Olivia Kate Cerrone’s novella, The Hunger Saint, dives into child labor and immigration in post-World War II Italy. Told from the point of view of a young boy chained to the sulfur mines in Sicily, the book is a searing expose of the subhuman mining conditions, not unlike today’s stone quarrying in Guatemala, Nepal, and Madagascar; salt mining conditions in Senegal; and gold mining conditions in Africa, Asia, and South America. Children, with their small and compact bodies, work above and below ground in tunnels and mine shafts, where they risk death from explosions, rock falls, and tunnel collapse. They breathe air filled with dust and toxic gases.
In the sulfur mines in Sicily depicted in Cerrone’s book, young boys (carusi) work the mines alongside the older miners (picuneri) assigned to supervise the children. A poor diet, exposure to toxins, and backbreaking working conditions led to stunted growth and lung disease, and miners lived horrifically short lives.
Cerrone’s unflinching novella personalizes the hazards of mining life through the story of Ntoni, a slight boy who works the Miniera Cozzo Disi mines to pay off the soccorso morto, “a loan given to his family on the promise of his labor.” Cerrone captures the hope, fear, and determination of a young boy caught in the crosshairs of death and poverty as he tries to save not just himself, but his younger brother.
The Rumpus: Olivia, you wear many hats—professor, writer, editor, activist, traveler. What you’re doing is important. Would you talk a bit about how your work and your work experience inform your writing? Major literary influences?
Olivia Kate Cerrone: Thank you so much. As a writer, I am very interested in trauma. That’s where the story lives for me. All of the work and the experiences that I have been privileged to engage with throughout my life have greatly informed and deepened my awareness of this. How trauma influences and shapes the lives of people and societies is at the heart of all the fiction I produce. Stories allow for a greater nuance of truth, something that is often willfully lost or denied in the media. I think it’s essential for writers to remain curious and humble. I long for and continue to seek out broader, more complex expressions of truth. My volunteer work has brought me closer to refugees and marginalized populations. I have also worked with some amazing organizations such as the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and Military Experience and the Arts, which have allowed me to engage with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, such as veterans struggling with PTSD and Afghan women who had witnessed the violence of the Taliban, in both a very personal and literary capacity, as I helped them process and articulate their experiences of war and trauma through creative writing. These stories harbor the necessities of life, what it means to endure and survive.
The literature I am drawn to compels me for the same reasons. I love Bernard Malamud for his far-reaching compassion, his works examining social oppression and anti-Semitism. Lisa Ko’s The Leavers is a powerful book that speaks to contemporary immigration issues and American identity. Lately, I have been rereading much of Don DeLillo. His work is so very significant in these difficult times, especially in wrestling with what it means to be an American right now living under such a corrupt and dysfunctional political system. I often turn to James Baldwin for sustenance and perspective. He said “not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Fiction can offer greater insight into the complexity of suffering and injustice, dispelling ignorance with awareness, so that perhaps we can examine the roots of trauma and continue to make changes in the way we function as a society.
Rumpus: When asked “Must all art be political?” in a recent Writer’s Chronicle interview (May/Summer 2017), Salman Rushdie said, “Most literature is about conflict, struggle, power, etc., so it may not be directly about political issues that are alive at the time the writer is writing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an application to public themes.”
It’s clear you believe literature should engage readers in all aspects of human rights. What would you say are your major public themes and concerns?
Cerrone: Character-driven stories foster great compassion, allowing readers to gain a sense of how larger social forces are at play through the experiences of the individual. In examining the roots of trauma, I try to keep these ideas close to heart when I write. This past semester I taught It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis to my undergraduate writing students, and it is chilling how closely that book, which was written in the 1930s, paralleled the 2016 election, showcasing particularly the means with which a presidential candidate uses the tools of fascism to gain the support of those people who are disenfranchised and desperate for a sense of power in the world. Literature reminds us of the human cost at stake when democracy is undermined by plutocracy and the special interests of billionaires, corporations, and hate groups. My major concerns lie in the ways in which individuals are abused and manipulated by society.
Rumpus: Your nonfiction addresses some of the same topics found in The Hunger Saint—culture, religion, family interactions, and dangerous working conditions. I’m thinking of these lines from your novella: “Each month at least one miner or caruso perished in some way. Yet they continued to work, resigned to their proximity to death.” You chose fiction as the vehicle for portraying life in the Sicilian mines. Why a representation of fact, rather than the fact itself?
