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PERSONAGGIO

Intervista a Kym Ragusa, scrittrice e regista afroamericana

 
Indice dell'articolo
pag. 1 Interview with Kym Ragusa
pag. 2 Intervista a Kym Ragusa

 
Interview with Kym Ragusa

In your book you often mention cooking and conviviality. How are they connected to your sense of family?

Food has been an integral part of the life of my own family on both sides, as well as the cultures of both Italian Americans and African Americans. For me, food tells stories, of migration, of survival, of history. And it connects these larger social processes with something closer, more intimate. The chestnuts that my paternal family ate in Sicily and Calabria to survive became something that deeply connected me to my grandmother here in America, watching her peel and roast them, eating them at the table with my family in New Jersey on cold winter nights. And in the first chapter of the memoir, I try to make connections between the power of food on that side of my family with the same power on my maternal, African American side. The traditions are different, but the reasons for those traditions are similar, the humble cuisines of peasants and enslaved people, who took what they could find or what little they were given, and nourished and sustained generations. Cooking and conviviality are also what brought the two sides of my family together on rare occasions, a bridge across many levels of difference. My grandmothers were together for the last Thanksgiving of their lives, and I was able to share that time with them. Thanksgiving itself is a politically and historically loaded holiday, of course. As a nation we celebrate, without really understanding, or by actively erasing history, the theft of Native land and the beginning of four hundred years of colonialism and slavery. But I wanted to write about that particular Thanksgiving, to try to re-imagine the idealized meaning of the holiday - two peoples coming together to share food, to acknowledge each other.

In your book there are several expressions in Italian and in Sicilian dialect. Can you tell us about your relationship with these languages?

Growing up, I heard my grandparents and other older relatives speak in dialect all the time. My grandfather didn't speak much English. He read an Italian newspaper every morning - he was literate in that language - and he spoke dialect to my grandmother, who usually answered him in English or in a mix of the two languages. My grandparents, like many immigrants, wanted their children to speak English, to have the privileges of being American, so they rarely spoke to them in Italian or in dialect. And my father has told me that he was beaten as a child in school for speaking dialect - the language, and all it meant in terms of connecting him to Italy, was literally beaten out of him. I studied Italian in college, and was even able to take a course in Sicilian. But ironically, it was difficult for me to learn. I learned French in grade school, and also learned German in college. Both languages came much more easily to me than Italian, although I have spent a great deal of time in Italy. It's something that makes me both sad and curious - is it something about the trauma of loss, as experienced by my family in ultimately having to leave Italy behind and assimilate as Americans, that has translated as some kind of block in my ability to learn Italian? Is it somehow too painful? At the same time, those word in dialect are etched into my memory - I will never forget them, and so they become my link to the place itself. I think this is relatively common for many second and third-generation Italian Americans.

Can you tell us something about your relationship with NYC?

New York City is the place where I was born and its landscape is part of my consciousness. It formed me. It is also the site of encounter between the two sides of my family. Because of its heterogeneous population, the many different immigrant groups and neighborhoods, and because of the centrality of Harlem in the history of both African Americans and of European immigrants (Jews, Germans, Irish, and Italians), it allowed for cultural and racial mixture. So it's not only that my own birth was possible because of this landscape, but that other things were possible: moments of political solidarity, of musical collaboration, of friendship and desire, between all the different groups who came to New York for work, for shelter, for adventure.

Barack Obama's America represents the most significant political situation in the contemporary world. What are your expectations for the United States?

I don't know if it's the most significant political situation. There is still the war in Iraq, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the rise of fundamentalist violence, climate change...but his election has allowed so many of us in the US to really hope for a better world in a long time, for some of us, the fist time in our lives. To many Americans, Obama represents intelligence, sanity, civility, cooperation, respect, youth. A second chance, maybe. My hope for the US under his leadership is that we will cease playing the role of bully on the world stage. That we will work to create peace around the world instead of division and mistrust. That we will put more people here back to work, and that we will actively address climate change and work toward a "green(er) economy", that he will restore the value of education and rational thought in our culture. It's possible that I'm being naive, that I'm either idealizing Obama or not taking into account the sheer mess that he's inheriting. He's not God - he's just a man, and it's going to be a huge uphill battle for him to get anything done given the world situation. But I really believe that his intentions are good. I believe that he really cares about the world, not just about power. Again, maybe it's naive. But we need to have hope. Nothing can change if we don't really believe in change, if we always expect the worst.

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