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Articles by: Edvige Giunta

  • Louise DeSalvo, Edi Giunta
    Facts & Stories

    Remembering Louise

    Louise DeSalvo was extraordinary. Many people have said it and many will say it, people who knew her personally and people who never met her but were forever affected by reading even one of her books. She was not simply a writer. She was a magnificent writer, one whose literary daring and power has not been fully acknowledged yet. Literary giants are often not recognized as such by their contemporaries. She wrote memoir, essay, biography, literary criticism, fiction, poetry, flash nonfiction. She was a superb textual scholar when that branch of academic work was off limits to women. She was a brilliant editor. She understood memoir like nobody else and taught countless students and readers how to write memoir and teach memoir to other students. In turn, these students have been so touched by her work that they write, as so many of mine have done, that they are devastated by her death.
         “So sorry for your loss,” they say. “Our loss,” they add.
         Louise had a passion for ideas, stories, and words that she could translate into books seemingly effortlessly—seemingly, because Louise worked hard at her craft, every day, five days a week, but never more than three hours at your desk because you need time for pasta and biscotti and Ernie and the kids and the grandkids. What a cook she was. I make some of her recipes—baked zucchini with fresh rosemary, pasta with broccoli and pistachios. It’s like trying to emulate my grandmother’s mythical cooking: just not the same. She was a knitter and a weaver. She practiced meditation and yoga and qi gong. Going on walks in her neighborhood was her daily prayer. She was spiritual and irreverent. She was celebrated and private. She saw through people. You had to be your most authentic self, or she would not waste her time with you. She was so extraordinary that my friend Nancy Caronia and I decided to do a book about her. The scholars and writers who wrote for that book consistently echoed our belief and documented the fact that Louise DeSalvo is indeed extraordinary.
         What benevolent goddess looked kindly upon me and decided that not only did I need but also deserve Louise DeSalvo in my life?
         It was early fall, 1995. The phone rang and Josh, not yet my husband, answered. He smiled, surprised, his body straightening as he spoke cordially to the mysterious caller.
         “Let me put her on,” he said, and then mouthed to me with excitement “IT’S LOUISE DESALVO!” as he handed me the phone.
         I was an unknown young scholar, unemployed at the time, and I had written to this author I admired but did not know personally, asking her to contribute to an issue of the journal VIA devoted to Italian American women I was guest editing. I was so elated that she called. She said yes, she would send me an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, Vertigo.
         And so it began, the most multifaceted and also beautifully uncomplicated friendship of my life, one that has touched every aspect of the person I am and try, in the spirit of what I have learned from Louise, to keep becoming.
         Over the years, I have written often about Louise’s work in books and articles, but she has been so much more than the author I greatly admired and the woman who gave me the gift of writing and teaching memoir.
         We laughed, as I reminded her of that phone call, even the last time I saw her, six days ago. Neither of us could remember exactly how we became friends after that formal first telephone encounter. We only remembered being always the closest of friends—no transition, no slow building of trust, no false starts, no deception, no regrets, no spite, no jealousy, just unconditional acceptance and reciprocal love, respect, curiosity, and support that over the years grew and became essential, life-sustaining.
         For the last twenty-three years, Louise and I have spoken on the phone almost every day, sometimes three or four times a day. There was no obligation dictating those phone calls—only the pure pleasure of being together.
         Every morning, I brush my teeth and shuffle downstairs, still in pajamas, to make coffee. My hand grabs the phone and I dial.
         “How are you, honey?” she says.
         “How are you, bella?” I say.
         In the last few years I learned to ask not “how are you?” but “how are you today?”
         The kids. The husbands. Her grandkids. The houses. The gardens. Trips. Parties. Meals. Always the meals.
         Before hanging up, “So what are you cooking tonight?”
         We talked about food endlessly, even did a book together about food, and while we worked on it sitting at her kitchen table, we devoted as much time to cooking and eating as we did to editing.
         The quotidian we shared in our daily conversation was wrapped up with serious talk of writing, reading, teaching, politics, spirituality, illness, life, and death. It was all woven together, the mundane and the transcendent, a loaf of braided bread—bread, which she loved to make from scratch. We laughed. We cried. We confided in each other with unconditional trust.
         Sometimes when she was struggling with a difficult decision, an issue about which she could not make up her mind, I would say, “Can I offer a suggestion?” I had learned from her to put it that way, a gentle offering rather than the imposition of advice.
         “Sure,” she’d say. And I would proceed to tell her how a good friend of mine had once told me…. She would go quiet and I could almost see her nod. It would take a few minutes for Louise to realize I was offering her back the same precious wisdom she had once given me. And then she’d laugh. And I’d laugh too. And we were content and grateful to share vulnerability and strength in this extraordinarily balanced friendship we were making together.
         Since Louise’s death, sometimes I feel afraid that I will forget what I learned from her, that the memories of the times together will slip away, that the words we shared during the thousands of phone calls will be forever lost to me.
         “Help me out here, Louise,” I want to tell her. “Don’t go yet. I have something to tell you, something more I want to hear from you.”
         She knew that losing her would be very hard. We are all grief stricken. But she told me I would be okay. And I trust I will, we all will, all of us who so loved her, especially her family—dear Ernie, Jason, Justin, Deb, Lynn, Julia and Steven—her magnificent family that has so lovingly embraced me and mine.
         Louise was extraordinary. She helped me become a better writer, editor, teacher, mentor, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. She helped me learn how to take care of and love myself better. So much of how I live my daily life has been influenced by her, and yet she made it possible for me never to feel the lesser friend or writer or teacher—or even cook.
         Once—we had been friends only for a couple of years—she told me to cut the self-deprecating crap.
         As a writer and scholar, I feel the loss of all those books Louise still had in her and that she talked about, the two books that she did start and read to me over the phone, all the teaching she will not do and the writers she will not mentor. But what hurts deep in my chest and in the pit of my stomach is the knowledge that I can never again wake up, shuffle sleepily downstairs, dial her number, and hear her voice, her beautiful, beloved, extraordinary voice.


