"Q&A with Tony Ardizzone about The Whale Chaser," by Christine Sneed.
Copyright © 2015 by Christine Sneed,
April 28, 2015.
Christine Sneed: Tell us a little about The Whale Chaser.
Tony Ardizzone: The Whale Chaser is about Vincent Sansone, the only son in a large
Italian American family, who flees from Chicago to Canada during the turbulent Vietnam era for reasons
other than avoiding the draft. His father is the sort who shows his affection with his fists. Vince
ends up in Tofino, a hip little fishing town on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island in British
Columbia, where he is eventually hired by Tofinoís most colorful dealer, Mr. Zig-Zag, and joins the
thriving marijuana trade. Ultimately, through his friendship with Ignatius George, an Ahousaht native,
Vince finds his calling as a whale guide. He tells his story in retrospect, alternating chapters
between Chicago and Tofino.
Sneed: Your main character, Vince Sansone, doesn't always make the best choices - romantic
or career-related, but he's so compelling (and of course you need conflict to have a story.) Where
did he come from?
Ardizzone: I drew from my own experiences, the mishaps of my friends, and my imagination.
You know how you can look back at periods in your life and realize that if one or two details had
changed, your life would have turned out very differently? Vince has a good heart but like a lot of
us he ends up making a lot of well-intentioned mistakes. For one, he feels the need to understand
his fatherís brutality and rage, which relates to a secret story about the grandfatherís imprisonment
during the second World War. Vince also becomes enmeshed in a complex romantic triangle. Heís the
fishermanís son whoís in love with the butcherís daughter, but at the same time he gets close to
an older girl whoís also from an abusive family. It makes for an explosive mix.
Sneed: So the novel also concerns itself with issues of abuse?
Ardizzone: Absolutely. Childhood abuse on all three levels: verbal, physical, sexual.
Trauma is central to The Whale Chaser. As the novel opens the adult Vince suffers from
panic attacks so severe they stop him cold on the street. Heís a member of a therapy group that
meets in the back room of Catholic church in Tofino. The book is also about drug and alcohol
abuse, as well as Vinceís search for forgiveness and redemption.
Though Iím an abuse survivor, I seldom talk about it. Writing this book and facing some of its
subject matter was far from easy. I dedicated the book to a dear friend who was also a writer,
a brilliant woman who was sexually abused as a child and later took her life.
Sneed:The novel spans many years; did you know it would be sweeping in scope when you
Ardizzone: I do my best to write widely. Iím not the sort of writer who plots or outlines
things beforehand. I look at the characters as they stand on the page and do my best to explore them.
Vince began as a kid whose father regularly beats him, who needs to escape in some real way. Will it
be marrying the butcherís daughter? Becoming more involved with the older girl? Running away and
leaving everything behind? What all of this means is that as I wrote the novel I felt I needed to
create or uncover reasons why Vince would do what he does, why his father does what he does, and so
on. I needed to explore their backstories as well as move their actions toward resolution.
Sneed: You write so well about Chicago and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. You're from
Chicago and know it well, but did you travel to BC at least once while writing The Whale Chaser?
Ardizzone: Nearly twenty years ago I was lucky enough to meet a man from Seattle who owns
a house up on the San Juan islands, near the border with Canada, accessible only by float plane or
ferry. Iíve gone there every summer since and soon was traveling to nearby Vancouver Island. Tofino
is on the islandís far west coast, the literal end of the road, the western terminus of the trans-Canada
highway. Itís a town with a single stop light. The end of the road seemed a suitable place for Vince
to go once he fled Chicago.
During my stays in Tofino I was helped by several people who very generously taught this kid from
Chicago about life on the island, the Pacific ocean, the local marijuana trade, and the whales.
Sneed: What are you working on now if you don't mind sharing this?
Ardizzone: Like so many other people, Iím in love with Rome. My latest work is a linked
collection of stories set in Rome between the morning of the devastating December 2004 South-Asian
tsunami and the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005. The book is tentatively titled By the
Fountain of the Four Rivers. The stories cycle around these events as well as the concerns of
several characters, both North American and Italian, as well as several recurring figures who live
and work in Rome. The book is very Catholic, very much about Romeís monuments and churches,
"An Interview with Tony Ardizzone," by Derek Alger.
Copyright © 2012 by PIF Magazine,
March 1, 2012.
Tony Ardizzone was born and raised in Chicago, and his most recent novel is The Whale
Chaser, published in 2010 by Academy Chicago Publishers. Over the years Ardizzone's fiction
has appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The
Chicago Review, and The Gettysburg Review, to name a few.
He is the author of seven books of fiction, with his short story collection The Evening
News winning the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and his collection Larabi's Ox:
Stories of Morocco being awarded the 1992 Milkweed National Fiction Prize and the 1992 Chicago
Foundation for Literature Arts for Fiction sponsored by the Friends of Literature.
A graduate with a BA in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ardizzone
received an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Bowling Green University. He is the editor of four
anthologies, including The Habit of Art: Best Short Stories from the Indiana University Fiction
Workshop (Indiana University Press, 2005).
Ardizzone lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he is Chancellor's Professor of English at
Indiana University. He is currently working on a collection of loosely connected short stories
set in Rome, with the working title The Calling of Saint Matthew.
Derek Alger: You were born and raised in Chicago.
Tony Ardizzone: I grew up on the city's near North Side. We lived in a basement flat
on Webster Avenue, and then for several years we lived in a second-floor flat on the corner of Fullerton
and Southport. It was across the street from a bar, and drunks would regularly come inside the doorway
to sleep or urinate or walk upstairs to the second-floor landing and bang on our door. Then, because my
younger sister was born deaf, we moved further north, near a school for the deaf that she could walk to,
near Bryn Mawr and Clark. My family still lives there. The neighborhoods formed me in more ways than
I can explain.
Alger: How so?
Ardizzone: The neighborhoods were always ethnically mixed, and since there were two
types of schools, Catholic and public, I somehow had the idea that people fell into these groups, too.
One of my friends, Joe Schambari, who lived down the street from the public school and its playground,
would befriend those kids and then after talking to them for a while -- whatdya got to lose? he'd ask
them -- he'd baptize them in his gangway with water from his house's green garden hose. Yes, Joe later
entered a seminary.
Alger: Is it fair to say your Roman Catholic background influenced you?
Ardizzone: Immensely. Like Joe, I was an altar boy, and for the longest time I also wanted
to become a priest. I took great comfort from the idea that as a Catholic I could sin and then confess
my transgressions and start over again, with a more or less clean slate. I liked the concept of a God
who was willing to cut me a break. After a couple of missionary priests visited our classroom and
described their adventures, I developed a hunger for travel as well as hopes of someday becoming a missionary.
Of course we were also learning the stories of the early Christian martyrs, and I conflated the two ideas,
thinking (and I'm serious here) that maybe if I became a missionary I could be killed for my faith and
instantly get to Heaven. In Catholic lore this is called baptism of blood. It seemed to me by far the
easiest route to Heaven, which, as a good Roman Catholic boy, was supposed to be my life's goal,
particularly given all the horror stories the nuns told us about Hell.
Alger: We're happy you're still here.
Ardizzone: The nuns taught us through metaphors, which I always embraced. They said our
souls were like pieces of wood (like the cross on which Christ was crucified), and sins were nails (like
the ones that were driven into his feet and hands) and confession pulled out the nails (like a claw hammer)
but left behind a hole, a gouged-out section, which we needed to fill in with good works. It was a
shorthand recipe for life. You sinned, you confessed, you helped others so as to make reparation.
All of these plans fell apart when I reached the seventh grade and began noticing girls. Their
eyes and hair. The way they swung their legs back and forth beneath their desks. The way everything
around them grew brighter when they looked at you and smiled. I realized then I didn't want a
calling for the priesthood.
Alger: Your interest in reading and writing began early.
Ardizzone: I always enjoyed reading and on Saturday mornings went to the mobile library
van up on Clark Street and carried home as many books as I could. In seventh grade, one of my teachers,
a wonderful woman named Miss Spagnola, saw something in me and during the fall parents-teacher conference
said something to my folks that made them look at me differently. She told them, "Don't throw this boy away."
What she meant, I think, was that they should consider sending me to a college-prep all-boys high school
as opposed to the neighborhood co-ed high school. I can remember my parents coming home from the meeting
and my fear that I was in trouble, since most of the time in school I was bored senseless and inevitably
got into trouble.
I went to an all-boys Christian Brothers high school just beyond the northern edge of the city,
a few blocks past the end of the Clark Street bus line, in Evanston. I was placed in the honors track
-- four years of math, four years of science, honors everything, topped off by AP Physics and Calculus --
but out of the thirty or so kids in the track I ranked clearly at or near the bottom. Whereas in grammar
school I was one of the smarter boys, in high school it was nearly as if the teachers and other students
were speaking a different language. Most of the rest of the honors kids were from the suburbs, and
several were absolutely brilliant. Nearly all of my friends from the city, the kids I rode the Clark
Street bus with each morning, were happily placed in the lower tracks, where they could lay low in the
middle of the pack. I had to struggle but eventually I got by, mainly with Cs and the occasional B.
In high school I turned away from math and science and was increasingly attracted to writing. On
the weekends when I wasn't working, my friends and I would go down to Old Town, and we'd always stop by
Barbara's Bookstore on Wells Street. I loved hanging around the place. It was where I first heard jazz.
It was where I discovered Beat poetry and the work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso and Jack
Kerouac, and all the other Beats and hipsters. I carried a bent-in-half copy of Coney Island of the
Mind around in my jacket pocket for years. I spouted random lines I'd memorized to confused girls
I met at dances. With every bone in my body I wanted to be a poet, a Beat poet, a cool hipster, a
Alger: Have to ask about your most recent novel, The Whale Chaser. How does a kid
from Chicago end up with such an interest, and such knowledge, about whale guides?
