Helen Barolini addressing a NIAF conference


Helen Barolini
1979
Helen Barolini & Italian American Women Writers Gain Recognition.


Although some Italian American women writers could be found in an earlier period, it can be said that it was not until the present generation that they consciously entered into an interaction with their ethnic background. Helen Barolini's (1928- ) widely acclaimed books, Umbertina in 1979 and then The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women in 1985 are cited as landmark works that brought this awareness to the fore and helped to promote the work of women writers of various genres. This is not to ignore the works that long preceded this period such as those of Rosa Marie Segale, (Sister Blandina), who wrote of her life in the American west of the nineteenth century, or Rosa Cassettari's autobiographical Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant (written by Marie Hall Ets). Likewise Sicilian-born immigrant Frances Winwar (Francesca Vinciguerra) earned critics' praise for her historical biographies, while Mari Tomasi and Marion Benasutti's novels also incorporate features of the ethnic dimension.

One of Helen Barolini's contributions to Italian American women writers is that she consciously addressed the questions of writing on the part of women offering an explanation for their relative tardiness in thrusting themselves into the medium. Specifically she cites the low priority given to writing by Italian Americans of an earlier generation, especially women. Born in Syracuse, New York in 1928, and educated at Syracuse University, the University of Florence and Columbia University, she married Antonio Barolini, an accomplished Italian writer. Spending much time in Italy, Barolini became a translator of Italian writings and also published articles in journals such as New Yorker, Ms., Yale Review, and South Atlantic Quarterly. By 1979, Barolini had published the largely autobiographical Umbertina, which as a novel that makes vital and meaningful connections that cut across generations of Italian and Italian American women. Then in 1986 her book The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women won the American Book Award for literary achievement by people of various ethnic backgrounds. A singular accomplishment it also helped to make Americans acquainted with the works of other Italian American woman writers. While some of her other books deal with subjects outside of the ethnic emphasis, Barolini continues to embrace her Italian roots in her publications and in her activity, frequently speaking before audiences assembled by Italian American organizations.

Other Italian American women writers find a more receptive audience for their writings that explore the not infrequent overbearing consequences of their ethnicity. Among the more recent writers to examine this are Josephine Gattuso Hendin, in The Right Thing to Do, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, in Italian Days, Tina DeRosa, in Paper Fish, and Carole Maso in Ghost Dance. Utilization of Italianita serves as an entry point to contemplate its impact on culture is to be found in the acclaimed poetry of women like Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Daniela Gioseffa. In sum, whereas Italian American women writers were the exception only a generation or two ago, they constitute a growing presence that not only elucidates and informs about the multiple dimensions of the Italian American experience, but also renders their writing a valued aspect of the American encounter.

Barolini at home in New York (2003)
Barolini speaking at conference in Naples, Italy (1996)
Barolini at CUNY Graduate Center (1996)
Barolini's Umbertina book signing (1980)
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
Barolini at her home office (1994)




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