    *Edvige Giunta, Department of English, Professor at New Jersey City University.

  • Opinioni

    La possibilità. La realtà di un ponte


    C’è qualcosa di profondamente commovente nell’immagine del signore anziano e della signora accanto a lui, tutti e due lì, all’angolo di Washington Place e Greene Street a Manhattan. Questo luogo è carico di ricordi che scuotono profondamente chiunque conosca i dettagli dell’incendio della fabbrica di camicie del Triangle che il 25marzo 1911 uccise 146 lavoratori, per la maggior parte emigrate italiane ed ebree.


    L’incendio, che fu causato dalla mancanza di adeguate misure di sicurezza, scoppiò alle 4 e 40 del pomeriggio di una giornata di sole primaverile, all’ottavo piano, e in pochi minuti si propagò agli altri due piani della fabbrica.

    Molti riuscirono a scappare grazie al coraggioso intervento dei due operatori dell’ascensore, Joseph Zito e Gaspar Mortillalo, i quali andarono su e giù con l’ascensore cercando di salvare quante più operaie possibile.

    Altri riuscirono a sfuggire alle fiamme salendo sul tetto, compresi i proprietari della fabbrica che quel giorno si trovavano lì. Al nono piano nessuno fu avvisato dell’incendio.

    Quando ci se ne rese conto era ormai troppo tardi. Un’uscita era bloccata dalle fiamme. Un’altra dalle porte chiuse a chiave dai proprietari per far sì che le borse delle operaie potessero essere controllate all’ uscita dal lavoro, in caso qualcuna avesse preso di nascosto una camicia o un pezzo di stoffa. Non c’era via di scampo. Una cinquantina di operaie si buttò dalle finestre, schiantandosi sull’asfalto. La folla assistette impotente a questo spettacolo terrificante. In mezz’ora era tutto finito.

    Erano giovani queste donne, queste ragazze. La piu anziana aveva 43 anni. Erano ragazzine, come la quattordicenne Rosaria Maltese, la zia del signore che osservo oggi, lì, in piedi, all’angolo sud est di quella che una volta si chiamava la Palazzina Asch (oggi Brown Building), dove si trovava la fabbrica.

    Quest’uomo tiene viva la memoria di Rosaria, la zia che non conobbe mai, della sorella di lei, Lucia, di vent’anni, e della madre trentanovenne delle due ragazze - la nonna del signor Maltese - tutte e tre morte nell’incendio.

    Ogni anno partecipa alle commemorazioni. “Una volta”, racconta, “portammo 146 fiori”.

    Un fiore per ogni persona che morì nel peggiore disastro industriale della storia della città di New York. L’incendio del Triangle è riconosciuto dagli storici come un evento che cambiò l’opinione pubblica riguardo all’intervento governativo nei rapporti tra operai e proprietari di fabbrica e condusse ad importanti leggi sul lavoro.

