“A writer of the world,” according to Steve Erickson, John Domini has explored his father’s Naples fictionally in his trilogy of Neapolitan novels. That monumental and imaginative work brings us, among other things, a fictional earthquake and a murder in Naples’s African diaspora. Domini’s newest book, The Archaeology of a Good Ragù, delves into that same terrain but from a very different point of view, one of memoir. The wide-ranging, evocative, and entertaining book relays myriad stories (familial, historical, sociological) through food, crime, identity. In it, we can see some of the foundation, the exoskeleton, of Domini’s obsession with his father’s hometown.
David Winner: “Storytelling should never be confused with sociology,” you exhorted once when I asked you a rather literal question about your inspiration for The Color Inside a Melon, the last of your trilogy of novels set in Naples. And I wondered if you could talk a bit about delving into some of the same locales and ideas using non-fiction. Your fiction, while rooted in a deep understanding of Naples, explodes into incredible directions. You invented a whole earthquake, after all. How does it work to tell your father’s story, discuss your prior marriage, and many other things as non-fiction?
John Domini: As a novelist yourself, you know that even the greatest imaginations aren’t inventing whole cloth. Someone like Italo Calvino might spin out a mind-boggling thought experiment, granted, but its filaments are anchored in their own wrinkle of history or sociology. A memoir has to go the other way. It’s got to dig down into its sediments, as I’d say my very title, with Archeology, acknowledges.
But isn’t that much obvious? See under: “non-fiction.”
The more intriguing part of your question has to do with family. A memoirist’s family, nine times out of ten, allows him or her to accomplish the central task, namely, wringing a story out of the material. The material is mere reality, while memoir promises a dramatic whole which usually means family.
But my Dominis and Vicedominis don’t offer the usual hooks on which to hang a story. There’s no abuse or addiction, no ugly estrangement. Long and short, we look like one of Tolstoy’s dreaded “happy families.” To find the drama, I had to search within my duality, Neapolitan and Red, White, ’n Blue. The differences there, the conflicts, that’s the formula for drama, but it required that I sink deep. I repeat the metaphor deliberately. Only by achieving intimacy, family intimacy, twenty years’ worth, only then would all this stuff I knew about Naples start to simmer, to burst with flavor.
You tell of being told to “keep the Italian under wraps.” “A glass of wine at a lunch,” you explain, “and you’re a wild man.” Can you talk a little about the stereotyping and otherwise denigrating of Italians and Italian Americans? My wife’s father and maternal grandparents were from Campania, and her experiences and observations have opened my eyes to a whole world of disparagement. But Italians are, of course, white people who have no notion of the kind of danger and resentment experienced by people of color, particularly Black Americans. How do you parse these various forces and cultural tendencies?
Now, this question is sociology. There are texts to cite, cf.: Are Italians White?, with no fewer than 50 pages of footnotes. In my Archeology, I haven’t got any footnotes. For good reason, too, the one I just brought up: the story shape I needed to impose upon greater metropolitan Naples.
It took me most of my adult life to discern that story, my own comeback from a system-wide collapse. On top of that, I needed the old downtown in order to sort my recovery into three distinct arenas of spirit. Having put so much into getting that far, I had to deliver, and it’s all in the memoir: how the old city helped me “parse these . . . forces and cultural tendencies.”
Still, I don’t mean to duck your question. Regarding our variety of hyphenated Americans, fundamentally we’re part of this ongoing project, these you-might-say-United States. The uncertainty of our status provides one of the tensions for my memoir. Like other outsider groups, we’ve been ostracized and oppressed, and my Archeology speaks of some low-level shunning, as you noted. I tend to make academics uncomfortable, for instance, and I tend to share that impact with other Italian Americans. But notice how I’m playing down the damage done, since there are lots (and lots) of exceptions, and anyway what I’ve struggled with is nothing compared to what confronted someone like my father, or confronted other ethnicities, in particular African Americans. That said, there remain remarkable similarities between the two outsider groups. Each, after all, muscled its way to stature via two avenues where sheer talent always told: sports and music. As for the arts, I find it interesting that Black Americans have earned greater stature in literature (with all due respect for Don DeLillo) and Italians in film (with all, etc., for Spike Lee). The difference may prompt another few hundred footnotes.
