Helen Barolini: Novelist, Poet, and Editor Who Sought to Illuminate Stories of Her Immigrant Forebears

From a New York Times obit by Alex Williams headlined “Helen Barolini, Chronicler of Italian American Women, Dies at 97”:

Helen Barolini, a novelist, essayist and poet who explored the challenges of assimilation, as well as the hard-won victories of feminist emancipation experienced by Italian American women, died at her home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. S

A native of Syracuse, N.Y., whose grandparents immigrated from southern Italy in the late 19th century, Ms. Barolini brought their journey, and those of many others, to life in “Umbertina,” her celebrated 1979 historical novel tracing four generations of women in a single Italian American family as they come to terms with their origins and identity in a new land, and with an ever-changing social landscape.

“It is the Madonna of Italian American literature in that it shows the transition from the Italian immigrant to American citizen like no other book of its genre,” Fred Gardaphé, then the director of Italian American studies at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island and now a professor at the City University of New York, was quoted as saying in an article in The New York Times in 1999, when the book was reissued.

Throughout Ms. Barolini’s career, her work was animated by the belief that Italian American women were underrepresented, not only as subjects in American literature but also as authors, and that as a group they faced what she called a “double erasure, both as Italians and as women,” Teodolinda Barolini said.

Committed throughout her life to promoting Italian poetry and literature, she always sought to broaden the depictions of her people in popular culture beyond “Sopranos”-style stereotypes, while giving voice to those previously unheard.

Such beliefs inspired her influential 1985 compilation of short fiction, memoirs and poems, “The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women.”

“I think Italian American literature belongs, interestingly enough, not so much in immigrant literature but in the kind of literature that deals with the outsider,” she said in a 1993 interview published in Melus, a journal devoted to multiethnic literature. “Jews have done this, and Blacks have done this; and they have very pronounced figures — very interesting figures that they have created of the isolated person in an alien society.”

“The Blacks, the Jews, the Irish all have their spokesmen,” she added. “Why not the Italians?”

Helen Frances Mollica was the eldest of three children of Anthony Mollica, the son of Sicilian immigrants and a self-made man who built a thriving fruit importation and distribution business, and Angela (Cardamone) Mollica, the daughter of immigrants from Calabria.

A gifted student throughout her youth, Ms. Barolini graduated with honors from Syracuse University in 1947, and afterward traveled to Italy to study its culture, history and literature. The next year, she met her future husband, the esteemed Italian novelist and poet Antonio Barolini, in Florence.

The couple married in 1950, had three daughters, and spent a decade bouncing between Italy and the United States, where Ms. Barolini earned a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University. She also worked as a translator of Italian literature, including her husband’s short stories, which were published in English in The New Yorker.

In those early years, “I saw my husband as the more important writer,” she told Melus. “It was after I began to get more in touch with myself that I said, ‘Wait a minute, I want to write. I don’t want to just be the carrier of someone else’s voice.’”

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Ms. Barolini began work on “Umbertina.” The seed of the idea came on a 1965 trip to Calabria, where she discovered a heart-shaped tin sewing kit like those used by rural Italian women in her grandmother’s day.

Taking the time and setting as a starting point, she meticulously researched the historical conditions of each era portrayed in the book, and infused the narrative with a feminist sensibility owing to Betty Friedan, the author of the landmark 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique,” and others. While outwardly a tale of diaspora, “I still think that ‘Umbertina’ is more a feminist statement,” Ms. Barolini later said.

In addition to her daughter Teodolinda, Ms. Barolini is survived by two other daughters, Nicoletta and Susanna Barolini; a brother, Anthony Mollica Jr.; and five grandchildren.

In later books like “Chiaroscuro: Essays on Identity” and “Their Other Side: Six American Women and the Lure of Italy,” Ms. Barolini returned to the subjects and themes that propelled “Umbertina.”

“Theirs was an epic in American life, and it should be written,” she said in the Melus interview, referring to immigrant women like her forebears, “for they who lived it kept no diaries. But we descendants can write and tell, and it’s time now before the last of them die out.”

Alex Williams is a reporter in the Times obituaries department.

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