Sunday, October 22, 2017

Learning about Loss with Denise Giardina

by Dr. Nancy Caronia, WVU Department of English

L to R: AD of Undergraduate Writing Sarah Morris,
Luis Neer, University of Pittsburgh Professor Lina Insana,
Taylor Miller, and Denise Giardina at the WVRHC.
First-year English majors from ENGL 199 watched as Denise Giardina turned the pages of a spiral-bound notebook that contained the first draft of what would become the author’s novel Storming Heaven. Giardina pitched forward in her chair in the West Virginia & Regional History Center (WVRHC) to get a closer look at what she had written. “There were no computers. And typewriters were a mess to work with. I had no choice,” she said regarding the notebooks filled with her longhand script. Then she smiled: “My handwriting was pretty good back then.”

Melville Davisson Post, hunched over, fourth from left.
Earlier in the semester, ENGL 199 had visited the WVRHC to learn about the center and to look through archives related to both WVU’s campus read Hidden Figures and the Department of English’s history. During that initial trip, students saw W.E.B. DuBois’s signature on the first page of a ledger, learned more about one of the young men, Melville Davisson Post, in the photo of the young Shakespearean players hanging in Colson 130, and read through and handled the notebooks of Giardina. Some pulled out their phones and snapped pictures of a page or two of Giardina’s work while others flipped the pages to examine her writing process.

The students who gathered to meet Giardina on October 12, 2017 knew of her archives, but some had also read her novels in high school. They each had questions about her writing process, but they also wanted to know what it meant to her to grow up in a coal camp and to continue to live in West Virginia in 2017. What they couldn’t have been prepared for was the writer who sat and talked quietly about how long ago it had seemed since she wrote Storming Heaven. With each turn of the page, she remembered more and more of what it was like to create that novel and her other works.

When Giardina suggested her novels weren’t the same, or as important, as history textbooks, associate coordinator of undergraduate writing Sarah Morris discussed how central the author’s novels had been to Morris’s understanding of West Virginia, coal mining, and her family when she was a teenager. Morris stated that Giardina’s novels gave her a visceral experience of coalmines that brought empathy and a sense of belonging, something a textbook couldn’t do. The students nodded their heads in agreement.

Later that evening, Giardina gave a talk--“The Socialist Revolution in West Virginia: What Happened?”--for WVU’s Slavic Studies Series: Revolutionary World, 1917 and Beyond. At this event in the Milano Room of WVU's Downtown Library, Giardina noted, “West Virginia has never been in sync with the times in which it lives.” She suggested that “we are in a unique place,” but that in southern West Virginia, autonomy was compromised through the sale of land. When 80% of the land is owned by corporations or special interests, she suggested, “West Virginians lose a lot.” Earlier in the week, Onondagan Chief Oren Lyons spoke at the Peace Tree Celebration and he suggested the same thing when discussing the game of lacrosse. He stated that the team “loses a lot,” which seemed to allude to other kinds of losses regarding indigenous people. But then he stated: “no matter how much they lose, they are never defeated.” Giardina seemed to echo Lyons’ statement when she said: “I’d rather be a loser in West Virginia and I’m still here and I hope you are still here as well…. It’s not about liberal versus conservative. It’s about progressive views versus corporate views. Massive multinational corporations have no controls on them, but we must not devalue ourselves because we cannot control everything.”

At the WVRHC. L to R, back row: University of Pittsburgh Professor Lina Insana,
AD of Undergraduate Writing Sarah Morris, Luis Peer, Sarah Mitchell, Taylor Miller, Amelia Jones,
Samantha Barney, Marigene Robertson; front row: TAP Nancy Caronia and Denise Giardina.
WVU’s first year English majors have been planting seeds as to  how they will belong and where they will best contribute their voices and actions. I look forward to the day when one or more of these students choose to explore Giardina’s archives for their capstone project.

Special thanks to John Cuthbert and Lori Hostuttler with WVRHC for paving the way to visit Giardina’s archives, Lisa DiBartolomeo and the World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics Department for hosting Giardina's talk, Lina Insana, the chair of the Department of Italian and French at University of Pittsburgh, for coming down to Morgantown to chat with myself and Denise Giardina about Italian Americans in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the ENGL 199 students for their good cheer and curiosity, and Denise Giardina for her generosity of time and spirit.