The History of IAWA

In 1989, Robert Viscusi published his seminal manifesto, “Breaking the Silence: Strategic Imperatives for Italian American Culture.” In his paper he argues that Italian America lacked a tradition of self-critical discourse, and needed to be bilingual, construct an Italian American historical narrative, and promote an internal critique.

  What precipitated this manifesto was the murder of 16 year-old African American, Yusef Hawkins, by a mostly Italian American mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and the shameful failure of the Italian American establishment to adequately speak out against Hawkin’s murder. Hawkin’s killing represented the third racially-motivated murder of an African American in an Italian American neighborhood in the 1980s.

  When African American demonstrators, led by Al Sharpton, protested Hawkin’s murder in the streets of Bensonhurst they were met by local counter-demonstrators who chanted racist slogans and waved watermelons over their heads, acting out what Viscusi charaterized as a “racist dumbshow.” In addition, rather than seek out alternative voices in the Italian American community, the mass media focused on the racist elements of Bensonhurst thus fusing in the popular mind—some would say forever—Italian Americans and racist thuggery. As Joe Sciorra said, who marched with Al Sharpton, “The tragedy of Yusef Hawkin’s death engendered an examination of conscience and values among Italian Americans in ways that simply did not exist before.”

  Italian American writers, in particular, were incensed that the mass media made no attempt to solicit their views—writers usually being among the more learned and articulate members of any community. Viscusi remembers presenting his paper, “Breaking the Silence. . .” at a session of the American Italian Historical Association (renamed IASA) in San Francisco in November 1989, which ignited an intense and heated discussion. Afterwards, he along with Peter Carrevetta and Theresa Aiello-Gerber came up with the idea of forming a writers group. In 1990, a small group of Italian American writers continued to discuss forming a writers group at her Manhattan apartment.

  On March 23, 1991, Italian American writers who had published at least one book, were invited to a meeting at Aiello-Gerbers apartment. About 30 authors showed up. Among them were Viscusi, Maria Mazziotti Gilhan, Tom Belmonte, and Anthony Valerio. Carravetta was in Italy, but there in spirit. People were asked to name their favorite Italian American author besides themselves. Viscusi reports that the silence was deafening and helped lead to the adoption of what eventually became the three rules of IAWA: Read one another. Write or be written. Buy our books. According to Viscusi, it was at this meeting that IAWA was officially born.

  It is important to place the genesis of IAWA within the context of a particularly turbulent and fertile period of intellectual, literary, and political activity in the Italian American community. This period was una piccola rivoluzione. In 1985, Helen Barolini won an American Book Award for The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women. The following year, Carravetta founded the journal, Differentia, a review of Italian thought, and in 1988, poet and editor Rose Romano launched La bella figura, a literary journal and Malafemmina Press devoted entirely to writing by Italian American women.

  The year 1989 saw the founding of Bordighiera Press, along with the literary and cultural review Voices in Italian Americana, by Fred Gardaphe, Paolo Giordano, and Anthony Tamburri, who also edited in 1991 the ground-breaking anthology, From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana.

 A synergy of highly-accomplished scholars were already engaged in aspects of IA culture such as Rose Basile Green, Jerre Mangione, Rudolph Vecoli, Donna Gabbaccia, Jennifer Guglielmo, the late Phillip Cannistraro, Gerald Meyer, Nunzio Pernicone, Sal Salerno, Stanislao Pugliese, and Paul Avrich. But the New York group had a drive to share, to hear each other’s work, to create a groundswell of intellectual exchange.

 In the summer of 1991, a group of progressive activists, founded The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF). Its mission was to commemorate and continue the work of the radical, seven-time Congressman Vito Marcantoino (1902-54), who built a unique electoral alliance with Italians, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans.

 The following year, Italian Americans in New York, Minnesota, Denver and California allied with Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans to protest the Columbus Quincentennial, and the genocide that followed in the wake of the European conquest of the Americas. Gil Fagiani was a founder of the New York-based group Italian Americans for a Multicultural U.S. (IAMUS), and we were co-founders of the Vito Marcantonio Forum.

