Everywhere one looks in today’s world, exploitation can be found at nearly every level of social and political life. Some of the exploitation of humans is well known, well documented and in the forefront , especially in light of currents events—the world seems as though it is veering off of its axis. Some forms of exploitation, by another name “slavery” are embedded, deep in a culture’s not too distant history, where it would be brought to light if someone would just scratch the surface and reveal it. Olivia Kate Cerrone, does just that in her powerful novella, The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press, 2017). Anyone with Sicilian blood or otherwise in any way engaged with the island will know it it be full of mystery and contradiction—and as different from the mainland Italy as one can imagine. A colorful history of being plundered and conquered by nearly everyone adds to the complexity of the land, the people and its history.
But a little known dark period in Sicily’s history is more recent than what books on European history will usually reveal—-that of the carusi (young boy), the practice of sending very young boys into the mines to provide sulphur , which was in great demand around the world. These young boys were often given to the owners of the mines by their families or the homes in which they were placed at birth to satisfy debts known as ,soccorso morto , incurred by their father’s , brother’s or grandfather’s escape or death from the mines. One was born into the life and often death was the only escape, though, both cruelly and paradoxically, enslaving another member of a family.
Cerrone’s The Hunger Saint is what I would call, unreservedly, a tour de force, a small but powerful novella that tells, quite vividly, the story of Ntoni, a young boy who suffers in every way possible, and in some ways unimaginable, by paying off his father’s debt in mines. Cerrone’s conducted painstaking research , traveling to Sicily in 2013, to conduct oral interviews in the Sicilian region of Enna, in order to hear, firsthand, of the barbarous practice ,widely accepted for many years, until the demise of the industry in the early 1980’s, which resulted in a very informative piece that was published in the Times of Sicily, Why the Carusi Matter. That Cerrone, an award-winning fiction writer chose to express her findings in a very intense and evocative novella, will insure that the plight of the carusi, a troubling but important aspect of Sicilian history, will not be forgotten. Her narrative goes deep inside the heart and mind of the young Ntoni in a telling so alive, that cold , hard research facts could never do the experience justice. Cerrone is expert in her craft, and the story she tells is multi-layered and complex, so much so , that the reader may have a very visceral reaction to the story:
When the basket was full, Ntoni lifted it a few inches off the ground before setting it down again. The throb in his arms was immediate, almost dizzying. His nose and brow dripped with sweat; his thoughts raced in circles. There was no escaping the toil Even if he somehow managed to escape, his family would still be stuck paying off he loan. HIs younger brother would also be blacklisted fro working in any Sicilian mine when he came of age. Only in death could the socorro morto debt be forgiven. Ntoni breathed heard, stifling the impulse to moan. Then he reached for the basket and secured it between his shoulder blades, feeling again the bite of its rough bottom ridge as a white-hot pain shot down the length of his spine. (5)
I have long admired Olivia’s total and complete dedication to her craft and to her desire to better know all aspects of Sicilian history and life, something that we share and have often discussed. She was incredibly gracious in answering some of my questions regarding her interest in the carusi and the writing of this book.
SS: What sparked your interest in this project in the first place?
OKC: I discovered the carusi largely by accident. In my early twenties, I wrestled a great deal with forging my own sense of identity and I was desperate to have some deeper understanding of my Sicilian heritage—an understanding that didn’t rely on vapid Hollywood stereotypes or sentimental notions of grandmothers, neither of which I could relate to. I didn’t (and still don’t) identify as a Catholic. Outside of pasta dishes, my family was very much disconnected from the culture in any meaningful way. So I immersed myself in Sicilian literature, films, folk music and language—aspects of the culture that might really offer some sense of a core Sicilian identity. It was in a Sicilian language class in NYC where I first learned about the carusi, and I was at once horrified and intrigued by their tragic presence in the world. I still don’t understand why more hasn’t been written about these child laborers, but as a writer whose work is rooted in socially-conscious issues, I was compelled to produce a book about them, if only to help raise further awareness of their suffering. Fiction is a compelling means of connecting people to history and larger social issues.
SS: What kind of research went into finding out about the carusi and how long did that take?
