Norma M. Riccucci is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers University, Newark. A Heart Near Death is Prof. Riccucci’s heart wrenching memoir of immigrant sagas, the Italian diaspora, and a young orphan’s coming of age. Professor Riccucci has published extensively in the areas of diversity management, affirmative action, human resources and public sector labor relations. Some of her academic publications include: Public Administration: Traditions of Inquiry and Philosophies of Knowledge (Georgetown University Press), which received the 2012 Best Book Award from the Research section of the American Society of Public Administration); How Management Matters: Street Level Bureaucrats and Welfare Reform (Georgetown University Press) which received the 2009 Best Book Award from the public administration section of the American Political Science Association); and Managing Diversity in Public Sector Workforces (Westview Press).
Shilpa Kameswaran:: The memoir is in chronological first person narrative. At what point in your life was A Heart Near Death authored? Did the young Norma keep a diary?
Norma M. Riccucci: It was published in 2013. I worked on this mostly on weekends for about 3.5 years. It would have been a shorter time frame, but going deep into my past was difficult and brought much sadness. I started keeping a diary in my 20’s. In addition to my own memories, I was fortunate to have my maternal grandmother in my life for many years; she passed away a week before her 94th birthday. I persistently asked her questions about her past, and my mother’s and father’s. She served as an “oral” diary for me. I remember recording some of our conversations, where I asked about our collective past. Sometimes it was during lunch, and when I stuck the recorder toward her face, she’d say, “lacimai fa, sto mangiando.” (Leave me alone, I’m eating).
In the book I alluded to the inbreeding of the Manciati family, my maternal side of the family. I still have on tape, the absolute surprise in my voice when I was asking my grandmother about her parents, and she told me they were first cousins!
SK: It seems to the reader, that the largest theme in A Heart Near Death is DEATH – The death of your mother, the death of your father, the death of a protected childhood, the death of a large family and the death of sibling love. Yet, what the reader takes away from the 270 pages is the incessant and youthful humor that Norma finds in the littlest incidents.
NMR: My grandmothers instilled a great sense of humor in me as I discuss in the book. And, I learned early on that I would not succumb to the tragedies I experienced with the untimely loss of my parents. I continue to enjoy a hearty sense of humor and making my friends smile and laugh. Sometimes if I am feeling a bit blue, I force myself to smile, which inevitably puts me in a cheerful mood. If I’m walking to the subway, and I see everyone around me scowling, I smile to keep myself from doing the same. Of course, people then look at me perhaps wondering, “what the hell does she have to smile about?”
But, the deaths of my parents continue to haunt me, especially my father’s death. And I can’t always pull myself out of it. As I talk about in the book, I felt a good deal of guilt around my Dad’s depression and ultimate demise. Why wasn’t I a better daughter? Why couldn’t I see the pain he was experiencing? There are many memories that continue to pain me, but there is one recurrent memory that plagues me. It has to do with our dog, Bebe, who was a faithful companion to my father. I remember coming home from school one day and not finding Bebe anywhere outside or inside the house. So, I called my Dad at work and he said Bebe died. That the day before, when he had an appointment with a doctor at the VA Hospital, he left Bebe in the truck with the windows rolled up. When he returned to the truck, Bebe was dead. I continue to think about poor little Bebe suffocating in my Dad’s truck. I think it is a metaphor for the trauma in all our lives. That our innocent dog, who was so devoted to my father, ceased living; my father was too ill to think of the consequences of leaving Bebi in the truck with the windows rolled up. And, that’s what happened to me after my Dad died, and I had to live with my Aunt and Uncle.
SK: Talk to us about your preoccupation with tiny objects and wit amidst tragedy.
NMR: As for small objects, I always appreciated their aesthetics; and, I am very tactile. I still collect small objects but of greater value than the trinkets I collected as a young girl. I think it has something to do with control. That I can take care of these small objects; shine them up, just gaze at them and know that they will always be there. They are small enough for me to protect, and no matter what, they will outlive me. I still have a hard time with death.