Ardizzone: The good sisters of Christian Charity would say that God works in strange and
mysterious ways. While I was teaching in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College I met a wonderful
friend who told me he had a house on one of the San Juan Islands, which lie north of Puget Sound, up near
the Canadian border, in the waters near Bellingham, Washington. He invited me and my family to go up there
for a few weeks each summer. We've been doing that now for the past fifteen or so years. Soon we were
exploring Vancouver Island, and I made my way over the mountains to the coast, to a little town called
Tofino, where a good half of The Whale Chaser is set. There I became friends with former
fishermen and whale guides. I hung out with them whenever I could.
Eventually I had the idea to write a book about a boy who leaves Chicago for Canada's West Coast.
In the book's first draft the first sentence I wrote was: "Like my father and my grandfather, I draw my
living from the sea." Since Chicago is clearly inland I then knew I had to come up with a story that
connected the grandfather (a fisherman born on the western coast of Sicily) with the father (a Chicago
fishmonger) and the son (a runaway, who eventually becomes a whale guide). So I took the grandfather from
Sicily to Monterey, California, where in 1942 the entire Italian-American fishing fleet was wiped out as a
result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the seizures of the Italians' boats, all because it was feared they
might be spies who'd help the Japanese, as well as the internment and relocation of hundreds and thousands
of Italians. Citing that bit of American history helped me lay out the novel's back story, and it also
worked artistically since the boy completes the arc of the grandfather's western quest as he came to
Alger: Your mastering of the craft of fiction was confirmed by winning the Flannery O'Connor
Award for your story collection The Evening News.
Ardizzone: I was very lucky that the truly great editor Charles East selected my first book
of stories for the O'Connor prize. Previously I'd published a novel, In the Name of the Father,
with Doubleday. But even though I've now published four novels, I find myself continually drawn to
the short story as a form.
Alger: You were the first in your family to go to school.
Ardizzone: If you mean college, yes, I was what they call nowadays a first-generation
college student. My grandparents were Sicilian immigrants who couldn't read or write. My mother was
sent to a trade school, not an actual high school. I was quite fortunate, really, to be able to attend
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, I gravitated toward writing. I still hoped to
become a poet but my teachers suggested that I was actually more a fiction writer, though they implied
I was approaching fiction the wrong way, coming from poetry, from the lyric side, as if poetry and
lyricism were a sort of back door.
Alger: You graduated with honors, but I believe there was a bit of a catch.
Ardizzone: This was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I was very much influenced
by all that was going on at the time and, specifically, by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who
came to campus and talked frankly about Vietnam and their experiences there. It's all too popular today
to think that all Vietnam veterans were tough, pro-war heroes (even though many were and are) and all
anti-war protesters were spineless wimps. Credit or blame the missionary zeal the priests and nuns gave me,
but I worked hard helping to organize and attend dozens of peaceful, anti-war activities. I was arrested
during the 1970 Moratorium marches on Washington, D.C., where protesters tried to slow the city's traffic
by walking peacefully across the streets, and then in the spring of 1971 I was arrested for taking part
in a peaceful sit-in at the University of Illinois Student Union, which is completely funded by student fees,
and where a group of students and faculty was protesting the presence of recruiters for the Marines. Our
argument was that since the building was entirely student-fee funded, we had a say in how the place could be
used. The previous year one of the professors among us, who was also arrested that day, was badly beaten
by the police behind one of the Union's loading docks, and during another demonstration some of the
protesters threw rocks through several of the Armory's windows, so tensions on campus at that moment
The demonstration itself was a simple sit-in. We sat on the floor outside the Marines' recruitment
booth and chanted anti-war slogans. Pro-war students tested us by making their way toward the booth
to talk to the recruiters, and in every instance we slid over to give them room to pass us. We let
anybody walk by who wanted to walk by. As demonstrations go, this was perhaps the most peaceful one
I'd ever participated in. But apparently the Marines felt it necessary to call in the local police,
who approached each of us in pairs and gave each of us the option to walk away without consequence
or be arrested. I considered it a matter of conscience to allow myself to be arrested. I thought
it would be cowardly of me if I were to stand up and walk away.
Alger: But not without consequences.
Ardizzone: The press labeled us the "Champaign 39," after the Chicago 7 trial up in Chicago.
Later that spring the university held hearings on the incident. They brought in an independent hearing
officer from downstate, a lawyer named A. J. Rudasill, who often wore a white suit and smiled politely
and tried to joke with us during breaks. Several understood the hearings were a sham and referred to
them as Rudasilly's Circus. Predictably, the end result was that everyone involved was dismissed from
the university. Each professor was terminated; each grad student lost his or her funding; each undergrad
was expelled. By this time I'd completed all of my required course work, so the worst the university
could do to me was to withhold my degree. And this was only the university's action against us. We
still faced trial in the civil courts.
Alger: What happened?
Ardizzone: At the time I was planning to go to graduate school out west, and I'd applied
and been accepted to the MFA programs at both the University of Oregon and the University of Montana.
I was trying to decide whether to go to Eugene to work with Richard Lyons in fiction, or to Missoula
to work with Richard Hugo in poetry. But without a degree in good standing, and being under court order
and out on release on my own recognizance, plus saddled with student loans, I had no other choice but to
give up my plans. To be honest I spent a good month in a funk and a haze of smoke and cheap wine. Then
I sucked it up and with the court's approval moved to Chicago, where with the help of a friend I was lucky
enough to find a job, teaching basic writing skills at an experimental inner-city high school on Chicago's
near West Side.
All the while I kept writing. I remember telling Paul Friedman, one of my professors at Illinois,
about my change of plans and then asking him how could you tell if you were a real writer. He smiled
and said, Well, it's not just a matter of being in an MFA program. It's whether or not you keep writing.
I kept that in mind and wrote as much as I could during those two years.
Alger: Then off to graduate school.
Ardizzone: There was a program through the high school where I taught that allowed me to
take free courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago, then known as Chicago Circle, and through
the program I took graduate workshops and classes with John Frederick Nims, Michael Anania, Eugene Wildman,
and Ralph J. Mills. Both Nims and Anania encouraged me toward fiction, and later I applied in both genres
to the MFA program at Bowling Green, in Ohio. I figured I'd let the admissions committees decide what I
was, or what I would be. Though I was accepted in both genres, the head of the fiction program, Philip
F. O'Connor, called me and told me in no uncertain terms that in his opinion I was a fiction writer,
and he wanted me in fiction. Music to my ears.
Alger: You were fortunate to have good teachers.
Ardizzone: I owe my teachers more than I can say. As an undergraduate at Illinois I was
able to work with Daniel Curley, Paul Friedman, and George Scouffas. At Bowling Green I worked with
Phil O'Connor, Robert Early, and John Clellon Holmes. Each helped me understand more about myself and
my own work than I ever could have possibly figured out by myself. And since John Clellon Holmes was a
Beat writer -- his novel Go! was the first novel written about the Beats as well as the basis for
Dexter Gordon's later album of the same name -- in a curious way my literary life had come full circle
from the Saturday afternoons when I listened to jazz and looked at books by the Beats back in Barbara's
Bookstore on Wells Street.
By the way, by this time the statute under which the "Champaign 39" were arrested was thrown out
by the Illinois courts as unconstitutional. Since our sit-in was peaceful, and since I hadn't resisted
my arrest, my only was charge inhibiting the ingress and egress to a public place, which a higher court
ruled was in violation of the civil rights of the Student Union's workers to peacefully assemble and strike.
And so with the bang of a judge's gavel my undergraduate transcript suddenly earned the university's
embossed seal and inked stamp "In Good Standing."
Alger: And a college teacher's career arrived.
Ardizzone: I was very lucky as I saw what I thought were disparate parts of my life come
together. Because I'd taught high school on Chicago's West Side, and had two full years to make countless
mistakes in the inner-city classroom, I found teaching composition at Bowling Green fairly easy. And because
of my background, the composition coordinators assigned me the sections in which they'd segregated the students
from the more urban, disadvantaged backgrounds. Put bluntly, these were intentionally designed sections composed
mainly of students of color who'd previously failed to pass the department's required proficiency exam. The
students and I got along fine, and after our work together they did so well on their proficiency exams that
Bowling Green hired me as an instructor after I'd completed work on my MFA.
They had me teaching nine sections per year, eight of which were composition, with each section
meeting four hours a week, and with each student writing seven essays. Nearly every new MFA who gets
a job like this has a similar story. I woke up at dawn to drink coffee and write for a few hours, then
gave myself over to the job, where I became a theme-grading machine.
Somehow over the three years that I worked in the composition mines I was able to write a novel
that Doubleday published, and the publication and good reviews led to a tenure-track teaching position
at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. I had a somewhat easier course schedule there (only eight
courses annually instead of nine) but I was also charged with founding a creative writing program, and I
served as ODU's program director for nine years. AWP had just moved its offices to the university, so I
also served on the AWP Board. I was also frequently asked to direct the school's annual week-long literary
festival. It was a lot of work but through it I was able to invite several writers whose work I truly
admired, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, Lucille Clifton, Robert Bly,
Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Maxine Hong Kinsgston, David Bradley, and many others.
Alger: Your teaching also led you to some interesting places.
Ardizzone: In fall 1985 I was able to teach at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, as
part of a faculty exchange sponsored by the United States Information Agency. As I was leaving my office
one day a colleague who was the head of the International Studies Programs said, "Hey, Tony, do you want
to go to Morocco?" I said sure. What writer wouldn't? He said, "Good, come in here and help me write
this grant." We worked on the grant for two years.
Alger: You put your experience to good work with the publication of your book Larabi's Ox:
Stories of Morocco.
Ardizzone: I hadn't intended to write about Morocco, but while I was there I kept a journal, and
after I came back to the States I found myself writing at first one story set in Morocco, then a second,
then a third that combined the characters from the first two stories. I had one of those eureka moments.
I added two women to the third story and knew at that moment that I had a book. Two years later I returned
to Morocco for more research since the female characters I'd added wanted to go to parts of the country
I hadn't yet visited.
Alger: You also were given the opportunity to participate at a conference in Croatia, where
you gave readings from your baseball novel, Heart of the Order.
Ardizzone: This was shortly after I arrived at Indiana University. It was a lesson in humility.
I didn't realize until the lecture how incredibly difficult it was to explain the rules and nuances of
baseball to an audience who had absolutely no idea of how the game was played. Try explaining a double
off the right-field wall with runners on first and second to an audience whose understanding of sport
equates scoring with crossing some line with a ball.
