"What I tell in 2016 could actually be set exactly in these days of racial tensions ... As for the assimilation or integration of those who leave their country to go live elsewhere, at a certain point you don't know plus who you are and what culture you belong to ... You are resident in this country but you are still considered an alien, you have an alien number. It is a very strong word, so much so that many states, such as California, have abolished it Alien means you don't even belong to mankind ... " </p><div> <p>Bruna is Roman but has lived in the United States for twenty years, in New York, where she teaches political science at university. The meeting with one of her students, Yunus, brings to the surface all the rifts that have been affecting her life for some time, between the complicated relationship with her husband's Italian American family, the precariousness at work, the fragility of her marriage and the difficulty of being a mother far from both Italy and in some ways from America itself.
Set in 2016, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, American Gothic it is a story that offers the reader a real condensation of many of the individual and collective themes of America today, defining a complex and brutal picture that has never been so disconcertingly topical as it has been these days. It is the third title of the “Munizioni” series published by Bompiani directed by Roberto Saviano, the first novel to be published after the memorial of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the journalistic investigation by Nacho Carretero dedicated to Spanish drug trafficking.
The author, Arianna Farinelli, is a political scientist and teaches political science at Baruch College of the City University of New York. In light of the events of the last few days, we contacted her to talk about her novel and the precious story she tells, certainly capable of helping readers to better understand what is happening and will happen in the United States.
As you explain in the afterword, the idea of American Gothic was born from a 2016 article published on New York Times concerning an American boy who became an ISIS recruiter. In the book there is in fact a particular balance between fiction and non-fiction and for this reason it fits perfectly into the context of the “Ammunition” series. Is it the novel that found the necklace or was it the necklace that found the novel?
“We found each other, I think. I finished writing the novel in the summer of 2018 and sent it to several publishing houses. Bompiani was the first to believe in this story and with Roberto (Saviano, ed.) They thought it fit well for the necklace. In addition to talking about a family history and a love story, it is a novel set in our time, which tells our time and which is imbued with social themes, which are then what I teach at university. In 2016, a few things were happening in the United States and around the world that I felt the urge to tell: the war in Syria, Brexit, the election of Trump. In the novel I also talk about racial tensions, police brutality, African Americans killed by policemen despite being unarmed, unpunished police officers, Colin Kaepernick, the ex-quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who knelt during the anthem in 2016 national and that Trump accused of being disrespectful of flag values, anthem and war veterans. Just the gesture of Kaepernick returns in these days because his image was associated by the daughter of Martin Luther King with that of the knee pressed on the neck of George Floyd. So what I tell in 2016 could actually be set exactly in these days of racial tensions. This is the genesis of everything. I am happy that my book is in this series because there is a lot of non-fiction inside, since I was born as a political scientist before becoming a writer. ”
In some scenes and in some dialogues there is a particular didactic vocation. You think this depends on your being a teacher and therefore on a precise one forma mentis? In fact, what you tell and explain provides many ideas for young readers, for example, who are particularly sensitive to some of the topics you deal with. Did you have an ideal and implicit reader in mind for this story?
“I received hundreds of messages from readers of all ages, from high school kids to seventy-year-olds, so every reader found himself in this story because the protagonists are of different ages. There are children, there is Yunus who is twenty years old, there are Bruna and her husband who are forty years old and Bruna’s in-laws who are seventy years old. Several generations and different ways of experiencing America are represented. What you tell me makes me think that actually when I wrote the novel I did it as if it were a university lesson. There are episodes in the novel in which Bruna gives a real lesson and explains the concept of enemy, identity, return to religion, what is called in political science revanche de Dieu, the revenge of God. Perhaps in those moments I too somehow did the lesson I always did to my students, I explained to them what the clash of civilizations is, if different religions can dialogue. Maybe I had my students in mind a little bit, but when the novel came out in Italy it had absolutely heterogeneous readers as regards age groups. We will then see how it will be implemented in the other countries in which it will be translated (American Gothic will be released soon in German, Dutch and Spanish, ed.) ”
In fact, I was also thinking of the scene of the Italian-American student from Bruna, who with his question allows us to directly address the issue of the condition of African Americans.
“It looks like a literary trick there, but actually that student really asked me that question! I say this because otherwise you can believe that he put the characters and certain scenes together just to say certain things, instead it happened that in my life I was asked questions like the one I then put in the novel. It is true that Americans don’t know their own story. So many people today wonder: why do African Americans do this? All this mess because this man was killed by a policeman? In the end he was a porn actor, he hadn’t seen the family for fifteen years … Now there is a whole mud machine around George Floyd. Regardless of what he was doing in his life, he was killed in a brutal way, but many people wonder why this anger is happening. Because unfortunately history is not known, it is not only the Italian reader who does not know these things at school and does not know them. Not even the Americans know them. ”
The Italian Americans themselves, and you represent it very well through the Bene family, the protagonists’ in-laws, often being very conservative, forget their own history, that of the Italians in America, and support Trump’s anti-immigration policy.
