Italian Americans, Gender Trouble, and The Sopranos

by Andrea Scrima

Americans are often smiled upon for their need to identify with their ancestors’ heritage; there’s something naïve and childlike about it, as though we were hoping to find a family somewhere, waiting with open arms for the long-lost child who has finally come home. We describe ourselves with the usual hyphenated ethnic adjectives, we say we’re one quarter this, half that, etc., but the truth is, we create fictional narratives to orient ourselves in a society too young to understand that the identities we claim often have little to do with the culture they purport to originate in. When I think about the cultural clichés we grew up with—the Italian mother leaning out of a tenement window, calling her son home to dinner in a 1960s television commercial; the way we gleefully mimicked her by crying out “Anthoneeeeeeeee!”—I recall the laughter and pantomime and how everyone understood what was meant. But what did it mean? That we were second generation, and thus not as “ethnic” as the old-world Italians portrayed—that we were not Anthony Martignetti racing home through the streets of the Italian north end of Boston on Wednesday, “Prince Spaghetti Day,” but were secure enough in our American identity to mock him? And that in spite of the fondness we felt for our cultural heritage, we’d been enlisted in the very racism that had been leveled at our parents, that had branded them as outsiders, and that had trapped them in a lower social status, a stigma that proved difficult to shed.

In an attempt to understand my relationship to the Italian-American identity, I recently began watching episodes of The Sopranos, which I avoided when it first aired twenty-five years ago. I was on a nine-month stay in New York at the time, living in a loft on the Brooklyn waterfront, and I remember the ads in the subways—the actors’ grim demeanors; the letter r in the name “Sopranos” drawn as a downwards-pointing gun. I’ve always been bored by the mobster clichés, by the romanticization of organized crime: as an entertainment genre, it’s relentlessly repetitive, relies on a repertoire of predictable tropes, and it has cemented the image of Italian Americans we all, to one degree or another, carry around with us. But the charisma of Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, exerts an irresistible pull: I jettison my critical abilities and find myself binge-watching several seasons, regressing for weeks at a time, losing touch with what I was hoping to find.

One day, in the midst of this period, I hear myself talking about the show to a friend, hear the Staten Island accent creeping back in. What part of me is becoming reactivated, what pleasure is there? And what pain? Read more »

On the Limits Of Edgelord Comedy

by Omar Baig

Dave Chappelle grapples with the intractability of gender norms in The Closer: his most recent and final stand-up special for Netflix. Early into the set, Chappelle recounts the one-sided fight he had at a nightclub with a lesbian woman. When she interrupts his conversation with a female fan, Dave assumes they’re a jealous boyfriend. He deescalates the situation, however, once he realizes they are actually a jealous girlfriend; yet his unintentional misgendering only antagonizes her more. She reacts by squaring up in “a perfect southpaw stance” and throws the first punch. Chappelle reflexively dodges, then reacts in kind, by knocking “the toxic masculinity” out of her.

This, ladies and gentle-folx, is Edgelord comedy at its spiciest. Now, was it okay for Dave to misgender this woman, even unintentionally? No. Did Chappelle have to respond by, “softly and sweetly,” telling her: “Bitch, I’m about to slap the shit out of you!” Also, no. Yet was he justified in “tenderizing those titties like chicken cutlets,” in self-defense, once she threw that first punch? In my opinion, yes. This anecdote illustrates that toxic masculinity, like public acts of jealousy or public aggression, is not only limited to men. It also features two of The Closer’s recurring motifs: (1) Dave’s respect of others as reciprocal to their respect for his personal boundaries (i.e., irrespective of sexual or gender identity); or (2) by all the ways that performing informs his personal, social, and creative interactions. Read more »

“Trapped Inside the Gaze of Strangers”: A Conversation with Aimee Parkison and Carol Guess

Andrea Scrima: Girl Zoo, which has just been published by the FC2 imprint of the University of Alabama Press, is a collection of stories that takes contemporary feminist theory on an odyssey through the collective capitalist subconscious. Scenes of female incarceration are nightmarish, hallucinatory: each story exists within its own universe and operates according to its own set of natural laws. But while there’s a fairy-tale quality to the telling, none of these stories departs very far from the everyday experience of institutionalized sexism: the all-too-familiar is magnified just enough to reveal its inherently devastating proportions.

Aimee, Carol, I wonder if we could begin by talking about the collaborative process. How did the idea come about to write a book together?

Aimee Parkison: As an artist, I’m always trying new things. I have a wide range and want to expand and explore. My creative process is vital to the way I experience the world. I like the excitement of a new project, a new idea. I write all sorts of stories, from flash fictions to long narratives, from experimental to traditional, from realism to surrealism. Some of my fictions are character-based and others more conceptual. I often focus on the lives of women and am known for revisionist approaches to narrative and poetic language. My writing is often categorized as experimental or innovative. I’ve published five books of fiction, story collections, and a short novel. I’ve been published widely in literary journals. Among my previous books are Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman (FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize) and a short novel, The Petals of Your Eyes (Starcherone/Dzanc). I admire Carol’s writing and had interviewed her for a couple of articles I was writing for AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle magazine. A year or so after the interview, she emailed me, inviting me to do a collaboration.

