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Theodora Patrona, Return Narratives. Ethnic Space in Late-Twentieth-Century Greek American and Italian American Literature

Sostene M. Zangari

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1Theodora Patrona, Return Narratives. Ethnic Space in Late-Twentieth-Century Greek American and Italian American Literature

2Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017. Pp. 209. ISBN: 9781611479959

3Sostene M. Zangari

4In his poem “Heritage,” Countee Cullen articulates the cultural void affecting African-American intellectuals who, denied direct access to their ancestral home, were not able to turn its culture and traditions into that ‘usable past’ that could provide the foundations for constructing a specific culture: what did Africa represent to a poet, “century removed/from the scenes his fathers loved?” The same question is increasingly being asked in literary works by American writers of diverse ethnic background, and Theodora Patrona’s timely Return Narratives. Ethnic Space in Late-Twentieth-Century Greek American and Italian American Literature attempts to account for several publications where authors of Italian and Greek ancestry of the latter part of the 20th century have made a journey back to the land of their forefathers. Seen in the light of an increasingly global and interconnected world scenario, where individuals feel increasingly uprooted, the search for origins and authenticity provides the antidote to fill an identity void – a trend that several industries have been quick to exploit flooding markets with goods endowed with ethnic flavour, from foods to t-shirts. Books, as well, have played their part in this new consumption trend, and scores of return narratives – with authors telling their own pilgrimage to the homeland of their ancestors – have found their way to the bookshelves. Aiming at discovering how these return journeys are “connected with the recourse to ethnic cultural pools” and how this combination is “affected by the constantly changing framework of social, historical, and economic conditions” (xiv), Patrona’s contribution provides one of the first thorough surveys of this new field, and attempts to push ethnic studies towards new territories. The comparative approach, adds depth to the analysis by stressing how the same trends are to be seen across ethnic lines, making the theme of ‘return’ a very crucial one for understanding our contemporary age.

5The book is divided into three sections, where Patrona examines in parallel one book from each tradition. The first part focuses on Daphne Athas’s Cora (1978) and Helen Barolini’s Umbertina (1979), novels that trace “the harsh road toward self-definition” (31) featuring women who try to use the ethnic space of the homeland in order to recover the relationship with lost ancestors and find new forms of personal agency. Barolini’s quest unfolds across four generations starting from the immigrant Umbertina and ending with an empowered granddaughter who, bearing her ancestor’s name, symbolically closes the latter’s initial impulse towards liberation; Athas, on the other hand, frames the feminist trajectory as an attempt to escape an ethnic male’s desire to imprison a female figure into traditional subordinate roles. Don Tsiambalis’s project, however, is doomed to fail as the title character Cora manages to carve “a new empowered self” (23), with immersion into the Greek landscape triggering an internal transformation that will turn her from submissive housewife to confident woman ready for a new beginning.

6It is the second section, though, where Catherine Temma Davidson’s The Priest Fainted (1998) and Susan Caperna Lloyd’s No Pictures in My Grave (1992) are discussed, that provides the most intriguing insight into the overlapping between ethnic literature and contemporary consumption patterns. In these books, the journeys toward self-definition are mediated through “pre-fabricated notions of the home country” (61); the land of the ancestors is approached by exploiting the lens of myth. This which, in Patrona’s view, reduces Greek and Italy to a catalogue of uncomplicated images for easy and untroubled consumption. The authors employ an approach defined as “celebratory, self-gratifying, and pacifying” (148) which is in tune with the escapist mood of causal readers. The narrators’ engagement with the fatherland is personal and short-term: supported by the spending power of their deep pockets, narrators indulge in temporary relief from the gender barriers they have left in the US – an attitude that, according to Patrona, leads to an “obliteration of all female struggles” (74). But whereas Davidson’s journey presents at least the unnamed narrator’s attempt to rediscover the struggles of her female ancestors, Caperna’s book is significantly directed not towards Lazio – the region of Italy where her family comes from – but towards Sicily, the island which, throughout several literary and cinematic representations, has come to represent the quintessential land of origin for Italian-America: this choice writes off possible digressions into problems of class and gender that go hand in hand with the drama of migration and testifies to the “oversimplified approach of a highly complicated issue” (96).

7The third and last section deals with two male writers, Stratis Haviaras, with When The Tree Sings (1979), and Tony Ardizzone, with the celebrated In The Garden of Papa Santuzzu (1999). The novels are analysed through the lens of storytelling as a way to explore “the subaltern’s battles for survival and freedom” (101), - occurring at the time of the Nazi occupation of Greece during WWII in the first case, and covering the transatlantic struggles of Sicilian workingmen between the late 19th and early 20th century in the second. Both works weave elements from folk culture into the narrative fabric, giving authors “the ability to glide through the strict conventions set by mainstream culture” (147-8) as a “source of sustenance and hope” (106), but also as a way to construct the stories from the bottom up. Thus, the marginal stories of the underclasses are put in the foreground, particularly those of women who, in their struggle for freedom, defied traditional roles. Readers, in this case, are challenged to confront “alternative histories” by those who had been silenced by history for their lack of discursive power.

8Extremely well-researched and providing informative context regarding the development of both Italian American and Greek American studies, Patrona’s framework offers a precious point of entry into a new field, that further research by scholars specialized in different ethnic traditions will hopefully enrich and complicate.

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Electronic reference

Sostene M. Zangari, « Theodora Patrona, Return Narratives. Ethnic Space in Late-Twentieth-Century Greek American and Italian American Literature », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2018-1, Online since 18 May 2018, connection on 15 November 2018. URL :

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