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Growing Up Italian in America: Old-World Author Charms Tuckahoe Crowd

An evening of Old-World charm in Tuckahoe with author and professor Joanna Clapps Herman, Italian-American style.

“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.”

Heather L. Hayduk-Oriani September 30, 2011 at 10:16 PM
This was such a great evening. Thank you Joanna for letting me take part. Orianiphotography.com
J.D. Oriani September 30, 2011 at 11:16 PM
Wonderful evening with a great group of "family" - Joanna has a way of making everybody in the room feel as if they are home at last!
Annie Rachele Lanzillotto October 01, 2011 at 01:08 AM
"The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America" is a milestone in the literature of unearthing womens' collective silence, and nourishing our souls with the richness therein. Joanna Clapps Herman speaks of Ancient Greece and Ancient Lucania, in a single breath with 1950's sockhops in rural Connecticut. What a joy
Angela Iadavaia-Cox October 01, 2011 at 01:29 AM
It was as if Clapps Herman invited us into her home and as the perfect host, she entertained us with her stories and welcomed our own. On so many levels it was richly satisfying. She is a gifted writer and speaker.
J.D. Oriani October 01, 2011 at 02:55 AM
@Annie- Joanna truly is a gifted story-teller! It is a challenge to say which I prefer more, her writing or her oral delivery. Luckily for those of us in attendance in Tuckahoe on Thursday night ... we got BOTH! A real treat. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!
J.D. Oriani October 01, 2011 at 03:01 AM
@Angela- Very well said! That is exactly how it felt to me as well. It was like walking into your favorite Italian Aunt's house and being greeted by your large, loving family. The only thing missing was the smell of sauce simmering on the stove in the kitchen. Thank you for attending, reading, and taking the time to comment.
vito lucchesi October 01, 2011 at 01:19 PM
enjoyed every bit of all this---vito lucchesi Bronxville
Joanna Herman October 02, 2011 at 03:45 PM
I had such a lovely time doing this event in the inviting home of the Italian American Cultural Center hosted by Patrizia Calce. She made me as the presenter and everyone else who came to this event welcome as if we were in her own home and of course we were. There was coffee and served to all of us and nothing says you are in an Italian home better than that. I loved hearing the audiences stories after the reading. So many of us come from ancient traditions of hospitality. It was great to hear about how many cultures that crosses. The Patch people were completely with us and discrete at the same time. Thank you Patch. You were wonderful to have there in the room with us.
J.D. Oriani October 02, 2011 at 04:26 PM
@Vito- Glad you enjoyed yourself. Thanks for commenting!
J.D. Oriani October 02, 2011 at 04:29 PM
@Joanna- On behalf of Patch.com, our amazing photographer (Heather Hayduk), and myself ... Thank You for inviting us to your lovely event. Continued success with your new book!
Joanna Herman October 02, 2011 at 04:31 PM
you beauty you, thks for coming and for this lovely comment. j
Joanna Herman October 02, 2011 at 04:31 PM
You are such a good friend Angela. Thanks for this wonderful and generous comment.
Joanna Herman October 02, 2011 at 04:32 PM
Vito, Did anyone ever call you Vituccio when you were little. That is what I still call one of my favorite cousins. Thanks for coming out.
Mimi Leahey October 03, 2011 at 07:13 PM
The way it was informs the way it is now -- beautiful details about a world we can now only inhabit in a book as rare and rich as The Anarachist Bastard. Dive in and savor each word. Joanna takes you into the rustic kitchens and backyard gardens where her family shared meals, chores, secrets, resentments and deep affection. It was joy to hear her read a few of the stories and embellish! Being at the Italian Cultural Center was like being at a family gathering -- without any tension! Brava!
jo October 17, 2011 at 05:52 PM
I grew up in a very Italian family in Tuckahoe.. miss the village so... THS grad.. athe 60's were a great time to grow up there.. sorry I was not aware of this "reading".. Tuckahoe rocks... fortunate to be of its "own".. old time Tuckahoe needs a reunion..

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