“Yes, many of them believe that if they got where they are now it is thanks to their merit. And this is partly true, of course. Many became professionals, the first generation went straight to college, did PhDs, specialized, expressing doctors, university professors, scientists. Then there are Italian Americans who have not done this type of journey, but in any case everyone believes that it was only personal merit. In reality there is a huge difference between Italian Americans and African Americans, as well as between African Americans and all other ethnic groups. No ethnic group has suffered two hundred and fifty years of slavery, ninety years of segregation laws and then everything that happened afterwards and which I tell in the novel, from mass incarceration to the fact that they were denied mortgages to buy the house. White Americans of all nationalities – Irish, Italian, Polish, German – have been able to buy a house and become middle class, because the house is the most important asset that a person buys over the course of life and is something that remains for generations successive, therefore it is a wealth that is created. Instead, African Americans could only buy contract houses and this meant that, if even a monthly mortgage payment was missing, they lost their home, savings, deposit and all the money paid previously. That’s why African Americans still live in ghettos. What happened to them is no accident, it was wanted. Poverty was knowingly created that way. ”
I don’t know if it depends on the culture or the vastness of the country, but it is as if many Americans lived in a bubble that prevents them from taking an interest in what is happening outside of it and from understanding the reason for so much anger or so much poverty, bringing them to justify everything trivially as a cultural fact.
“Exactly, because it is much easier to say that African Americans are lazy, that they don’t want to work, that they get teenagers pregnant and they don’t take care of their children rather than trying to understand the reasons why certain things happen and this I tried to show even when the novel moves to the Middle East. I tried to tell what is the history of Syria, Iraq, Mosul, which does not begin today with ISIS but at least a hundred years ago when the French and the British shared that territory by drawing borders at will and without understanding what religion was in one place and which one was in another. Because there is precisely the border between Sunnis and Shiites and they have placed a Sunni majority city, such as Mosul, in a Shiite majority country like Iraq. So everything that happens is not accidental and I tried to tell it through a story and not with a non-fiction narrative. ”
There are trivial associations, for which the Muslim is a terrorist, the African American is a criminal. In the novel, each character reflects on the concept of identity and even Bruna in her own way experiences a contradiction from the ethnic point of view, being in a certain sense too Italian for the Americans and too American for the Italians. There is the very beautiful scene of his oath to obtain American citizenship in which it is as if he finds himself in a kind of cultural limbo and this made me think that we Italians are perhaps not so amalgamated and assimilable to American culture and society as we think. Despite the differences compared to other minorities, do you think being Italian in America still constitutes a non-assimilation factor?
“This applies to all ethnic groups. The associations you speak of, the terrorist Muslim, the African American who shoots the police, the Hispanic rapist, formed Trump’s election campaign in 2016. As for the assimilation or integration of those who leave their country to going to live elsewhere, at a certain point you no longer know who you are and what culture you belong to, because for a long time you don’t feel perfectly integrated in the new country where you live. Likewise, when you return to the place you started from, you feel you don’t belong to that reality anymore. When Bruna returns to Rome and finds her childhood friend who advises her to have her transgender son treated, telling her that these problems arise from the relationship with her mother, she feels she has nothing to do with that reality and that mentality anymore. This often happens to those who move, to find themselves in this limbo. Bruna refuses to swear to “destroy America’s enemies” and in that chapter I tell what she was called alien at the airport, something that happened to me and that happens to all immigrants, even legal ones. They are aliens until they become American citizens. You are resident in this country but you are still considered an alien, you have an alien number. This is a very strong word, so much so that many states, such as California, have abolished it. Alien means that you don’t even belong to mankind. One could say “foreigner”, which is also a strong word, but alien is really a discriminating word. But then Bruna says she got up one morning and felt she was part of that project, a country that has no political color, no skin color, that has no particular religion, where young people will emerge and keep all the promises of the Indipendence declaration for which all men are created equal and they are endowed with “inalienable rights” including the right to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. They wrote it in Philadelphia in 1776 but two hundred and fifty years after the events of these days tell us that we are absolutely not at this point. ”
One of the most beautiful passages of the novel is precisely when Bruna’s son Mario, in the delicate reflection on his own identity, also demonstrates a splitting of the linguistic point of view, when he says: “Points in baseball are counted in English. Her mother’s kisses are savored in Italian “. Perhaps the protagonist’s optimism is shown in a particularly evident way through the characters of Mario and Minerva?
