I had the opportunity to interview Dom Capossela, who recently published “Dom’s, An Odyssey” asking the question, “Why did it take 6,000,000 Italians 100 years to assimilate into the American Mainstream?” The book illustrates the arduous, often tortuous road that the immigrants from Italy’s southern region, the Mezzogiorno, traveled to find a functional identity in their new country. Dom was born and raised in the 1950s North End and lived the experiences and conclusions he now shares.
What made you write the book?
I wanted to capture the details of the North End down to the type of olive oil in the stores. I wanted to capture the sounds that I grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s, like the scraping of a clam knife against the shell and the clash of discarded shells in a bucket. Writing about people also encouraged me, such as the Jewish merchants who spoke better Italian than we did, and the morning activity that engulfed the neighborhood. It all came together in the time that I had while taking care of my then eighteen-month-old daughter, which is when I started writing the book.
How long did it take you to write the book?
A long time. I captured the detail of the North End in my first 18 months of writing, taking 30,000 words to do it. But by then, my goals had changed. I asked myself, “Why is this detail important? Where did this time and place fit into the historical and sociological development of the Italian immigrants? This research, 177 books listed in a bibliography at the back of the book, took two more years. Writing the results of the research took yet another two. Now I had 100,000 words. Since I wasn’t a professional writer, I joined a writer’s group to hone my skills. Submitting my book to them for editorial help and making the changes that suited me, took two more years. I gave the manuscript to my childhood friend, Dr. Michael Annunziata. He loved the book and undertook a word-by-word, comma-by-comma analysis. Six more months. But then it was done. By now, eight years into the process, I didn’t want to wait for an agent or a publisher, so I self-published.
Italians brought a lot of baggage with them. When I was eight years old, I went to a puppet show in the North End Library. I was mesmerized: someone was reading a story to me. Why was that so wonderful? Because my parents never read to me. None of our parents read to us. Growing up in a world where others had the twelve years of their youth filled in with readings of American literature, we were at a distinct disadvantage.
As immigrants, our parents took the first job they could get, and stayed with it. Most didn’t look about for ways to advance and improve. Upward mobility was not important to them. So they stayed in the North End and made it the great village that it was. Still, it was at great cost because they didn’t bring any knowledge of American economics home with them. They taught us little about succeeding economically. They didn’t care. The early generations never learned to speak English, after have been here for fifty years. I think of the Jewish merchants who did business in the North End. Many of them spoke better Italian than we did. Besides Yiddish and English, of course.
Here’s how the book concludes: “And yet, I have no complaints. The 1950s North End was a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime place to grow up. Similar confined, energetic neighborhoods could be found elsewhere in America, but few, if any, with the cachet, the personality of us – Urban Villagers, living in our Street Corner Society.”
“We were a buoyant, friendly, and exuberant people, confident of place and self, street-wise and people-smart, possessors of both a centuries-old understanding of the social value of small village life, and of youthful American optimism. We synergized and telescoped our communal energy into a palatable, vibrant warmth that penetrated visitors like a massage in a sauna, earning their oft-repeated return visits.”
“We became these people by being always mindful of our separateness and our minority status, and we became these people by taking. … As payment for what we took, we gave this transformation of a hopeless 1900’s slum into our own 1950’s Emerald City, the metaphorical equivalent of our own personal development and growth in American society. We gave our own North End, where the ‘joie de vivre’ of an Italian-rooted daily routine merged with the optimism that is America; our own North End, this sociologically magical moment, this quintessentially-personal thank you.”
What has been the reaction to the book?
It has been phenomenal. People say it is “Astounding.” “You tell stories within stories within stories.” Which is accurate, because to the thesis question, “Why did it take 6,000,000 Italians 100 years to assimilate into mainstream America?” I do not offer a linear answer. I tell stories and let the stories paint a picture. Some of the stories will be controversial, like the love scene between Captain Clark and Sacajawea. I had to include that to illustrate the down-to-earth logic that powers Italo thinking, as well as the hedonistic side of our heritage. Either you get it or you don’t.
As a self-published author, how are you spreading the word about the book?
In addition to interviews such as on NorthEndWaterfront.com, I am going in front of neighborhood groups such as the North End Historical Society and the Italian-American Veterans Association.
The book can be purchased at Caffe Graffiti, Salem Street True Value, North Square Gift Shop, Eclectics, Golden Goose and the gift shop at the Old North Church. It is also available online at Amazon.com for $19.95.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a 4-book series. It is a totally different genre and fictional story about the growing up of a girl from childhood, through difficult teenage years into adulthood.
I hope it doesn’t take another eight years. Thanks for your time, Dom.