OKC: Over a period of about five years, I devoured everything I could find in terms of films and literature about the carusi, and traveled to Sicily to conduct oral histories and research among surviving sulfur miners. Since so little has been written about the carusi (in English or Italian), I soon realized that I needed to visit the actual mine sites and talk to Sicilian people to get a better understanding of the circumstances and brutal conditions that these children faced. I was very fortunate to connect with Dr. Salvatore Di Vita, former director of Il Parco Minerario Floristella-Grottacalda, an open-air museum that was once one of the largest sulfur mines on the island. He introduced me to surviving miners still living in the surrounding area. These men and their families were very generous in sharing their memories with me. Hearing their stories largely informed the shape and context of the manuscript that I was inevitably able to produce.
SS: What did you find out that most surprised you?
OKC: How easily a practice as horrific and dehumanizing as child labor abuse could become normalized within a society oppressed by severe poverty and a lack of strictly-enforced labor laws. Children as young as six years old were sent to work in the sulfur mines because their bodies were small enough to maneuver through the tunnels. The soccorso morto system itself was essentially indentured servitude, where destitute families sent their children to work in the mines in exchange for a loan that most could never hope to pay back. Many perished in the mines before they could repay the debt. The term soccorso morto translates to “dead loan” in Italian perhaps for this reason. It was a system designed to enslave poor families and keep them impoverished for generations. There was no protection for these people, no recourse other than to endure or escape.
SS: Why do you think that this is a period of history that should be remembered?
OKC: The story of the carusi is not unique to Sicily alone. The presence of child labor abuse is an ongoing reality that continues to occur worldwide right now. The carusi of today are refugee children from Syria overworked in clothing factories in Turkey or children from Sudan and Eritrea forced into the sex-trade industry by human traffickers. They are the child laborers who work in the cobalt mines of the Congo and the sweatshops of Bangladesh. We must deepen our awareness of how we are all interconnected globally—where the items we purchase, for instance, the very clothes on our backs, may have derived. A greater awareness can help foster better means of activism that can help save lives and curb the onslaught of exploitation from continuing
SS: The novella is both a wonderful and interesting choice to the story of the carusi—any plans to continue this work in either a non-fiction book or perhaps another dimension of the carusi?
OKC: Absolutely! I would be very interested in continuing to produce work that fosters greater awareness of the carusi in a non-fiction capacity or through collaborating with another artist. I believe that arts specifically offer a powerful means of offering more nuanced portrayals of difficult but ever relevant social issues.
SS :Use five words to describe Sicily.
OKC: Haunting, complex, soulful, resilient, intense
SS: What is your relationship to Sicily? To your Sicilian heritage?
OKC: I am a third-generation Sicilian American with great-grandparents who immigrated from the seaport towns of Augusta, Sciacca and Porto Empedolce. They were fishermen who settled in and around Boston and Gloucester, MA. Although I have no known blood ties to the carusi or the sulfur mines, my roots are very much working class, and the presence of exploitation and oppression are constant themes in my writing. Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema, a film adapted from Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia has a special place in my heart—it’s like watching my ancestors immortalized on the screen.
SS:Is being Sicilian-American a predominant part of your identity?
OKC: It’s complicated. Growing up, my heritage was a vague notion largely informed by the mainstream American media’s stereotypical portrayals of Italian Americans, which are stunted and damaging, especially for women. I didn’t grow up in an Italian American neighborhood or have a family that was connected to their roots outside of the kitchen, so my access point to the culture remains largely intellectual. This also forces me to apply my own interpretation as an artist, especially in regards to the work I produce.
SS: Do you have any projects that you are currently working on or are planning in the future involving aspects of Sicily
OKC: Yes, my current novel-in-progress, Displaced involves several Sicilian-American characters, some of whom wrestle with their own complicated feelings surrounding refugees and immigrants living in contemporary Boston. I have encountered many Italian Americans over the years who have very limited insight into their own immigrant origins, a factor which so often allows fear to limit one’s sense of compassion and understanding toward others. The carusi remind us of the suffering common to so many of our ancestors, along with those who continue to live under violent oppression today.
SS: Oliva, thank you so very much for this amazing contribution to Sicilian history!