    E’ lì, questo signore, proprio di fronte a due delle targhe commorative a Washington Place (una terza si trova su Greene Street). Ma oggi non è il 25 marzo. Oggi è il 22 maggio 2014.  E non c’è nessun anniversario.

    Ma c’è un altro motivo per questo momento di commemorazione che ha portato una trentina di persone al sito del Triangolo. Il motivo è la signora che, visibilmente commossa, è in piedi accanto al signor Maltese.

    E’ Laura Boldrini, dal 2013 Presidente della Camera dei Deputati in Italia, in visita ufficiale a Washington e a New York. Ha insistito per trovare il tempo, in queste giornate fitte di visite, per recarsi al sito della Triangle Shirtwaist Factory e rendere omaggio alla memoria delle vittime. Quando arriva stringe la mano ai presenti, tutti ansiosi di incontrarla. Poi rivolge l’attenzione al signor Maltese, gli stringe la mano e gli parla calorosamente.

    Ad accompagnare la Presidente durante questa visita pomeridiana al sito della fabbrica del Triangle sono anche Natalia Quintavalle, Console Generale d’Italia a New York, e il Console Aggiunto Roberto Frangione, oltre a membri della delegazione della Presidente e a giornalisti italiani.

    L’Italia è venuta a ricordare l’incendio. C’è anche Bob Lazar, ex direttore dell’Archivio del Sindacato Internazionale dei Lavoratori del Settore Tessile Femminile, e rappresentanti della New York University.

    Dopo che la Presidente posa un mazzo di fiori ai piedi delle targhe commemorative, ci avviamo tutti al Labor Archive, a un paio di isolati di distanza, sotto la guida di Timothy Naftali, Direttore della Tamiment Library e del Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive alla New York University.

    Dopo una breve fermata alla mostra su Verdi prendiamo l’ascensore per il decimo piano ed entriamo in una sala dell’Archivio della storia dei lavoratori. Erika Gottfried, Curatrice delle Nonprint Collections, infila sottili guanti bianchi prima di toccare i documenti d’archivio che sta per mostrare alla Presidente: fotografie, giornali, un’insolita collezione di caricature di attivisti di sinistra del primo novecento. E’ qui, in questa sala, che il signor Maltese con delicatezza tira fuori da una valigetta di pelle ricordi delle tre donne della sua famiglia e dell’incendio. Li fa vedere alla Presidente Boldrini, che li guarda con attenzione e riceve con gratitudine alcune carte - un cartolina con un’immagine delle due ragazze e della madre, la lista delle vittime ed altri ricordi - che il signor Maltese le vuole dare.

    Ed è qui che ho l’opportunità di parlare con la Presidente dell’incendio e del significato personale che questo episodio storico ha per una come me che alla fine degli anni settanta ha partecipato alle dimostrazioni femministe a Catania, dove ero studentessa universitaria. Eravamo lì a protestare per i diritti delle donne e ci ricordavamo del legame di sorellanza che ci univa alle donne morte in un incendio di una fabbrica di New York circa 65 anni prima.

    Allora non sapevo molto dell’incendio - non sapevo il nome della fabbrica né la data (pensavamo che fosse successo l’8 marzo e che la Giornata Internazionale della Donna fosse stata creata per commemorarlo) né di che tipo di fabbrica si trattasse, e senz’altro non sapevo che molte di queste donne erano italiane, persino siciliane, proprio come me. Dopo qualche anno mi trasferii negli Stati Uniti e diventai una studiosa di letteratura, e il mio femminismo sarebbe stato sopito per un po’.

    Quando questo mio femminismo si sarebbe risvegliato attraverso il lavoro fatto assieme a delle scrittrici e studiose italo americane, con esso sarebbe riemerso il ricordo dell’incendio del Triangle che portavo nel cuore quando protestavamo sulle strade di Catania. Ne appresi i dettagli. E appresi chi erano le protagoniste.

    Nel 2001, col sostegno di Stefano Albertini, Direttore della  Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò alla New York University, che aveva generosamente aperto le porte della Casa ad eventi culturali che rappresentavano con dignità l’esperienza italo americana come un fenomeno culturale e storico complesso e complicato, il Collettivo delle Donne Italo Americane organizzò una commemorazione del novantesimo anniversario dell’incendio del Triangle. Quella commemorazione, e le conversazioni che la ispirarono, diedero vita ad una crescente ed ampia consapevolezza dell’incendio del Triangle come evento chiave della storia italo americana.

