I READ THIS PIECE about Joe Biden in the New York Review of Books. It has some interesting insight into identity construction, how Biden portrays himself as an Irish Catholic in the vein of the sainted Kennedys. It made me think of how we pick and choose elements from our pasts to construct a self, yet that that same constructed self is not always all it seems. By virtue of my name alone, and to a lesser extent my looks, I have been stuck with an Italian identity. It need not be exactly — there are many thousands of Italian Americans divorced from their origins, and many have been bred thin, so that they retain a surname, but in ancestry they are majority something else. But no matter, if you have this kind of name and you go to Italy, then they will have questions for you, because it comes from somewhere. If anything, it was an identity for me that was de-emphasized, in part because of shame about Italian identity in America. We did not wish to emphasize our Italianness, rather we sought to be “normal Americans.” My grandfather’s real name was Gennaro, he was born to Italian immigrants, yet as far as I knew him he claimed to know not a word of the language, and to not be an Italian at all. Of course, my father knows some of the language, so this is not true. There is a kind of lie in all of this. Or perhaps a misunderstanding. Perhaps he thought of “being American” as related to place, rather than ethnicity. He was in an American uniform, therefore he was an American. Had he worn an Italian uniform, he would have been that. Most of his neighbors and acquaintances were also Italians of this variety. It somehow might not have occurred that to outsiders, a street where there were Petrones, Mastroiannis, and other such-named men might be seen as an Italian community. But this is just one line of my family. I had a Virginian grandmother, of mainly British ancestry, and an Irish Catholic grandmother from New York. I wonder sometimes about those Welsh dissidents in my lines, or those stubborn Irish. I wonder why I like James Joyce so much, and if there is some mystical link there. I suppose I could have claimed to be those things, though I do not think I could make a convincing Irishman. I do not think I could ever join a group like The Clancy Brothers, put on one of those sweaters, and start singing “Whiskey, you’re the devil.” Not with this name. Not with this nose. So I have been stuck with Italy, mostly not of my choosing, but I accept my roots. In Estonia, I am known as “their Italian,” and I do not dispute nor protest this. This is how they take me. It must be who I am.
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