t’s a dilemma still faced by many women today: how do we balance our desires for autonomy and career with those of raising a family? To add another angle to the discussion, how do our cultural values shape our child-rearing choices? Maria Laurino explores these issues in her memoir, Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom. The book has been described as a warm, smart, and witty personal investigation of ethnicity and womanhood.
Maria’s first memoir, Were You Always an Italian?, was a national bestseller. She is a former chief speechwriter to New York City Mayor David Dinkins and a staff writer for the Village Voice. Laurino’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, the Nation, Salon.com, and numerous publications. Her essays have been widely anthologized, including in the Norton Reader. She teaches creative non-fiction at New York University’s undergraduate creative writing program.
WOW: Congratulations on your new book, Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom. As a mom to two kids, I appreciated your stories, research, and insight about the work-family challenges women face. What motivated you to tackle this subject?
Maria: Thank you! I began thinking about Old World Daughter, New World Mother when my son was a toddler. I found myself in a position that I’m sure many women experience, having had a child later in life (I was thirty-eight) and realizing how fundamentally different taking care of an infant was from anything I had previously done. I began reading books on the work-family balance and was disappointed with the non-fiction I encountered. (I thought that fiction, such as Helen Simpson’s short story collection Getting a Life, handled much better the nuances and dilemmas new mothers faced.)
The non-fiction I read seemed to fall into two camps: books telling women that full-time work benefitted their children’s development or books telling them to stay home and enjoy the beauties of maternity. To me, both themes seemed equally simplistic. So I decided to try to write a memoir that examined contemporary feminism and work-family issues, using my experiences as the starting point.
WOW: You’ve added ethnic identity into the discussion. How did growing up in a second generation immigrant home guide your choices as a woman?
Maria: I grew up in an Old World, Italian-American family in which the word “dependence” was considered a good thing—stay home with the mamma! When my mother told me that I was “getting very independent”—well, that was an insult. So I left all that to embrace a New World feminism that championed personal autonomy. It wasn’t until I had a child that I began to see how our society has failed badly in balancing those opposing tendencies. In my singular desire for personal autonomy, I was failing to see that there is also a place for dependency in our lives. Americans are raised in a country that, above all, values individualism and independence. But Italy and many Western European cultures have a different approach, placing a higher value on the idea of interdependency.
“To be an Old World daughter means to be raised with the value structure that family is first and foremost.”
WOW: What are some of the differences between your mother’s life and your own?
Maria: There are many differences, especially because my mom is now eighty-seven. A woman born in 1921 didn’t have many options other than to get married and have a family. My mom never went to college, never learned to drive, and never volunteered for school or civic functions. She was the daughter of Italian immigrants, doing the best she could to assimilate into American suburban life and feeling self-conscious about her lack of a college degree. My oldest brother is mentally retarded, so my mom has also devoted her life to taking care of him. And she and my father did what good parents do for their children, giving them the opportunities that they didn’t have like providing a college and graduate school education for me.
WOW: Your parents obviously did all they could for the family. As you’ve mentioned, throughout your life you’ve felt the pull and tug of Old World traditions that value familial dependence and a New World feminism that prizes female autonomy. What was that like?
Maria: Like a case of vertigo! To be an Old World daughter means to be raised with the value structure that family is first and foremost. To embrace a New World feminism means to think of oneself and one’s needs first and foremost. Those are conflicting values.
WOW: Indeed! Have you been able to blend the two cultures in your own life? How do you do it?
Maria: I’ve tried to stir a little dependency into the sauce. That is, I’ve tried to carve out a life that acknowledges women’s (and men’s) many roles as well as our cultural inheritance. I was fortunate that my writing life enabled me to work part time, so I was able to write while still having the afternoon hours to play with my son. In terms of Italian culture, I cook mostly Italian food and have studied the Italian language over the years and have also had my son take lessons. Today, my son shares my same passion for Italy, albeit for different reasons—he is a car aficionado who loves the land of the Ferrari! My husband is Jewish, but he also loves Italian culture; and we try as a family to visit Italy as often as we can.
“I believe that women have tremendous power and can use that power to create a society that better meets the needs of mothers, fathers, and children.”
WOW: I’m sure that your husband and son appreciate the good food, although I can see how a young man would focus on the fast cars! Your book has been described as a meditation on contemporary feminism. Do you believe that pro-family feminism might be possible?
Maria: Absolutely. And I think the time for such a movement is now. A central line of thinking in my book is that the feminist movement’s historical and pivotal achievement was to create an antithesis to women’s traditional subservience: autonomy against caregiving. Yet we still haven’t found a sustainable synthesis of the two. As a culture, we have been obsessed with the notion of independence and have wanted government out of our lives. But the recent economic meltdown has shown us how elusive the notion of independence really is.