Carol Guess: My approach to writing came through music and dance. Years ago, I studied ballet and moved to New York to try to make a career in that world. Obviously that didn’t happen, but my early experience with failure made me determined to be good at something else! I’d always written for pleasure, so I began taking my writing more seriously, initially focusing on poetry. I did my MFA in poetry; I’ve never actually taken a class in fiction writing. I put my first novel together as an experiment. I wanted to teach myself how to write a novel, and so I did. Since then I’ve published twenty books, each one an experiment and a challenge. I’ll ask myself, “What would happen if …” and then set out to answer my own question. Read more »

Know Thyself: The Riddles of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx

by Ryan Ruby Sphinx Book Cover

Taking its cue from French politics, French experimental writing has always been a clubby affair. Unlike in Britain or America, where economic and political liberalism have encouraged writers to view themselves as individual talents engaged in private agons with tradition, in France, with a few notable exceptions, avant-garde writers have presented themselves as members of an organization, complete with founding documents, by-laws, regular meetings, and a leadership structure, in short, as citoyens of a mini-republic.

Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature, known by its acronym, Oulipo, is the longest-lasting experimental writing group in history. Oulipians marry two strange bedfellows, literature and mathematics, adopting and inventing rigorous formal constraints—most famously, the lipogram, in which the use of a certain letter is proscribed, and the n+7 rule, in which every noun is replaced by the noun that follows it seven entries later in a dictionary—to generate poems, novels, essays, memoirs and “texts that defy all classification.” From its ten original members, all but one of whom are now dead, the group has nearly tripled in size, “co-opting” (to use the group's official term) writers from Italy, Germany, the UK, and America. Although it has by no means achieved anything close to gender parity, five of its new co-optees have been women.

The Oulipo owes its longevity, in part, to its refusal as a collective to entertain any kind of political line, despite the avowed leftism of many of its members. In so doing, it managed to avoid the power struggles, excommunications, and splintering characteristic of the avant-garde movements that were fatally drawn into the orbit of French Marxism and Maoism. But its survival can also be attributed to the fruitfulness of constrained writing itself. The widespread availability of constrained writing techniques has enabled Oulipians to identify those who are working along parallel lines and co-opt them.

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Women’s Freedom – A Short Introduction to Why I Care

Womensrights Why have so many stopped fighting for women’s rights? We fight for “human” rights and discuss them as if they were a natural element of being human; groups lobby and defend, almost diabolically and with much vitriol, the rights of “animals” (species that are not human). Yet women’s rights, that better half of our species, remain a neglected element of secular discourse. It surprises me that so few of those who consider themselves secular humanists do anything concerning this important issue. This does not mean that many secular humanists do not think it important but there is a great divide between simply thinking it important and doing something to make it so. Not only do I think it important, I believe in my lifetime the liberation of woman, all over the world, for all time, is the single most important goal that we must defend, increase and enhance. The other goals which many of us long for, freedom of speech, lack of coercion, and so on, all are part of, and tributaries within, this pathway. By fighting for women, we fight for free speech and liberty; by defending their rights, we defend human rights; by finding the cause for their oppression we cease the cycle of violence and poverty within families around the world. Reports have suggested that a decrease in women’s freedom correlates to an increase in religious fanaticism. This does not mean that once women are free, all over the world, religious dogmatism, backward political regimes and patriarchal bullying will be banished from the earth; but there is little debate that the fight in itself will lead to a greater amount of freedom, more happiness and will result in woman no longer being the fodder for the religious wrath of backward mullahs and reverends.

According to estimates, which have more than likely increased, 70 percent of the two billion poor are women; two thirds of illiterate adults are women; employment rates for women are declining after increasing (yes, of course, the world wars are now over). At the same time many women are forced into veils and burqas, burnt for merely looking at men, stoned to death or buried alive for adultery, forced into sex, pregnancy and delivering HIV-infected children because they were raped, but if they were to report it, they would either be raped again, executed, exiled from their village or town or family. While this happens, the fashion industry booms with make-up and high-heels and plastic models and girls as thin as the paper they are pictured on, presenting us with yet another contrast to whether women really are in control of their bodies even in supposedly liberated societies. That is an issue unto itself, which I am not focused on, but it certainly should give us pause considering the areas we are dealing with. Modern writers, in the secular West, tell women to go back to the kitchen, obey the husband, be a mother, tie an umbilical cord around the house and hang themselves from it. “Feminine is good,” says women’s rights author, Nikki van der Gaag, “feminism is bad.” A lot of feminist views, philosophy and political goals truly deserve scorn, since they replace one tyranny with another; are subject to faith-based, dogmatic adherence rather than calculated sex equality. The vengeful world of patriarchal accident has given birth to a malicious view toward its women. As this highlights, the malicious desire is one of control – but I do not wish to instil Orwellian fears in big governments and little men.

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