Those who read Mark Spano’s Midland Club (Thunderfoot Press) will immediately be transported to a different world. No , this book is not fantasy or science fiction, but instead, a murder mystery—with a twist. Sicilian-American Spano , has re-created a world when to be homosexual was a scourge, practically validating open-season on those outside of what was considered the (sexual) norm. Spano’s characters are expertly drawn with subtlety —-he leaves out cartoonish or stereotypical characterizations which would simply demean and weaken the story. We care about Rich St. Pierre, the outcast in his well-known and respectable family, in part, because he possesses a keen intelligence —and has a conscience.
St. Pierre is determined, at the risk of his own safety, to get to the bottom of the truth about the death of Puce Bordeaux, a loyal and hardworking waiter at the Midland Club. St. Pierre is not buying the pronouncement of Bordeaux’s death as suicide for a few very particular reasons: the man was a “Negro” and a homosexual, and a Catholic, as evidenced by the rosary beads entwined in Bordeaux’s hands that does not escape St. Pierre’s notice, and somewhat shocks him nonetheless. This is clearly an unusual situation signaling a definite triple -jeopardy in the 1950’s.
When Bordeaux’s priest, Monsignor Corliss is found dead, St. Pierre risks his own life to uncover the secrets the town has been covering up, in one way or another, for a long time. That St. Pierre has been shunned by his own family for his so called “degenerate” lifestyle, makes the task he sets himself somewhat easier since he feels as though he owes little to anyone , save the discover of truth itself:
As I watch my neighbors’ doors and windows before they resume their restless movements through this city, I know in small way I am free in my living here. I am an outsider and I survived unjudged by the rules on either side of this divided city.
While this is a slim volume (120 pp) , it is a powerful story that even transcends the revelation of the murder mysteries in the end. It is a an evocative portrait of a place and time in which the basic rights of men (and women) to live freely and to follow their own desires was repressed by shame, intimidation, violence, outcast status and the withdrawal of love and support from family members. And, in the case of the story Spano tells us in the Midland Club, many paid the ultimate price for just living their lives with the truth that, ultimately, could not be repressed.
The Midland Club is a superb little gem. Read it and feel transported to the world of dark wood, cognac and the ultimate boys’ club. Be transformed by the truth it seeks to expose about a dark time in our country’s history and the many that paid the ultimate price for simply being who they needed to be. St. Pierre sums it up thus:
So, I continue, here, in this town somewhere between the pain of remembering and the carelessness of forgetting.
In this space, usually reserved for issues of refugees in Sicily , I tackle a twin topic: that of organized killing and slaughter worldwide in repressive countries with brutal regimes. Poet, Writer and Activist Gloria Mindock answers some of my questions about her latest collection of poems, The Whiteness of Bone, which focuses on systematic killing as a worldwide modern scourge. Not coincidentally, brutal regimes and all that goes with them are often just one of the reasons people flee their country of origin, their home. Her newest poetry collection, The Whiteness of Bone, tackles this subject matter.
MR:Your collection of poems, Blood Soaked Dresses stunned me with its stark portrayals of how banal evil really is. It reminded me so much of Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between us. In that collection you focused on the legacy of violence, oppression, terror and death in El Salvador. In the Whiteness of Bone you cast your net wider and speak of human tragedies in the world at large. Tell me a bit about how this collection came to be, and what your preoccupations were when you were writing these poems.
GM:After Blood Soaked Dresses was published, I continued to write about the atrocities. The slaughter of the innocents was happening in so many countries. I knew I had to continue to be a voice for those who could not speak. I felt the world was silent and ignoring what was going on. I was not about to ignore it, so I kept writing about it. Finally, I had enough poems that I felt good about and put them into a manuscript, Whiteness of Bone. I am so excited and honored that Glass Lyre Press published this work.
MR:Andrey Gritsman, so astutely called the poems in this collection “a long weapon piercing human conscience.” In fact, once one reads these poems, it would be difficult if not impossible to perceive what is going on in the world at a distance, since the human essence is so very vivid: you do not hold the reader at arms length—in fact, you are speaking directly to the reader when you write, in the poem “Don’t”
Don’t tell me my writing is too graphic
for you as you sit in your nice apartment,
enjoying the day, sleeping peacefully at night.
You can do this, they can’t.
MR:Who are your readers? What effect do you think or hope these poems have on awareness of political, military and social violence in the world?