For example, Western European cultures that provide its citizens with paid parental leave, universal health care, and free college tuition are dependent on the government and their families. American society has become dependent on a financial house of cards that collapsed before our eyes. So we need to rethink our notions of independence. I believe that women have tremendous power and can use that power to create a society that better meets the needs of mothers, fathers, and children.
WOW: Speaking of powerful women, what are your thoughts about first lady Michelle Obama as an advocate for women’s interests? What has she shown us about working motherhood?
Maria: In Michelle Obama’s initial months in the White House, she has introduced a new type of feminism. She has shifted from the 1970s’ paradigm of an equal rights feminism to a broader and long-forgotten vision of the movement that seeks to protect the interests of mothers and children. It’s interesting for me, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, to see Mrs. Obama, a child of African-American tradition, introducing elements of Old World life to the nation. First she brought her mother to the White House, and then she planted a family garden that has become a national symbol of healthy eating.
My grandfather, adopting the traditions of agrarian, southern Italian life, planted a large garden in a lot next to the apartment building he owned. He grew the fruits and vegetables that my grandmother would pick fresh each morning for the day’s meals. And having grandma take care of the kids is also very Old World. Michelle Obama said that her initial priority is to be “First Mom.” She is showing us that she wants to do the best job she can as both a working woman and mother of young children. I think she’s a great role model.
“In Michelle Obama’s initial months in the White House, she has introduced a new type of feminism.”
WOW: As you’ve been out promoting your book, what kind of responses have you been getting from your audiences? Do you get a sense that people are figuring out how to better balance work and family?
Maria: I am truly, truly appreciative of the responses I have been getting. I’ve received notes from both mothers and young single women who have told me that I’ve written about a feminism that they can believe in. I’ve had women from many different Old World traditions, as well as a male radio host from the West Indies, tell me that I’m describing a value structure upon which they also have been raised. And I’ve met many working mothers and fathers who have talked passionately about how they are trying to balance work and family. This is an issue on everyone’s mind; and I think that, yes, we’re doing a better job at it. But people need help—from business and government. It’s not something that we can turn around by ourselves.
WOW: You’ve given us a lot to think about and to envision as a better way. We'll move on now to the craft of writing since there's a lot we can learn from you! What do you consider to be the most essential elements of a well-written memoir?
Maria: For me, it’s the ability to move beyond the personal “I” to a universal “I.” I think that’s one of the hardest parts about writing a memoir—how do you tell a personal story that has a greater significance than just being about your life and your family? Because of my background as a journalist, I also mix reporting and cultural analysis in my book—it’s a way of taking me out of the personal narrative to make a larger (often political) point.
I also believe it is essential in any good memoir to have a significant amount of musing about your narrative. The memoirist, Patricia Hampl, has written that while the first rule of fiction is “show, don’t tell;” memoirists must “show and tell.” That is such an essential point. Memoir is, as Hampl writes, “the intersection of narration and reflection, of storytelling and essay writing.”
“The memoirist, Patricia Hampl, has written that while the first rule of fiction is ‘show, don’t tell;’ memoirists must ‘show and tell.’”
WOW: Can you offer some advice for someone who wants to write a memoir? What should she consider before getting started?
Maria: Read a lot of personal essays and memoirs as well as the many good books out there about the craft of memoir. Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories and Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story are two of my favorites. There are so many interesting writers—poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers—playing with the form of memoir and bringing their own perspective to the genre.
It’s also important to remember that memoir is about a piece of a life—not a whole life, which is the job of autobiography. Writers have to think long and hard about what the story is they want to tell and what kind of reflection needs to be brought to this story to give it a universal appeal.
WOW: Some writers worry about exposing themselves and their loved ones in the pages of a memoir. What has your family’s reaction been to your writing? Has it ever been hard for you to write so openly about your personal experiences?
Maria: I find the reaction of family to be much more difficult than writing openly about my personal experiences. By the time I write, I have already put a great distance between the subject matter and me. But I’m always worried about the reactions of my family. Whether they like what I write or not (they don’t really share that!), they support my work, and I deeply appreciate that support.
WOW: I guess it’s hard not to care what our loved ones will think. You’re a successful journalist, essayist, and memoirist. What’s your trick to managing multiple writing projects?
Maria: Truthfully, I’m best at doing one project at a time. If I’m writing a book, I’m concentrating full time on that book, and my journalism or essay writing will usually stem from the same subject matter.
“Online publications seem to be providing some of the best opportunities right now.”
WOW: Having started your career in journalism, writing for the Village Voice and later freelancing for the New York Times and other publications, perhaps you have some advice for writers who are in the trenches now. It seems like a tough time for journalists with newspapers closing or cutting back on staff. Do you think there are still good opportunities out there for freelancers?
