Helen Barolini passed away at the age of 97 March 29th, 2023. Barolini was a novelist, essayist and poet. She was a tireless advocate for Italian American women and their stories, which were often overlooked in American literature. Barolini sought to illuminate the rarely told stories of her immigrant female ancestors in a new land.
Bartolini’s 1979 historical novel, “Umbertina,” is a significant work of Italian American literature, tracing four generations of women in a single Italian American family as they come to terms with their origins and identity in a new land. The novel explores the challenges of assimilation as well as the hard earned victories of feminist emancipation experienced by Italian American women. Her work was animated by the belief that Italian American women were underrepresented, not only as subjects in American literature but also as authors. As a group, they faced what she called a “double erasure, both as Italians and as women.”
In addition to “Umbertina,” Bartolini’s influential 1985 compilation of a short fiction, memoirs, and poems, “The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women,” helped to broaden the depictions of Italian Americans in popular culture beyond the “Sopranos”- style stereotypes. She also believed that Italian American literature belongs not so much in immigrant literatures but in the kind of literature that deals with the outsider.
Bartolini’s life was a remarkable journey. She was born on November 18, 1925, in Syracuse, New York. Her grandparents immigrated from southern Italy in the late 19th century. After graduating with honors from Syracuse University in 1947, she traveled to Italy to study its culture, history, literature, and more. The next year, she met her future husband, the esteemed Italian novelist and poet Antonio Barolini, in Florence. The couple married in 1950, had three daughters, and spent a decade bouncing between Italy and the United States.
In those early years, Barolini worked as a translator of Italian literature including her husband’s short stories, which were published in English in the New Yorker. She saw her husband as the more important writer until she realized that she wanted to write herself. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Barolini began work on “Umbertina.”
Barolini’s works were meticulously researched and her narratives infused iwht a feminist sensibility. In her later books like “Chiaroscuro: Essays on Identity” and “Their Other Side: Six American Women and the Lure of Italy”, she returned to the subjected and themes that propelled “Umbertina.” She believed it was important to write Italian American women and their journeys.
Overall, Helen Bartolini’s contributions to Italian American literature were immeasurable. Her work shed light on the experiences of Italian American women, who were often marginalized and ignored. Her legacy will continue to inspire future generations of writers to tell their stories and ensure they are heard.