Theodora D. Patrona, Return Narratives: Ethnic Space in Late-Twentieth Century Greek American and Italian American Literature. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017. Pp. vii+173. Hardcover. $85.00.
by Lissi Athanasiou-Krikelis
As the title suggests, Theodora Patrona’s comparative study explores the common ground of a corpus of return narratives having the 1970s ethnic revival as its starting point. Patrona examines six novels written by Greek American and Italian American authors to investigate ethnic space and the ways in which it shapes ethnic identity. Patrona argues that journeys of return, which transcribe the movement from the New World to the ancestral homeland, effectuate an awakening. She maintains that the homeland, either as an abstract entity or as a real topos, contributes to the formation and (re)-writing of the novels’ protagonists by offering a reexamination of their gender and ethnic selves (xiv). The protagonists set out on their quests with a constructed image of the homeland: it is charged with the fragmented stories of previous generations, as well as with the stories that emerge from their familiarity with literature and education. The separation from the homeland—a separation that might not reside in the individual past but in the collective family history of many generations—haunts the present both with stories of dislocation about the world that has been left behind but also with stories of adjustment that address the struggle to belong in the New World. Through a return to their ancestral space, Patrona postulates, the men and women in the Greek American and Italian American narratives in this study fulfil a quest toward self-realization (xviii).
Readers conversant with the main strands of late-twentieth-century theory will not necessarily find groundbreaking perspectives in Return Narratives. Patrona’s strength, rather, lies in her close reading of the primary texts and her dexterous interpretive skills. Each chapter is well-sourced and probes into the intricacies of the chosen novels by offering rich and thought-provoking analysis drawing from international literature on psychoanalytic, feminist, and postmodernist theory. Her meticulously detailed investigation of the texts would satisfy both experts and novices. Additionally, Patrona’s project contributes to the growing field of Greek American literature in particular, which, unlike its Italian American counterpart, remains understudied.
Despite the obvious benefits stemming from Patrona’s scrupulous analysis of the primary texts, the close-reading approach confines the scope of her project in two ways: first, it undermines her attempt at comparison, and, second, because it allows her to delve into the details of singular narratives, her main argument is at times overshadowed. Patrona organizes Return Narratives in three sections, each section consisting of two chapters, one focused on a Greek American and one on an Italian America novel. Although the author occasionally connects the novels within sections and across sections to fulfill the project’s mission as a comparative study, the fact that each chapter is devoted to a single novel hinders what could have been a fruitful conversation between the two ethnic literatures. The segments that juxtapose Greek American and Italian American texts are scattered throughout the book and are often marginalized by the dominance of individual book analysis. A theme-based rather than a text-based approach—or perhaps a combination of the two—could have facilitated further creative dialogue between the two literatures.
While all six primary texts in Return Narratives offer stories of return to a homeland, not all seem to fully conform to Patrona’s overarching argument about “the journey towards self-representation, whereby ethnic origins are attributed a leading role” (xvii). But before I look at the texts whose patterns diverge from the core argument, I would like to discuss the common ideas found in the texts that conform to Patrona’s overarching proposition.
The first two sections of Return Narratives concentrate on the female quest for self-realization adumbrated in the journey of return to one’s ethnic space. They juxtapose Greek American author Daphne Athas’sCora (1978) with Italian American author Helen Barolini’s Umbertina (1999) and Greek American author Catherine Temma Davidson’s The Priest Fainted (1998) with Italian American memoir author Susan Caperna Lloyd’s No Pictures in My Grave (1992). These novels allow Patrona to delve into intriguing topics that are gestating in the narratives. Folklore, myth, and the reimagination of mythology; the role of ethnic women; and the power of storytelling are some of the themes Patrona uses as guideposts to illuminate the novels. Patrona proposes that through their return narratives, the women protagonists free themselves from male dominance and from their performative gender roles as mothers and/or wives. Ancestral homeland becomes a place of spiritual awakening, empowerment, metamorphosis, and rebirth. In Umbertina, for example, the four generations of women struggle with issues of cultural heritage and gender identity, on the one hand, vacillating between a “primitive culture” (39) and the modernization of the New World, and, on the other hand, between embracing their sexuality while depending on male figures to define themselves. Only Tina, in the fourth generation, values a woman’s personal development; she acknowledges her femininity and learns to harmonize the two cultures by which she is defined. Patrona’s reading of The Priest Fainted and No Pictures in My Grave centers heavily on the Persephone myth, which becomes a medium for the women characters to reach wholeness through visiting their ethnic origins. In The Priest Fainted, the Persephone myth explores mother-daughter dynamics, while the protagonists’ reappropriation of mythic tales offers her another avenue to embrace her ancestral past. The protagonists in Davidson’s, Lloyd’s, and Barolini’s novels reach maturation and womanhood (82) through their enlightened experiences at the homeland and “seem to appreciate ethnic space for its potential to guide them toward more meaningful lives” (101). These novels reinforce Patrona’s main claim, and her reading offers an admirable interpretation.