Alger: I guess it would be fair to say you discovered a home base at Indiana University.
Ardizzone: I've been here since 1987 and over the years served two stints as Director of
the MFA Program. I teach the graduate fiction workshop in rotation with the other fiction writers here,
and I also teach courses in narrative craft, creative writing pedagogy, literary interpretation, ethnic
American literature, 20th century American fiction, as well as a good number of undergraduate fiction
I genuinely enjoy teaching and agree with teaching writers like John Gardner, who in one of his
books wrote that only a talent that doesn't exist can't be improved. I spend a lot of time with my
writers in conference, and we often discuss drafting strategies. I've come to believe that learning
about the process of writing is as important if not more important than learning aspects of narrative craft.
Alger: Is that why you titled the fiction anthology you edited The Habit of Art?
Ardizzone: Yes, precisely. Flannery O'Connor popularized the term, which she took from her
readings of the philosopher Jacques Maritain, and which she discussed in some length in her famous lecture
turned essay "The Nature and Aim of Fiction." As I understand it, the habit of art concerns a quality or
virtue of the mind that O'Connor suggested the writer needs to cultivate and practice, a process similar
perhaps to yoga or meditation, or even prayer. In the rare moments when I'm at my very best, that's what
I try to teach. So I put together an anthology, The Habit of Art: Best Stories from Indiana University
Fiction Workshop, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Indiana University's MFA program.
Alger: You also were a recipient of the Tracy M. Sonneborn Award, which is awarded annually
to an Indiana University faculty member for exemplary research and teaching.
Ardizzone: That was a surprising honor. I was happy to be nominated, let alone receive the prize.
Alger: You also taught at the low-residency program at Vermont College.
Ardizzone: I taught in Vermont College's wonderful program for seven years and really enjoyed
working with the mix of writers that only a low-residency program can assemble. When I began directing
the program at IU I realized I had too much on my plate and had to resign. Now I hope to be able to work
with another low-residency program. Let me know if you hear of any program that might like my help.
Alger: What are you working on now, aside from preparing for a teaching position in a low-residency
Ardizzone: For several years I've been traveling to Rome, both because it's an absolutely
marvelous city but also to do research for a book of interconnected stories, their subjects and conflicts
generated by one or more of Rome's churches. If you know Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town you know
what I mean. I'm using aspects of various Roman churches as triggering subjects. The book's working title is
The Calling of Saint Matthew, after the famous painting by Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi. The
manuscript is now well over 200 pages. I hope to be able to complete it and its revisions by early next year.
Alger: Perhaps I'll end by mentioning your gem of a novel In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu.
Ardizzone: After I finished writing my first novel I wrote another, one I never published, but
in it were the seeds of sections that later grew into the dozen or so voices that narrate In the Garden
of Papa Santuzzu. The book is about a poor Sicilian sharecropper named Santuzzu, the father of seven
children, who wins a nearly useless donkey in a game of cards. The incident gives him the wild idea that
he can possibly change his fate, or perhaps the fate of his children. So he sends them one by one to the
Americas. Their voices and memories and experiences and hardships and dreams make up the book. Perhaps no
other book is closer to my heart since I dedicated Papa Santuzzu to my grandparents, who immigrated
to the Americas from Sicily, and to all the others who made the journey with them.
Alger: And your future plans?
Ardizzone: I still want to move out west. Maybe I need to complete the journey I dreamed
about taking back when I was an undergraduate. I can pass through Missoula and toast the memory of
Richard Hugo, then drive on to Oregon and likely settle in Portland. And maybe once there I'll drive
down to Eugene and look up Richard Lyons, who saw something in my fiction so many years ago. There are
plot points in our lives that beg return, aren't there?
"Fiction as Life: An Interview with Author Tony Ardizzone," by Olivia Kate Cerrone.
Copyright © 2011 by Magna GRECE: Ethno-Cultural Journal for People of Southern-Italian Descent,
September 12, 2011.
A culture thrives on its ability to engage with its past and the traditions that help
inform its people of their identity. Novels and short stories serve as an unique art form,
where history, language, religious and social traditions are woven together and essentially
brought to life on the page. In the face of neighborhood and cultural dislocation, fiction
writing is the Italian American community's best friend. We are reminded of and exposed to
the influences that have and continue to shape us. Tony Ardizzone is a brilliant voice in the
realm of contemporary literature, one that the New York Times Book Review has described as
"refreshingly original." He is the author of seven books of fiction, including the critically
acclaimed In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu; Larabi's Ox: Stories of Morocco, which won
the Milkweed National Fiction Prize; and The Evening News, which won the Flannery O'Connor
Award for Short Fiction. Tony's work has earned him fellowships from the National Endowment for
the Arts, the Pushcart Prize, the Prairie Schooner Readers' Choice Award, the Black Warrior
Review Literary Award in Fiction, the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction, the
Virginia Prize for Fiction, the Lawrence Foundation Award, the Bruno Arcudi Literature Prize, and
the Cream City Review Editors' Award in Nonfiction. His stories have appeared in literary
journals such as Ploughshares, Agni, Epoch, TriQuarterly and many others.
Outside of a long and accomplished career as an author, Tony is also a gifted and compassionate
creative writing professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was named Chancellor's
Professor of English and received the Tracy M. Sonneborn Award for outstanding teaching and research.
His most recently published novel The Whale Chaser involves the largely unspoken history of
the internment of Italian Americans during WWII. I recently had the enormous privilege to discuss
this new work, along with Tony's insight into the craft of fiction writing, and some of the ongoing
issues at play in Italian Americana.
Olivia Kate Cerrone: Your novels and story collections are driven by rich, compassionate
narratives that exhibit a wide and rather provocative range. Whether you take the reader to the
1960s-era neighborhood of Chicago's North Side or to Marrakesh, Morocco, or the poverty-stricken
countryside of 1900s Sicily, the characters one meets along the way are ripe with intimacy and
complexity enough to make it easy for the reader to engage with their stories. As a writer, how
do you inhabit characters? What specifically, if anything, sparks you to write a particular story?
Tony Ardizzone: When I begin to work with a character, I try to imagine what details make
the character particular and unique. I do my best to see, and I mean this both literally and imaginatively.
Henry James remarked that the writer was one upon whom things, meaning details, weren't lost. So I believe
that good characterization begins with observation, with details, with particulars. These are not only
physical details, but also actions and gestures, what poker players refer to as "tells," that offer the
observer clues about the character, that suggest more than they actually say. In early drafts, I'll give
a character an abundance of details -- I'll really clutter things up -- and then in later drafts, I'll cut
the things that don't seem essential. I try to be logical, and I try not to impose on characters, but
rather see what actions and gestures rise from them.
I think that setting can be an important device, so I nearly always give characters a well-described
place to inhabit, that reflects or contrasts with aspects of their character. In The Whale Chaser,
I did my best to give each of the central characters a richly described room or place where the book's
narrator, a young man named Vince Sansone, could interact with them.
Cerrone: In an interview with John King and Numsiri Kunakemakorn of the Sycamore Review,
you remarked that "cultures live and define themselves by and through the stories they tell about themselves.
I see one of my responsibilities as a fiction writer as writing those stories, of giving the not-yet-defined
some sense of definition, the voiceless a sense of voice." Consequently, perhaps, the oppression and
discrimination that Southern Italians faced upon their arrival to the promised land of La Merica in the
1900s and beyond, is one that maintains a strong presence throughout your fiction. From your novel
In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, anti-Italianism is revealed to be an ongoing concern, as a group
of Italian works learn that they will be paid less than their fellow black and white laborers:
"'Being white isn't something you can get to be,' said the man who could read. 'You either are
white or you are not. We're not, so forget about even trying.'"
Southern Italians are further dismissed as rats with an "inborn inclination toward criminality." Yet
somehow Italian Americans eventually attained "whiteness," but at what cost? Do you believe cultural
balance is possible in the face of assimilation? Especially now in these contemporary times?
Ardizzone: Well, we all know that whiteness is a construct, and ideas of ethnicity and race are
constantly shifting and relative to cultures. When I wrote In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I was very
conscious of a book Madison Grant wrote in 1916, The Passing of the Great Race. In it he spoke of the
"Mediterranean Race," which included the Berbers of North Africa, Spaniards and ancient Egyptians as being
"racially identical" with Southern Italians, and therefore racially inferior to the master "Nordic Race."
Grant used this argument to lobby for the Immigration Act of 1924, which would prohibit the number of "unfit"
immigrants able to enter the United States, based on these ideas of racial inferiority. Italians weren't
considered "white" when they first came to the U.S. So there was a pressure upon Southern Italians -- upon
all "non-white" immigrants -- to become "white" and embrace "white" values.
Cerrone: Did you feel this pressure?
Ardizzone: My parents and grandparents certainly did. And I guess, to be honest, I did, too.
Like every kid, I wanted to blend in. As a young boy in Roman Catholic grammar school back on the North
Side of Chicago, bored to tears in class, I sometimes used to fantasize that I had a different name. I
changed "Tony" to "Tom" and "Ardizzone" to "Arden" and filled pages with my new signature: Tom Arden. The
boy everyone in class worshiped was named James Webb. He had blond hair, clear skin, and was quiet and smart.
He was never hassled out on the playground, never taunted with ethnic jokes or slurs, like most of the rest of
us were. Everybody, particularly the nuns, loved James Webb. I really envied him. Ethnically, he was
After a while, I came to realize that what troubled me most was really a strength. When I began writing
short stories in college, I realized that I'd been dealt three cards that, if I was smart, I could use for
the rest of my life. The first was my name, Anthony Vito Joseph Ardizzone, and all the connotations that a
name like that carries. The second was that I'd spent thirteen years in Roman Catholic schools. I had been
an altar boy. I had been a choir boy. The third was that I grew up in and intimately knew the neighborhoods
of Chicago's North Side. When one of my teachers assigned us James Joyce's Dubliners, my life sort of
came together, at least my life as a fiction writer. I saw that I could own Chicago in the same way Joyce
owned Dublin, and that I could use my religious background in my fiction.
