It’s a gloomy early Sunday morning, the city of Fort Lauderdale still sleeps. The sun’s nestled comfortably behind thick, gray clouds, to me, there’s no better time to write.
The velvety smell of my coffee swirls up my nose as I inhale and take my seat. There’s something cozy about writing with a fresh cup of coffee—especially when it’s time to tell a story.
Italian Event & an Evening Talk
As I contemplate how I got this interview for my “Racconta la Loro Storia” project, I let my fingers glide over my keyboard.
I had the pleasure of meeting this fantastic writer at “A Conversation With John Domini” event organized by the Italian Club Insieme from Florida Atlantic University (FAU). He was discussing his latest novel: The Color Inside a Melon.
I’ll admit I didn’t have a clue as to who John Domini was, but it was a free talk with a twice-nominated Pulitzer Price writer—I had to go.
So, on January 15, 2020, I made my way to FAU, eager to learn something new about writing, literature, and the Italianità of Italian and Italian American culture.
Books, Talks and a Pizza Night
It was a decadent evening lead and hosted by Dr. Ilaria Serra and Dr. Emanuele Pettener; two incredibly passionate and heartwarming professors, I’m honored to say I was their student many moons ago during my time at FAU.
After a bit of book reading, Naples talks, questions and laughs, I plucked up the courage to ask John Domini if he’d mind entertaining my questions.
I waited while he greeted people, signed books, and answered more questions. When I expressed my interest in interviewing him, he kindly gave me his contact information—I was also invited to the lovely dinner with some of the club members and Dr. Serra.
One of my favorite parts about attending the events organized by Club Insieme is having the opportunity to speak in Italian—rusty as I may be.
We made our way to an Italian restaurant not far from the University, I was happy to catch up with my professor, talk to a prolific writer, and practice my Italian in great company.
Some hours later, I drove home with a belly full of pizza as I formulated my questions for the interview—grateful he’d agreed to let me pick at his brain.
The Interview: Who Is John Domini?
Our interview took place in February; once I was happy with the list of questions, I emailed them to him, and John took the time to address them all.
At the time, John was working on a new project, which he references in the interview and has finally come to fruition—it will be available to the public by late 2021.
The Archeology of a Good Ragù is a memoir where John “examines his recovery from failures personal and professional by way of Naples, his father’s native city.”
While you wait for the memoir, however, I encourage you to get your hands on his other novels. You’re sure to enjoy profound and exhilarating writing with an intricately woven narrative that takes you through the many mysteries of Naples and its history alongside complex characters that encapsulate the many-facets of truth behind immigration and embracing a new culture.
Let’s Meet John Domini
This interview is displayed in two parts.
- In Part I, you’ll learn about John Domini’s background, his struggle and triumph at embracing two cultures without fully being part of either, but rather a fluid blend of both.
- In Part II, you’ll dive deeper into his adroit writing and how he puts together the universe of his novels.
Family, background and discovering the art of writing
Just call me OK Boomer. I was born back in the early ‘50s in New York, at that time something like the Center of the Universe—at least if you were either Italian-American or an artist of some kind.
My father married a New Yorker, and moved straight to Manhattan from Naples, following World War II. He reached his teens as an enemy alien, that is; Italy belonged to the Axis, remember.
My father, like most Italians, wound up hating the Nazis, and he even took part in a Neapolitan guerrilla uprising.
Still, afterward, he came to an America more open to immigrants than we are now, and with clearer processes for achieving citizenship. The resulting cultural mix, in and around a polyglot cosmopolis like New York, unquestionably left indelible traces on who I am and what I seek in my work.
Forging my own identity, however, was a complicated matter, naturally. I’m trying to write about that now, in a memoir.
As for whether I was close to my family, no teenager feels that close, but I was then and remain now lucky in my parents. By my later 20s, when I’d established a career up in Boston, I’d reconnected with them both, and in particular with my Neapolitan father. By then, too, I’d been over to Pop’s native city a few times, both with the family and on my own. I had at least a faint sense of the daunting changes he’d faced, the crisis of identity, and I’d begun groping towards understanding its impact on me.
My primary tool for understanding, of course, was writing. Sometime in my teens, I discovered my calling, and before then I was reading, reading, reading. Advance Warning Signs like those would’ve made many parents nervous.
I mean, how’s a bookish boy going to earn a living? But my literary nature never worried my father much. He never tried to block my pursuits, and really, this was his greatest gift to me.
The man was a natural-born entrepreneur, working in food and other imports, but early on he grasped that his oldest son wasn’t cut out for such work— and he didn’t mind. He let my sister become the businessperson.
Despite my father’s background and my own, however, my real immersion in Naples had to wait for years and years. Only as I approached 40 did I wind up spending extended time there, on my own, as my own unique mode of recovery from midlife breakdowns both personal and professional.
My longtime marriage had collapsed, and while I always had work, I’d fallen well short of my goals as both an academic and a writer. I felt lost between worlds if that doesn’t sound too dramatic. My imagination, my dreams, seemed to be taunting me rather than feeding me.
I changed my worlds, making my way over to Naples and going back as often as I could, staying on the cheap with family and friends, finding other ways to cut costs. I won small grants, got small jobs, created a circle of close folks on whom I could rely. All the while, too, I was investigating both my father’s secrets and the city’s.