Cerrone: There is a haunting quality to fiction that I continue to turn to as a writer. Stories get under our skin. It’s those vivid, felt-life details of character-driven fiction that bring us closer to another life with the special kind of intimacy that can only be experienced through language. When I first learned about the carusi, I was horrified by the reality of their existence, that children as young as six years old were essentially sold by their families into a system of indentured servitude, their lives spent laboring under brutal conditions in the sulfur mines of rural Sicily. This had become a normalized practice for countless decades in a society oppressed by severe poverty and virtually no enforcement of labor laws. As I immersed myself in research, I soon discovered that so little has been discussed about this tragic history.
In 2013 I visited Sicily, where I conducted a series of oral histories with former sulfur miners, some of whom had started their working lives as carusi. I am extremely grateful for their generosity as their stories greatly deepened my understanding of this time and its realities. Yet I remained compelled to produce a narrative that brought readers closer to that experience. I wanted to breathe life into the carusi through the story of a young boy named Ntoni, who lives at the mercy of a broken society, and engage readers in the grit of his struggle and eventual survival. Though heavily based on research, the book is still an artistic representation, yet the venue of fiction itself allowed me to weave layers of complexity into the narrative that would’ve been very difficult if I had been bound to journalism alone.
Rumpus: Great stories achieve a breadth of meaning far greater than the length of their telling. Why did you write a novella? Did it happen organically? Do you feel you were able to do Ntoni’s story justice in short form?
Cerrone: The Hunger Saint was originally part of a full-length novel that included a contemporary section also set in Sicily. The larger narrative spoke to the fallout of trauma across generations, specifically from the perspective of an American daughter who struggles to understand her estranged father’s life as a caruso. I worked on that book for years. After failing to secure an agent and a publisher, I moved on and began writing another book, but the story of the carusi still gnawed at me. I was desperate to have the historical section of the book published somehow, and I am very grateful to the editors of Bordighera Press who decided to publish this section as a novella. After much editing, the final manuscript found its completed form, but in terms of original length, the historical section wasn’t much different so, in some capacity, it had always existed as a novella.
Rumpus: There’s despair, hope, and love in The Hunger Saint, as well as characters in a state of flux, which is emblematic of so much in our culture. How did you walk the fine line of acknowledging and writing about trauma and oppression without dipping into the sentimental or being judgmental?
Cerrone: I try to ground myself in the larger complexity of a character’s experience, the social forces and internal struggles that shape both an individual’s circumstances and behavior. Nuance is so essential, being able to render it on the page. I am constantly questioning my characters, examining their choices as a reaction to the society in which they live. Revision is extremely important to me for this reason. There are some questions that can’t be answered until the seventh or eighth draft. Trauma manifests itself in a myriad of ways, some difficult and heartbreaking, that might be unconscious to a character even if the narrator must possess a keen sensitivity and understanding of this behavior. Writing through a lens of compassion is key. There is a laziness to sentimentality that is unearned and forced, denying the larger humanity of the story at hand. The same goes with being too judgmental. You can’t demonize your characters even if they indulge in cruelty. Compassion allows for a more honest insight into human nature.
Rumpus: How conscious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.—when choosing what to write about? Did you have reservations about writing from a male point of view?
Cerrone: One of my favorite books growing up was, and still is, Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, specifically for the web of diverse characters that the novel engages with, offering a rich portrait of American life in the Depression-era South. Issues of racism and violence, poverty, struggle, and disability echo between characters, weaving them in and out of one another’s lives. I was struck by the enormous compassion of that novel, the ways in which each of the characters’ longings and sufferings reverberate against one another, despite how very different they are. People have always fascinated me in this sense. I engage with a wide range of identities and perspectives in my fiction, while remaining hypersensitive to who my characters are and the realities they face. Fiction is all about risk. I strive to temper my ambition with compassion and awareness.
In writing from a male perspective in The Hunger Saint, it was important to me to have several male manuscript readers offer feedback in terms of the physicality of certain characters. I wanted to get the details right when it came to the male body, which actually led to the revision of an important fight scene in the novella. I think a lot of cultural appropriation stems from arrogance. I don’t know everything and I never will. I try to write from a place of humility and compassion. Research remains such a vital component of my process as a writer, along with engaging with others. It’s so important to really listen.
