“I often say that I was born in 1944 but raised in the 15th century…”
As far as opening literary lines go, that is certainly one that has the potential to stick with you for a long time.
It is also how local professor and author Joanna Clapps Herman opens her eloquently written collection of essays about growing up in a New England factory town in a large Italian-American family. Throughout the work, Clapps Herman richly tells about growing up in an environment split between modern suburban surroundings and the Old-World values, customs, and traditions of her deep-rooted Italian family.
Besides being a gifted storyteller in the Old-World oral tradition as well as the modern written word, Clapps Herman for many years has also been a friend, mentor, and inspiration to countless up-and-coming writers both here in Westchester County and far beyond. She currently teaches Creative Writing at the graduate and undergraduate level at Manhattanville College and at The City College of New York (CCNY), and every semester donates her time and diverse talents to provide invaluable mentorship and technical writing tips to hundreds of current and former writing students.
On Thursday night, the mutual admiration and respect she shares for her fellow teachers, scholars, and fellow Italian-Americans was more than apparent, as dozens of current and former students, aspiring fellow authors, and a large part of the local Italian-American community turned out for a reading and discussion of her latest book, “The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America” (SUNY Press).
The event was sponsored by the Westchester Italian Cultural Center and was held at the breath-taking Generoso Pope Foundation in Tuckahoe, where attendees from all over the tri-state were treated to an extremely personal and interactive discussion and bonding experience with the author.
Clapps Herman began and ended the evening with interactive and informal “family-style” discussions, the first of which involved her asking practically every person in the room about their families’ genealogies, revealing many individuals with Southern Italian-American heritage, herself including. For her closing, the author turned the tables on her audience, asking them to share stories from their own Italian-American families and upbringings, which was very well-received by the diverse group in attendance.
Between the two informal chats, Clapps Herman read three selections from her new book, including “Before and After Tinfoil,” “Coffee And,” and an especially touching selection about her beloved father.
Bronxville resident Laura Giordano was among the audience members who generously shared tales from her own Italian-American family, telling the amazing story of how her grandmother refused to remain in steerage for the month-long journey to America, instead opting to tie herself to the mast of the ship she was traveling on with a blanket in order to avoid being washed overboard.
“My mother was born exactly one year following that voyage, and she is celebrating her 100th birthday this very evening!” said Giordano.
Aspiring author and consultant Mark Hehl of Southbury, Connecticut also spoke, sharing part of the fascinating tale of his Italian grandfather’s journey to America, which he is currently writing and hopes to have published in mid-to-late 2012.
For Clapps Herman, events like this Thurday's are one of the many ways she continues to work through her both joyful and painful childhood, and an opportunity for her to encourage others to do the same.
“I took a long time building toward writing this book,” Clapps Herman said. “I was worried about taking on the most difficult and painful parts of my family’s stories, and that held me back for a long time. Eventually though, I wanted this material to be written and in the world.”
“I had to get this work done, I wanted to get the work done," she added. "I wrote it in a dead heat of nine months, [during which time] my husband was very ill—he came close to dying at that time—so all I cared about was getting the work done.”
During Thursday's talk, Clapps Herman revealed that she would visit her dying husband for as long as she could, and then rush home to write and work on the book. She would teach, see her husband, come home and write, then repeat the entire cycle the next day.
“It was a strangely productive time,” she said.
One of the recurring themes in both the book and the group discussion was the unwavering hospitality of the Italian people, which was only further reinforced when Patrizia Calce, Program Director for the Westchester Italian Cultural Center, offered to take a number of event attendees on an unsolicited tour of the 100-year old building’s facilities that her non-profit organization shares with the very generous Generoso Pope Foundation.
Summarizing perfectly the atmosphere at Thursday's event, Calce said: “You know, I’ve never met [Clapps Herman] before tonight, but I feel like I’ve known her forever!”
When asked if she could sum-up her life, her book, and the evening’s event in just a few words -- a daunting task for even an intellectual of her calliber -- Clapps Herman replied in a way only a true author could.
“I come from a place and time where life was lived in a very ancient way—the ongoing mythical present.”