“Hope in the novel is the boys. When Minerva wants to go and help her brother grapple with the bully, he sees that he has understood everything by himself. That brother she had to protect from classmates, from paternal grandparents and from the same parents now teaches her something, that is that opposing does not mean hating, in fact Mario opposes the bully throwing him to the ground with a head but in the end he helps and from there a friendship is built. I understand that it may seem a bit utopian, but we want to hope that the new generations will do just that, opposing themselves without violence and building a dialogue. Bruna herself no longer talks to her in-laws and admits she never sits down to drink coffee with someone who thinks differently from her. This is exactly the point. The society here is extremely polarized, in Italy and in Europe. Nobody talks to anyone who thinks otherwise. Hope therefore is the new generations. Yunus, who sacrifices everything to follow his best friend, as he is fatherless, is a very positive character, who makes a radical and almost irrational choice, based on the unconditional love he feels for his friend Mohammad. So he follows him into the belly of the whale, which is Mosul but which is also New York or the prison of Rikers Island, is a metaphysical reality which is then the solitude of man “.
It’s nice how Yunus introduces Bruna to a New York other than the one she’s used to. With American Gothic in fact, you offer a mapping of the city far from what is seen in fiction and which belongs to the classical imagination. The New York that you tell by the way is almost prophetic, if we think of the city of the last few months, between lockdown and now even curfew and riots. Do you think that the story of New York itself will no longer be able to ignore what has happened and is happening? Will the city inevitably be different from the one we knew?
“I think we all look at the same things. The difference is what we can and can see, what we do we want to see. I hope New York is seen for what it is, an extremely segregated city. Why are there so many infections and deaths in the South Bronx, in Queens neighborhoods such as Corona, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, or in Flatbush, in Brooklyn? Why do so many fewer cases in Manhattan, where, among other things, four hundred thousand people fled in early March? All this is no accident. This is a city which, as Charles Dickens said, is made up of two cities together, the city of the rich, represented by Manhattan and some parts of Brooklyn, and then the city of the poor, who are the essential workers, the people without insurance, ethnic minorities. Will we see New York for what’s in the future? I do not know. Years ago I read Barack Obama’s first book where he said he lived between 96th Street and First Avenue, very close to my home, but on the side where the Spanish Harlem begins. He said that those who lived on the southern part of the 96th, where the Upper East Side is still, brought the dogs to do the needs on the north part, under his house, because they didn’t gather there as much as if it were another city. This is precisely the point. Here are several cities, there is not one city. And the rich city does not care about the city of the poor. The Upper East Side is the richest neighborhood in the United States and the South Bronx is one of the poorest neighborhoods, yet they are only a few kilometers away from each other. They are neighborhoods that do not touch each other. There is a part of New York that works to serve the other part of the city, the productive part, of Wall Street “.
It is as if the New Yorkers and on a large scale the Americans lived together in the same space without the possibility of truly seeing and knowing each other.
“A few days ago I was talking to a friend of mine about the difference in coronavirus cases between Manhattan and Queens and South Bronx, where there were four times as many sick people. According to her, this depended on the fact that in those neighborhoods they don’t wear a mask, while here in Manhattan they all have it. He is an intelligent person and yet knows nothing of what is going on there! People do not have insurance and already started from precarious health conditions and they are the ones who drive the subway, the buses, which sanitize the streets. She does not know that reality there and therefore somehow believes that they went to look for it. How is it possible that one part of the city does not know what is happening in the other? It is like us in the western world that we absolutely do not know what is happening in developing countries. When a company leaves a piece behind, it pays the consequences itself. The city of New York has nearly nine million inhabitants and alone has had twenty thousand deaths, almost as much as the whole of Italy which has a population of sixty million people. Obviously there is something wrong and you realize that it is inequalities, pockets of poverty, lack of health insurance, very low wages, dormitory quarters. All this put together makes the pandemic racist, but the virus has nothing to do with it, it is society that is “.
All this also has political consequences. 2020 will be a decisive year for the whole world and in particular for the United States where, among other things, presidential elections will be held in November. As a political scientist, as well as an American citizen and a writer, what kind of United States do you think we will face, live and have to tell from November onwards?
