or a rolling pin), dusting them with flour at every passage. Cut the strips of dough into rectangles (about 3×1.5 in.). Make small cuts in the dough or twist it as desired.

Fill three-quarters of a deep, medium-sized skillet with light olive oil (or avocado or grapeseed oil) and set it over medium heat. When the oil is hot (355F), slip in a first batch (3-4) of crostoli. Fry them until deep-golden all over, for about 3 minutes (or less). Watch then carefully, as they turn golden very quickly. Drain them with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate lined with towel paper. When cool, dust them generously with fine sugar.

A holiday pleaser

Galani or crostoli is ubiquitous throughout Italy by many names and variations. From crostoli, in northern Italy, to chiacchere in Lombardi, to bugie, sfrappole, grostoli, cenci, and frappe, the ingredients very from the region to region. In Venice they use grappa, in Romagna they use rum. Sometimes orange or lemon zest is added to the dough. The variations are as limited only by one’s imagination. My sister-in-law, a wonderful cook from Bologna, sticks to the basic of one-one-one-one: one cup flour, one egg, one tablespoon sugar, one tablespoon rum. Double the ingredients, if desired.

In addition to being a party pleaser, galani is an essential ingredient to complement holiday festivities from natale to carnevale.

Buone feste. Happy holidays.

The Art of a Good Impression

La bella figura rules Italian behavior in every aspect of life—from the way you dress to the way to comport yourself and the way you speak, and, above all, table manners—all make up the impression you give others. La bella figura is a uniquely Italian concept of living with dignity and difficult for outsiders to comprehend.

There are no rules for what makes a good impression, la bella figura. Giovanni Della Casa (1503-56) wrote a set rules in his Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior to present to his nephew as a guide to simple decency. As important as acting upon polite behavior is learning what behavior to avoid. The successful man, must combine an exterior grace with a necessary social conformity. Anything that could give offense or reveal vulgar thoughts should be avoided.

What are these behaviors that make la bella figura? In the 2015 eBook release by Project Gutemberg, J. E. Spingarn describes that the Galateo’s real foundation of good manners is in the desire to please. “This desire is the aim or end of all manners, teaching us alike to follow what pleases others and to avoid what displeases them.”

These behaviors run the gamut from personal cleanliness to how to fold a table napkin. These include many dos and don’ts.

The “dos” “don’ts” seem obvious, but it is alarming how often people violate these basic rules of social behavior, and it behooves all of us to review them.

Among the Don’ts:

  • Don’t interrupt someone speaking.
  • Don’t speak loudly
  • Don’t pick your nose or teeth in public
  • Don’t eat with your mouth open
  • Don’t cough, sneeze or yawn in someone’s face
  • Don’t fall asleep in company
  • Don’t turn your back to your neighbor
  • Don’t get so close to a person as to breathe in his face
  • Don’t be careless about the way you sit
  • Don’t be too ceremonious or too servile
  • Don’t make chewing, lip-smacking noises with your food
  • When you blow your nose, do not look at your snots
  • When at a banquet, don’t sit turned to the person on your right or left giving your back to the person sitting next to you on the opposite side.

This list is by no means complete, but you get the idea. These manners of behavior may sound obvious and laughable but think of how many people you know who are guilty of one or more such social infractions.

The list continues, but you get the idea. Now for the Dos:

Italians use formal language when speaking to strangers or to people in a higher-level position, such as the boss. The singular pronoun “you” has two forms, the informal tu (you), used when speaking with a friend, and the formal lei (which does not have an equivalent in English) when speaking with a stranger. To use the informal tu in a situation that calls for the formal lei is a gross error of social ethics and will make la brutta figura, give the bad impression.

  • Cleanliness is foremost in manners and predates Biblical times. In certain ancient religions cleanliness related to spiritual purification. Despite the oft repeated phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” some clergymen insist that the church never objected to bathing “provided one indulged in it out of necessity and not for the sake of pleasure.” However, cleanliness in Della Casa’s Renaissance was a mere act to please others and to insure social status.
  • When in a supermarket or in one of the many popular farmer markets wear a plastic glove, supplied in any markets, when selecting the produce. To touch food in the bin or shelf with bare hands is considered impolite and will give occasion la brutta figura, the bad impression.