Maria: It’s always been tough to freelance, but I think that now it has gotten even harder. Online publications seem to be providing some of the best opportunities right now. I left journalism for a while to become a speechwriter to former New York [City] Mayor David Dinkins, and that was a great experience. I think that writers always have to be open to many different writing venues because it’s so hard to support yourself practicing this craft.
WOW: As a fan of the show, I have to ask about your involvement with The Sopranos. You co-wrote an episode with actor and screenwriter, Michael Imperioli (who played Christopher on the show). How did you get that gig? What was that experience like?
Maria: Definitely a lot of fun! When I was writing Were You Always an Italian?, The Sopranos had just begun on HBO. Watching the show, I noticed that many of the themes about class issues and stereotypes that I was tackling in Were You Always were also being played out in The Sopranos in a dark and often humorous way. So I suggested we send a galley of my book to David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos. My editor considered this idea to be more than a long shot; but with a what-do-we-have-to-lose attitude, we sent the book to the PR department at HBO. They passed it along to David Chase, who read it, wrote a great blurb, and requested copies for all of his screenwriters.
David Chase and I stayed in touch; I sent him an idea that he liked, and he asked me to write it up. I think the most bizarre experience I had was when his office called and asked me to try out for the part of the character I created. With zero acting ability, I didn’t make it past the casting director! But I did hang out on the set the day of the taping, and that was great fun.
“I think the most bizarre experience I had was when his office called and asked me to try out for the part of the character I created.”
WOW: What a fascinating story. How exciting! Do you watch much television? If so, what shows do you like?
Maria: Not much. But I do like political comedy shows—The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher. I also like Curb Your Enthusiasm.
WOW: How about your reading list? What’s on your nightstand at the moment?
Maria: I just finished two books by the poet and memoirist Mark Doty, Firebird and Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. I’ve also been re-reading some of my favorite Italian writers—Natalia Ginzburg’s essay collections, The Little Virtues and A Place to Live, as well as a novel by contemporary Italian writer, Elena Ferrante, called The Lost Daughter.
I like philosophy and am reading a response to Richard Dawkins by the English philosopher and theologian, Keith Ward, called Why There Almost Certainly Is a God. And next up are Russell Shorto’s Descartes’ Bones and Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s new memoir, Not Now, Voyager.
WOW: I’m sure our aspiring authors would love to know more about your writing routines. For example, where do you write? How many hours a day do you spend writing? Any favorite rituals?
Maria: I write in a collective space called the Writers Room. It’s a loft filled with partitioned desks. Cell phones must be off and talking is only allowed in the kitchen area. The Room receives funding from foundations, so the rent is very reasonable. A great writing day for me is to arrive at 8:00 or 8:30 and work until 2:00, taking a brief coffee break around 11:00. I try to reserve the hours in the afternoon, between picking my son up from school and making dinner, as my reading time. I try not to return to my writing until I head to the Writers Room the next morning in order to give myself a break and create some breathing/thinking time.
“I think it’s very important for women interested in a career in writing to try to carve out a few hours of uninterrupted time each day.”
WOW: Thanks for sharing your routine. I think we’re always curious about other writers’ methods. Maria, you’ve achieved monumental success as a national bestselling author. Have you had any mentors that have helped you carve the path into authoring?
Maria: Although I’ve written journalism, essays, and memoir, I’ve never taken a class in journalism or creative writing. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in English and American literature. So I’d have to say that my mentors are the authors whose work I cherish. I remember very clearly beginning Were You Always an Italian? after reading George Orwell’s magnificent essay/memoir Such, Such Were the Joys. The theme of class resentment in that piece laid the foundation for the first chapter in my book.
WOW: I love that you say your mentors are the authors whose work you cherish. It gives hope to writers who might not have had formal training. So, what’s next for you? Do you have another big writing project in mind?
Maria: I do have another book in mind, but it’s in the earliest stages, so I’m still playing around with the idea.
WOW: We’ll keep an eye out for your future work, whatever it may be. Thank you, Maria, for taking time to chat with us today! It’s been a pleasure. Do you have any words of wisdom that you’d like to share with our readers?
Maria: I think it’s very important for women interested in a career in writing to try to carve out a few hours of uninterrupted time each day. The concentration demanded for writing a book is immense; and it’s important, I believe, to return to those pages every day. I also think that for women who are returning to writing after a long hiatus or those who decide upon this career later in life, it might be helpful and enjoyable to take a class or two in an MFA program.
Video below: Maria discusses some of the ideas in her new book
For more from Maria Laurino, check out these links:
** Read Maria’s New York Times essay that discusses some of the themes in her book.
** Visit Marshal Zeringue’s Page 99 Test, part of his Campaign for the American Reader, featuring Maria’s book.
MARCIA PETERSON is a columnist for WOW! Women on Writingand Premium-Green (The Women's Guide to Freelance Writing and Markets).She lives in Northern California with her husband and two children.