Regardless of your ethnic background, you will find Melania G. Mazzucco’s (b. 1966, Rome) novel Vita (Rizzoli, 2003) about the immigration experiences of her grandfather, Diamante (“diamond“) Mazzucco, and his cousin, Vita (“life“), to be an extremely moving and informative read. The author deservedly won Italy’s highest literary award, the Premio Strega (Strega Prize), for this novel in which she uses family stories, genealogical research and her vivid imagination to reconstruct the lives of Diamante and Vita beginning with their childhood journey in 1903 from the small Italian town of Minturno di Tufo in the region of Lazio to New York’s Little Italy.

Not surprisingly, language is a driving force in the novel. Language is not only the spark that ignites a love affair between Vita and Diamante when she attempts to teach him the English she has learned after being forced to go to school by the authorities (she demands a kiss in exchange for each word she teaches him), but it is also the gateway and the barrier to their success in America. Vita uses her English to make her fortune in real estate and the restaurant business, while Diamante never attains proficiency in English because he must work menial jobs with other immigrants to survive. Diamante’s inability to learn the language prevents his assimilation and causes him to lose faith in himself and in the American Dream, all of which has profound consequences for him and Vita and for subsequent generations of the Mazzucco family.

Mazzucco does a masterful job of depicting the language situation in Little Italy during the first part of the twentieth century. The Italian immigrants, who are predominantly Southern in origin, speak mainly in their dialects in the novel because they would have had little or no exposure to education and therefore to standard Italian.

As the immigrants gain exposure to English, their speech becomes peppered with amusing approximations of English lexemes such as polismen (policemen), orrait (alright), kubbai (goodbye), Clivilland (Cleveland) and Oaio (Ohio).

Occasionally characters even utter short sentences or have brief exchanges in this “English:”
Schiusmi (Excuse me).
Uazza marro? Uazza marro? chiedevano. No iu bbisiniss — rispondeva Agnello (What’s the matterWhat’s the matter? they asked. It’s none of your business — Agnello responded).

To represent the Italian immigrants’ loss or lack of knowledge of standard Italian, Mazzucco employs a form of Italian known as italiese. The term italiese, which is a combination of the words italiano (Italian) and inglese (English), refers to the dialectalized or Italianized English spoken in Italian immigrant communities in the United States and Canada. This hybrid form arose because the immigrants had either forgotten or had never learned the Italian terms in question. Examples of italiese from the novel are as follows:

bordanti (It. pensionanti; Eng. boarders)
I pensionanti, o bordanti, come si dice qui, pagano il letto, i servizi e i pasti
(The boarders, or boarders, as they say here, pay for the room, utilities and meals).

fruttostando (It. fruttivendolo; Eng. fruitstand)
…va’ al fruttostando perché non voglio che resta incustodito, oggi
(go to the fruitstand because I don’t want it to be unttended, today).

gherla (It. ragazza; Eng. girl)
I ragazzi però lo sfottono comunque, e dicono che presto Celestina diventerà la gherla più carina di Mulberry
(But the boys make fun of him anyway, and they say that soon Celestina [Diamante’s nickname] will become the prettiest girl on Mulberry).

niusi (It. strillone; Eng. newsie)
Quando Diamante è svenuto per la fame, Geremia lo ha mandato a cercare lavoro come niusi — cioè strillone
(When Diamante fainted from hunger, Geremia sent him to look for work as a niusi —  that is, newsie).

grinoni (It. pivello; Eng. greenhorn)
È poi c’è la parola più difficile, grinoni, cioè greenhorn, che Diamante decifra solo dopo settimane di marciapiedi
(And then there’s the most difficult word, grinoni, that is, greenhorn, that Diamante would decipher only after weeks of [working the] sidewalks).

ausa (It. casa; Eng. house)
Che vonno ‘sti polismen all’ausa mia
(What do these policemen want at my house)?

dammaggio (It. danno; Eng. damage)
Vitarella anema mia, supplica Agnello, chetate non fa’ dammaggio
(Little Vita my soul, Agnello begs, be quiet and don’t do any damage)…

stretto (It. via; Eng. street)
Non si facette cchiù vedere a Prince stretto, la avverte lo strillone
(He never showed his face again on Prince Street, the newsie informed her)…

scioppo (It. negozio; Eng. shop)
…Rocco si vanta che adesso lo dirige lui lo scioppo del mister Bongiorno
(…Rocco brags that now he manages Mr. Bongiorno’s shop).

tichetto (It. biglietto, Eng. ticket)
…Vita attraversò i binari, arrancò fino alla biglietteria ferroviaria e chiese un tichetto per l’Ohio
(…Vita crossed the tracks, hobbled up to the railway ticket office and asked for a ticket to Ohio).

giobba (It. lavoro; Eng. job)

In addition to the dialects, English approximations and italiese in Vita, there are a number of insightful references to the centrality of language to the immigrant experience. Mazzucco portrays the feelings of isolation and insignificance wrought by not knowing English, the desperate desire to learn “la lingua dei biondi (the language of the blonds),” and the sense of shame that caused so many immigrants to renounce their native Italian for good.

Flashing forward to the present day, the author also acknowledges issues of language loss and language evolution by including Italian American characters who have forgotten their native language, and others who think they’re speaking Italian but in reality are speaking “dialetti parlati nel Mezzogiorno molti anni fa (dialects spoken in the South many years ago).”

Most importantly, Mazzucco depicts the unique division that existed within the Italian immigrant community owing to the diversity of the dialects and cultures of Italy. This lack of cohesiveness among Italian immigrants hindered their progress in ways that other immigrant groups did not experience. Upon finishing the novel, the reader is therefore left with the sense that even though Vita bears witness to the sad and often tragic stories of Italians like Diamante who were unable to realize their dreams in America, it is at the same time a testament to the ingenuity, resilience and perseverance of the millions of Italians who did.

Note: Due to the extremely high assimilation rates of Italian Americans, italiese is on the verge of becoming extinct. For more information about italiese, check out The G.P. Clivio Online Dictionary of Italiese. This dictionary is the brainchild of University of Toronto Professor Gianrenzo Clivio, who has dedicated the better part of his career to the documentation of this fascinating linguistic form.

In Translation: In 2004, Xavier González Rovira published a Spanish translation of the novel, also entitled Vita, with Círculo de Lectores. In 2005, Vita was translated into English by Virginia Jewiss and published by Macmillan under the title Vita: A Novel. I haven’t seen these translations, so I would be interested to know how much of the terminology listed in this post was preserved by the translators.

On Facebook: Fans of Melania G. Mazzucco have set up a Facebook page to discuss her work.

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