Through all the many rules of dos and don’ts it is significant to notice that Italians are a contradiction in themselves. Speaking loudly and shouting across the street is a common practice in many towns and villages. They have little patience for keeping their place in line without an audible annoyance and will wear flip flops and spaghetti-strap knit tops without sense of style.

Every town and country has its own code of social behavior. When traveling to a foreign country, it befits one to learn a bit of the cultural code of ethics to avoid a reputation attributed to a whole flock of geese rather than the goose or, worse, offending the people of that country by a wrong gesture. “The Ugly American” is a phrase popularized by the title of a 1958 book by Eugene Burdick, which gave a blistering account of Americans abroad who remain insensitive to other cultures.

  • Hand gestures, too, have different meanings in different countries. Joining the thumb with the index finger in America means “OK,” but in other parts of the world it has a scatological connotation and is insulting.

Today Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo is universally accepted as the standard code of social ethics with the latest printing as recent as 2016. La bella figura is best understood as the desired extrinsic value of a character that produces admiration by others. It is superficial and yet all important because, as the saying goes, first impressions last a long time. For a more recent study on manners, America has Emily Post’s Etiquette.

As with everything, rules of social behavior change with time and culture. Be sure to read about accepted social behavior in the host country of your travels.

 

The Fellowship of Language and Culture

My native language is a dialect of Croatia known as Sansegoto, spoken in Sansego, but I never learned to speak it. There once were almost three thousand people on that island; today, there are less than three hundred. A famine following World War II and the war itself forced them to leave. My mother escaped from the island with her children and crippled husband, carrying me in her arms. I was thirteen months old, and the first language I learned to speak was Italian. However, I exist in a culture of three languages.

I have been exposed to it in my formative years through my mother’s circle of family and friends. I picked up a few words here and there and many bleep words. However, I learned their culture not through the vocabulary of the language but through every nuance of the dialect, every inflection in the sound, the modulation of the speech, the gasp, the snicker, and the laughter in the voice. They are as different from Italian or English as is the culture associated with each vernacular.

Language and culture are organic and intertwined. Lectures, books, and videos will teach vocabulary and stringing together words to form a sentence. But the learner has not learned the language unless she also immerses herself in the culture, for Development of a culture cannot occur without communication, and communication cannot develop without language. For this reason, once the student has acquired a basic vocabulary, the teacher will immerse her into the relevant folklore and literature that has influenced morality, lifestyles, and manners of the country.

“More than 650 new words, senses, and subentries have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in its latest update, October 2019, including fake news, xoxo, Jedi, and mind trick. More than 1,400 new words, senses, and subentries have been added in the quarter ending June 2019, including bae, yeesh, and hasbian.” In January 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced that it has added more than 1,100 words, senses, and sub-entries. Culture has changed and so has language. Dictionaries in other tongues will have their own lexicon metamorphosis according to the time and culture of their countries.

Language and culture are intertwined

My primary language is Italian at the basic conversational level. That’s as far as I got in my Italian school, enough to function and carry on a conversation, but not good enough to read Umberto Eco. To do that, I must rely on translation. I had lived in Italy, had my little friends, played girlish games with them, and learned family values. Too young to have acquired cognitive language, I understood the culture and where I fit. Eight years later I was uprooted to America and my Italian vocabulary dwindled in the process of acquiring English while I added American culture to my background without subtracting the others.

It is what happens to every immigrant that, in the process of gaining cognitive proficiency in a new language, the primary language becomes secondary. It is within this backdrop that I stutter when people ask me, Where are you from?

I am neither from here nor from there. I am from all the places that have touched me. To say that I am Italian would deny my cultural exposure with everything American and with my deeper core of Croatian culture. It is a matter of personal identity defined by exposure to languages and cultures that reached me through home environment, education, and travel.