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!