    Mi ricordo che quell’anno in Italia parlai dell’incendio con studenti universitari e colleghi italiani, con la scrittrice Maria Rosa Cutrufelli e con Bruna Morelli a Radio Popolare. Sentivo il significato importante dell’Incendio come evento storico che legava donne italiane separate da un oceano. Volevo riportare il ricordo delle donne del Triangolo in Italia come parte di una storia condivisa. Quest’anno, nel 2014, il primo libro italiano sull’incendio (Camicette bianche di Ester Rizzo) è stato finalmente pubblicato in Italia e c’è persino un movimento per intitolare alcune strade alle vittime. Qualcosa messasi in moto tanto tempo fa si sta finalmente realizzando.

    Durante questa visita ufficiale a Washington e a New York, la Presidente Boldrini ha incontrato italiani che sono venuti negli Stati Uniti per seguire aspirazioni di carriera che non potevano realizzare in Italia. Questa è un’esperienza che tocca la mia famiglia doppiamente. Sia io che mia sorella Claudia ci siamo trasferite negli Stati Uniti. Abbiamo studiato qui e abbiamo trovato il tipo di lavoro che desideravamo. Ci siamo sposate, abbiamo avuto figli. Ci siamo fatte una vita in questo paese, che adesso è il nostro paese, ma siamo anche italiane. E mentre distanza storica e condizioni economiche ci separano dalle donne e dalle ragazze della Triangle Shirtwaist Factory -moltissime emigrate recenti di allora - un legame profondo ci unisce: l’essere italiane ed italo americane. Avanti e indietro. Tra due paesi. Un piede qui e l’altro lì. E’ il nostro racconto, la nostra storia.

    Dopo la visita al sito del Triangle e all’Archivio, al Consolato la Presidente Boldrini parla al pubblico presente dell’orgoglio che ha sentito nell’incontrare tutti questi italiani che sono venuti a realizzarsi professionalmente negli Stati Uniti. I cervelli in fuga. Sente orgoglio, dice, ma anche rabbia perché un paese che costringe i suoi figli ad andarsene è un paese che si impoverisce. Vuole cambiare questa traiettoria. Vuole essere un ponte. Le sue parole mi toccano il cuore. Non c’è nulla di trito o preparato nel suo discorso che è politico nel senso migliore della parola. Per la prima volta in tanti anni mi sento rappresentata da una figura politica italiana.

    E ritorno a quell’immagine commovente di un’imprtante rappresentante dello Stato Italiano e un discendente di emigrati  italiani di oltre un secolo fa che condividiono lutto e ricordo, da italiana e da italo americano.

    Sì, sento la possibilità - la realtà di un ponte.   

    Edvige Giunta insegna alla New Jersey City University

  • Op-Eds

    The Reality of a Bridge


    There was something profoundly moving about the sight of the old man and the woman by his side, standing together in silence at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Manhattan. The setting carries memories that shake to the core anyone who is familiar with the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that, on March 25th 1911, killed 146 workers, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls.


    The fire, which was the result of unsafe working conditions, started at 4:40 on a Saturday afternoon of a beautiful spring day on the eighth floor, and spread within minutes to the other two floors of the factory, the ninth and tenth. Many were able to escape thanks to the valorous elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, who went up and down, trying to rescue as many workers as they could. Others escaped through the roof, including the factory owners, who happened to be there that day.

    The ninth-floor workers were never warned. By the time they became aware of the fire, it was too late. One exit was blocked by the flames. Another by doors kept locked by the owners who made sure the workers’ bags were checked at the end of the work day, lest they stole a shirt or some fabric. There was no way out. Some fifty workers jumped out the windows, their bodies smashing against the pavement below. The powerless crowd watched in horror. In half an hour it was all over.

    They were young, these women and girls. The oldest was 43.  They were as  young as 14, like Rosaria Maltese, the aunt of the man I see standing today at the southeast corner of what was once called the Asch Building (now Brown Building), where the factory was housed. This man keeps alive the memory of Rosaria, the aunt he never met, her sister Lucia (20), and their mother--his grandmother--Catherine (39), who also died in the fire. He participates in the yearly commemorations. He brings flowers. “Once,” he says, “we brought 146 flowers”—a flower for every person who died in the worst industrial accident in the history of New York, The Triangle Fire is recognized by historians as a key event that changed public opinion concerning government intervention in labor regulations and triggered important legislation in its aftermath.

