One of the Chicago/Little Italy authors that Joanne mentioned during her visit to our class was Tina de Rosa, author of Paper Fish. If you recall, de Rosa was the grad student whose home was bulldozed for the construction of UIC. For my final project, I’ve been working on a retelling of Tina de Rosa’s Paper Fish in poem form. While I don’t plan on presenting my final project to the class, I thought I’d let everyone know a little bit about the novel.
Paper Fish is a very lyrical novel, with very little dialogue. There is a dream-like quality in de Rosa’s description of life in Little Italy in the 40s and 50s. De Rosa employs short, syntactically simple and repetitive, although hauntingly beautiful, sentences. Despite the sensuality of her prose, the novel is emotionally devastating. It follows the BellaCasa family: Doria, the Italian-born grandmother; Marco, her policeman son; Sarah, his Lithuanian wife; Doriana, their mute, retarded daughter; and Carmolina, their very precocious, adventurous younger daughter. The horrors that Marco encounters everyday on the job, and the stress of caring for Doriana, as well as financial hardship, have strained Marco and Sarah’s marriage. Doria, Marco’s mother, is quite aware of their faltering relationship (in part because she spies on them from her kitchen window across the alley). She doesn’t quite approve of Marco having married a non-Italian girl, though she is sympathetic to all of Sarah’s suffering (although at times she blames her for Doriana’s illness).
Though the plot is presented in a fragmentary style—and the reader is often left to figure out the time frame of the narrative, the central story of the novel is Carmolina’s escape from her family home at the age of eight. Carmolina overhears her relatives’ plan to send her sister away to a nun-operated asylum for the mentally ill. Terrified to lose her sister, and equally afraid that they will send her away, too, Carmolina decides to run away from home. She spends three nights away from home; in those three days, she faces fierce anti-Italian racism and terrible hunger. She is kicked out by a restaurant owner for being a “dago kid” and robbed by a gang of older boys before she finally runs into a policeman who returns her to her family.
Paper Fish is not an action-packed or plot-driven novel. Though at times quite slow-moving, it is always beautiful and often heart-breaking. The passages narrated from Doriana’s perspective are difficult to read:
“This morning at breakfast, Doriana smashed a fried egg with her fist. When Mama yelled, Doriana picked up a fork and stabbed Mama’s hand with it. Then she held the fork in front of her own eyes...Mama sat down at the kitchen table and cried. She didn’t make any noise when she cried; her shoulders just shook a little, like Jello, and tears ran down her face, out of her eyes...” (72).