Cerrone: And the third card?
Ardizzone: Well, it was a long time before the Italian-American part of me came out because I
didn't quite know how to use it, to honor it. I didn't read any Italian-American writers until after I'd
finished college, when I was in my twenties. None had ever been assigned. As a result, I had no literary
models to base my work on and, looking back, at least part of me still felt ashamed of who I was. My father
shared this shame. He was born in Chicago, the first-born son of Sicilian parents, and grew up in the projects,
in public housing, on welfare. He didn't speak English until he went to public school. His father was a veteran
of the first World War and was later hospitalized with tuberculosis, and so since the age of ten my father was
more or less in charge of his family -- his mother, two younger sisters, and mentally disabled younger brother.
This was the 1930s, during the Great Depression. To make ends meet, each day after school he sold newspapers
in Grant Park. He worked two or three jobs his entire life. When I was older, my father told me how much he
dreaded every two weeks pulling a red wagon from the projects where he lived as a kid to pick up the groceries
the government handed out to the families on welfare. In a letter I still have, my father wrote, "I nearly died
as I walked thru all those blocks (8 to 10) with everyone(I thought) watching me. My pride was so hurt. I
felt a stigma [underlined] as I pulled my loaded wagon for the whole world to see."
Cerrone: In the haunting, but beautifully rendered story "Nonna," from your early story collection
The Evening News, an elderly, widowed Neapolitan wanders from her tiny, congested apartment through
her much-changed neighborhood in Chicago's West Side, searching for the old bakeries and corner stores that
once served as a gathering point for the fellow Italian Americans she knew. Childless and seemingly disconnected
from family or friends, she gazes upon the passing faces and street signs, desperate for any trace of Italian,
but finds none. She is further disturbed by the looming eviction from her apartment, after having been moved
several times already in the past, thanks to socio-political motivations toward "progress" in tearing down
ethnic communities to build malls and parking lots. Throughout reading "Nonna," I could not help but think
of Tina De Rosa's classic novel Paper Fish, where the Italian neighborhoods of Chicago's West Side
are torn down by the abrupt and violent presence of wrecking balls and steamrollers. How essential do you
believe is place in terms of nurturing and/or replanting an ethnic community?
Ardizzone: Place is essential, absolutely, for any ethnic community. My story "Nonna" is set in
exactly the same neighborhood Tina De Rosa set Paper Fish, the near West Side neighborhood Mayor Richard
J. Daley decided to devastate so that the city could build the University of Illinois at Chicago. After I
finished college, before I went to grad school, I lived and worked in that neighborhood for two years.
Chicago has a history of destroying its Italian-American neighborhoods. The neighborhood where my father
grew up was on the near North Side, in St. Philip Benizi's parish. It was known as "Little Sicily." Over time
it fell victim to "urban renewal" and piece by piece was destroyed to make room for the Cabrini-Green housing
projects. The magnificent old church, St. Philip Benizi, built in 1904, was eventually torn down. The Italians
of Chicago, like the Italians of Boston and many other major U.S. cities, were eventually driven to the suburbs.
They were dispersed, scattered. As were their communities.
Dislocation is an ongoing element in my work. The Whale Chaser involves the relocation and internment
of Italians and Italian Americans shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Cerrone: The nature of storytelling maintains a strong influence in the narrative shape and structure
of your work. From her book By the Breath of their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America,
Mary Jo Bona described you as "a verbal ventriloquist, donning several literary hats, including that of historian,
folklorist, magical realist, and contemporary author who unites Italian and Anglo narrative traditions in an
effort to simulate the increasingly dual traditions from which Italians in America partake." She goes on to suggest
that this narrative style mirrors an oral storytelling shaped by the poverty and disadvantages that the great
majority of Southern Italians once faced, as she cites you in an interview: "the fact that the characters don't
read, that they tell the stories they have heard before and will tell again." How might the nature of this
type of storytelling be one that shapes the culture of a community and how it interacts with one another, but it
also defines what it means to be Southern Italian?
Ardizzone: With the exception of a few letters my father wrote to me before he died, all of the stories
I know about my Sicilian family were told to me, were oral narratives, stories related around a dining room or
When I began to write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I set out to create a book that I felt hadn't
yet been written. I was teaching ethnic American literature, studying the works of a wide range of other ethnic
writers, and I couldn't find a novel that treated Southern Italian immigration to the New World in a more or less
complete way. I realized quickly that I should write such a book but that I shouldn't do it realistically, with a
more or less objective, descriptive third-person narrator. So I decided to do it basically through voice. The
narrative tradition that I used came from my nonna's house, from stories from my father's side of the family.
I tried to write in the voices of my aunts and uncles, my father's sisters and their husbands.
I remember being seven or eight years old at my nonna's house, listening to the men talking in the front room,
as they sat watching a baseball or football game on TV, then running back to the kitchen where the women talked as
they worked near the sink or stove or sat around the kitchen table, and all of them were telling stories. As I
listened, I came to understand that more often than not they spoke indirectly. Of course part of the reason
was because there were kids like me around, kids with big ears. But another part involved their wit, their clear
and simple oral art, the joy they'd take when they could say something cleverly. I learned that there were
ways to talk without being literal. And I learned that there was language that, if you wanted to understand
it, you had to be smart, clever.
Perhaps this indirect way of speaking is a defense mechanism tied to Sicily's past, a way of survival against
the many foreigners, the invaders, who ravaged the island. As the old saying goes, whoever ruled Sicily, ruled the
world. You could tell the history of much of Western civilization by looking at the history of Sicily.
Cerrone: Were there other influences at play in writing In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu?
Ardizzone: I was reading a lot of books for my ethnic lit classes, and there were two books in
particular that influenced me. The first was Italo Calvino's marvelous collection Italian Folktales,
which gave me the idea of ending each of my novel's chapters with rhyming couplets, like the Sicilian folktales
he related, and also gave me the inspiration to use the form of the folktale as a way to tell a realistic series
of stories. The second book was Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men, in which she not only tells the history
of a people, but also imagines three different ways that her grandfather might have come to the Americas. I
really liked what she did, and I was impressed by the boldness of her imagination.
I also felt, after watching The Godfather II, that there would be no way a realistic novel could
compete with the amazing landscape that Coppola captures in the backstory section of that film. One of the
obligations of writers, of artists of any type, is to make things new. So I gave In the Garden of Papa
Santuzzu a ruling narrator, a woman named Rosa Dolci, whose stories not only begin and end the book but
also return briefly twice more, in chapters each titled "Ceasura." Rosa's a woman with a harelip, the wife
of the family's third son. I imagined that each of the book's other chapters was told by a different character
in the extended family sitting in a circle one night around a fire, and so the novel makes a circle as each
passes the torch of story from one character to the next, until dawn, when Rosa ties the knot.
Cerrone: In a previous email exchange, you mentioned to me that writing Larabi's Ox: Stories of
Morocco enabled you to write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, a novel you mentioned in your interview
with the Sycamore Review as one you'd tried writing as early as the late 1970s, but was unable to execute
in a satisfying way. What was it about writing Larabi's Ox that inspired you to write a novel so heavily
entrenched in Sicilian culture and folklore as In The Garden of Papa Santuzzu?
Ardizzone: When I went to Morocco for the first time, I was shocked by how familiar things there
seemed to me. People would tell me things that they claimed were uniquely Moroccan, and I understood them
almost immediately. For example, they'd talk about the Hand of Fatima, which wards off perception and protects
against the evil eye, and I connected that with the corno, with the mano cornuta and the mano
fica. They'd talk about water and the spirits that dwelled within water, and I knew about that from the
Italian folktales I'd read. I'd be invited into someone's home and served a vegetable dish that my host claimed
was uniquely Moroccan, and it would be carduni, prepared exactly the way my godmother, my Aunt Eva, made
it. Once I was in Ouarzazate staying with a Berber friend, whose family lived in a house that was probably a
thousand years old, a house made of immensely thick earthen walls, and the women who lived there gave me a plate
of sweets that were exactly like the biscotti made by my grandmother. I could list each ingredient in them. I
recognized so many Moroccan things that I came to realize that what I was really knew was a Mediterranean experience.
By that time, I was already reading the work of Italian-American writers -- Pietro di Donato, Helen Barolini, Jerre
Mangione, John Fante, Ben Morreale, and others -- and of course I'd watched the Godfather films many times.
I knew that if I was able to write about Morocco maybe I could finally write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu.
I realized that my father's parents came from the African face of Sicily, and so like an Arab my approach to Sicily
and Italian themes came from Africa, from the south.
At the time I was writing Papa Santuzzu, I hung up old pictures of my grandparents and would often just
look at them, asking them for help in how to write their stories until I finally felt I could do it. I tried to
imagine what it must have been like to have been my grandfather, whose name I carry as my middle name, as he stood
nearly a hundred years ago in Menfi, on the shores of the sea separating Sicily from Africa, as he said goodbye
to his parents, who he would never see again, as he made the trek to Palermo where he caught the ship that in
1911 took him to the New World.
Cerrone: In your latest novel The Whale Chaser, young Vince Sansone is driven from his home
in Chicago by his violently abusive father to a tiny fishing village of Tofino on Vancouver Island, where he
works as a fisherman like his father and grandfather, before falling into the local drug trade, and then finally
finds his place as a whale guide, or whale chaser. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1960s, Vince
undergoes his own intense transformation through wrestling with the demons of his family's past, including those
of his grandfather, who was one of thousands of Italians and Italian Americans whose property was seized, and one
of hundreds who was interned in a prison camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. What inspired you to write this
novel? With regards to the experience of Vince's grandfather, how were you able to depict the realities of this
tragic but little-known piece of Italian American history through the lens of fiction?
Ardizzone: One of my friends, the writer Charles Johnson, who is perhaps best known for his National
Book Award-winning novel The Middle Passage, told me that James Allen McPherson once told him that it was
the obligation of every African-American writer to put into each story or book they write a little bit of unknown
or untold African-American history. I like to think that this suggestion might apply to every writer working with
a subject matter or experience that's marginalized, that all writers have an obligation to give voice to stories
that are still untold.
