This morning I received a comment from an American reader of Sicilian descent who finds what I write about Sicily to be racist. Crikey!To him, and to anyone else who might feel the same, I apologise as that was never my intention. (I’d also recommend not watching Bruno at the cinema.) However, I do reserve the right to be open about what I observe when I travel. The whole point of visiting different countries is to experience cultural variances, such as I found in Sicily, so if some of what I’m trying to figure out about locals is related to the Mafia’s reputation in such a place, then I will write about it. I won’t be the last to do this, besides which, to pretend that the Mafia have no influence in Sicily’s history is like writing about Silicon Valley and not mentioning Bill Gates.
To kick off, The Irate Reader asked me why I went to Sicily? That’s simple. Sicily is an island of tremendous contrasts – in landscape, in people and in history. Its culture never ceases to fascinate as it has been occupied at different times by Ancient Greeks, Carthaginians and Catalans and more. This creates a jigsaw of influence, both genetically as well as in its architecture, art and food. Far from feeling a fish out of water in Sicily, I love it there. If I’d found it to be a disappointment on any level during my first visit, I would never have returned and I hope to go back in the future.
On my first visit to Sicily, the presence of the Mafia barely featured, apart from occasional mention in anecdotal form by our Sicilian guide, my Italian tutor or his Sicilian friends. This time, I was keen to learn more about the influence of the Mafia on the locals. So I read The Last Godfathers and visited Corleone. The latter had a negative impact and, as I wrote in my Corleone post, I felt that the people there have had enough and just want to be left alone. This is an observation, not a criticism. I just felt awkward for having joined the Mafia trail in such a stereotypically tourist manner, because Sicily has so much more to offer the traveller than bottles of tourist-quality liquor with Don Corleone’s face plastered all over them.
But the Irate Reader was not done with me yet. No siree. He called me a WASP who would feel more comfortable in Nordic countries where everyone is blonde and blue-eyed with pointy features. Sounds to me like something from a puppet movie like Dark Crystal. As for calling me a WASP, well, that’s akin to the pot calling the kettle black, no? Fair enough. I am white. But the -ASP bit is quite inaccurate. I’d also point out that some of what may have offended was tongue-in-cheek commentary. Ah, well. I’ll have to be more serious in future, lest such humour falls on deaf ears.
To the Irate Reader, I would only say: please calm thyself. There are many more posts about Sicily on their way. They’ll cover the ancient site of Agrigento, the dreamy seaside village of Cefalu, the glistening Cathedral of Monreale, the hill-top town of Taormina with its Greek Theatre and friendly cannoli man with windows filled with postcards from his fans, not to mention lip-smacking gelati and the glorious views of a snow-capped Mount Etna.
On reading matter, it might interest Irate Reader to learn that once I’d finished The Last Godfathers, I moved onto di Lampedusa’s classic called The Leopard. Then, thirsty for more background on this fascinating island, I ploughed through Midnight in Sicily. After that came Peter Moore’s Vroom by the Sea and a charming tale of village life in Sicily called The Stone Boudoir. Perhaps once he’s read a little bit more of what I find so fascinating about this island and its occupants, he’ll realise that I’m not such a “pathetic miserable thing polluted by (my) own racist hate and bigotry”. Then again, in the interest of freedom of speech, he’s entitled to his opinion.
Here’s the full comment from Irate Reader:
I am a Sicilian American and find your remarks quite racist and insulting. Why did you go to Sicily? Apparently you went just to degrade, insult and condemn its entire people as criminals and murderer. You are the typical WASP racist. You cannot see the difference between the good and evil because all Sicilians to you are evil. Why, because they are racially different from you. Before WW2, most Anglo nations, Australia, New Zealand etc. strictly forbade any immigration from Sicily, or any non-white country, because in fact the Sicilians where classified as Blacks and thus totally unacceptable. This racism is now veiled by racists like yourself as “mafia’ remarks and labeling. Apparently you are a pathetic miserable thing polluted by your own racist hate and bigotry. The Mafia is a criminal group that makes up a tiny percentage of the Sicilian population. Its negative impact on the good people of Sicily and of all Sicilians worldwide is not from its bad deeds but from all this racist literature and other media that feeds the racist appetite of whites like yourself. Racism and bigotry is an evil worse that any “mafia”. Your next trip go to Sweden or some place like that where all the people have fair skin, blond hair, blue eyes and those pointy northern European features that people like you worship. I am sure you will not make one remark about them.
On the subject of ‘Anglo’ countries not admitting Sicilians prior to WWII because they were considered ‘black’, I was shocked enough by this claim to look into it further. To be fair, New Zealand only has a population of around 4 million people and has never had a hefty influx of Italian immigrants, so I couldn’t find much about this. As most foreigners moving to New Zealand tend to be our Polynesian or Pacific Rim neighbours, the issue of skin colour preventing anyone from crossing that border, Sicilian or otherwise, makes me wonder about the accuracy of this claim.
Conversely, across the Tasman in Australia, there is a very lively Italian community, including a sizeable population of Sicilian descent. Their presence in Australia dates back to the 19th Century. Nowhere could I find reference to Sicilians being turned away from Oz based on the colour of their skin. However, if the Irate Reader would care to share such information with me, I’d be most interested to check the facts.
In the meantime, here are some interesting articles about Italian (including Sicilian) migration to Australia.
Reading list for books about Sicily – warning! Some include Mafia references. Hell’s bells.