“…her writing shines, and, like the flowers she cherishes, offers fleeting glimpses of beauty.”
Of the mysterious Night Blooming Cereus, Mary Cappello writes: “The flower fell into our neighborhood like a shooting star.”
That neighborhood was a working-class suburb of Philadelphia riven by class distinction and haunted by contradiction: Her father, between fits of rage, tended the neighborhood’s most beautiful garden; her mother, gutsy poet and activist, suffered from paralyzing fears that kept her from leaving the house.
In Cappello’s hands, agoraphobia, usually considered a private malaise, is understood as a social condition, and Cappello deftly, lovingly reads her family’s “symptoms” for what they were trying to say.
Delicately interweaving the bilingual journals of her grandfather (a southern Italian shoemaker), her mother’s poetry, Sicilian folklore, and dreamwork with her own story, Mary Cappello writes as witness of the marks left on her family by immigration and assimilation. Night Bloom counters America’s obsession with Mafiosi at the same time that it exposes the daily violence of grinding proverty.
As a lesbian who has entered the middle class, Cappello celebrates the subversive desire in her immigrant family’s responses to the forces shaping their lives, and in the Catholic icons, television superheroes, and disco divas with whom she identified as a child.
“One never cultivates a flower without also provoking a dream.” In Night Bloom, Mary Cappello resuscitates such dreams and offers us her family’s unsung art — their gardens, letters and rosary beads — for the lessons they teach us about creativity and loss.
A Select Guide to Commentary and Translation
An excerpt from Night Bloom, “Niente da confessare” (“Nothing to Confess”), was translated into Italian by Caterina Romeo and published in the Italian quarterly, Tutte Storie: Racconti, Letture, Trame di Donne, March 2001:34-36; portions of that same chapter, “Nothing to Confess” were also reprinted in Bill Tonelli, editor, The Italian/American Reader: A Collection of Outstanding Fiction, Memoirs, Journalism, Essays and Poetry, New York: William Morrow, 2003: 427-432
Night Bloom was nominated for the 1999 Gradiva Award for Best Autobiographical Book by the National and World Associations for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.
Night Bloom has been the focus of chapters of doctoral dissertations in Italy and in the United States, it has been the focus of conference papers in both countries, and is treated by Edvige Giunta in Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Authors, Palgrave, 2002. A thorough-going engagement with Night Bloom also appears in the scholarship of Anne Marie Fortier, a sociologist at Lancaster University, UK. See for example, “Making Home: Queer Migrations and Motions of Attachment,” and at “Outside/In? Notes on Sexuality, Ethnicity and the Dialectics of Identification.”
Italian scholar, Clara Antonucci features Night Bloom in her dissertation in-progress, the other two-thirds of which is devoted to the work of Kym Ragusa and Mary Caponegro. Caterina Romeo’s recently published book on Italian American women’s memoir, Narrative tra due sponde: Memoir d’Italiane d’America devotes a chapter to Night Bloom.
Night Bloom was translated in its entirety into Russian by Julia Lapteva of the Gorky Literary Institute, Moscow.
Praise for Night Bloom
“When I first encountered Mary Cappello’s work, I was knocked out by her original voice, the juxtaposition of its fierceness and elegance, its brutality and gentleness, its sensuousness and intelligence. She’s a writer whose debut memoir you can’t miss; she’s a writer you’ll tell all your friends about, as I did.” — Louise DeSalvo, author of Vertigo
“In this remarkable memoir, Mary Cappello explores the legacy of her family with not only grace of style but a kind of grace of being. Cappello’s journey is engrossing and her book both modifies and extends the tradition of Italian American literature in important ways. Night Bloom is fierce, honest, and deeply affecting. I hope it finds the large audience it deserves.” — Jay Parini, author of Benjamin’s Crossing
“Reading your book [Night Bloom] has been an incredibly rich experience. Did you happen to visit the Martorana, in Palermo, while you were in Sicily? If not, it’s a Moorish building with a Byzantine interior, covered with frescos. During services, which are long, the choir sings at the same time that the priest prays and the parish responds. All the while, incense is filling the air. I keep coming up with this image when I think of the sensory and evocative layers in your writing. Please put me on your mailing list!” — Pat Benny, a reader
“Cappello’s writing is characterized by a unique combination of the systematic and the impressionistic, by meticulous grace and ardency. Where others may primly compartmentalize their allegiances to theory and practice, to poetry and criticism, Mary synthesizes them triumphantly. In the past ten years, she has produced some of the finest theoretically informed criticism in the field of American literature, in a mode that could be called, if it were common enough to require a name, the lyric intellectual…We’re inclined to think of thought and feeling as opposites; Mary’s work is dedicated to the principle that these capacities are united, and with its exacting cadences, its spontaneous intellectual riffs, it shows us how they can be.” — From an introduction to a reading in North Carolina by James Morrison, author of Broken Fever: Reflections of Gay Boyhood
“A sweet, elegiac recollection of her lineage in this country…The literature of immigration has produced such notable works as the novels Giants in the Earth and Call It Sleep in which strongly delineated characters emerge from the immigrant masses…Cappello’s book can take an honorable place among them.” — Booklist