Athas’s Cora, which is juxtaposed with Barolini’s Umbertina, and the final pairing, which features two male novelists, Greek American author Stratis Haviaras with his autobiographical novel When the Tree Sings (1979) together with Italian American author Tony Ardizzone’s In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu (1999), seem to deviate from the theme of “return narratives” as explained above. In Cora, the protagonist undergoing the metamorphosis does not return to any ethnic origin. Cora, the female, main character, is an American tourist visiting Greece, whose adventures are intertwined with a Greek American male character, Don. Don returns to his ethnic origins, subconsciously looking to fill the void of a mother figure, a mother he lost when he was too young to even remember. Nonetheless, in this novel, the homeland has no impact on Don; it is Cora, “the non-ethnic heroine” (26), who experiences the quest for self-definition, while Don remains largely unaffected until the very end. He is the same “traumatized young adult, looking for a surrogate mother, untouched by his Greek experience” (26).
Cora is the first novel that problematizes Patrona’s argument and destabilizes the meaning of “return narratives.” Moreover, Haviaras and Ardizzone complicate Patrona’s proposition since their protagonists never return to a homeland to complete the puzzle of the self; rather, they recount the trials and tribulations they had gone through before they migrated to or during their adjustment in the New World. When the Tree Sings takes place in an unspecified homeland, documenting the life of a young narrator who bears the trauma of violence, war, and political uncertainty. The novel ends with the protagonist’s abandonment of ethnic space and his migration to the U.S. Similarly, In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, the Italian counterpart to Haviaras, repatriation to the ancestral topos occurs metaphorically through storytelling, both revealing the hardships in Sicily before the family’s migration as well as displaying the predicaments of their acculturation in the New World.1 Haviaras’s and Ardizzone’s novels are “immigration stories” (122) with ardent positions on political history, class, and labor, through which the homeland is revisited, criticized or celebrated, in the memory of those who had been in contact with it. Excluding Cora, in which transformation is manifested in a chiasmic pattern (not Don, but the female, ethnic-Other is reborn), there are no signs of rejuvenation and empowerment as we have witnessed with Barolini’s, Davidson’s, and Lloyd’s novels.
The novels by Athas, Haviaras, and Ardizzone obscure Patrona’s main argument about returns effectuating a reconstruction of the self. It is never quite clear how Patrona ties these examples together. In the introduction and conclusion, she posits that the term “return narratives” is employed both literally and metaphorically (xiv), but the term “metaphorical” remains murky. Occasionally, she draws upon the authors’ biographies, implying that return narratives could refer to the authors’ hypothetical return as he/she conjures up the narratives (117), but if this is the case, who experiences the rejuvenation and the empowerment? For example, who reaches self-definition in When the Tree Sings, Haviaras himself or the boy narrator through his creative power? And through whose return is this self-definition manifested? Because the answers would awkwardly blur the boundaries between fiction and reality, such questions remain floating and unaddressed.
Tied to notions of identity are views on postmodernism. Patrona employs the term “postmodernism” loosely, implicitly linking it to the formation of a coherent subject who reaches wholeness through experience. As other scholars have suggested, however, the postmodern self is known to be fragmented, decentered, and dispersed (Jameson 413), “no longer assumed to [be] a coherent, meaning-generated entity” (Hutcheon 11). It is defined by multiplicity, instead (McHale 15), and reduced to being a mere sign depending on a network of signifiers (Jameson 20). The notions of postmodern subjectivity that Patrona uses deserve further reflection and parsing, so that they can, then, more accurately relate the novels she examines to the postmodern framework.
Some shortcomings notwithstanding, Return Narratives is a welcoming addition to the existing bibliography on the growing fields of Italian American and Greek American studies. Not only does it help expand discussions on the individual novels, but it also helps enlarge the critical perspective on diaspora literature and immigrant narratives. The fact that Return Narratives was published only a year after a monograph on Greek American narratives of return, Evangelia Kindinger’s Homebound, attests to a fervent interest in the subject. Patrona differentiates her approach from Kindinger’s based on its comparative nature, and I am hopeful, that Return Narratives will inspire further cross-cultural explorations between Greek American studies and other cultural/ethnic literatures.
It should be noted that Patrona examines only the first two chapters in In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu.
Ardizzone, Tony. In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu. New York: Picador, 1999.
Athas, Daphne. Cora. New York: Viking Adult, 1978.
Barolini, Helen. Umbertina. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1999.
Davidson, Catherine T. The Priest Fainted. London: Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1998.
Hutcheon, Linda. 1989. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.
Kindinger, Evangelia. Homebound: Diaspora Spaces and Selves in Greek American Return Narratives . Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2015.
Lloyd, Susan Caperna. No Pictures in My Grave: A Spiritual Journey in Sicily. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1992.
McHale, Brian. 1987. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 2004.
Haviaras, Stratis. When the Tree Sings. New York: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1979.
Lissi Athanasiou-Krikelis is Assistant Professor of English at New York Institute of Technology. Her interests include postmodern metafiction and narrative theory in both adult and children’s literature. Her most recent articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Modern Greek Studies, The Lion and the Unicorn , and Bookbird.