Rumpus: There’s a religious element to the book. Ntoni prays to San Calogero (the Hunger Saint), carries a religious card with him, and seeks his dead father in the depths of the mine, fearing for his soul. There’s a destabilizing moment when Ntoni believes he’s seen the saint that creates a dynamic between what’s happening in reality and what’s happening in Ntoni’s heart and soul. This dimensional leap signifies more than a passage between the seen and the unseen, it transfigures Ntoni and cracks his faith. Toward the end of the book, Ntoni witnesses a religious procession—might this indicate that San Calogero answered Ntoni’s earlier prayers? How important was Catholicism in writing this book, and how did you avoid the tropes of religion?
Cerrone: Sicilian culture is deeply ingrained with and shaped by Roman Catholicism, and so I approached this aspect much as an anthropologist might study the influence of such traditions upon the shape on social life. I avoid religious tropes by focusing on the effects of religion on people’s lives, especially for those trying to survive under such oppressive circumstances. For Ntoni the proximity to his faith changes over the course of the book, particularly as reflection of his ever-developing maturity and the very limited means with which he has to cope with the loss of his father, along with his family’s destitution. Faith becomes a tool of survival.
Rumpus: What role do deceit and moral depravity play in your book? I’m thinking of the pivotal moment in the book when the mine collapses and survivors are few. There’s a spectacular scene where Ntoni is climbing out of the mine and witnesses what amounts to murder.
Cerrone: Thank you so much for these kind words. The presence of deceit and moral depravity is so often manifested in the behaviors and actions of various characters throughout The Hunger Saint, particularly in that devastating scene that you mention, as consequence of the brutal poverty and limited resources of a society that punishes its working class. Individuals are pushed to the limits of their personalities, contorted by desperation that quickly turns to violence, especially in the face of such dire circumstances. The killing that Ntoni witnesses is the result of the moral depravity bred out of extreme conditions. It’s also the result of a desperate situation where there are no good choices. One might be driven to compromise their sense of morality to ensure their own survival.
Rumpus: In March of this year, the Guardian published an article about modern-day slavery and rape in Sicily: Romanian women working in greenhouses subjected to abuse by their employers. While the sulfur mines of Sicily closed years ago, it appears that exploitation of migrants and immigrants in Italian agriculture is a mainstay in Sicily. In fact, slavery and exploitation are global phenomena. As a writer, how do you see yourself covering the harrowing and ruinous consequences of slavery?
Cerrone: The value of historical fiction is that it reminds us that these abuses and exploitation of vulnerable human life are ongoing and relentless. Greater awareness encourages greater vigilance and compassion, perhaps fostering, or demanding, change. These traumas and injustices are rooted in poverty, the lack of legal enforcement and protection, and corruption. Mark Twain is often attributed to have said “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”
Rumpus: You’ve received a lot of attention on social media, attention that pumps up the idea of justice. In this age of mayhem, are people hungry for literature about social justice and injustice? How do you respond to the social media demands for a “better world”? How can Facebook and Twitter be used to reach a broader audience, not just likeminded followers?
Cerrone: I am very grateful for all the support and attention that The Hunger Saint has received. The book specifically exposes a part of history that has not been talked about enough. Many people I have encountered, even those with Italian heritage, were not aware of who the carusi were or that this practice had gone on in Sicily for decades. What I strive to inspire through the book is certainly better exposure of this tragic past, but also to help foster a greater conversation and awareness of those other lives that are similarly affected. The carusi of today are the child laborers who work in the cobalt mines of the Congo and the sweatshops of Bangladesh, producing the latest designer fashions and home goods. They are refugee children from Syria overworked in clothing factories or children from Sudan and Eritrea forced into the sex-trade industry by human traffickers. We are all interconnected by the clothes we wear, the food and technology that we purchase, and the conveniences that we take for granted. More often we should wonder where so many of these products and modern conveniences derive? What greater measures can we take to stop and prevent child labor abuse from continuing?
Rumpus: I’ve always loved the question that appears in the Sunday New York Times Book Review’s “By the Book” interviews: “You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite? And why?”
Cerrone: James Baldwin, Carson McCullers, and Virginia Woolf. How wonderful it would be to hear them in conversation with one another in response to the world that we are living in right now, and the value of fiction in the presence of heartbreaking violence and political corruption. Their work is a kind of nourishment, a touchstone on maintaining perspective and compassion in these very challenging and painful times.
Author photograph © Jill Frank.