Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 6/9/2021- As an Italian American, author Andrew Anselmi is troubled by the negative stereotypes spawned by the blockbuster movie The Godfather and its sequels. Among these: the notion that successful Italian-Americans must somehow be involved with the mob. Anselmi’s debut novel The Iron Butterfly and the Mezzogiorno Trilogy it’s in were written in part to peel back these narratives.
How proud are you to be an Italian American?
I am profoundly proud to be an Italian-American. Along with my faith and family, being an Italian-American defines me. My grandparents on my father’s side, who immigrated from southern Italy in the 1920s, taught me courage in the manner in which they journeyed to “L’America,” and in the beauty of their simplicity, be it in the crushing and bottling of their own tomatoes for Sunday gravy, sitting around their kitchen table to play the Italian card game of Briscola, or they’re pasting their wall with the decals of the colleges from which their children and grandchildren had been graduated. Their son—my now deceased father—was the embodiment of the American Dream. Shy and with poor eyesight, he became a giant in the industry, an entrepreneur who built the roads and bridges that bring us all together, while being a cornerstone of his church. My mother, an immigrant from the Campania region of Italy after World War II, has been a lesson in perseverance, arriving as a teen-only to have her mother deported due to illness, pressing forward to raise a family and keep it together.
My love of my heritage is an instant bond whenever I come across someone else who might be Italian-American. It inevitably leads to conversation of where our families are from, the foods that we love, and our travels to Italy. In smaller circles, I rave about the larger-than-life experience of opera.
Italian-American identity—which is becoming more American and less Italian—inspired me to write my Mezzogiorno Trilogy of novels, including Iron Butterfly which was released in March, recounting the upwardly mobile odyssey of a fictitious Italian-American family, the Bennetts, in the 1980s. It is a story of not only Italian-Americans but of all of those who came to the New Country in the early to mid-twentieth century in search of a better life.
Why did you become a lawyer?
One of the unique aspects of the American Dream in the twentieth century was the shaping and pursuit of intergenerational aspirations. While my mother and father toiled to provide material comfort and the freedom it afforded, They wanted their children to reach higher, to be among what they regarded as the social elite. One way to do so was to be a professional, such as a lawyer. So I cannot say that becoming a lawyer was completely my own idea, though I have enjoyed it immensely, just as I have enjoyed hearing my parents describe me as “my son the lawyer,” along with my brother “the doctor” and my sister “the broker.” The vision that they lent allowed me to climb higher, through my writing, for what they considered to be the mountaintop of arts and letters.
What led you to write Iron Butterfly?
My family had always known that my mom’s mother, my grandmother, had been deported for mental health reasons to her hometown of Laviano, Italy, where she died separated from her husband and children in New Jersey. We had also understood that my mother’s brother had been hospitalized locally. In contrast to my grandmother, my uncle earned the right to remain because my grandfather, himself an immigrant, had served in the United States Army in World War I. While we knew of these harsh facts, I still could not understand my mother’s over-protectiveness of her children. Nor could I imagine why, despite many family trips to Italy, she never returned to her Italian village.
While studying abroad in 1986, I defied my mother to find her town, nestled in the Apennine Mountains. On what was a glorious day, I reunited with her cousins whom I had never known, including those who cared for my deported grandmother. I also walked the ruins of the town, wrought by the earthquake of 1980. I found out nothing really new about my mother’s earlier years except for the details of my grandmother’s exile. Believing I had completed the puzzle by adding color to its already known pieces, I wrote a diary and presented it to my mother. She wound up going back to her town several times thereafter and keeping a correspondence with her relatives. Our eyes and ears fixed on my father’s rising, which was formidable, we never thought there was anything more to my mother’s past that might have pained or haunted her—.until one day when she let slip that there had been a Nazi occupation of her town as a little girl. When I pressed her for details, she would not divulge them. I told her that if she would not tell me, I would create a fictional account, which I did in Iron Butterfly. My mother is an enthusiastic promoter of the book, and shares her recipes on my author’s website, but will not retell anything about the occupation other than that “it was a horror.”
The blockbuster, The Godfather and its sequels have created stereotypes. What have these stereotypes done to the hardworking entrepreneurial Italian Americans?
There is no dispute that The Godfather was an epic work of art. It was only a few years after The Godfather Part III that David Chase and HBO borrowed from the formula to give us The Sopranos, a television series that depicted the mafia in a less romantic fashion. The Sopranos’ run lasted eight years. These screenplays drew us with their compelling depictions of family, loyalty, and power. But the blockbuster portrayals have also left a dark legacy: they have obscured our idea of what it means to be an Italian-American, and the real-life success stories of law-abiding Italian- Americans. Because Don Corleone and Tony Soprano have long dominated the public profile of Italian-Americans, there are many others whose great accomplishments are completely unknown to the American public, such as Amadeo Giannini, who after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 lent money over a plank across two barrels to those interested in rebuilding their lives. His Bank of Italy later merged with Bank of America, which Giannini chaired until his retirement. Or physicist Enrico Fermi, who as part of the Manhattan Project led the experiment to develop the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor, which Fermi delivered in 1942 with Chicago Pile-1 (“CP-1”).