 In March of 1993, Gay Talese raised the question on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, “Where Are the Italian American Novelists?” In his article he goes on to lament the lack of Italian America writers, revealing, according to Gardaphe, “his lack of familiarity with the vast body of literature by Italian American authors.” Talese’s article, and the strong passions it aroused, helped focus attention on the question of whether an Italian literary tradition existed and on the relationship of Italian American writers to the publishing industry.

 During this time, the Canadian publishing house, Guernica Editions, under the editorship of Antonio D’Alfonso, played a vital role in publishing such Italian American writers as Mazziotti-Gillan, Viscusi, Gardaphe, Anthony Valerio and others.

 What this period demonstrated was that for many Italian Americans, their ethnic identity was no longer primarily shaped by the Italian immigrant experience, but by their interaction with the conflicting currents of life in a rapidly-changing, multicultural society. Within this society, Italian Americans could play the roles of both victimizers, as we have seen in the racial killings in Italian American neighborhoods, and victims, as exemplified by the stereotyping of Italian Americans in the mass media as Mafiosi, ignoramuses and racists. Most importantly, Italian Americans demonstrated a willingness to challenge in a myriad of creative ways, all the conventional notions of what constituted Italian American identity, including those conservative views promulgated by much of the organized Italian American community.

 IAWA, as Viscusi has said, “was born out of conflict and necessity.” Italian Americans needed an organization that would speak out—and speak out loudly—against racism and the distorted and defamatory images of Italian Americans. It provided a safe and nurturing atmosphere where Italian Americans could tell their stories and develop as writers, without being dismissed as “ethnic writers.” And finally, it would help create a book-loving and book-buying community for published Italian American authors to sell their books.

 Thirty one years have passed since IAWA’s inception. During that time—as we learn from the IAWA website—it has promoted Italian American literature by encouraging the writing, reading, publication, distribution, translation, and study of Italian America writing. Certainly more books than ever are being published by Italian American authors. But by the same token, Italian Americans are moving into their fourth and fifth generations in the U.S.

 To further add context to this progression, the John D. Calandra Italian American Institut of Queens College, City University of NY, organized a conference titled The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism in 1997. More than 60 scholars working in both the social sciences and cultural studies documented that from the inception of the Great Migration in 1880 to the present, leading figures of the Italian American community, had been radical. Essays, including Julia Lisella’s are included in the volume named for the conference.

 With the publication of Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880-1943, in 2014, edited by Francesco Durante and Viscusi (American Edition), the landmark 1,000-page collection of translated writings of Italian speaking immigrants, that the foundation been laid for the serious development of an Italian American literary canon. Before Italoamericana, the beginning of the Italian American literary tradition, written in Italian, was inaccessible to most Italian Americans.

  Recent feature Connie Post had this to say about her experience:  “IAWA offers an essential sense of belonging. A way to carry your heritage and share it with other writers to more fully embrace and understand the full breadth of our histories. It feeds both a cultural and literary need that resides in so many of us.”

  Author Matt Cariello, who won the Laura/Frasca Prize for his collection Talk, published by Bordighera Press offered:

 “We are all of us from someplace else going somewhere we don’t know. We’re all immigrants. My ancestors are Italian, Irish, and German. I was born in Jersey City but live in Ohio. My children, who have Italian last names, were born in China. We’re all diasporic beings; none of us are from here. That’s a good thing to remember.”

 With the onset of social media, a new set of etiquette has been introduced, one in which support of each other is immediately transparent: be it posting reviews on goodreads, or other sites that will publish reviews, authors are learning how to keep the momentum up once they have published a book.

  The old saw of scratching each other’s backs has gained new validity in this environment driving home the profound need to be an audience member as well as a feature.

  Those who attend colleagues’ readings or promote them tend to attract audiences at their own launches—helping to fill the room – something café owners are acutely aware of or as Annie Lanzilotto likes to say, “as a feature you are responsible for bringing every set of ears to that event.”

  What are the three rules of IAWA? There will be a quiz at the end ….

 updated for the 05/26/2022 iambooks talk

Courtesy of Maria Lisella.