Books In Conversation
Fostering A More Socially-Conscious Narrative
Olivia Kate Cerrone with David Winner
The Hunger Saint
(Bordighera Press, 2017)
Olivia Kate Cerrone’s remarkable novella, The Hunger Saint, due to be released in April by Bordighera Press, takes us to a postwar Sicilian world not often written about or discussed: the sulfur mines where young boys called carusi worked in abysmally dangerous conditions, victims of a type of indentured servitude known as a soccorso morto. Cerrone effortlessly threads research with narrative, so that we nearly forget that the writer is a contemporary American, not a mid-century Sicilian. And the novella does more than locate characters in a dramatic setting; it tells a suspenseful tale of collapsing mines and efforts to escape them. I sat down with Cerrone to ask her questions about her work.
David Winner (RAIL): How did you first learn about the sulfur mines and the carusi who worked in them?
Olivia Kate Cerrone: I first heard about the carusi in 2010 through a Sicilian language class organized by Domenic Giampino of the Sicilian Cultural Institute of America in New York City. I began studying the language to understand the culture on a deeper level. Though my family is originally descended from Sicily, I had very limited access to my heritage growing up, outside of pasta dishes or movies like The Godfather. I longed for richer, more complex representations of Sicilian people and their social history. Language and the arts, the lifeblood of any culture, connected me with greater dimensions of truth and stories that didn’t rely on vapid stereotypes or sentimental notions of the past. Learning about the carusi compelled me to conduct a deeper investigation, one that eventually led me to visit Sicily in 2013, where I visited the grounds of the now defunct Floristella-Grottacalda sulfur mines near the town of Valguarnera Caropepe, and interviewed surviving miners about their labor experiences.
Rail: What made you decide to write fiction about them?
Cerrone: I was shocked over how little was written about the carusi. Booker T. Washington had produced a haunting sociological study in 1913 called The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe, which included an essay depicting his travels to Sicily to document the presence of child labor abuse in the sulfur mines. A few Sicilian authors, like Luigi Pirandello and Giovanni Verga had published some short stories involving the carusi, and there was an Italian film produced called Acla’s Descent into Floristella. A handful of Italian-American writers have also written about related mining experiences of their grandparents, but other than that, there’s been so very little portrayed in books or the media about it. This greatly disturbed me, especially since the abusive practice of soccorso morto, which was indentured servitude, went on for many generations. The sulfur-mining industry itself lasted in Sicily until the 1980s. Fiction serves as such a powerful means of connecting readers to a more nuanced, intimate sense of history, one that can feel real and immediate. As a writer, I’m interested in producing fiction with a social consciousness, stories that connect people to themes of social justice, along with the fallout of trauma through communities and its inheritance across generations. Through The Hunger Saint, I strived to create a compelling story that would breathe life into the carusi, while examining the ways in which something as tragic as child labor abuse could be normalized in a society. Storytelling can deepen our sense of compassion and understanding of others, especially in the face of contemporary fears and alienating socio-political issues. Stories offer us a greater intimacy with others in cutting across barriers of time, language, culture, politics—even death—to bring us closer together as a human family. I hope to offer through my work a greater understanding of how people are transformed by suffering, and ultimately transcend it.
Rail: Can you tell us a little about how you were able to embed your research so smoothly?
Cerrone: In 2014 I had the incredible privilege of attending the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop and studying with Anthony Doerr, who wrote the Pulitzer-Prizing winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. In addition to being a brilliant master craftsman, Doerr is also a very generous teacher too. One bit of wisdom he shared was that “the path to the universal runs through the individual.” It’s those specific, felt-life details particular to a character’s sense of being alive and navigating through his or her circumstances that connect readers to understanding history in a larger way. I kept that insight in mind as I sifted through the research I gathered. I spent years immersing myself in information about the carusi, sulfur mining culture, and the devastation and poverty of Sicily in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Yet my job as a fiction writer wasn’t to document every single detail of a miner’s job or recount the progression of Italian labor laws, but instead to create an engaging story where those details could be woven throughout, adding depth and complexity to the reader’s experience of the mines through language. Of course, that research was also essential in informing me how to shape the overall narrative and its characters, but I was constantly asking myself, how can this or that detail serve the immediate story at hand? How could it be translated into those vivid details that bring the carusi and the grit of their existence alive?
Rail: The characters speak in Sicilian dialect. How did you learn how to use it so evocatively?
Cerrone: In addition to studying Sicilian through a language class, I also immersed myself in the folk music of the island, and read everything I could that was published or documented about the carusi. I kept a very detailed journal while traveling through the region of Enna, where I visited mines, small rural towns, and conducted oral histories with former miners. I spent a lot of time listening to people, and soaking up their expressions and mannerisms. All of the miners I spoke with expressed great pride in their work, despite the difficult and tragic presence of child labor abuse. The people of Valguarnera Caropepe in particular were extremely friendly and generous. All of these various streams of information fed into my imagination and my ability to weave together certain words and expressions into creating the larger narrative of The Hunger Saint.
Rail: The Sicily of the ’40s that you portray is a dark and corrupt place. How do you think that has changed over the years?
Cerrone: Certainly, Sicily has become more stabilized and is safer in some regards, but Southern Italy and Sicily still struggle a great deal economically and socially in terms of corruption and present job opportunities. I have been very fortunate to visit Sicily several times in recent years, the last being in 2014, where I volunteered at a refugee center in Siracusa for women, many of whom were from Somalia and Eritrea. At that time the unemployment rate among Sicilians living in that city was around fifty-seven percent. It remains extremely difficult to obtain steady employment without having special connections. Many Sicilians leave for Rome, Milan, or even Germany and the U.K. to find work. It’s very hard. I met many people who were very frustrated by the lack of opportunities, despite the fact that they’d earned graduate or law degrees. There is still a great amount of low societal trust within Sicilian communities, one driven by an undercurrent of desperation and hardship. Sicilians rely a great deal on their families and personal connections to survive and navigate society. In some ways, things have not changed so much from then to now.
Rail: Can you draw any parallels between the experience of the carusi and the refugee crisis in Sicily now, the people taking the dangerous trip by sea to Lampedusa?
Cerrone: Obtaining a work visa or permanent residence in Italy is very complicated and can take years to accomplish. During my time in Siracusa, I met various refugees and economic migrants, some who had managed to find jobs working as street vendors or off the books at restaurants and cafes. There was very little protection for them against exploitation and abuse. Many worked twelve-hour shifts without any breaks. The Guardian just published an article about the horrific and violent working conditions of Romanian women “employed” with little or no pay on farms throughout Sicily. There is little enforcement of labor laws to protect against exploitation. Such stories echo those of the carusi, many of whom were left physically deformed through laboring in the mines or being raped and beaten by the older miners they worked alongside. Extreme poverty forced them to endure such brutality so they could earn a small income to support their families. They were the men farthest down. While there are some efforts being made in Sicily to prevent further labor abuse, there is still a long road ahead to solve these problems.
Rail: What are you working on now?
Cerrone: Right now, I’m working on DISPLACED, a novel set in Boston, which questions what it means to be an American in a time fraught with political and social tensions over immigration policies, rampant fear, and discrimination. The novel also involves themes of migration trauma, human trafficking, and deportation.