SK: The memoir at various points seems like a satire of life’s momentous occurrences, as if the autobiography and its simple literary style is actually imitating an Opera Buffa mocking the heaving themes and complex librettos of Opera Seria while assessing death, family, child rearing and relationships.
NMR: Opera has mimicked my life; everything good came to a tragic end, as in opera. But, yes, the Opera Buffa enables one to look at the comic side of tragedy which is a form of realism and perhaps escapism. As I talk about in the book, humor was a valuable tool for me; a saving grace. And, it continues to be. But, when I am alone, I am much more vulnerable; I won’t let anyone see this side of me.
I can’t say that humor is a cover for me, because I do feel happy and humorous when I am with my friends and my brother Ricci. We can still joke about all the funny things that happened to us as children, and we seem to regress. Our older brother, John, will look at us and ask, “What are you two laughing about?” The other day Ricci called me and said he saw someone in church with a Kleenex on her head. He was joking, of course, but we both roared with laughter, because of that incident I describe in my book.
SK: The reader gets a feeling that an adolescent Norma overcompensates for being the odd-one-out by over-indulging in popular music, processed food, and other forms of popular culture which are meant to have a homogenization ‘effect’ so as to call it and thereby help Norma fit into society. Is that true?
NMR: For me, it was a form of rebellion. It reflected the fact that my aunt and uncle, who were also Italian, were impostors. They could not carry forth Italian traditions or anything else that represented art or beauty. So, I explored other avenues, especially for music. For example, my uncle was a racist pig. He didn’t like the fact that I listened to black music. Only he didn’t use the word black. This would lead me into an outrage, and encouraged me to listen to even more. R&B is still one of my favorite genres of music; not because I’m reacting negatively to anyone or thing; I just like the music.
But, I always felt as though I “didn’t fit in,” but that was a source of strength. I’m still a bit of an enigma; an anomaly. And take pride in this. I don’t seem to fit in any stereotypical category, especially gender. For example, I don’t’ really care about fashion, except perhaps for nice shoes. This came from my Dad owning a shoe store, and my maternal grandmother’s motto: buy one good, expensive pair of shoes that will last a long time, rather than buy several inexpensive pairs a year, like the Americans do, and they fall apart within the year. But I don’t really think much about clothes; they are utilitarian. Every now and then, a woman colleague will make a remark about my wardrobe. I guess I’m too polite to say, “Shove it,” but it puts me on the defensive. And I hate that. In the end, though, it doesn’t affect my behavior and how I feel about myself.
SK: The ‘women’ play an important part in your memoir and in your growing up – your mother, nonni next door and nonni upstairs, your aunts, your girlfriends. Tell us about your personal influences as an adult and as an intellectual.
NMR: The women in my life were heroes; a source of inspiration. This influenced me professionally and intellectually. My career as an academic has focused largely on the discrimination faced by women in the workplace, and examining ways to overcome this repression and oppression. And, I always give women the benefit of the doubt. If a woman comes forth later in life and admits to being a victim of molestation or incest, I will always believe her. I would never question her veracity. Other than my brothers, I don’t have a lot of male friends. I have male colleagues that I feel close to, but my circle doesn’t include male friends. This is not by choice but single men are looking for more than friendship!
I also am very aware of gender images in society; how women are portrayed by the media and society in general. Women continue to be treated like second class citizens and this is a form of repression and oppression, even in the U.S.! Of course, as a social scientist, I have to be very guarded in the classroom and even in my writing; I need to be objective. But, this is very challenging at times; for example, it is difficult to discuss these topics, because, again “gender images” of women…..”oh, she’s a woman, so of course she will make disparaging remarks about how men or society in general, which is male dominated, treat women,” and so forth. These types of attitudes are more prevalent among our masters’ students. Our Ph.D. students are much more socially aware and sensitive to these types of issues.
SK: You switch comfortably between Italian and English throughout the memoir, how wired are you with your lost Italian heritage as an adult?
NMR: In 1994, I made my first trip to Italy and looked up relatives on the Riccucci (paternal side) and Manciati/Catani (maternal side). What a gift that was. I bonded with the Riccucci side of my family; very working class and appreciative of strong women. They speak no English. I have spent several weeks each summer with them ever since. I am blessed to have them in my life.
My brother Ricci and I will begin to speak Italian when we don’t want those around us, in public, to understand what we are saying. This happens, for example, if we are eating in a restaurant and we don’t like the quality of the food we ordered. So as to spare the wait staffs’ feelings, we make our comments in Italian.
Sometimes I lapse into Italian without being conscious of it. I was standing on the subway platform a few months ago, waiting for a train. When it arrived and the doors opened, I proceeded calmly onto the train, walking toward a vacant seat. A young white man, who I didn’t even notice, ran past me so fast and hard to get that seat that he nearly knocked me over. After he sat down, I said politely to him, “You know, you nearly knocked me down to get that seat.” And he responded nervously, “You want this seat? I’ll give you this seat; you want this seat?” I just looked at him, shook my head and said, “Vaffanculo.” He then asks, “What’s that? What does that mean? I don’t know what that means? What does that mean?” At which point, about 3 or 4 people on the subway said in unison, “Fuck you.” That made me smile.
SK: The memoir begins with your birth in 1956 and follows your life until your eighteenth birthday, leaving the readers at a loss about what happens next to the heroic Norma. Can you tell us about your personal journey thereafter?
NMR: It is very convoluted. When I jumped in my car, leaving Connecticut, I didn’t really know where I was going or where I would end up. I meandered down the East Coast, enjoying my sense of freedom, especially from the fear that came from living with my aunt and uncle. When evening came, I stopped at a YWCA at whatever town I was in. This was cheap and clean. I eventually landed in Miami, which I was very much attracted to at the time; a big, diverse city. I found a job working at the Dobbs House, the food service company, at Miami International Airport. I worked as a bookkeeper. I picked up the job quite easily, and my job duties continued to enlarge. At one point, I was asked to train an incoming supervisor, a white man. I asked my boss why I could not have the job and he muttered something about a woman’s place. At that point, I decided to go back to school, hoping education would change that picture; I’ve learned it has helped some, but not completely.
I had some interesting experiences in Miami. I remember once when my roommates, also undergrad students, and I decided to drive up to Atlanta for the annual Jazz Festival. My roommates were African-American women. We left after our night classes; got on the road about midnight. One of my friends took the first shift of driving. By 6 a.m., it was my turn to drive. We were in southern Georgia. I still like to drive fast, so I was speeding. Well, a state trooper pulled me over, and asked to see my driver’s license. He took it and said, “Follow me to the Sheriff’s office,” which I thought was strange. When we arrived, the Sheriff, a bulky white guy with a jagged scar down his forehead, was playing cards with 3 other men. He said, “That will be $100.” I said “I’ll give you a check.” He said “Cash only.” So, of course, I had to challenge this, and said, “Why cash? Can you show me on the back of the ticket where I must pay in cash only?” He said, “I’ll show you.” At which point, he got up from the table, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into a holding cell. At first I thought, he can’t get away with this; it is against my Constitutional rights! At one point I looked out of the small port-hole of a window, and saw bedraggled black men in chains barely walking, with their heads bowed. It was then that I became scared. My friends were locked out of the compound, and I thought, anything could happen to me in here. After what seemed an eternity, the sheriff came to my cell and asked, “Are you ready to pay?” Needless to say, I said yes.
I faced a major challenge in 1991 when my maternal grandmother, Nonni Upstairs passed; it was a week before her 94th birthday. She had been treated for cancer about 5 years earlier; it had gone into remission, but then returned. She was in a nursing home at that point, by her choice. I wanted to take care of her at home, but she wanted to go into a nursing home. I was with her when she took her last breath. I was holding her and I began crying so hard. And, I felt my mother’s presence in the room. I KNOW she was there; she had come for her mother. And, I still hope and pray that when it is my turn to go, my mother will come for me.
There are so many memories. Perhaps I will write a sequel to my memoir. But I doubt that.
SK: How did your personal experiences of being part of an immigrant diaspora shape your professional career choice as a public administration scholar championing for diversity?
NMR: Coming from a working-class, immigrant family has allowed me to appreciate and empathize with students struggling for higher education degrees. As I talk about in the book, my grandparents and parents did not have much formal education. Also, my research has focused on the disadvantaged or disenfranchised. My immigrant background has most definitely shaped my world view. Also, I am an anomaly, in that my colleagues tend to come from more privileged backgrounds (e.g., with parents that have college degrees, etc.). This makes me even more proud of my heritage.
I developed a strong passion for studying issues such as social equity when I was an undergraduate student at Florida International University. I took some political science and public administration courses and developed a passion for public administration and the role of government in society and in promoting the values of social equity. I continued my interests in this area, and my dissertation examined the role of unions in representation of women and people of color in local government workforces.
SK: You have trained and adapted to academic writing in the social sciences for four decades now, in what ways was it different to write a piece of work as personal and direct as an autobiography?
NMR: Writing for an academic audience is much more objective. Yet, in my discipline, normative discourse is acceptable. Here I can take a position on say affirmative action, and make a strong case for why it is necessary and morally correct. Writing a memoir was very challenging in that the “tablet” was filled with the subjectivity of my life. I couldn’t read the law around affirmative action and then interpret that. I had to examine my life introspectively. This was very difficult; I forced myself to remember things I had buried away and vowed never to remember. It was all very daunting. At times, I didn’t think I would be able to finish the book.
Also, I am an avid reader; and not simply of academic books and articles. I have always found pleasure in reading fiction and nonfiction. My favorite writers are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Lillian Hellman. The works of female writers tend to resonate more with me. I subscribe to the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, especially for the short stories. Reading outside the field is probably seen as frivolous among most of my colleagues. But it is so part of who I am. So writing this memoir allowed me to tap a different side of me.
But, as difficult as it was to write my memoir, I never gave up. I am a very determined person, once I set a goal for myself. Also, I kept finding that in the long run, it was very healing. Also I wanted to create a legacy for my beautiful parents and grandmothers.
SK: Amidst your many noted and high-profile scholarly books, this memoir seems to have taken a back seat. Is there any reason you have protected A Heart Near Death from any fanfare and public adoration?
NMR: I suppose I have some fear of students and colleagues hearing my experiences. My father committed suicide, and people come to conclusions that suicide is a copout or results from sickness. While my father did suffer from depression, I maintain, as I do in the book, that suicide is a valid choice. If someone is ill, they have that choice. I am perhaps, in part, protecting my beloved father.
Also, the theme of molestation makes people uncomfortable; and often, the victim is viewed as either responsible or soiled. I am neither, but until societal views change on this issue as well as suicide, I am very guarded.
Interestingly, I didn’t worry about how family members would react to my memoir. I, of course, shared copies with all of them. I told the truth about what happened to me and my brothers. And, this was experienced and told mostly through the eyes of a child. So it never entered my stream of consciousness that I would offend anyone. But one of my cousins has stopped talking to me; she objected to the way I portrayed her father, one of my Dad’s brothers. Sometimes the truth hurts; or maybe she just doesn’t want to acknowledge the role, albeit small, that her father played in our painful experiences and loss. And, some of it may revolve around money; but I don’t give a shit about money. That has never been an issue for me, and never will be. But, she won’t even talk to me about it, which has been really hurtful. I think it is so sad that the sins of fathers are perpetuated by sins of the children.
If I had known beforehand that someone or anyone might not like what I wrote, I would be even more motivated and compelled to write my memoir. I am still very strong-willed, and resolute in my ways.
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