The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is a compelling story of two people drawn together just before World War II. Central to this story is the Italian Immigrant family and the struggles of being foreigners in a new home.
I got to talk with Alison, comparing and contrasting the experiences between English Italians and American Italians.
Diana: When I talk to people about Italian immigrants and some of the racism, prejudice and overall struggles that my grandparents and great grandparents had to deal with it’s relatively unknown. It seems like people just assume that Italians immigrated here and became lovable mafiosos. Clearly from your book, there was definitive prejudice occurring. When you talk to people in England about this do you get a similar attitude that I get here in America?
Alison: There was certainly prejudice against Italians in Britain, altho it’s hard to know how specific it was: there frequently was – and to some extent still is – prejudice in this country towards anyone considered to be a foreigner. Certainly many Italians coming to Britain in the late 19th century were careful not to compete with native workers, offering distinctive services like selling roast chestnuts or making ice cream, which eventually led to a large Italian presence in the catering industry. Later of course, when it was feared that Mussolini would join forces with Hitler, hostility towards Italians became much stronger, and that continued after the war – I was recently talking to someone whose Italian family changed their name in the 1940s to avoid prejudice.
I do think that, just as you’ve found in the USA, this history of prejudice isn’t well known in Britain. I certainly wasn’t aware of the extent of it when I began my research. When I was growing up I had a school friend whose parents were Italian, although she was born in Britain. At the time I found her background really interesting, but looking back I can see that her family’s life was hard, and she was very sensitive about being perceived as foreign.
Diana: It really struck me how much of an effect being close to Italy had on the characters in The Girl From the Paradise Ballroom. I was surprised about Italians going back to Italy to fight for Mussolini. From the research I have conducted so far, we didn’t have that in America. Many Italians before the war had a fondness for Mussolini but facism never really picked up speed here. It was almost as if the American Italians that came here wanted to sever more of their ties to the fatherland.
In fact, while reading the book I learned the fascist’s anthem was the Giovinezza. My maiden name (and part of my pen name) is Giovinazzo. As soon as I read that section of the book I emailed my dad and was like “Did you know this?? Did this effect you or your parents?” He was like “Grandpa G used to like to play the song on his stereo every Sunday when he made breakfast.” I responded “Grandpa was a fascist?” My dad laughed, “Your grandfather had no idea what fascism was. He just thought the song had something to do with our family name.”
Do you think that the close proximity to the fatherland aided in the influence of facism on English Italian immigrants? Furthermore, did it aid in the severity of the prejudice that Italian English Immigrants experienced?
Alison: I’d agree that Italians in Britain felt closer to their home country. My impression is that whereas immigrants to the USA were quite likely to embrace the idea of being American, Italians in Britain were much more conflicted, torn between two different national identities, and not quite fitting either category. I remember that my school friend was often described in Britain as ‘the Italian girl’ whereas in her family’s village in Italy she was called ‘l’Inglesina’.
The other difference I think is that Mussolini’s regime made a huge, deliberate effort to win over Italians living and working in Britain, making them feel valued for the first time. The regime provided all kinds of benefits, like Italian schools and social clubs and summer camps for children, so that many Italians only saw fascism in a positive light. One of the things that really surprised me when I was researching my novel was the way in which joining the fascist party was presented as a normal thing to do – patriotic rather than political, with few of the negative associations we have today. But that really did feed straight into hostility towards the Italian community once war broke out – the fear (or paranoia) that Britain was harbouring networks of fascists who would rise up to support a Nazi invasion. It was that sentiment that led to instant mass internment of Italians when Mussolini finally declared war on Britain in June 1940.
Diana: You mentioned that a number of Italians ended up going into niche markets that eventually led to a number of them in the food service industry. We didn’t really have that in the US until post World War II. Here the Italian immigrants worked primarily as unskilled laborers. Most of our factories, textile mills and construction positions were comprised of Italians and Jews. In fact, according to a 1905 NYC survey, 45.7% of Italian women worked outside the home. Naturally, this led to a conflict of the traditional Italian values on what a woman’s roll was in the home.
I loved Filamena’s story line in the Girl from the Paradise Ballroom. It emphasizes the strict rules that women had to live under. Valentino (the little punk) could be a philanderer but if Filamena so much as talked to a boy she was threatened with being sent back to Italy!
While American Italian women didn’t have the same threat of being sent back to Italy, they still had to live under strict rules. This included being pulled from school once they were considered an adult and always having a chaperone.Do you think that the influence of English culture in general had an influence on her willingness to challenge the rolls her family expected of her? Furthermore, even though she had a job it was still fairly close to the community. (If I am remembering correctly, the laundry service she worked for was Italian owned.) How much of a “rebel” do you think she would have been if she was like the American Italian girls who worked in factories?
Alison: Interesting question about Filomena. I’m not sure that she would have been all that different if she’d been like American Italian girls working in factories. I think she would still have had that strong desire to control her own destiny, which lies behind her challenge to the role expected of her rather than any deliberate wish to rebel. (One of my favourite Filomena scenes is after the war, when she pours herself a whisky & reflects that none of the men in her family would have allowed her to drink.) But it’s possible that living & working in America would have given her more choices – meeting a wider range of people, perhaps sharing with other young Italian women a resentment at the controls imposed upon them & becoming more consciously defiant.
I love your comment about Valentino! I’ve always thought of him as very much an Italian type, but interestingly I was talking to a friend whose ex-wife was Armenian, and he tells me that her brother was exactly like Valentino – badly behaved & over indulged by the rest of the family.
I’d like to thank Alison Love for her time encourage everyone to pick up a copy of The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom today!