    The man stands right in front of two of the commemorative plaques on Washington Place  (a third is on Greene Street). But today is not March 25. Today is May 22, 2014. It’s not an anniversary. There is another reason for this commemorative moment that has brought some thirty people to the Triangle site. The reason is the woman who, visibly moved, is standing by Mr. Maltese. She is Laura Boldrini, since 2013 President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, on an official visit to Washington and New York. She has insisted on finding the time during her packed schedule to pay tribute to the memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. When she arrives at the site, she shakes hands with everyone who is so eager to meet her.

    Then she turns her attention to Mr. Maltese, holds his hands in hers and talks warmly to him.
    The Consul General of New York, Natalia Quintavalle, and the Deputy Consul, Roberto Frangione, as well as members of the President’s staff and Italian reporters, accompany the President during this afternoon’s visit to the Triangle. Italy has come to remember the Triangle fire. Bob Lazar, former director of the Archive of the International Ladies Garments’ Workers’ Union, is also at the site, as are representatives of NYU. After leaving flowers by the commemorative plaques, President Boldrini and everyone else walk to the Labor Archive, a couple of blocks away, led by Timothy Naftali, the Director of New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive and the President’s host on this part of her visit.

    After a brief stop at the Verdi exhibit in the lobby, we take the elevator up to the tenth-floor labor history archives, where Erika Gottfried, Curator of Nonprint Collections, dons thin white gloves before handling the archival documents she is about to show the President: photographs, newspapers, a striking collection of caricatures of leftist activists from the early twentieth century. Here, in this room, Mr. Maltese gingerly takes out of a soft leather briefcase mementos of the three women in his family and of the fire. He shows them to President Boldrini, who receives them attentively and gratefully accepts those he has brought for her.

    Here, I have an opportunity to talk with the President of the Fire, its personal significance for someone who, like me, came of age in the late seventies and marched on the streets of Catania, where I was then studying at the university, clamoring for women’s rights and tacitly acknowledging the sisterhood that tied us to the women who had died in a fire that had occurred in New York some sixty-five years earlier. I did not know much about the fire then—not the name of the factory, not the date (we thought it had occurred on March 8 and that International Woman’s Day had been established to commemorate it), not the kind of factory, and certainly not that many of these women were Italian, many Sicilian, like me. In a few years, I would move to the United States and become a literary scholar, and my feminism would become dormant for a while. When it would awaken through my work about, and with, Italian American women authors, the memory of the Triangle Fire that we carried in our hearts as we marched on the streets of Catania would return. I would learn about its details. I would learn about its protagonists.

    In 2001, with the support of Stefano Albertini, Director of Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, who generously opened the doors of his Casa to cultural events that dignified and represented the Italian American experience as a complex and nuanced cultural and historical phenomenon, the Collective of Italian American Women organized a ninetieth anniversary of the Triangle Fire. That event, and the conversations surrounding it, spurred a growing and pervasive awareness of the Fire as a key event in Italian American history. I remember talking about the Fire in Italy that year, with college students and Italian colleagues, with Maria Rosa Cutrufelli, and with Bruna Miorelli at Radio Popolare. I felt the tremendous power that the Fire possessed as a historical event that connected Italians across the ocean. I wanted to bring its memory back to Italy as part of a shared history. This year, in 2014, the first Italian book (Camicette bianche di Ester Rizzo) on the Fire has finally been published in Italy and there is even a movement there to name streets after the victims. Something that has been stirring for a long time is coming to fruition.

    During this official visit to Washington and New York, President Boldrini has met with Italians who have come here to pursue career aspirations that could not be realized in Italy. This is an experience that touches my family doubly. Both my sister Claudia and I have moved to the United States. We studied here and found the careers that we wanted. We got married, had children. We made lives in this country, which is now our country, but we are also Italian. And while history and economics separate us from the women and the girls of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—so many newly-arrived immigrants—there is a profound bond that pulls us together. Italian and Italian American. Back and forth. In between. One foot here and the other there. It’s our story, our history.

    After the visit to the Triangle site and the archives, President Boldrini addresses an audience at the Consulate and speaks of the pride that she feels meeting all these Italians who have found professional success in the United States. I cervelli in fuga. She feels pride, she says, but also anger, because a country that forces its children to leave is poorer for it. She wants to change that trajectory. She wants to be a bridge. Her words strike a chord. There is nothing tired or rehearsed about her speech, which is political in the best sense of the word. I feel, for the first time in years, truly represented by an Italian politician.

    And I return to that stirring image: a major Italian political leader standing together with a descendant of Italian immigrants from over a century ago, sharing the work of mourning and remembering, as Italian and Italian American.

    Yes, I feel the possibility—the reality of a bridge.   

    Edvige Giunta is Professor of English at New Jersey City University