Friday, March 21, 2014

The Black Madonna by Louisa Ermelino

"Thank God for America, the women on the stoop said.  In the old country, it would have turned out different."  -- The Black Madonna, Louisa Ermelino

Let's face it - Italian Americans have a terrible representation in popular culture.  Most of the time, Italian Americans are viewed as hyper-religious, ignorant, loud maniacs who spend most of their time trying to kill the person who disrespected them.  As someone who grew up in northern New Jersey, this stereotype is hard to shake.  But I am grateful to Louisa Ermelino for her portrayal of Italians and Italian Americans in her novel The Black Madonna.  Following the stories of a group of women that live in an apartment building on Spring Street in New York's Little Italy, Ermelino mixes historical events from the 40's and 60's, magical realism, and Old World superstition-meets-New World mythos.  All of the narratives focus around one central talisman:  the Black Madonna. [A Black Madonna is a Marian statue in which the Blessed Mother is depicted with dark skin; the belief is this type of statue originated from an ancient goddess cult, but later turned into a symbol for Christianity.]  Obviously, this illustrates the Black Madonna as having old magic combined with Catholic belief.  Following this definition, all of Ermelino's characters are different forms of Black Madonnas.

The story begins with the birth of Jumbo, Antoinette's very large baby boy.  Jumbo's size is Antoinette's claim to fame in Little Italy and she uses Jumbo's size as a symbol of her great parenting skills and excellent family lineage.  Jumbo's five older sisters are equally impressed by the great gift that is Jumbo and he spends his life growing up with six women fussing over him.  Teresa is a single mother, but refuses to admit it (once the reader discovers the truth, you do feel sorry for Teresa and her denial - a bit). She spends most of her time worrying over her son, Nicky, who fell out of a four-story window and is told that he cannot walk again (but he does which prompts Teresa to call it a "miracle").  The last in the trio is the maiden named Magdalena whose sex appeal makes her a siren to the rest of the women.  They worry over their own sons and husbands falling victim to Magdalena's charms, which turns out to be valid since Magdalena prays to the Black Madonna to make any man fall in love with her (as with most gypsy wishes, Magdalena's prayers tend to backfire).  

The characters' lives intersect with each other's, but it is what goes on in their homes that makes the story so interesting.  The Black Madonnas take center stage, which creates an element of magical realism intertwined with heavy doses of Catholicism and maternal duty.  Each woman is her own worst enemy - whether it is a source of pride, envy, fear, or guilt that keeps her trapped in her Old World ways.  But the source of light, the hope for the New World, takes the shape of talisman of alternative magic.

Ermelino knows how to write a scene.  Even when she isn't mentioned, the Black Madonna's power is on every page; keeping her in the front of the narrative, which is where her loyal followers keep her for their most important life events.  While the book is illustrated heavily within Italian culture, the true meaning of the story is quintessentially American:  the hope for future generations and the fear for what is left behind.  The women are the triple goddess of feminist theory:  Antoinette, the Crone, who has devoted her entire life to creating it and nurturing it (the story of Jumbo's birth reads like a story out of mythology); Teresa, the Mother, who struggles to make a world for Nicky even as he struggles to have a normal life; and Magdalena, the Maiden, whose sexuality frightens, infuriates, and intimidates the "good" Italian women in the neighborhood.  As the quote above suggests, America is another goddess in the mix - she is watching over these women, with a little help from the Black Madonna.

Every "coming to America" story addresses the diaspora of a group and their struggles to make sense of the Old World within the context of the New World.  The women are purely Old World with their superstitions, feminine roles, and social scripts that center around family, duty, and survival.  Their children, as with any child of an immigrant parent, are born of the New World - they want the new American dream of fame and fortune and they see their mothers as silly old women praying with their rosaries and cursing in another language.  The conflict between the two worlds embeds itself on every page, in every sentence, and in every character's narrative.

As for the Black Madonna...well, she sees all, doesn't she?  ; )




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