When I wrote the earliest drafts of The Whale Chaser, I struggled with pieces of a puzzle I didn't yet
understand. I knew I wanted to write a novel about a boy who leaves the U.S. for Canada in the late 1960s to escape
the violence of the times, and yet I wanted him to leave the States for reasons beyond just avoidance of the draft,
and I also knew I wanted to write a book that was partly set in Canada. For the past fifteen years or so I've been
fortunate enough to be able to travel each summer to the Pacific Northwest, and as a result I've spent a fair amount
of time on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. I wanted to imaginatively explore that experience. I also wanted
to work with the theme of abuse, both physical and sexual abuse. There's a psychological dislocation that happens in
those situations. Both physical and sexual abuse seemed right, apt, for the book and its larger themes. And of
course I knew I'd be working with my three givens: Roman Catholicism, Chicago, and my ethnic background.
The first line I wrote is a line that is still in the novel's first chapter: "Like my father and my grandfather,
I draw my living from the sea." You can see that I was still affected by the image of my grandfather, as well as
the characters in In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, standing by the sea on the western shores of Sicily. But
then I wondered why was this family I was imagining living in Chicago? Why wouldn't a man who took his living from
the sea live on a coast? Then, eventually, the novel's backstory came to me. Like other Italian-American families,
they'd been displaced from the West Coast.
Cerrone: So that's when you decided to research the internment of Italians in prison camps?
Ardizzone: One of the historical facts that The Whale Chaser brings to light concerns the
seizure of property and the internment of Italians and Italian Americans shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
February 1942 is known as la male notte, "the bad night," when tens of thousands of Italians and Italian
Americans were arrested as "enemy aliens," when personal property such as radios and flashlights were seized, and
when hundreds -- some reports say thousands -- were arrested and later interned in camps, some for a period of
over two years.
Several vibrant Italian-American fishing communities in California were destroyed in a single night since
the fishermen's boats were seized and impounded. All who fished the Pacific Ocean were restricted. The government
feared the boats could be used for spying. Curfews and prohibited zones were created. Due to the travel restrictions
placed on Italian Americans, Joe DiMaggio's own parents couldn't even leave their home to have dinner at their own
son's restaurant on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who helped create the
atomic bomb, was prohibited from traveling freely along the East Coast. Consider the reaction to 9/11. Consider
what governments are capable of doing.
A great irony in all of this is that the ethnic group that served in greatest numbers during World War II was
Italian Americans. I imagined Vince's father coming home to Monterey after the war, coming home to the sight of a
boarded-up house, to the fact that the family boat had been impounded, finding his mother alone, desolate, his
father imprisoned. And while I don't want to make excuses for the violence with which the man treats his son in
the novel, I hope the book's readers will at least understand some of his frustrations. He's balanced, by the way,
by one of the most gentle characters I've ever written, Mr. Santangelo, the neighborhood butcher, whose lovely daughter
Vince falls in love with. So in The Whale Chaser we have the son of the fishmonger falling for the butcher's
daughter. That seemed quite right to me. As I was writing the book's early drafts, details and motifs and connections
like these began to click into place, and soon I realized that when Vince runs from the U.S. to Canada he had no other
choice but to go west. In a karmic sort of way, he needs to recover what was taken from his family, what was stolen
from his grandfather. So Vince goes as far west in Canada as he possibly can, to the town of Tofino on the West coast
of Vancouver Island. It's the literal end of the road, the western terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway.
Cerrone: You mentioned in a previous email exchange about a new collection you are working on called
The Calling of Saint Matthew, that is set in Rome circa 2004-05, "with each story generated by one or more
of Rome's churches." Could you speak to this new project and what inspired its creation?
Ardizzone: I'm hesitant to talk too much about it since the book is still in progress, but I can
say that The Calling of Saint Matthew begins in late December 2004, at the time of the devastating South-East
Asian tsunami, and ends the following April, with the death of Pope John Paul II. Framed by these events, each of
the stories in the collection focuses on, or should I say rises from at least one of Rome's churches, with the
narrative of the church's art or history serving as a triggering point, or a sort of generative subject, for that
particular story. Those familiar with Rome will recognize that the title story is concerned with the Contarelli
Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, where three of Caravaggio's paintings hang. The title story focuses on an
investment banker from Boston named Matthew who visits Rome, and San Luigi dei Francesi, with his wife, Elena.
I could go on but let me finish the book and talk more about it then.
Stylistically, I'm returning to third person, much as I did in Larabi's Ox, with a narrative stance that
relies primarily on specific detail and description rather than on voice. God willing, I hope to be able to
finish this book within the next year or so.
Cerrone: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your experiences. Any last thoughts?
Ardizzone: I should be the one thanking you. We all know that the landscape for writers, particularly
with the closing of so many newspapers and the death of so many book review sections, has changed drastically,
and now readers are hearing less and less about books and writers who aren't best sellers. Nearly all writers
concerned with ethnic experiences fall into this group, so let me thank you for your time and the gracious attention
you're giving my work. I'm so complimented that Magna GRECE is giving me this space to discuss my writing.
Critics like you are so important to the continuation of our art form, our culture, and our literature.
Tony Ardizzone will be reading from The Whale Chaser at the John D. Calandra Institute in New York City
on December 8th, 2011 at 6:00 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.
"The Artist Has Taken You Home: An Interview with Tony Ardizzone," by Shannon R. Wooden.
Copyright © 2004 by Southern Indiana Review,
Volume 11, No. 2, Fall 2004.
Tony Ardizzone's Larabi's Ox: Stories of Morocco, as critics have observed, casts its setting in a
fundamental role. Place is a fourth main character, one that both demands appreciation for its beauty, history;
and culture, and forces its human visitors -- characters and readers alike -- to rethink their own cultural shapings.
Gloria Naylor's phrase, borrowed in the title above, aptly captures "this awesome power of depiction, analysis, and
communion." In 1985 Ardizzone visited Morocco as a part of a faculty exchange, an opportunity he used to absorb and
embrace the country and which ultimately "compelled [him] to portray it through words." The result is one award-winning
book in a career spent celebrating and investigating places, the cultures nurtured therein, and impact both have on
individuals' lives. Ardizzone's own early life, spent on Chicago's North Side, may have lent him a particular sensitivity
to the significance of setting. His 1996 collection Taking it Home: Stories from the Neighborhood, for instance,
depicts his native Chicago with the same affection and admiration that Larabi's Ox gives Morocco; his most recent
work, the novel In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, travels back to early twentieth-century Italy to explore the
experiences of one family emigrating to and assimilating in America. To date, as the author of six books of fiction,
three anthologies, and dozens of short stories and essays appearing in literary magazines, Ardizzone has received wide
acclaim, including two NEA fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, a Milkweed National Fiction Prize, a Flannery O'Connor Award
for Short Fiction, and citations in Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small
Presses. Now, as a professor of English at Indiana University, Ardizzone teaches, directs the creative writing
program, mentors young writers, and still finds time for his own work. Amidst all this, he was kind enough to answer
a few questions about his books, his craft, and his writing life. Following is the text of our conversation:
Shannon R. Wooden: I loved Larabi's Ox and was particularly impressed by the way that it stages
human drama on the backdrop of ongoing political and cultural drama. In the burgeoning friendship between Ahmed Ousaid
and Henry Goodson, Ahmed's love for Henry is quite naturally complicated by his distaste for maybe more typical "American"
political attitudes. The controversial attention the American characters pay to the mosques also creates considerable
tension in the book. Do you see your book as participating in political or cultural conversations?
Tony Ardizzone: Of course I'd like my books to participate in political conversations, but that really
wasn't my intention when I wrote the fourteen stories that make up Larabi's Ox. My intention was to imaginatively
explore a foreign place that genuinely captivated me when I first visited it. So I thought of bringing to Morocco
three American characters who could make their separate ways from a shared event -- the senseless death of an ox --
and explore three different regions of the country. I allowed the character of Peter Corvino to focus on Rabat and
visit nearby Casablanca, the character of Henry Goodson to head for the Atlas Mountains and Ouarzazate and the Sahara
with his Berber friend and guide Ahmed Ousaid, and the character of Sarah Rosen to explore Fez and, with Rosemary
Miller's aid, Marrakesh. On a larger level I wanted to write stories about the intersections between U.S. and
Moroccan cultures, but my initial concern was to explore place.
But does the book actually participate in any sort of political conversation? I'm sad to say that I honestly
don't think it does. Despite its earning a handful of awards along with a generous introduction by Gloria Naylor
and equally generous national reviews, the book did not go beyond its initial printing and as a result has been out of
print for years. I'm guessing that not too many Americans are interested in reading about the Arab world, or Islam,
or a particular vision of Morocco that's less sensationalistic than the one offered to Western readers by writers
such as Paul Bowles.
Since I didn't set out to write a book of essays, at best what you pose was a secondary concern. I did hope
that my stories would fairly represent both sides of a "cultural conversation," which has no easy answers and is rife
with misconceptions on both sides, but I can't ever really say that I had that in the forefront of my mind or as a
purpose or goal. My focus was on character and place. Whatever else came out of that focus was secondary to me. I do
think the stories involving Henry and Ahmed most closely explore some of the concerns you're mentioning, though both Sarah
and Peter certainly become engaged in situations that also portray these schisms and misconceptions.
Wooden: To what extent do you write with the sense of educating readers? Specifically, after reading
Larabi's Ox, I wonder what you think American readers need to know about North Africa, Morocco, or the Arab
world in general, but this extends to many of your other works as well.
Ardizzone: I've always enjoyed the fact that fiction can be about things and take on particular subject
matters and carry within its story lines factual information. The factual information I tried to carry into Larabi's
Ox was an accurate picture of Morocco during the late 1980s, during the reign of King Hassan II, when I twice
lived and traveled there. I found the country absolutely engaging and absorbing. I felt myself compelled to portray
it through words and story. The place really brought out the naturalist writer in me. And I'm glad to have done that
because now my Moroccan friends tell me that some of the things my book describes no longer exist or, should I say,
exist now only in my stories. One of the U.S. reviews of Larabi's Ox called the background of Morocco the book's
"fourth character," much to the delight of the Moroccans who've read my book, who see Morocco as strong as if not
stronger a character than the three principle Western characters I created: Peter, Sarah, and Henry.