Then there are those Italian-Americans who have achieved greatness before our very eyes without getting a nod toward their ethnicity because their success defied the mafia mold. In baseball, legendary players such as Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Coach Joe Torre, and former Commissioner Bart Giamatti. In football, Franco Harris, Joe Montana, coach Vince Lombardi, and former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Olympic gold medal gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Actors Nicolas Cage, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, and Leonardo Di Caprio. In music, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, John Bon Jovi, and Lady Gaga. Business moguls such as former Chrysler head Lee Iacocca, Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, and former Lucent Technologies CEO Patricia Russo. In the public arena, we have had Governor Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Dr, Fauci, and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. And sitting on the Supreme Court, former Justice Antonin Scalia and current Justice Samuel Alito. The list goes on. Italian-Americans are more than a slick group of gangsters who love good food. And we are more than hard-working immigrants to the New Land. We are innovators with soul, gregarious people with an eye for the beauty in everything. We are family and we are leaders. We are the children of the Renaissance.
Don’t let Don Corleone or Tony Soprano persuade you otherwise.
Tell us about the Iron Butterfly and why this book is important to dispel the misconceptions about Italian Americans?
Iron Butterfly is about an All-American son, Edward Bennett, finding the truth about his mother’s childhood past during World War II, while at the same time beginning his journey to discover himself. The novel is important—if I may be so self-aggrandizing—because it is an Italian-American story, written by an Italian-American, without the familiar backdrop of extortion, murder, betrayal, and greed. Apart from revealing the little-known fact that there were Nazi atrocities against Italians during World War II, it also serves as a story of the war in general and the depravities that are committed within its thick fog.
Do you see this book as a resource in classrooms?
Were I to have the honor and privilege of having Iron Butterfly taught in classrooms, its themes are many. The primary characters of the book are the patriarch and matriarch of the Bennett family, Guy, and Marie. Their son Edward sets out to his mother’s hometown in southern Italy, which she herself has never revisited so that he might discover the secret as to why she is so overprotective of her children.
Beginning at the beginning, wherein the Roman Forum on the eve of his departure to his mother’s native town Edward is challenged by one of his college pals about his superficial notions of conquest and greatness, the story is about constantly seeking better truth, even if it disturbs long-held views of history and the human condition. His mother Marie’s eventual breaking of her silence about the Nazi occupation of her town during World War II, through flashback, reveals the little known fact that after the Italians abandoned their military alliance with Germany in 1943, there were atrocities committed by the Nazis against civilians throughout Italy, and betrayals by citizens against citizens. The occupation also provides an allegory for war—how it is borne from, and leaves in its wake, an absence of law, love, and belief.
The novel is a period piece, depicting an America and that unique American Dream that existed until the 1980s, when being a public servant was still a noble calling, just before the dawn of the era of twenty-four news, social media, and radical individualism in which we now find ourselves.
And as reflected eloquently in a third-party postscript commentary, the story reveals the nuance and complexity of vying for control of the family narrative.
Iron Butterfly is the first in his forthcoming Mezzogiorno Trilogy. What can we expect next?
The Autumn Crush is scheduled to be re-released in 2022. The story centers on Guy Bennett, one of America’s many post-World War II success stories. Born of Italian immigrants during the Depression, he became a captain of industry, with a skyscraper in New York City and a son in the United States Senate. The applause mutes and friends grow scarce, however, when Guy stands accused of the double murder of his business partner, Vito Petrozzini, and Petrozzini’s wife. The defense spans the globe and reaches back generations in search of an acquittal, unearthing a family secret that reveals the cold and devastating truth.
The plot is a trial not only of Guy and his dream but also of the incipient cultural tensions of the late twentieth century that are now part of the new American fabric.
Who are the Italian Americans who have inspired you?
Without a doubt, my mother and father have inspired me most, which is why Iron Butterfly and The Autumn Crush are based loosely upon them. My mother’s steely resilience, while immersing herself ebulliently into everyone and everything around her, is a wondrous paradox. I speak to her every day, drawing strength from her love and wisdom. My father’s boldness of spirit alongside his humility was another anomaly that served as a role model not only for my family but for our friends and his peers. I keep a picture of him in my car, reminding me of his love of driving, his favorite car in his heyday being a black Thunderbird with a thin red stripe.
What do you want your legacy to be?
To be remembered as a good husband, father, son, sibling, and faithful servant who inspired others to be the same.