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Ninety years of Helen Barolini The Italo-American writer celebrated her birthday at the end of 2015.
Her work has given an essential contribution to female emancipation and that of non-privileged ethnic minorities in America.
Umbertina and The Dream Book her crucial works
by Sergio D’Amaro
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Helen Barolini

The feminist movement and with it women writers from ethnic minorities, determined to bear fitness to, and protest in favor of an unstoppable spread of democratization had a far from secondary role to play in bringing out the marginal elements – the oral, the female, the proletariat, the southern, etc. – of a multi-ethnic nation like the U.S. There is an abundance nowadays of female writers of Italian extraction sure of their literary vocation, but up to now the almost entirely masculine declination of studies and cultural attention has prejudiced our knowledge. Women Italo-American writers, it must be said, have come up against many more obstacles in the world of publishing and journalism, and neither have the critics paid much attention to them.

One who has kept the flag of emancipation flying is Helen Barolini, neé Mollica, born exactly ninety years ago into a Calabrian family which had emigrated to the USA and has now finally retired after many years as university professor and trait d’union between the shores of the Atlantic. Her husband Antonio was a writer and well-known journalist in the thirty years after the war, and she took his surname, but her constant compass was oriented to the vindication of her identity, which spanned the two geographies. That is why in 1985 she called up fifty-six women devoted to literary creativity and put their works together in the anthology The Dream Book, a work which so far has not been bettered for its female perspective. The result is the fresco that we would expect, but which should be integrated by attempting a portrait of the curator, who should be remembered for at least two of her novels, Umbertina (1979) and Love in The Middle Ages (1986). Here we are particularly interested in the former, which is a complex and well-structured saga of three generations of women, and so a story of the process of assimilation of the Italian ethnicity. And to tell the truth, Helen Barolini belongs to the current that links her to her senior male colleagues like John Fante and Pietro Di Donato and her contemporaries like Joseph Tusiani, all committed to sorting out the ethnic dilemma and battling against the prejudices and suspicions of the official culture.

Barolini traces the life of Umbertina, the emigrant, Marguerite, her grand-daughter, and Tina, the latter’s daughter. Along with the theme of ethnicity, the theme of the woman question emerges, in the sense of a double ghetto and a double lever for liberation. Umbertina, the head of the family, is a Calabrian shepherdess married to Serafino, a small landowner. On emigrating, they find themselves on Ellis Island at the turn of the last century, living like the classic Italian immigrants, with their baggage of prejudices and cultural norms. Marguerite, however, is the prototype of the third generation, intent on breaking every tie with her origins. She rebels against her upbringing and its values, especially the religious ones, of the petit bourgeoisie, thanks to her voracious reading of Voltaire, Spengler, Eliot and Compton-Burnett, and dares to affirm, for example, that Our Lady’s pregnancy was due to coitus ante portam. Her ways, her clothes, and her studies are inappropriate, unladylike. She sees a more authentic life in art and literature, far from the horizons of her well-meaning family, who aim at economic success and the grey dignity of the white-collar. Marguerite gets married, divorces, remarries with an Italian and makes an almost initiation-like trip to Italy. “Perhaps – says Barolini – she would like to get back to her origins, even though, in a confused and still ambiguous fashion, she prefers to return to the U.S.” Marguerite’s break for freedom prepares the way for her daughter Tina’s total emancipation; she differs from her mother and her grandmother in that she belongs to a generation that is in the midst of a fully-blown cultural and sexual devolution, she has had a middle-class upbringing that considers culture an independent value. By this means Tina achieves not only material well-being, but also self-affirmation and manages to understand and settle the ethnic dilemma.