Wooden: Taking It Home, set in Chicago, may seem like less of a cultural text than some of your
other books, but in this collection and In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu alike, you reveal some amazingly difficult
struggles experienced by individuals negotiating cultural change. In your opinion, what is risked, or what is lost
when one culture assimilates into another? What identity issues do Italian-Americans still face today?
Ardizzone: These are difficult questions. I think my books answer them better than I ever possibly could.
But to try: I think the price one pays for assimilation is extremely high. Certainly, family ties are irreparably
broken. The new culture murders the old. I think there's little to be sentimental about here. The price that's
paid is nothing short of a kind of death.
The main social and political identity issues facing Italian Americans involve their ability, or inability, to tell
their own stories as well as offer an accurate version of themselves and their history in the New World. This is as
opposed to being subject to others telling their story or, in the case of the many organized crime narratives one finds
today, seeing essentially one type, or version, of story continually rewarded and retold.
As for the place of Italian Americans in the New World, few realize that Italians made up the largest numbers
of European immigrants passing through Ellis Island, that Italian Americans soldiers were the largest ethnic group to
serve in the second World War. Like the Japanese, tens of thousands of Italians and Italian Americans were arrested
shortly after the U.S. entered the war. They saw their homes and property seized, and hundreds -- some claim thousands
-- were placed in internment camps. In many communities, particularly on the West Coast, Italian Americans were made
to carry identity cards, placed under strict curfews, and restricted as to where they could travel. The national
campaigns against the people and cultures the U.S. fought during that war featured posters of a stern Uncle Sam s
haming smaller caricatures of Hirohito, Mussolini, and Hitler, with the admonition: DON'T SPEAK THE ENEMY'S LANGUAGE.
Of course the result was the suppression of these cultures and the silencing of their peoples.
Wooden: I enjoyed many of the Taking It Home stories, but I found "Nonna" especially touching. What
differences do you notice in the treatment of the elderly among the various (and assimilating) cultures that you
discuss in your books?
Ardizzone: I think the elderly woman in "Nonna" acts a bridge between the old country and its ways and
the new. She also serves as a locus of memory, though in the story her memories tumble together and sometimes confuse her.
In In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu the character Rosa Dolci acts as a sort of organizing narrator, opening and
closing the novel, and briefly interrupting the cycle of stories with a pair of brief chapters each titled "Ceasura."
That both are older characters is no accident.
Age, in fiction, can equal greater access to experience. I'm learning this lesson as I grow older.
Wooden: In Papa Santuzzu and in Larabi's Ox, twins play interesting narrative roles: in
one book, (autistic?) twins are given an amazing and strange narration of their own, demonstrating a family's strengths
and responsibilities; in the other, (again, disabled) twins catalyze a narrator's self-discovery. Is twinning a consistent
metaphor system -- I mean, do you see it as working similarly in different contexts?
Ardizzone: I hadn't realized I'd used twins in both books until you asked this question. The twins in
Larabi's Ox helped me to explore the common claim, voiced by a Frenchman in the book's second story, that all
beggars were imposters and liars. The twins in In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu allowed me to write a chapter from
a dual first-person narrative point of view. I'd always wanted to try my hand at that. There, as you know, the twins a
re empathic and complete each other's sentences, so stylistically I was able to create a viable form for that section of my
book. I'd agree with you that in both instances it's a device that helps me explore various aspects of character. Twins
in fiction are like rhyme in poetry, an offering to the reader of sameness but with a slight difference.
Wooden: Why is magical realism especially attractive to you as a means of telling stories of cultural diaspora,
like those in Papa Santuzzu?
Ardizzone: I see magical realism as a way of restoring some of the range and flexibility to realism that
Western society's privileging of technology takes away from it. I find it rather telling that a story in which characters
converse over a cell phone or hack their way into a computer system is thought of as "realistic" whereas a story in which
a character can see the thoughts of others is considered "magical." From a strictly realistic standpoint, there doesn't seem
to me much difference believing in a character who sees auras, or in the appearance of a ghost, or in the case of Gabriel
Garcia-Marquez, a character who levitates after drinking chocolate, than it is to believe in radio signals or bytes on a
In Chicago my mother has a lamp with a bulb that goes on when you touch the lamp's stem, brighter when you touch it
a second time, then off when you touch it a third time. Shortly after my father's death some years ago the light would
turn on occasionally whenever my mother walked into the room, without her being near it, and without it being touched.
Of course my mother immediately credited my father and began talking to the lamp, or should I say talking to him, saying
things like, "I know, I know, you're still with me here, honey." But after some weeks of this she grew tired of it and told
my father to stop it. And then, after a few days, the lamp stopped blinking, or should I say my father listened and complied.
Which makes the more interesting story?
Is it easier for me to believe her version of the story, that my father was behind it all, sort of saying hello to her
during the first months of her grief, then flickering off in goodbye when she no longer needed that presence? Or should I
think more like an electrician and develop a theory about a short in the wire, about the vibrations caused by her footsteps
whenever she walked into the room?
In Papa Santuzzu, a character claims to turn into a wolf and then later return to human form. Critics would
call that magical realism. Later on in the book a character claims to receive a series of seven visions from the Virgin
Mary. Is that magical realism? Or is that a miracle and an extension of the character's Roman Catholic beliefs? Where
does so-called "realism" end and faith in larger possibilities begin?
Wooden: I am curious about what seems to be a prevailing trend: that of weaving separable stories into a unified
whole which is then marketed as a "novel." For you, is that an artistic decision or a publishing decision? What is gained
(or lost) by seeing Papa Santuzzu and Larabi's Ox as novels instead of short story collections, or should we
identify a new subgenre, like a story sequence?
Ardizzone: I see Larabi's Ox as an interconnected collection of stories and In the Garden of Papa
Santuzzu as a novel made up of interconnected stories. The difference lies in the books' resolutions. Larabi's
Ox doesn't end with a story that reunites and resolves all of its disparate conflict and character lines whereas
In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu does.
As for the form itself, while we can call it a new subgenre it's really as old as fiction itself. Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's The Decameron, even the New Testament (the life of Jesus Christ as told
by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) -- all can be seen as novels in stories. In American literature we can study
Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and many of the novels written by Faulkner.
Why might it be so apt or suitable a form today? Well, I think many contemporary writers have come to distrust
the central authority in the traditional third-person omniscient narrator. That narrative stance seems like more of
a late nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century technique. To paraphrase Yeats, the center no longer holds. So
contemporary writers fragment central authority. One way to fragment that authority is to allow the many individual
characters in a book to tell a part of the overall story from their own biased perspectives. Another reason is that
whereas a single point of view privileges a single character, a fragmented or multiple point of view enables the writer
to focus not so much on any one individual but on a community. I see my books in the company of others such as Gloria
Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club,
Ana Castillo's So Far From God, Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Maxine Hong
Kingston's China Men. I think the form is particularly useful for writers wanting to portray particular
place or community.
Wooden: You mention Chaucer and Anderson, whose echoes I certainly see in your multiple storytelling
devices. I also find (or imagine) dozens of literary echoes throughout your books: the heron in your short story
"Ritual" recalls Virginia Woolf's "Monday or Tuesday"; in Papa Santuzzu, even beyond the magical realism,
the genealogy might remind one of Faulkner. Who do you claim as your literary influences?
Ardizzone: It's hard for me to say who my literary influences are since I think I'm influenced by nearly
everything I read. Still, I think Dubliners is among the best books written in the English language, and certainly
one of the most influential on my development as a writer. I greatly enjoy teaching Faulkner. James T. Farrell's
Studs Lonigan trilogy gave me the confidence to be a Chicago writer, and Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete
gave me the courage to be an Italian American writer. David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident is a book that
has taught me a great deal. Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men were a
pair of books that I used as models when I wrote In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu. I'd be remiss not to mention
Sherwood Anderson. This list could go on and on.
Wooden: In Papa Santuzzu particularly, which characters' stories came first? When you write, do you
imagine the whole community at once, or are there characters whose stories you most want to tell, letting the others
come in primarily to provide context? Do you chart or map the characters' tales in some way, before you write or
during the writing process?
Ardizzone: I actually started Papa Santuzzu over twenty years ago, as part of an apprenticeship novel I
never published. I found myself writing a series of short first-person voice pieces related by the immigrant aunts and
uncles in a family. Among the first was Luigi's, who in Papa Santuzzu relates the chapter, "The Wolf of Girgenti."
I think at the time I realized that the project was bigger than I was and that it would be best if I waited until I was
an older and more experienced writer before I tackled it. I came to think of the project as my "Italian book." After I
wrote Larabi's Ox I felt I was ready to take it on, and then I just started by working with drafts of one story
after another, moving from one member of the family to another, rearranging the stories and changing and developing
them as I went along.
I wrote Larabi's Ox in a somewhat similar manner. I began with the story "The Beggars," which tells of
Peter Corvino's entry into Morocco and his challenging experiences with Rabat's poor. I then wrote "The Unfinished Minaret,"
in which Henry Goodson meets the Berber guide Ahmed Ousaid, and they come to see their commonality. Then I began work on the
story "Larabi's Ox," and suddenly there on the bus that stupidly strikes and kills the ox I found Henry, from the previous story,
looking out the windshield. I then had the wild idea to put Peter in an aisle seat, thus connecting the two stories I'd just
written. The eye of my imagination looked around the bus for other characters I might explore. I wrote in an older woman,
a sort of prefigure to Rosemary Miller, who appears in "Expatriates." And then I imagined the nervous red-haired Sarah Rosen,
twisting the long ends of her hair and chain-smoking cigarettes in the bus's back seat. I knew
I had a book to write then.
Wooden: What new projects do you have in mind, or in the works?
Ardizzone: I've recently completed a draft of a novel titled The Whale Chaser. The novel is set in Chicago
during the 1960s and in Tofino, a small fishing village on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, during the 1970s and
'80s. Right now it's arranged in alternating chapters between the two settings and time lines, and explores new themes,
at least for me, such as work in a fish-cleaning plant, work in the marijuana trade, and work as a whale guide, along with
older concerns, such as growing up working class in Chicago.