Then a few years into my reconnection with the city, my father died— still young for this day and age. After that, for a couple of years, relocating became a serious possibility. Obviously, I wound up staying in the States, and now I make my home in a very different sort of city: Des Moines, Iowa.
Yet if I’m happy here, and productive at my desk; I’m firmly convinced that I owe a lot of my transformation, my return to health, to Naples. The honesty and intimacy it drew from me, as a writer and thinker, I put to work on every page, every draft. The honesty must apply especially to me—my reactions to whatever I create or describe.
It’s essential to avoid easy answers or imposing my perceptions on whatever I’m trying to shape. The intimacy is empathy, ultimately: the ability to enter another’s skin and sense their aches and yearnings.
The Craft & the Books
While I’m lost between worlds— getting back to that— I ought to acknowledge that the condition afflicts most of my characters as well.
At least, disorientation like that always unsettles my people when I’m working in psychological realism. Long stories in prose, perhaps 85% of the time, still depend on that mode; they present what most readers recognize as “real people,” succeeding or failing in familiar social structures, relying on technology we either use ourselves or have heard of.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Some scholars even argue that the novel works best as realism. I can’t agree, myself, because I think of magnificent exceptions like Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Also, I’ve written a couple of oddball texts myself, most recently MOVIEOLA! (2016) Come to think, that linked set of strange tales may have been the most fun I’ve had, writing; I recall actually laughing out loud during the composition. Yet every one of that book’s stories shrugged realism aside, one way or another.
Still, all three of my Naples novels were fun, too, and all have to be categorized, despite occasional bizarre touches, as social and psychological realism.
The same goes for my Boston novel, Talking Heads: 77 (2003). In these narratives, the major players are all dogged by an unease feeling, any sensitive reader will have suffered himself (or herself), namely, the question of just where they belong, and of what tribe claims them, in this uncertain place they’ve come to.
In the Naples novels, confusion over identity seems to loom largest in the finale of the set, The Color Inside a Melon (2019). There the problem’s obvious; Risto, my protagonist, isn’t the right color for a European. His Somali DNA would seem to have designed him a different life, in a different place. Such doubts nag him despite his ostensible success, with an art gallery that people talk about and a white Neapolitan wife, not to mention their mixed-race children. The breakneck week he stumbles into, as the novel develops, reflects these nagging insecurities, this sense of cobbling himself together on the fly.
More than that, as I see my Naples trilogy, it presents an entire city in the throes of an identity crisis. The earthquake I’ve imagined— very much a real threat, given the unstable local tectonics— is just what shows on the surface. The larger disruptions and redefinitions are in the citizens’ souls. More than a few of my friends and acquaintances over there insist that the “true Italy” is disappearing; what’s left is a distorted version of America. Other folks make the news with racist claims: “Everything south of Rome is Africa.” Meantime the employment crisis deepens throughout the country, spurring the best and brightest to leave the country. The situation of women presents a related issue, as the country wrenched itself out of its conservative Catholic roots. Women strove towards greater independence and a greater say.
The city was undergoing well-nigh Biblical changes, even as it presented a fascinating timelessness. Naples, after all, remains one of the oldest places of continuous human habitation in the world. Then too, ironies and quandaries like that became apparent to me only during my longer and more profound encounters with my father’s hometown. Such questions revealed themselves, in other words, during a period when I was myself unsettled, open to suggestions.
Fretting over where I fit it, feeling like an outsider— such concerns flowed inevitably into the novels that followed. I see the same natural progression in how much my stories rely on the women in them. Over in Naples, as women struggled for a better footing, a number became my Naples Whisperers: my most reliable barometers of where things stood.
In other words, my Naples fiction has a lot of elements in play. A lot of balls in the air, and when I started, no way I knew just how I was going to keep up the juggling. I could glimpse a few pieces of the larger vision, like the earthquake and its effect. I knew, as well, that each of the novels would have a different perspective: first the visiting American (a woman in middle age), then a native Italian (a young man with skills), and finally an African refugee (adult, educated, an apparent success). Many other elements, however, remained cloaked, unknown. Those I could only discover via all sorts of exploratory writing, draft after draft.
I wouldn’t say I suffered writer’s block; rather I suffered dreamer’s block. Only by plumbing the unconscious, striking strange angles on the experience, could I uncover a workable storyline or character development.
Also, I got more ordinary help, too, from a few readers, and I must mention the terrific Dzanc Books editor, Michelle Dotter; she helped a lot. Ultimately, though, just as there’s no end to Neapolitan vitality and surprise, no way to know it all, the same holds for the best imaginative writing about the place. Much remains impenetrable, at its core; much registers on the skin and nerves yet eludes transformation into language.
I can’t say how much my own Naples trilogy will matter, over time, but I can say that the fiction is faithful to the mystery of the city. To keep that mystery alive seems essential to the spirit of significant literature.
A Thank You Note
Dear readers, I hope you all enjoyed getting to know John Domini as much as I have.
Thank you again, John, for your patience, encouragement, your writing, and your time.
Best of luck in all your endeavors, until we meet again.
An incurable passion for writing; a poet and storyteller at heart. I am a writer on the road.