GM:Besides friends and others in the writing community, I am hoping I can reach those that feel like I do and want to wake up the world to these killings. Some people have said to me that it is difficult to read some of my poetry at times. It should be. This means I am doing my job as a writer, as an activist. Right now, the world is falling a part and it is over greed, money, power, religion, oil, land etc… I am hoping people will read more on what is happening and get involved. Voices need to be heard. The slaughter has to stop.
MR:Your prose poem “Random Thoughts About a Boy” touched me deeply. What came to mind was the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, found face down on a beach while trying to flee his war torn country. That was a graphic and gut wrenching visual provided to us by worldwide news, the image of which I will never forget. What you do with words here, is also so evocative, one can imagine children everywhere who are either lose their lives’ or who take the lives of others, as is the case with children being conscripted into war. If killing is learned, how can it be unlearned?
GM:Killing is learned and it can be changed, starting with the adults and parents not teaching their children to hate by watching what comes out of their mouths and demonstrating the actions of peace and caring for others. Change can happen if responsibility is taken. For some people, it is rooted from one generation to another. People have to be willing to change, work at it to stop the cycle. Strapping bombs on children, or giving them a gun and teaching them to shoot is , clearly, not the answer.
MR:In your poem “Shrapnel” hope feels lost. You write: No matter how hard we try, we can’t attach ourselves back to solace. then further, you write: The vine stays, the debris adds up, and the angel laughs— truthfully, as fine a line as I have ever read. So fine, in fact, I copied that line into my journal. while so much poetry has an ineffable quality, explain to me, if indeed you can, what you mean by that line. Do you really believe there is no longer a place or room for solace.
GM:The line means the vine to heaven stays but the debris of the killings adds up. No one is going to climb the vine but it is there if you do. The angel laughs because no one climbs it. She is cynical and feels there is no hope for this world. I feel the same way lately because the slaughter is getting worse. Evil is getting worse. Again, the world stands by and does nothing to put a stop to it. I believe in comforting and helping the innocents in these countries but I can’t do this alone. I feel alone in this calling at times so where is the solace? There are a few out there speaking up like I do but not enough. I will never lose hope and my love for mankind but I am human. I want to shake the world up and put a stop to all this killing. If enough people say stop, I believe it all can change.
MR:You do not shy away from the graphic, which is just one of the things that give your poems their great power. In Maria’s Uncle, Maria holds her uncles guts in her hands, then tries to push them back in. Her lips actually touch them. Such a stark and stomach churning image, but it is the last two stanzas that move me the most:
Now Maria travels the world, speaking about the dead, telling the
world it is hopeless, that no one is capable of a quiet tongue.
With outstretched hands, she handed everyone a flower, said:
you must water it to live, but if not, the depths of hell will assign you a seat.
This poem both expresses despair that is unending and then hope. Is Maria a composite or a real person? Are you expressing here the stubborn hope in the face of unspeakable tragedy?
GM:Maria is a real person who fled El Salvador in the 1980’s. She escaped at age nine. She laid in a pit by her mother who was dead and faked her death so she would not get shot. The trauma and PTSD this young girl suffered was heart breaking. I had a translator when speaking with her. In the book is a poem called “Maria” which I wrote for her. I have no idea what happened to her but hopefully, she still is alive and living here in the United States.
I decided to use Maria in many of my poems and made her into a saint- like figure. To show everyone, that there is always hope in this world.
MR:We can only imagine some of the locations of the poems that you write about, since you are not explicit and do not name names of the countries. As a poet, this appeals to me greatly—because while each tragedy is unique in its own way, oftern the effects, the loss of life and other horrific vagaries of war are the same. Was this lack of specification intentional on your part? If so, why?
GM: I did not name the countries because there are so many of them. There are only so many ways to kill a human and so many countries slaughter in the same way. How many different ways can you use a machete, shoot a person, rape, chop up, and torture? It all is horrific. I don’t need to name the countries because it is everywhere. This world is becoming a cruel place. Towards the end of the book, I do mention a few countries.
MR:The last poem in the book “Orchestra” brings it all home to me. You give the reader something of yourself, which is brilliant:
I don’t think you understand who I am—
Bohemian girl, who never sleeps…
Can I speak to you about my poetry?
Listen, you will hear new words
coming from my voice.