Wooden: What's your secret? Specifically, as you wear the many hats of writer, professor, and administrator, how
do you find time, energy, and inspiration to do your creative work?
Ardizzone: The truth is, I don't. I often fail miserably. Rather than do all these activities simultaneously, as
your question suggests, I tend to do them more seasonally or sequentially. That is, when I'm at my busiest teaching and
directing the writing program here at Indiana University I'm often not writing regularly, and when I am the demands of
my university job are light.
I see my university job as a way of paying for my freedom as a writer. My university job feeds, clothes, and houses me,
so I can free myself from having to think about writing fiction that might be marketable. In this way, I function as my
own patron. When I'm at my best, I work on my own writing first thing in the day, fresh from sleep, before I check email
or attend to any classroom or university business. After a few hours of writing I give myself over to my other responsibilities.
I think most writers who teach or administer programs at universities or art centers work in a similar way, and I deeply
admire the ones who are able to stay on schedule and write regularly during the entire academic year.
Your question about inspiration is harder to answer. I pay attention and I work and wait. I wait and do my best to
keep my eyes open to things, to possibilities that might go beyond the immediate page or scene or story or chapter I'm
writing. Here I mean I work in search of a larger idea, or an inspiration or ruling metaphor, some organizing, generating
principle that I can use to make up the next book. With Larabi's Ox it was the moment when I was writing the third
story and I put characters I'd written about in previous stories on the bus. That story became the book's first story, and
that story generated the entire rest of the book. Though I like to write in both forms -- the short story and the novel --
I'm happiest when I'm aware that I'm in the midst of working on a specific book-length project, rather than when I'm working
at a preliminary stage, scratching out random pieces of things that might, or might not, come together later.
I could add that I write stories in much this same way. I seldom write the first scene first. How can I know where
it's best for a story to begin until I know the story? So I start somewhere -- anywhere -- more often than not with some
physical detail, and hope the thing doesn't die on me. The ones that die I bury and then move on. The ones that come a
live I work on and tease further, expanding descriptions and scenes as I go along, hoping one thing will lead to the next,
and with luck after a while I begin to see and understand something greater as the piece opens itself up.
Wooden: What advice do you most frequently give your creative writing students or other aspiring writers?
Ardizzone: Work. Put in your time. Be patient. Pay attention to things. Write on a schedule. Be kind to
yourself but at the same time try not to fall in love with your mistakes. But, above all, work. If writing fiction can
be compared to a race, it's one that's nearly always won by the tortoise. Work is advanced word by word. Sentence by
sentence. Like all lasting things, it's done best one day at a time.
"Stories to Charm the Unborn: An Interview with Tony Ardizzone," by John King and Numsiri C. Kunakemakorn.
Copyright © 2000 by Sycamore Review,
Volume 12, No. 2, Summer/Fall 2000.
Tony Ardizzone is a Chicago native and the author of six books of fiction, most recently the novel In the Garden of Papa
Santuzzu. His writing has received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize,
the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction, the Pushcart Prize, the Virginia Prize for Fiction, two fellowships
from the National Endowment for the Arts, and other honors. He is a professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.
John King is currently a PhD student in English at Purdue University. His essays have appeared in Twentieth Century
Literature and The Explicator.
Numsiri C. Kunakemakorn is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Purdue University.
John King and Nusmiri C. Kunakemakorn: Your latest book, In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, often features
elements of "folk" stories, but these stories feel different from the folk stories I heard as a child from mass market
children's anthologies. Unlike the more wooden and anonymous old world stories I recall, the folk aspects of Papa
Santuzzu seem delightfully facile and intimately related to the people telling their stories. Could you describe
the importance of these folktales to the telling of the stories in your novel?
Tony Ardizzone: I've always been interested in the stories that people have to tell about themselves, with
folktales and myths being one aspect of these stories. Several years ago I had the idea to write a novel about my
grandparents, who immigrated to America from Sicily in the early 1900s. I knew at once that I didn't want to write
a strictly realistic or factual work, so I looked around for other ways that I might tell their story. As I explored the
voices of various characters who ultimately would make up the Girgenti family, I discovered that several of them wouldn't,
or couldn't, tell their stories literally. I don't think this is necessarily Sicilian or Italian, but I can remember
my grandmother and aunts and uncles telling stories in other-than-literal ways, so the decision to use this method
in the novel seemed natural to me.
King and Kunakemakorn: What are some examples of other-than-literal stories?
Ardizzone: Well, my relatives often used metaphorical expressions to explain or describe things. For example,
they wouldn't say outright that a woman was pregnant, but that she'd bought a big bass drum, or some other expression,
accompanied by a smile or the wink of an eye. They'd refer to others by nicknames that either physically described them or
referred to something the person had once done. Someone outside the family wouldn't necessarily be able to follow their
references. When you consider that southern Italy, and particularly Sicily, has been colonized and plundered by one nation
or another since the beginning of recorded time, a veiled or disguised language system begins to make sense. It's similar,
I think, to the region's twisting streets -- sensible to those who live there, a confusing maze to outsiders. So I used
this linguistic strategy in In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu because it seemed natural and organic to my characters,
and as a writer I found it artistic and interesting. Of course, I worked hard to insure that the novel's various
narrators let the outside reader in.
King and Kunakemakorn: The world of the characters in In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, besides being
imaginatively rich with its folk stories, is also a religious one, in a very immediate sense. I think of Anna Girgenti's
story "The Black Madonna," in which she relates the visitation of the Madonna with her. I also think of Papa Santuzzu,
who will not leave Sicily when the letter comes summoning the rest of the Santuzzu family to America, when he tells his son,
"Even if that letter was marked by the hand of God himself, ... and even if it bore the picture of Jesu's face and three drops
of his sacred blood, there are some things here on earth, here on the ground that we walk, in the air that we breathe, in the
lives that we live, that are more sacred!" This relationship with religion seems far different from that which we see most
often in America. Is there a special connection in this novel between the sense of religion and folk stories?
Ardizzone: Yes, I see them as quite similar rather than as separate or distinct. My sense of southern Italian
beliefs is that they're informed not only by certain tenets of Catholicism but also by the wealth of Greek, Roman, and Arab
folklore that makes up the region's culture and history. Religion and folk beliefs exist side by side there, so in my
novel I let them merge freely.
King and Kunakemakorn: Who do you consider your literary influences to be?
Ardizzone: Though I'm likely influenced by nearly everything I read, including the work of my students, I'd
have to say at the core I've been influenced by James Joyce and William Faulkner. Both work in complex ways with narrative
point of view, which above any other narrative technique seems to me to be at the cutting edge of writing fiction.
I've also been influenced by the countless religious stories told to me by the nuns and the Christian Brothers, who
for thirteen years taught me in Roman Catholic grammar and high schools. I admire the short stories of Flannery O'Connor
and Edna O'Brien, as well as the work of the South-American writers, particularly Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez,
and Isabel Allende. The ethnic writer part of me has been influenced by the works of Jerre Mangione, Pietro Di Donato,
John Fante, and Helen Barolini.
Then, at different stages in my writing life, I allow myself to be influenced by other strains. The Chicago writer
side of me has been influenced by James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren. When I wrote Larabi's Ox, I read several books
about Islam as well as the Koran and everything by Paul Bowles.
Papa Santuzzu was particularly influenced by Louise Erdrich's writing, especially her first version of Love
Medicine, and also by Maxine Hong Kingston's work, particularly China Men. I admire Erdrich's free use of
different narrative perspectives, and Hong Kingston's courage to tell the story of her grandfather's coming to America
three different ways. Erdrich, at least, owes a lot to Gloria Naylor, whose story collection The Women of Brewster
Place helped open audiences, and writers, to interconnected books about communities. Of course, both of these
writers owe a great deal to Faulkner and, of course, Sherwood Anderson. I also studied Italo Calvino's marvelous
collection of oral folktales, Italian Folktales, which helped me learn form.
King and Kunakemakorn: Your interest, as a writer, in Italian-American life dates back at least to your 1996
collection of short stories entitled Taking It Home: Stories from the Neighborhood, but in In the Garden of Papa
Santuzzu the setting is in the turn-of-the-century past. What research did writing this novel require?
Ardizzone: I wrote most of the stories in Taking It Home in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it was
during this time that I began a draft of the book that would eventually become In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu. I
spent a year or so on the novel and eventually realized that I just wasn't ready to write it. I wasn't talented or
experienced enough at the time to know how to structure the book and shape it into a coherent whole, and since the
subject matter was quite dear to me, I didn't want to get it wrong. So I set the book aside.
There are some stories a writer gets to tell only once. I picked the novel up after I'd written my Moroccan book of
interconnected stories, Larabi's Ox. By that time I'd traveled in North Africa and written about a foreign place
from the perspectives of both Westerners and Moroccans.
Part of the research I put into the writing of Larabi's Ox involved two trips to Morocco over a span of three
years. I found a great deal of Moroccan things familiar, and it was then that I began making conscious connections between
the cultures of North Africa and Sicily. For example, during my stays there, a Moroccan would offer me a particular food,
telling me it was quintessentially Moroccan, and it would be something that my grandmother made and taught my aunts how to
prepare. More times than not the Sicilian name for the food would be the same as the Moroccan. Several Moroccan attitudes
or beliefs were similar to the ones held by my family. My grandparents emigrated from the North African, or Arab, face of
Sicily, which was under Arab rule for nearly two centuries. A friend whose family comes from outside Naples told me that
my "discovery" of Sicily was similar to the Arabs' passage up through North Africa. In short, writing about Morocco
gave me the confidence to write about Sicily at the turn of the century.
To get back to your main question, I read a great deal of history, including histories assembled by the I.W.W.,
the Industrial Workers of the World. I studied Ben Morreale's and Jerre Mangione's wonderful book La Storia: Five
Centuries of the Italian Experience. I also studied some of the writing by the Sicilian activist Danilo Dolci,
whom I salute in the book by giving his surname to the novel's only recurring narrator, Rosa Dolci.
