Clarion Write-A-Thon: Initial Brainstorming and Selecting the First Italian Fairy Tale

Hello readers,

Last week, I talked about what I’m writing for the Clarion Write-A-Thon. I spent some time this weekend thinking about the negative experiences I’ve had, and have been mulling over Colorism because it’s something I want to be mindful of when writing these stories.

Italian-Americans are sometimes treated differently because we’re not deemed white enough. There are stereotypes that shape this toxic view; Italians from the top of the boot are thought to be lighter-skinned than those in the south. The further south you go, the darker the skin tone–with Calabria and Sardinia residents being the darkest. In other words, where your family is originally from sometimes acts as a signpost for your perceived worth. (Which is nonsense.)

My own experiences have been really weird. Though I am white, I have olive undertones to my skin. There have definitely been times where I haven’t been white “enough” or, alternatively, not tan “enough” to call myself Italian. Mind you, I have never experienced these moments among people of color, and since I changed my hair color to blonde (which I did because I’m mostly grey and occasionally vain) I didn’t have as many issues as I once did. Now, I’ve managed to unpack some of those experiences and learn more about Othering, mostly to confirm: “Okay, so that’s what happened.”

Thankfully, I’m past the pain of my experiences–so much so they’ve faded to a small watermark. That said, I do know Colorism still exists. I just don’t know how Colorism started for Italian immigrants, nor do I know enough about the subject to speak to it authoritatively. Of course, Colorism and Racism aren’t the same, either, even though sometimes they’re conflated. It doesn’t help that Italian pop culture references often reinforce harmful stereotypes while, at the same time, whitewashing Italian cultures–especially anything that smacks of “Rome”. The adverse effect of that is reinforcing Colorism–either intentionally or unintentionally.

Choosing the Fairy Tale

Deep topics, right? So, how the F*&$ do I choose which fairy tale to retell? Well readers–I decided not to. Instead, I pulled out my copy of Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales. This 763-page book is a collection that includes fairytales like The Three Crones from Venice along with non-magical folktales. Then, I closed my eyes and opened it up. Whatever random page I opened up to? That’d be the fairy tale I selected for the week.

And so, the first story I’m retelling is called “Barbara the Wise” from Palermo, Sicily. The moral to this particular tale is quite interesting, because the lesson intersects with class-and-gender based stereotypes while championing a free and public education. I did some preliminary research about the Sicilian fairy tale, and found it by an alternative name: “Catarina the Wise” in Giuseppe Pitre’s Catarina the Wise and Other Wondrous Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales translated by Jack Zipes. (Apologies for the misspelling of Pitre’s surname. There should be an accent grave over the “e”, but I couldn’t get the accent to stick.)

I dug a little deeper to see if I could find any women writing about this story and came up unsurprisingly empty. What I did learn, is that Guiseppe Pitre (1847-1916) is literally an unknown champion of Sicilian culture and folklore in the 19th century. This is a huge deal. Anti-Italianism was rampant and deadly at the time. It’s also subtext in Little Women that often gets ignored or misunderstood, because Anti-Italianism doesn’t have the same meaning in modern times as it did to a 19th century resident. (See: Laurie.) If you’re looking for highlights, the anti-italianism page on Wikipedia has a good overview of how Italian-Americans were treated historically, and how that’s changed during-and-post WWII. Pointedly, there’s a long list of resources at the bottom you can check out yourself.

After reading “Catarina the Wise”, I wanted to learn more about its origins because I was surprised by how feminist it was. This story proudly declares gender and class equality–that’s literally the lesson. Prince and pauper both deserve an equal education and fair treatment, and the prince who doesn’t agree and tries to punish Catarina is taught quite the lesson. The locations mentioned–Palermo, Venezia, Genoa, Napoli–don’t read as an accident to me, either. The story tells me that Sicilians are no different from other Italians and are valued the same. Not should be. Are. Ugh! It’s a perfect folktale. Now, I just have to figure out how to retell it. Yeah, no pressure. No pressure at all. *whistles*

About this Post: In exchange for sponsor support, I promised to highlight how I’m processing my identity as an Italian-American and daughter of an immigrant through brainstorming, story selection, and first drafts. If you’re keen on following my progress, warts and all, I encourage you to become my sponsor and sign up for my newsletter.




Monica Valentinelli >

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