In the nineties, my wife, Angela, also Italian American, had a conversation with a young Italian American woman at an Italian bakery in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The bakery woman referred to people not born in the neighborhood as “white.” I think this speaks to the insider/outsider nature of so-called “ethnic” neighborhoods. And it also recalls your thoughts about Italians and Black people. The insider/outsider duality brings me back to your novel and Naples. Can you talk a little more about your experiences in Naples and the degree to which you feel it has become your city?
Well, like most white folks in Naples . . . that’s a joke, to be sure, my putting it that way. I’m playing on the irony of what that Brooklyn baker said, because in her context, “white” doesn’t just refer to race. More than that, it’s shorthand for those born to comfort and privilege. And over in Piazza Bellini, or on the Lungomare it’s an amazing thing. Often I found myself a man of privilege, “white” indeed, as an American free to travel and happy to pick up the tab. Maybe my family actually paid the bill, or most of it, since I often boarded with an uncle or cousin, and maybe I never could claim genuine status or success; that’s a nagging question throughout the book. Just the same, in the view of the Napoletani, I was interesting simply for being there, and beyond that I claimed resources and flexibility most of them would never know.
The southern metropolis has its elites, naturally. In Ferrante’s Quartet, the upper classes are always part of the picture, tantalizing, out of reach. Myself, I’ve enjoyed a few evenings in the high life. One of the well-born families, now something or other in television, had their Eastern European maid lay out dinner on a balcony with a breathtaking view. But people like them had less to do with what I was up to, once I finally knew what I was up to. The core project of my Archeology, rather, is expressed in the title: a digging down into an older culture, one closer to life’s raw materials, in order to put together my own best life.
I’d add that all my books feature some version of this tension, individual vs. community. In this one, the main character is me more or less, and on either side of the Atlantic, he’s never entirely at home. He has to win people’s trust, in order to learn. A classic challenge; think of Truman Capote out in farm Kansas. In my case, I needed to demonstrate that I wasn’t the Ugly American. Among Neapolitans, I needed in particular to demonstrate something like their refined ability at nosing out the dietrologia, the logic behind or beneath the surface of things. After all, everyone knew I was writing. I carried a pocket notebook, a quaderno. My first pieces on the city appeared in the early ’90s, and when I hit the New York Times, I knew better than to hide the fact.
To go back to the book itself for a moment, can you tell us a little bit more about the photographs of your father that figure in the book and how they become part of its structure? With that in mind, what sort of reaction do you think he’d have had if he’d been alive to read The Archeology of a Good Ragù?
Those two photos of Pop help to provide my story with a frame, I’d say, and I intend this as poignant, but also ironic. The man’s life changed fundamentally over a few months in his late teens, in and around the ancient seaport, while my own Neapolitan makeover dragged on for twenty middle-aged years. That’s the irony I emphasize, at least.
As for what the family did with the photos, sometimes sharing them and sometimes hiding them, both in the US and over in my father’s hometown, that’s part of the story, the discoveries I made. The details are best left for someone else to discover, there in the text. So too, I’ll leave alone the secrets they reveal, concerning the Camorra and the last World War. What I can say is, I’ve got them both these days, good copies, and they still send out long tentacles of thought, reaching to all sorts of further implications. That strikes me as reason enough to leave the photos out of the text. I want to engage people’s imaginations; after all, these days books like mine are termed creative non-fiction.
This artistic purpose renders the man’s hypothetical response to my Archeology beside the point, doesn’t it? I mean, if he were still around, the book wouldn’t be. His death shapes plot, perspective, and every major theme. Seems to me, the only thing I can say takes us back to sociology. Pop was a good man, in part because he was so honest, but he also had a strong streak of the classic Southern Italian omertà. He knew how to keep a secret, when it came to family especially. See Gay Talese for a fuller discussion.
Again, what moves me most about those photos is the gap that yawns between young Vincenzo Vicedomini and me. The world changed in a thousand ways between the middle of the last century and the first decade of this one. Plenty of people would argue that I’m kidding myself to pore over those old shots, searching for whatever else they can tell me about either him or myself. But I’d counter that such communion with the dead is intrinsic to my project. It’s in the very title, and more than that a core element in any serious appreciation of Naples. You’ll recall how, early on in the book, I’m struck by the ogetti votivi, the ex-voto objects, adding real weight and clatter to the prayers of the locals in need. Aren’t these objects an embodiment of the connection and guidance that we fumbling creatures on this side of eternity seek from the fading representations in pixels, photos, marble, and more of former lives and loves?