King and Kunakemakorn: How did you initially become interested in writing about Morocco?
Ardizzone: In the mid-1980s I had the opportunity to travel to Morocco and teach at its main school, Mohammed
V University in Rabat, as part of an exchange program sponsored by the United States Information Agency. After I returned
to the States, I thought I'd write a story about my experiences, so I wrote a slightly autobiographical story titled "The
Beggars." Then I wrote a more purely fictional story, then a third. When the third story combined characters from the
first two, I realized I had the beginnings of a book. One thing led to the next, including my return to Morocco during
the summer of 1988 for further travel and research.
King and Kunakemakorn: When you write in first person, your voices prove remarkably convincing. I recall the
adolescent narrator of "Baseball Fever" in Taking It Home who describes his education in biblical stories with a
very realistic admixture of religious wonder, childish awe, and adolescent slickness. In In the Garden of Papa
Santuzzu, the voices seem equally convincing, and I note that these voices feature an additional quality: they
often seem to think in Italian. Cumulatively, how are these narrator-characters different from those in your previous
Ardizzone: Well, I'd have to say that the narrator-characters in In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu are
more complex since each tells not only an individual story but also a part of the overall family's story. One difference
might be that I came to see Papa Santuzzu as a book of voices told by various members of a large family. Over the
six years that it took me to write the novel, I came to view the Girgentis as my own family. Or maybe I should say that
I came to see myself as one of them. I felt that I constantly had to rise to their level since they knew so much more
about the stories they were telling than I did. Some chapters, or voices, required extensive series of drafts, and by
this I mean I spent months at a time on a single chapter. The chapter "At the Table of Saint Joseph," which is dually
narrated by the twins Rosaria and Livicedda, was perhaps the most challenging piece of fiction I've ever written. I
worked on false starts and various drafts of that chapter for nearly eight months.
King and Kunakemakorn: Formally speaking, your modes of storytelling are often intricate. In Larabi's
Ox, you tell a series of episodic short stories which follow the experiences of three separate Americans in Morocco
who are all introduced in the titular short story. In In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, the stories of the Girgenti
family are told by its various members, are interconnected in terms of subject, and are formally linked by the concept
of group storytelling around a campfire, which features the convention of ending each tale with a rhyming couplet which
forecasts the next storyteller's story. How has form come to become important in your work, and what is its importance?
Ardizzone: I think all writing, even nonfiction prose, has a form whether or not the writer chooses to
acknowledge it. Given this idea, I like to play with a work until it reveals its natural shape and internal structures.
My first novel, In the Name of the Father, eventually fell into four parts, which I rather unimaginatively titled
"Part One" through "Part Four." My second novel, Heart of the Order, is about the life, death, and rebirth of a
baseball player, and after a while I realized its story could be told through nine major chapters, mirroring the nine
innings of a baseball game, with an introductory chapter I titled "Batting Practice" and a final, tenth chapter titled
I saw the structure of Larabi's Ox as a three-branched tree, beginning with the story of a bus that strikes and
kills an ox that has wandered onto a highway, as witnessed by three Americans whose paths begin with this common experience
but don't cross again. Their range allowed me to write about the entirety of Morocco rather than limit myself to a primary
place or character. The structure also allowed me the chance to have one story in the text talk to another. This is one
of the advantages of using a multiple viewpoint. One piece of the text can reconfigure the concerns of another part by
adding more details to a given story, changing the details' sequence, contradicting parts of the first story, and so on.
This allows a work to present a vision of multiple truths.
The metaphor that helped me structure In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu was a round of stories told one night
around a campfire. I imagined a village where at night the people sometimes gather around a large fire, telling stories or
singing songs, with the one who begins the first story having the obligation the next dawn to tell the last story as well,
thereby completing the circle and tying the knot. This idea helped me know where to begin the work, and how to end it.
King and Kunakemakorn: In Taking It Home, Larabi's Ox, and now in your latest novel In the
Garden of Papa Santuzzu, you deal with the effort (and resistance) toward assimilation. What attracts you to the
difficulties and emotions surrounding assimilation? Who do you consider your audience to be? Those who have been,
or are, assimilating in some sense; those who consider themselves monocultural; or a mixture of the two?
Ardizzone: Assimilation is part of my personal history. Ever since I can remember I've felt the tension
between being who I and my family was and who I was supposed to be. I did my best to blend in, but I was constantly
reminded of how I didn't fit into the larger group, unless I was willing to reject my ethnic group. When I was in grammar
school I envied a kid named James Webb because he had such a clean, uncomplicated name and was never the target of jokes
or ethnic slurs on the playground. He had blond hair and blue eyes. Everybody liked him. I imagined his life to be
clean and uncomplicated, too.
I don't view assimilation as a gentle or even desirable process, but rather as something to be resisted if one can.
Think of those science-fiction stories in which a powerful race takes over all other species it encounters, morphing them
from their native appearance into their own likeness. In In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, the oldest child,
Carla, points out, "As much as I appreciate the abundance and opportunities the New World provides, don't think for
a moment that I don't know the price we paid."
North America's reception of its Italian immigrants was anything but kind. In the South there is a long history of
lynching Italians; in fact, our country's largest mass lynching was not of African Americans, as one might think, but of
Italians. The unjust executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti in 1927 attracted world-wide attention. Vanzetti
didn't overstate the truth when he said before he died that he was being put to death because he was a radical and
because he was Italian. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, hundreds of Italian aliens were interned in camps,
like the Japanese. Curfews were imposed, and property was seized. During and after the war, there were active national
campaigns to encourage people not to speak Italian, one of the three so-called "languages of the enemy." Employers
often encouraged Italian Americans to Americanize their names. Today, the American popular media continues its assault
on Italian-American culture by equating being Italian American with outrageous criminality and crude manners.
As for my writing audience, I don't have any one group or another in mind though I do sometimes think of an imaginary
reader who shares some of my religious and ethnic background and concerns, or is at least interested in them. For whatever
it's worth, throughout all my years of grammar and high school, college and graduate school, I was never once assigned
to read any piece of literature written by an Italian American.
Finally, I'd have to say that I write the kinds of books I'd most like ro read. I write books I don't think have
yet been written. I write books I think people might still want to read in twenty or thirty or a hundred years.
Louise Gluck wrote that true literary writers write for the unborn. I don't disagree.
King and Kunakemakorn: There is a wonderful parallel between the mystical rope that brings "Ia famigghia"
to American and the lines of verse at the end of each chapter that connect the stories of all the family members.
Both ends of the rope seem rooted to Papa Santuzzu and the ancestral gravesite in Sicily and to Tannu's grave in
America. In Carla Girgenti's story, she mentions that America has become less of a foreign "new world' now that
they've buried a brother. Could you please talk more about the importance of connection between family members and
rootedness, and perhaps why this has become more overtly important in your most recent work than in your previous
Ardizzone: What was most special about writing this book was its connection to my grandparents. I felt
that their story and the larger story of the two and a half million immigrants who came to America from Italy was
largely untold. Only their stories can connect them to future generations. As they point out, as long as their
stories are told and remembered, they can continue to live.
One of the reasons why Papa Santuzzu resists leaving Sicily is that his parents are buried there, and he has
buried his wife there. Many Italians came to the New World not with the intention of remaining there but rather
with the hope of making some money and bringing it back to their loved ones in Italy, who were literally starving.
But in the meantime, in the New World, people die, and death and burial do connect a people to a place.
King and Kunakemakorn: There is a memorable story of three women that test the compassion of family
members on their travels from Sicily to America and a hint of their presence toward the end when "the three strangers
who watched us from a distance knelt at Tannu's gravesite and grieved." Do they represent the Fates? It seems there
is a rich significance in meeting the Fates and being watched over by them on one's journey into the new world. Could
you explain this more?
Ardizzone: I placed the three strangers at Tannu's grave in part because they appeared in my imagination
as I envisioned and wrote the scene, and in part because they help to make the larger story a sort of folktale in itself,
one in which three old women test the mettle of the characters they meet. You know that they approach the family grieving
by the grave and ask for something to eat, and are fed. The first part of my answer is the more important. In that particular
scene it's snowing, and as I wrote the scene the three old women simply walked toward the gravesite out of the swirling snow.
The detail rang true to me, so I kept it. The rest of my answer is a rationalization, formed long after the fact of the
writing. As for the significance of the three women, I guess there are any number of myths that might explain them. I'd
prefer not to know exactly who or what they represent.
King and Kunakemakorn: There is a certain rawness of emotion and sensory experiences in Larabi's Ox that
carries over in a subtle way to In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu. For instance, at the beginning of Larabi's Ox,
there are three characters that interact in various ways to their encounter with a dying ox on the side of the road. Their
subsequent thoughts and reactions reveal the motivations for their actions and their desires to feel fulfilled or acknowledged
in some way. What do you think drives people to look for situations that force them to recognize their potential or limits?
Why is it that such an initially frightening experience, like living in a new world, is so alternately maddening and
satisfying at the same time?
Ardizzone: I don't think there's any single answer to your question. My three travelers in Larabi's Ox
go to Morocco for three different reasons, which take several stories to explain. My Sicilian children of Santuzzu and
Adriana travel to La Merica in part because their father told them to and in part because they were starving. In 1985,
I went to Morocco to live and teach because the opportunity presented itself and because I thought it was something a
writer should do. I mean, to experience. I'm the sort of writer who's bases his aesthetic on experience, and what I
can't experience I research. As for what might drive people to do this, there are probably as many reasons as there
are people. But for me, as a writer, I seek experience because it helps me make better art.
King and Kunakemakorn: In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu deals with union activism and the behind-the-scenes insecurities of being a newcomer fighting with old bastions of power. How do you compare the fears of being
indistinguishable as a worker with the fear of becoming culturally undefined as well?
Ardizzone: I'd say both are equally terrorizing, though I'd probably fear the latter more, which may be
why I'm more of a writer than an activist. The key here is stories. Cultures live and define themselves by
and through the stories they tell about themselves. I see one of my responsibilities as a fiction writer as writing
these stories, of giving the not-yet-defined some sense of definition, the voiceless a sense of voice.