In my sophomore year of high school, I took a course titled Literature of New York with Mr. G., who was so handsome my all-girls school buzzed. He wore glasses and a three-piece suit, was smart and soft-spoken. We read stories like Albert Halper’s “Scab!” about the taxi unions and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. While the image of Holden Caulfield trying to save children about to fall over a cliff is forever engraved on my brain, it wasn’t this novel that made me cry or that helped chart my trajectory as a writer. It was Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete.
The impulse to write stems from our need to be heard.
I still remember the classroom, how, even though it was the spring semester, the trees outside our window were naked with winter. I remember the anger I felt as I read the book, the tears rising up the inside of my nose: How could people do this to other people, to children? Published in 1939 — the same year as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath — Christ in Concrete also became one of the year’s most heralded reads. It’s about an Italian immigrant bricklayer named Geremio, who dies on Good Friday when he falls from the building he is helping to build. Geremio is swallowed by the concrete, which crushes him as it dries around him, his arms outstretched like Christ’s on the cross. Di Donato’s own father died in a construction accident on Good Friday in 1923, when di Donato was 12. Christ in Concrete is about the emotional, spiritual, and economic suffering that Geremio’s wife and their seven children, especially their oldest son, 12-year-old Paul, endure after Geremio dies. It’s a gruesome death that could have been avoided if it had not been for the greed of the American business owners, who allowed terrible working conditions, and also the greed of some Italian-American padroni, middle men who looked the other way. It’s also about the widespread, blatant discrimination against Italians. When Paul goes to the police precinct to identify his father’s body, one of the cops calls out, “What? — Oh yeah — the wop is under the wrappin’ paper in the courtyard!”
Christ in Concrete was one of the first books to show me people’s suffering, to tenderize me and move me beyond myself. I had never before seen immigrants, especially Italian immigrants, as characters in a book. I had never experienced an Italian dialect on the page. I had certainly never seen in print the broken English I sometimes heard my grandparents speak, which di Donato elevated to literature. It was also the first time I read a novel that showed great tenderness for Christ’s broken body by describing Geremio’s. I experienced such a strong sense of recognition and pride. The novel became deeply personal. It woke me up to the poverty that my parents and grandparents endured in southern Italy during World War II and made me appreciate their tenacity before and after they immigrated to America in the 1950s. It eventually made me want to learn and write about their lives. It made me want to go in search of other authors like di Donato. It made me want to become one of them or at least something like them.
It wasn’t until my late twenties, when I was pulled to the Italian American Writers Association, that I began to listen to the desires of my heart. Part of what IAWA did was help connect me to other writers, including the acclaimed poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan. For the first 40 years of her life, Mazziotti wrote poems that mimicked the English Romantic male poets; she thought that was what she was supposed to write, that those were the only kinds of poems that existed. But after 40, she started writing what she really wanted to write: autobiographical free verse about the tight-knit, blue-collar, Sicilian American immigrant home she grew up in. Although in that home she felt loved and proud and happy, outside that home she was always afraid “the Italian word [would] sprout from [her] mouth like a rose.” In Mazziotti’s poetry, I recognized that the impulse to write stems from our need to be heard, to give witness to our lives, to help give witness to others’ lives.
Because of her, I started writing a lot and often. I learned that poetry can be autobiographical, angry, tender. I learned how emotion is done well on the page, that it must be done well. The best writing is the kind that gives you chills up your back or makes you cry like Christ in Concrete did for me. It’s not distant or general; it’s rich, sensual, imaginative. It tells the truth even if it’s fiction. In addition to helping me tap into and trust my own voice, Mazziotti was also a bridge to a long list of other authors who write about the experience of being a female immigrant or “hyphenated” American, women whose work became a focus for my doctoral studies, including Helen Barolini, Toni Morrison, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Louise DeSalvo, Tina DeRosa, Alice Walker, Esmeralda Santiago, Jamaica Kincaid, Amy Tan, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Naomi Shihab Nye, Louisa Ermelino, Sandra Cisneros, Josephine Gattuso Hendin, Edvige Giunta, Rita Ciresi, Kym Ragusa, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mary Cappello, Veronica Chambers. They tell stories of displacement and adjustment, suffering and hope. They give readers an opportunity to inhabit a world, to understand.
In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle writes: “A book, too, can be a star, explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness.” Sometimes the darkness comes from not knowing or understanding other people’s plights; sometimes it comes from not knowing our own families’ plights. All these years and degrees later, so many books — including many of these women’s books — have brought me into greater light. And it all began in that cinderblock classroom in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn. If I saw Mr. G. today, I’d thank him for the book that helped change my life, that led me to so many others, that made me care for more than my little world.
If I saw Mr. G. today, I’d tell him I had a crush on him too.
Maria Giura ’90 delivered a version of this reflection to the Italian American Women of Staten Island at their 2019 Women in History Luncheon. Her first book, What My Father Taught Me, published by Bordighera Press, is a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. Her second book, a memoir, is forthcoming from Apprentice House Press in October 2019.