Were You Always an Italian?

W. Somerset Maugham revealed that he wrote Of Human Bondage (1915) in his forties to deal with problems he had not resolved in his youth. So it is with Maria Laurino in this powerful autobiography-in-progress. Third generation descendant of Southern Italians—on her mother's side from Compania, near Naples; on her father's, even further south, from Basilicata, Italy's poorest region—Laurino reflects in the first 100 pages her rebellion, often silent, at being the “wrong” kind of Italian American.

In fact, from junior high in suburban Short Hills, NJ, when a gym classmate labeled her, unjustly, “that smelly Italian girl,” Maria Laurino admits her fear down to the present that she “lacks a defining odor;” that she is clean, but without texture; that after years of trying to rid herself “of the perceived stench of [my] ethnic group and its musty basement-class, [she] sanitized [her] own voice, washed it away.”

During annual summer visits to Rome in her youth and journeys to Florence later, Maria found the dialect-laden second language she spoke and the “good” Tuscan Italian she heard culturally incompatible. She contemplated chopping the vowels off her name.

Her title, Were You Always an Italian?, is drawn from the question with which her hero, then-governor Mario Cuomo, greeted her in an interview. This irresistible book provides the answer.