“While the author rejects conventional narrative, she nevertheless spins a good story and paints strong characters…There is a grace and forgiveness in her approach. More than anything, Night Bloom explores how people come to terms with loss, cope with pain, and face fear. Cappello draws you deeply into her world and rewards you with rich description and sustained motifs…she achieves an illumination that borders on epiphany.” — Corene Lemaitre, Philadelphia City Paper
“Cappello’s sense of poetry and pacing keeps this memoir breathing…there is truth here rarely expressed in the post-immigration literature of Italian Americans…Ultimately this memoir is the story of love’s possibilities and impossibilities, and the beauty and danger that lurk in the garden of our lives.” — Fred L. Gardephe, Fra Noi
“At a time when bare-all confessional memoirs fly out of the bookstores, it’s refreshing to read a quiet, introspective memoir such as Night Bloom. In her debut memoir, Mary Cappello rejects a traditional narrative structure, opting for a more exploratory approach, in which she weaves her own dreams and memories with her mother’s poetry, her grandfather’s bilingual journals, and Sicilian folklore to create a collage of images and histories that trace her family’s heritage…Cappello explores the status of the ‘other,’ whether immigrant or dyke, of living and creating in a marginalized space.” — The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review
“Television’s strategies for signaling that characters are Italian American look especially clunky compared with the recent works of the memoirists Mary Cappello and Louise DeSalvo and the novelists Gioia Timpanelli and Adria Bernardi, who use words to decipher their relationships to an ever more distant past and to investigate the power of ethnicity several generations into American life. These writers’ nuanced exploration of hereditary links can be found in the pattern of a grandfather’s garden, the pull of ancient rituals or the chant of a peasant childhood prayer.” — Maria Laurino, “Italians on TV: From the Fonz to the Sopranos, Not Much Evolution,” The New York Times
“Mary Cappello’s Night Bloom affirms the memoir’s radical potential.” — Edvige Guinta, “Writing Life, Writing History: Italian American Women and the Memoir,” Italian Americana
“…after hearing the author read the first two pages about her family, I was hooked!” — Karla Jay, recommending Night Bloom for summer reading in The Boston Phoenix
“Night Bloom’s remarkable pastiche of folklore, family gossip, literary allusions, gardening advice, and personal correspondence suggests a postmodern sensibility, that is, an understanding that identity is not singular or stable, for as Cappello herself contends, memory ‘does not always or only take the form of narrative…’The conclusion to Night Bloom suggests that family history is like that Night Blooming Cereus, an ungainly thing with flashes of beauty, at which her mother taught her to marvel. The tone of acceptance with which this final section is marked recalls the theory that ‘to comprehend is to willingly let go,’ asserted earlier in the memoir.” — From a review by Jennifer Gillan in Melus
“Feminist critic, Susan Bordo, examines anorexia nervosa, hysteria, and agoraphobia and concludes that women who engage in these destructive practices are merely carrying to an extreme culturally mandated ‘feminine’ behaviors. For Bordo, the female body becomes ‘a cultural text and a site of practical social control.’ Mary Cappello’s memoir, Night Bloom, takes Bordo’s work a step further. Cappello’s text argues that the bodies, not just of women, but of Italian immigrants, male and female, and their descendents are marked by the effects of culture, specifically the culture of poverty and otherness.” — Mary Ann Mannino, “Body Language: Stories the Body Tells in Night Bloom,” a conference paper delivered under the category “Deciphering the Ethnic Body”
“Unwilling to succumb to a traditional narrative that would reinforce the optimism of the present generation, Cappello writes a multi-voiced narrative in which three generations inhabit the same spatial dimensions within a book insistently concerned about the relationship between imagination and marginal status…In Part Three of Night Bloom, Cappello offers a fascinating analysis of her burgeoning lesbianism and its relationship to her Catholicism and family legacies…No coming-out story or confession is needed regarding this subject, asserts Cappello: “In ‘becoming queer,’ I was becoming what my Italian American forebears denied about themselves even as they provided the example”…Cappello writes that she’s likely to think of the ‘Night Blooming Cereus’ as a sign of my family’s agreement to live.’ Cappello’s memoir is a tribute to the steadfastness of life in a ‘hopeless neighborhood where nothing was meant to bloom.’ A daring and tenacious memoir, Night Bloom is an important addition to the growing field of life-writing and Italian-American letters.” — Mary Jo Bona, VIA: A Literary and Cultural Review
“Writing memoir, writers become historians of their families and communities, a role fraught with contradictions. As Mary Cappello writes in an early version of her memoir Night Bloom, “The reader in the family is she who works to discern what the family would obscure–its blight and bounty, its givings and misgivings.” Cappello’s memoir unequivocally affirms its radical intent. This familial memoir examines the family as both the site of violence and the source of poetry. Cappello finds it necessary to escape the family in more ways that one; she has to re-frame her understanding of the category itself: “The family as most gay people know,” she believes, “can never be confined to people you shared the house with for twenty years, gay people having always to create community outside the domesticating bloodline in order to survive.” Being a reader of the family places one, as she puts it, in a ‘precarious position.’ If one is a reader, Cappello discovers, one must become a writer.” — Edvige Giunta, “Teaching Memoir at New Jersey City University,” Transformations, Spring 2000