MR:Who is Gloria, the writer, the poet, the activist?
GM:I am someone who believes in helping others, speaking up; being a voice for others.
I am a protestor, a warm-hearted person who cares about the world and how people treat each other. I will never understand all the mass killings.
I write on many different subjects and write poetry, plays, and flash fiction. Not all of my work is about the atrocities.
One of my biggest gripes is that many people don’t care about what is happening in the world because it does not directly affect them. These are the people I am trying to reach, to wake up. I want people to say “enough”.
I have always helped people in so many ways. I work in addictions and have for close to 36years. It is not easy some day working with people who are suffering and addicted to drugs, but I love it—it is very rewarding.
MR:You are so active and present on the poetry scene both in the US and abroad. Your press Červená Barva Press has published poetry from writers the world over. What is the philosophy behind the press?
GM:Červená Barva’s mission is to publish poetry, fiction, plays, and translations from all over the world. The press tries to bridge gaps between countries. To name a few, we have published writers from: New Zealand, Australia, Poland, Northern Iraq, Canada, Romania, Asia, South Korea, Czech Republic, England, Argentina, Mexico, Sweden, Estonia, and many more.
I have more countries to reach. We have so much to learn from what is written in other countries. Failure to read work from other countries make a person’s view rather narrow You will never grow as a person or writer if you don’t expand your view. Translations were once difficult to find , but more presses are publishing translations. This makes me really happy.
Oh my, I have so many influences–here are just some of them: Neruda, Agosin, Allegra, Milosz, Amichai, Hikmet, Celan, Vallejo, Dugan, Radnoti, Alberti, Zagajewski, Lorca, Herbert, and really a ton more, mostly foreign.. These are the writers I read over and over again.
MR:What would you like people to know about the power of poetry as witness?
GM:The poetry of witness can make you aware, not let you feel alone, can help action to proceed, can make people think, cry, and is so powerful. It grabs at your heart.
MR: Well said. Thank you , Gloria!
Very grateful to poet extraordinaire Nicole Rollender for proving a platform on her blog for me to talk about my collection Birds of Sicily!
…because up close and personal, THIS is the reality, this is the face, (one of many) of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Still oppose refugees right to cross borders ? If you can ,. you are cold , hard and shiny plastic ,for sure. And I hope your society, and your country never burns under your feet. What a way to come into the world, right? This infant boy and his twin brother , along with their mother braved a 3o hour, arduous journey, some of it in the pitch black of night, for a safe shore. Fifteen rubber boats (unbelievably) and one made of wood were rescued in the Mediterranean. Thousands were rescued.
Compassion is in play here, thankfully, but the naysayers, the bigots and the ill-informed cannot be far behind. The harsh truth is that the 30 hour journey, treacherous as it was, will not be the end of a life full of instability, fear, and an intense longing for a land and a home that, for all intents and purposes no longer exists. The refugee escapes one set of unbearable circumstances for another. But , at the very least, the ground is no longer burning under their feet.
The face of this tiny infant , a mere 5 days old, and others like him will haunt me.
People are priorities.
With heartfelt thanks to my friend and amazing artist Cristina Mazzoni (MCM arts), here are her wonderful watercolors of a variety of birds found in Sicily as the backdrop for my reading of Birds of Sicily, the title poem from my collection of the same name.
I love when collaboration takes place like this so effortlessly. Every single day I look forward to Cristina’s amazing artwork, often representations of the natural world, paired with exquisite poetry from all of the poetic giants the world over. When she approached me about the idea for this little “movie” I felt so honored—she is such a huge talent and I am humbled. Her birds are so real in their rendering, so soulful and free.
My collection of poems, Birds of Sicily uses the metaphor of migratory and birds of flight to tell, in poems, the story of a man, my grandfather who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life.
If I juxtapose this with the refugees of today, I can see even in flight one is not free. It is hard to shake the chains of hatred, resentment and displacement, often what they find in most of the places in which they land.
Birds , to a certain extent can be free, because they have wings that can lift, propel and keep them in flight. But they are also caged, hunted and susceptible to many things that can harm them when they are out of their habitat.
In that way, humans — refugees, are like birds, too. Under great duress they flee for better , higher ground, but can never really know, ahead of time, what they will find