Category Archives: Book Review

Cerrone’s Novella ,The Hunger Saint, Parts the Curtain on a Little Known Period of Recent Sicilian History


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.

Olivia Kate Cerrone

Olivia Kate Cerrone

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.

Hunger Saint

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:

Child slavery in Sicily sulfur mines.jpg

Carrying heavy bags of ore

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)

CARUSI

The carusi

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.

Sulphur MInes

The carusi in the sulphur mines

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.

SSWhat 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!

Sicily Flag

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Truth Will Set You Free: Review of Sicilian-American Mark Spano’s Midland Club


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.

midland-club

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.

Mens club.jpg

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. 

 lonely-man

Tagged , , ,

Times of Sicily podcast review of Birds of Sicily: poems.


Mark Spano had reviewed my collection Birds of Sicily in podcast format for the Times of Sicily.  I am grateful for his sensitive reading and his deep  understanding of these poems that seek to explicate the immigrant experience.

BIG BIRD

 

 

Tagged , , , ,