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Literature
Joseph Tusiani
Ninety years of literature between Italy and America
A special supplement of the magazine Frontiere celebrates the “eighteen splendors” of the Italian American poet, writer and translator.
“The same yardstick for the tops of the skyscrapers and for the old cottages in his Gargano town”
by Sergio D’Amaro
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Joseph Tusiani, who turned 90
on January 14, 2014

Over the past twenty years Joseph Tusiani’s reputation has grown constantly. After pioneering works like those in the early ’90s coordinated by J. J. Marchand (La letteratura dell’emigrazione), and by A. J. Tamburri, P. Giordano & F. Gardaphé (From the Margin), this author soon became, in the world of Italian American literature, one of the writers that cannot be ignored. On either side of the ocean, when talk turns to Italian American literature (though perhaps it would be better to say “the literature of the Italians in America”), reference is inevitably made to his creative works and to the huge mass of translations of Italian classics, including Tasso’s Gerusalemme, Pulci’s Morgante, Dante’s lyric poems and Leopardi’s Canti.

It is his work as a translator that perhaps represents the best metaphor to bring into focus the miraculous literary and cultural balance underpinning Tusiani’s creative world. It enables him to settle the conflict, as his careful interpreter Cosma Siani observed, “between the world of Italianness and that of Americanness, both profoundly ‘acknowledged’ and loved, managing to find the explanation of his own double ethnic allegiance in the classicism that instead could have cut him off from both of them”. This special permeability enabled Tusiani to soothe the pain of passing from the ancestral world to the hyper-technological world and to carry literary and cultural ideals from one generation to the next. In the poem Heritage he writes: “To comprehend my life, I think of it / as a translation from a flowing past / into a flowing present, from a birth / utterly unintelligible, into / an altogether signifying sound / which I call language, life and love of it”. It is a split/separation that is translated and constantly re-translated into an intensification of life, into a reciprocal enrichment of past and present, allowing Tusiani to harmoniously bring together the here and the elsewhere, the archaic and the modern of his existential condition and of the world represented in his poetry.

Tusiani wrote a long autobiography where he carefully recounted the difficult process of Americanization. But it is also a pleasure to say that it was written in Italian, as a declaration of loyalty to the original destiny that took him to live at the top of the world, in Manhattan’s Upper East side, which in the eyes of his fellow countrymen, old and not so old, had the aura of an unachievable land. And yet, being a real artist, Tusiani used the same yardstick for the tops of the skyscrapers and for the old cottages in his Gargano town, San Marco in Lamis, in whose dialect he has forged thousands of lines, recognizing the dignity of history and feelings in the different and contrasting levels of his experience.

Today at ninety years of age (his birthday is 14 January), Joseph shines even more in his eighteen lustra (as he loves to say), as reappears in “I’m eighteen splendors old”, which is the title of the special issue dedicated to him by the magazine Frontiere (the journal of the town’s Centro Studi ‘J. Tusiani’), containing essays, personal accounts and meetings with prestigious friends (Luigi Fontanella, Luigi Bonaffini, Anthony J. Tamburri, Gaetano Cipolla, Emilio Bandiera, Martino Marazzi, Giovanni Tesio, Cosma Siani). It emerges that Tusiani has never shied away from dialogue between the community where he originated and the one where he finished up, tenaciously preserving the original timbre of his voice which emerged from an old existential and religious core, shaped by one of the darkest seasons of the 1900s, with the war, postwar Italy under the Marshall Plan and much further forced emigration.