14th November 2012
Canadian Publisher Promotes Historical Novel Challenging Italian Unification
Guernica Editions Champions “Ghost Story” with Grave Implications about that Unification of Italy, the Destruction of Sicily, and the Diaspora of Southern Italians
History is full of ghosts, particularly in Sicily where the truth is often buried alive. Fortunately, a Canadian publisher is spearheading a project to exhume a forgotten heritage and to challenge official narratives about the past.
Guernica Editions, an independent press based in Toronto, Ontario, has helped to organize a book campaign to promote Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily. This historical novel chronicles the destruction of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and questions the myths of the Risorgimento, the War of Italian Unification. An international effort, the book’s online fundraiser brings together a Sicilian American professor from Ithaca, New York, a Sicilian cultural guide and travel reporter in England, a Neapolitan American arts consultant operating in Manhattan, and the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere – an institute of educational resources and programs located in Staten Island. Without Guernica’s faith and support, however, the campaign never would have happened.
Like Sicily,Trinàcria has had a tortuous history. Originally part of another novel, the manuscript suffered a string of rejections—forty, to be exact. According to author Anthony Di Renzo,U.S. publishers “wanted a book that catered to commercial stereotypes about Sicily.” One dismissive editor declared: “Nobody wants to read about a Sicilian marchesa, even a dead one, unless she’s written a cookbook.”
“At that point, I gave up,” said Di Renzo. “Granted, my protagonist Donna Zita makes a mean pasta Bellini, but she is no Anna Tasca Lanza,” referring to a more contemporary culinary marchesa, who started a cooking school at Regaleali.
In the Mezzogiorno, the land of the midday sun, truth evaporates more quickly than water. As the novelist Leonardo Sciascia observed, Sicilians are forced see their country through a haze of conspiracy. Centuries of external domination and internal oppression have left them parched for justice, thirsty ghosts lost in limbo. The manuscript and its spectral characters might have languished in such a purgatory of neglect, if not for the intercession of five dedicated believers. Determined to do more than light a candle, this group of Siciliophiles pooled its talents and resources to publish the novel and to set the historical record straight. Fortunately, the book's champions were willing to harrow hell to bring its tale back to light. Their Virgil, however, was the Toronto-based publisher, who provided a map out of the underworld.
Frank Polizzi, editor of Feile-Festa: The Literary Arts Journal of the Mediterranean Celtic Association, was the first to believe in this project. He not only published an excerpt from Trinacria’s manuscript, but also encouraged the author to submit the entire document to Michael Mirolla, editor-in-chief at Guernica Editions. Mirolla immediately recognized its merit.
“As a publishing house dedicated to shattering stereotypes and promoting new works of global literature, Guernica considered Trinàcriaa timely book, particularly after the international controversy surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento,”said Mirolla.
Did unification benefit or ruin the Mezzogiorno, the ancestral region of most Italian immigrants? Reflecting on this question, Mirolla believes that Di Renzo’s novel “could contribute significantly” to the ongoing review of this fundamental issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Quoting colleague Vincenzo Salerno, a critic for Best of Sicily Magazine, Mirolla said: “This book is not ‘ethnic’ or nationalist niche literature. It's an overdue reality check about a major tragedy in Italian history.”
Guernica Editions’ interest, however, soon proved “a mixed blessing.” The good news was that Guernica was committed to Di Renzo’s story and characters. The bad news was that Guernica’s government funding does not extend to non-Canadian authors.
In steps Debra Santangelo, director of Sicilian Connections, an organization promoting Sicilian culture and commerce. Dividing her time between England, her birthplace, and Sicily, her second home, Santangelo celebrates the Mediterranean island’s unique art, history, and geography through her blog and other enterprises, including a new jewelry line made from Etna lava.
“I wanted to tangibly express my support for this project,” Santangelo said, “because of the book’s cultural significance and potential impact. It deserves a very wide audience.” Accordingly, she recommended Di Renzo contact Roberto Ragone, a New York arts and business consultant known for his proven track record.
Ragone immediately jumped at the chance to work on a literary project with “broad implications and credible stakeholders.” “Guernica Editions,” he said, “has a stellar reputation for publishing and promoting engaging books with Italian themes we don’t often see.” Founded in 1978 in Montreal, Quebec by Antonio D'Alfonso, Guernica initially specialized in Italian Canadian literature but expanded its mission to serve other ethnic and postcolonial writes. Among its over 500 published authors are recipients of the Governor General's Award and the American Book Award. “We are grateful, therefore,” Ragone concluded “that Toronto can serve as a final depot before Trinàcria’s international distribution.”
Ragone and Di Renzo considered several organizations as sponsors. “Casa Belvedere emerged as our sponsor because of its mission,” Ragone explained: “to preserve and promote an appreciation of Italian language, arts, literature, history, fashion, cuisine, and commerce.’ It was a perfect fit.” The book’s author called the partnership “a stroke of fate, la forza del destino.”
“I’m grateful for Casa Belvedere’s and Guernica’s support and hope my novel will contribute to their success and prestige,” said Di Renzo, associate professor of writing and Italian American history at Ithaca College. “By uncovering buried stories about our collective past, the foundation and the publishing house continue to positioning themselves to play a unique role in telling the story about the post-Risorgimento Italian experience.”
Louis Calvelli, Casa Belvedere’s executive director, who last year organized a series of lectures and debates on Italian Unification, “absolutely embraces this initiative.” “While proof of Italy’s past cultural achievements is abundant,” Calvelli said, “Casa Belvedere actively works to sponsor current creative projects. Once the restoration of our mansion is complete, we look forward to providing a venue for Italian and Italian American artists to showcase their work. Our renovated campus will make the perfect setting for Trinàcria’s book launch party.”
Guernica Editions is equally pleased. “Guernica is happy to see this project falling into place,” said Michael Mirolla. “We are eager to publish the book and observe its impact. Trinàcria challenges people of Southern Italian descent throughout the world to follow the common thread through the labyrinth of time back to their land of origin. It may prompt readers of any background to reflect on their own heritage. But Trinàcria also carries implications about the present because it examines the limitations of modern commercial democracies and warns about the dangers of nation-building in the developing world.”
The book’s title derives from the ancient Greek name for Sicily. Trinàcria refers to the island’s triangular shape and the three-legged gorgon on its regional flag. It is also the nickname of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Zita Valanguerra Spinelli (1794-1882), Marchesa of Scalea, whose turbulent life mirrors Sicily’s rocky transition from feudalism to capitalism.
Di Renzo’s novel, literally and figuratively, digs up the past. The story begins when a Hollywood film crew invades Palermo to shoot an epic about the Italian Revolution. Researching the past, the director visits the city’s Capuchin catacombs. Preserved in the crypt among over eight thousand mummies is Marchesa Spinelli. Dead for eighty years, she remains haunted with memories, and her spirit recalls her complicated relationships with her scientist father; a British wine merchant, whom the Marchesa failed to marry; her patriotic and rebellious granddaughter; and Giacomo Leopardi, the doomed Romantic poet.
Ragone, whose professional motto is “Transforming Vision to Value,” is managing Trinàcria’s online fundraising campaign. Based on their giving level, the site bestows donors with an aristocratic rank from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (e.g. Baron/Baroness, Count/Countess, Prince/Princess, King/Queen). Each title offers its own gifts and privileges, from bookmarks, calendars, and posters to formal acknowledgment in the printed novel and an invitation to its official book launch.
This book campaign will run until December 13, 2012. The campaign has raised over $5,275 in two months, the halfway mark of the campaign, and already has been written about in various periodicals and blogs. All future royalties will benefit the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere. For more details, visit: