My Quilt: Writing and American English
July 29, 2020 § 30 Comments
By Rosanna Staffa
As a child in Italy, my father, a successful businessman, implanted in my brothers and me a belief in the mythical power of linguistic precision. He looked at us kids like a panther in repose, ready to pounce on a misused adjective or sloppy adverb. He labeled any expression that was too generic, bambinate, childish nonsense, a weakness of the spirit that would lead to every kind of reprehensible behavior as adults. I was his devoted follower.
When I went to New York after college, I lost my ability to speak. I had been a top student in English literature in Milan, but American was radically different. I had no idea what people were saying. Words roared, purred, and clicked in their mouths. I reached despair one night when I urgently needed to call home. The operator kept insisting that I could not get in the Circus. I hung up and cried. Only years later, I realized that what she said was: “The circuits are busy.”
I listened to conversations in cafes and on the subway. I faithfully watched TV: commercials repeated themselves until I finally understood and jumped up screaming, “Finger licking good!” “Pearl drops!” But an authentic exchange as I knew it was impossible. I could not recognize myself when I spoke. Much to my horror, movies were always “interesting,” food was always “tasty.”
One afternoon I walked into a small Women’s Bookstore on the Upper West Side and looked around. I had missed reading too much. A title caught my attention: The Bluest Eye. I started reading the first lines. It was like listening to jazz. I could not follow each turn, but I understood in full. It affected me so profoundly that my hands shook when I bought the book. I was frightened and elated. One could be precise in a fractured way I had never known existed. I was so thrilled, I walked all the way home to the East Village.
My then-boyfriend, now my husband, said that American was a composite of many languages. It was not static in its rules. He suggested I look at a book about quilts he had. I had heard of them, but I had not seen one. The quilts were beautiful mosaics. One, a “Crazy Quilt,” had an astonishing, shattered appeal. I kept going back to it. The crazy quilt suggested movement and harmony within disorder. I loved the fragments reaching out to other pieces, and the solitude of each, even in the closeness.
“My brain,” I told my boyfriend.
I bought a bedsheet at a thrift store, a marvel of cheap treasures that did not exist in Italy, and went back daily for velvet scraps. I went to work in our small fourth floor walk up with the bathtub in the kitchen. Friends came and went. Peeked, drank coffee. It was a dancer who fully understood. He sat by me while I was silently pondering which color to use for the center piece. Somehow he knew what I was trying to express. He looked at the quilt thoughtfully then pointed at the middle.
“Grey silk,” he said. And it was perfect.
I never told my father what I truly learned in America. My words in American found each other, one snippet at a time. I learned to love the nervy intensity of American. The last time I spoke to my father before he died, I assured him of my allegiance to precision. I did not say it might be of a different kind. He was very old, and it was his birthday.
Rosanna Staffa is an Italian-born playwright and author. She is a prize winner of the 2020 TSR Nonfiction Prize and recipient of Honorable Mention for The Tiferet Journal 2019 Writing Contest Award. She is a Short Story Finalist for The Masters Review Anthology and for the 47th New Millennium Writing Awards. She is a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her plays have been seen on stages in Tokyo, New York, Seattle, and others. Her play “The Innocence of Ghosts” was seen in New York Off-Broadway at Saint Clement’s Theatre and was filmed for inclusion in the Lincoln Center Theatre on Film Library. Her plays are published by Heinemann and Smith & Kraus. She is a recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant, a Jerome Fellowship and an AT&T/On Stage Grant. She holds a Ph.D. in Modern Foreign Languages from Statale University in Milan and an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University.
Rosanna, thank you for this wonderful story. I am especially charmed by the dancer who understood your work. Often artists in different media are the ones who are most in tune with each other.
Rosanna . . . your connection with your father moved me, as did your writing. Thank you for this moment, early in my day.
Thank you so much. I find what you say about artists in tune with each other every true and touching.
Tom, this is such a beautiful response.Thank you.
Your response moves me too, Tom
Loved this post. Toni Morrison’s writing does sound like jazz. I make crazy quilts. I love making them because they look like jazz.
I love your reaction. Thank you
“Nuns go by as quiet as lust and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel”—that’s from memory. I can recite the first page as if it were a poem, and it begins in iambic rhythm. (Once when I read it aloud, a student came up after class to ask where he could find the poet.) Yes, American English is a patchwork, even a crazy quilt, but Morrison’s rhythm is like the square patches you used in your quilt. Nicely done.
I truly appreciate how you respond to my piece. Thank you for letting me know.
I love quilts and feel that your quilt metaphor for learning English is spot on. Beautifully told and totally fresh in its approach.
I so appreciate your response! Thank you.
What a wonderful piece! I will never take my own language for granted again.
Thank you for this response, Vicki!
This hit me in reverse. The women in my family have long made quilts from necessity, love, and acceptance. We do what we can with what we have and are grateful for each fragment. No matter how odd or misshapen a piece might seem, there is a place where it will fit perfectly. Now I am learning Italian. It is a study of Deja vu as each new phrase and word seem like long-forgotten friends that make everything else more beautiful.
This touches me. Thank you.
This is beautiful, Rosanna. I have felt this feeling you describe:
“I could not recognize myself when I spoke.”
Then, comes that magical day when I can hear my true self, in a new language. And I can finally forget the rules!
Loved this piece.
I am happy you do and like very much the way you relate to it, Kirsten
This story is so nice
[…] via My Quilt: Writing and American English — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]
This is incredibly interesting. And the analogy is really a physical, manipulative example of connecting to a language. Thank you for the wonderful post that gives me such an interesting perspective, and one that I will keep in mind in my own writing.
Thank you for this beautiful response.
Your spirit and expression are as beautiful as you are. I am so happy I happened upon this!
Thank you so much!
Rosanna! I think our fathers were related. Beautifully and so concisely written. And of course I want to know who the dancer was, though I have my suspicions.
Ah! Your suspicions are spot on, Jeff! So glad you like my piece.
[…] via My Quilt: Writing and American English […]
Rosanna – this is so beautifully written. Your writing evokes layers within layers and stories within stories. Immigration, emotion, family ties, friendships, loss, discovery, literature, creativity, friendship, and more – it’s all there. Thank you.
What a beautiful, thoughtful response. Thank you