“These are crucial months because we will see the economic crisis in all its magnitude and in all its horror. Unemployment benefits and the blockade of evictions will end in early July, therefore hunger will increase and social and racial tensions will increase. We have to see how Trump will deal with this. The speech he gave in the Rose Garden of the White House was incendiary, because he said he was the President of law and order, something that Nixon had said in 1968, the year of great clashes and disputes, the year in which Martin Luther King died. With that sentence, Nixon won the election and Trump hopes to do the same, to capitalize on what is going on, saying that he is restoring order, which is the President who protects Americans, their families and their businesses. Using a law of 1807, he gave a mandate to use the army, saying that the protesters will come face to face with well-armed soldiers. Some governors have opposed it, but if the army intervenes, things get worse, there may be many more deaths. In short, the situation could favor Trump at a time when he was in a great crisis. He is lagging behind in the polls, especially in the states in the balance, due to the economic crisis and the very serious mistakes he has made in facing the pandemic. If we had closed the economy just a week before, we would have had thirty thousand fewer deaths. He said that the Chinese virus would not arrive in the United States, that the cases would disappear in a few weeks, that the virus would disappear in April in the heat and instead in New York in April we had eight hundred deaths a day. All these mistakes made him go down in the polls, but then the racial tensions and especially the looting play a different role which he could take advantage of. Then there is geopolitics. I am very concerned about this anti-Chinese propaganda and rhetoric. Obviously China is a dictatorship and what it does in Hong Kong, Taiwan and against the Chinese Muslims must be condemned by the whole West, but it seems to me that for a long time we have been silent while now it is convenient to point the finger. Here China is used for the election campaign as the scapegoat of the pandemic. China has a lot of responsibilities, but this kind of rhetoric puts us on a rickety catwalk that could lead us straight to war. Many things are at stake at regional, national, and international level “.
Don’t you think that this mobilization following the killing of George Floyd could strengthen Biden’s base and lead even more African Americans and minorities to support the only alternative to Trump?
“Yes it could be, but Biden is not a strong and charismatic candidate. He has the support of African Americans and it is important, because in 2016 Hillary Clinton also lost due to the lack of support of the so-called rainbow coalition who had elected Obama. Despite having won in absolute terms in numbers, with two and a half million votes more than Trump, Clinton has lost in the key states and it will therefore be necessary to see what will happen here. Elections are not won only with ethnic minorities, young people, homosexuals, intellectuals and women. We need the middle class, the working class, the whites. These people in poised states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Winscisconsin are suffering. They had never recovered from the 2008 crisis, let alone now, where unemployment and the loss of health insurance added to the relocation and economic depression. Democrats need that electorate there, you can’t think of winning an election only with minorities. Biden must be good at mobilizing whites too. Trump, however, makes a strong political speech, he is very good at this. The whole reality show last night (June 1, ed), when he went in front of the church and raised the Bible, with peaceful demonstrators charged by the police with tear gas and pepper sprays, the batons. All this is good for Trump’s base, because it shows a strong President who takes control of the situation. This rhetoric has no effect on me and I find it ridiculous, but for its basis it works ”.
Going back to talking about your novel, to conclude, I read that American Gothic it is the first chapter of a trilogy dedicated to America. Are you already working on the second?
“In the next novel, I wanted to talk about the deportations of illegal immigrants from New York, which has been a theme for the past four years. In reality, Obama had already deported two and a half million people but the deportations continued with Trump who even separates parents from children at the border with Mexico. There have been many raids, for example, when exiting churches, where often South American illegal immigrants who have lived here for a long time, have American children and grandchildren, since there are ius soli, and then take them to these detention centers, where Covid-19 is now there. Many are deported, it is very difficult for you to win the legal battle to stay here. In America there are eleven million people living in this limbo, who have been here for perhaps twenty or thirty years but who cannot be regularized and therefore must always be careful because they can be deported at any moment. The original idea was to invent a story with this background, try to understand the psychology of those who live here, consider this his country but who does not feel loved or wanted, considered a criminal as illegal. Then, however, this pandemic broke out and I am dealing a lot with what is happening by doing television presentations and writing newspaper articles. So I’m thinking that in this next book I’ll have to talk about these things too. In fact, I am reading novels that speak of society after major catastrophes such as Chernobyl and the novel that Don DeLillo wrote after 11 September (The man who falls, editor’s note). Against the background of a love or family story, intimate, I want to tell all these events which in my opinion cannot be ignored. Our lives are strongly influenced by what is happening in society, by politics, by historical events. So even in this second novel I would like to talk about all this. It is almost a chisel work, it is not easy to deal with social issues and put them together in a plot that works without tiring the reader. Among other things, as there are still no real analyzes of what we are experiencing, it is also a bet for me to understand my time. It is a challenge, but if I do not set difficult goals, I will be bored. ”