In the fall of 2012, the Ball State English Department began a short series to celebrate and profile our newest faculty members. This week, the department continues the series of new faculty profiles by featuring Professor JoAnne Ruvoli, who joined our department this year. Continue reading below to read the interview conducted by English department intern Liz Palmer.
A great deal of your experience has bridged the gap between English studies and Italian-American studies. How did you get interested in Italian-American studies? Tell us a bit about your interdepartmental teaching and education.
I discovered Italian American literature while teaching Multi-Ethnic American literature as a high school teacher. My students were reading writers like Sandra Cisneros, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Richard Rodriquez, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, Rudolfo Anaya, and Dee Brown. I would tell the students that they had to go out of their way to find their family’s stories if they weren’t reading them in school. One class in particular was very sharp and reflective. Those students turned that challenge back to me, and asked me where I had found my stories. My family migrated from Sicily to the United States in the early 1900s, but I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s and 80s after the old Italian neighborhoods had been dispersed. Most of my traditional undergraduate education had focused on British literature as an English major, and I had never even thought about the possibility of Italian-American literature before that moment. When I started my Masters degree a year or two later, I found a rich body of scholarship on Italian-American writers, which paved the way for my work and that of my colleagues. I research Italian-American literature, which is a specialization in the field of American literature. Italian-American texts are written in the English language with some Italian dialect phrases included. My study and training includes a range of literatures from the British, American, and Anglophone literary traditions, but I write about Italian-American texts in the context of Multi-Ethnic American literature.
Like other ethnic groups in the United States, Italian-American writers have written about migration and assimilation experiences, the struggle against discrimination, and the challenges of contemporary society including war, crime, illness, labor activism and civil rights. Writers as diverse as Mario Puzo, Tina De Rosa, Adria Bernardi, Carole Maso and Don DeLillo address the post-modern condition through Italian-American culture and history. My Ph.D. is in American Literature and my book project locates Italian-American novels from the post-civil rights era in the canonical American literary tradition. I argue that the novels use elite narrative frames to foreground the vernacular ethnic storytelling that occurs in the novels. I explore how the writers use the written forms of the American novel–specifically the narrative frame–to transform and document the oral storytelling traditions such as proverbs, dreams and folktales from Italy.
I have been fortunate to have taught many courses over the years that focused on topics from writing to literary theory, literature, film, humanities and even graphic novels. I love teaching as much as I love doing research, and I always learn from my students who give me new ideas and approaches. I am happy to be able to teach at Ball State University.
How did your experience in the Department of Italian at the University of California, Los Angeles differ from your experience as an English professor?
At University of California, Los Angeles, I held a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities that focused on “Cultures in Transnational Perspective.” The program is interdisciplinary, and I worked with Fellows trained in literature, history, ethnomusicology and political science who all explore questions of transnationalism from both contemporary and historical perspectives. The Fellows teach courses in different departments, present their research in a monthly seminar series, and organize a yearly conference around a specific transnational interdisciplinary topic. Working with the other Fellows expanded my thinking about how Italian culture has circulated throughout the world. I loved the long discussions we had with each other and other scholars. I received excellent feedback on my book project and utilized the UCLA Special Collections to supplement my research.
The literature and history courses I taught for the Italian and English Departments focused on transnational circuits in Italian-American texts. For example, I taught a course on the Italian Diaspora that examined texts that not only depict immigration experiences, but also how the issues and concerns of Italy continue to preoccupy the characters even as they adapt to the United States. I also taught a course on Italian-American Beat writers who used the experiences and politics of their families’ migrations to shape their radical views of literature, publishing, and life. The two history courses I taught for the Italian Department focused on the mass migration period. One examined transnational crime circuits, and the other on migration to the West Coast. Looking at the circuits of crime allowed the course to connect how the crimes committed against the Italian immigrants connected to the later crimes committed by Italians in both Italy and the United States. Examining Italian migration to the West Coast allowed the course to connect the transcontinental journeys of the East Coast migrants to the maritime commercial circuits that carried people, goods and political ideas around South America in the earlier era.
Being in the Italian Department allowed me to learn much more about canonical Italian literature, which dates back to the Medieval period, and I was able to think about how Italian-American writers connect to that much longer tradition of literature. Italians left Italy by the millions in the early 1900s and landed in many parts of North and South America. Even though they may not have had a scholarly engagement with Italian writers like Dante, Petrarch or Boccaccio, they had a vibrant oral storytelling tradition that is connected to that rich literary heritage.
A lot of your work focuses on film and Hollywood. What sparked this interest?
My first job after completing my undergraduate degree was teaching high school in Los Angeles. I was not paid very well and was always broke, but there was a film theater in my neighborhood that screened early silent films on a regular basis for very little money. I lived in Hollywood, and I fell in love with early film history. As I drove around town, I absorbed the historical names and places. Using the public library, I read many biographies of the filmmakers of the era, and learned about the early pioneers of the field. At the beginning of cinema, because few thought that films would last, many women worked as writers, directors, and editors in addition to acting on screen. They were the first modern women who worked very hard, but earned vast amounts of money and lived glamorous lives in Hollywood, Paris and Rome. Their biographies are as fascinating as the movies they made.
In graduate school, I was very fortunate to find film scholars who encouraged me to academically pursue my casual obsession with early film history. In addition to researching in film the ethnic issues I also examine in literature, I have written on women filmmakers like Mary Pickford, Frances Marion, Anita Loos, Lorna Moon and Theda Bara. I have been to archives in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. to trace their lives. The Lilly Library at Indiana University has a small collection of materials related to Lorna Moon, and one summer I was able to spend a few long days in Bloomington working on that article. The problem with working on silent film is that the films are physically disintegrating as the celluloid ages–many are over 100 years old by now. There is a very real urgency to the scholarship projects, which help the preservation efforts. I feel that pressure and always try to have an on-going early cinema project. Last spring, I started research on Tina Modotti, an Italian-born migrant who worked in movies and then photography, before becoming a revolutionary in Mexico. Her 1920 film, The Tiger’s Coat, illustrates an intriguing twist on the classic Vamp formula film.
What projects are you currently working on when you are not teaching?
I am primarily finishing up the revision of my book, which started as my dissertation, but I have a few other articles I am in the process of revising. One newer project is an article about Zelda Fitzgerald’s paintings. Last summer, I was able to spend time in Princeton University’s Fitzgerald archives to research Zelda’s writing and painting. Like the women filmmakers of the silent era, Zelda was writing in both visual and literary genres.
What other kinds of hobbies and interests do you have?
It is probably redundant to say, but I still read books and watch movies mainly for enjoyment. I am trying to experience more of Muncie, and have been trying to learn about its community and history. I also love bowling.