Keynote Speaker Melanie Masterton Sherazi Kicks Off Italy Reads 2021-2022
Italy Reads 2021-2022
On October 19, JCU welcomed Dr. Melanie Masterton Sherazi as this year’s Italy Reads keynote speaker, to talk about the program’s featured novel, Beetlecreek. Beetlecreek is the debut novel of African American writer William Demby (1922-2013). Situated in African-American community in West Virginia during the Great Depression, the novel pursues themes of race and personal identity. The Zoom event, which was attended by about 300 people, saw the participation of teachers and students from schools across Italy and guests from the English-speaking community.
Italy Reads is a community-based English language reading and cultural exchange program that collaborates with more than 200 Italian teachers from over 60 high schools across Italy. Each year, one classic work of American literature is selected to read together. The Italy Reads Program was founded in 2010 following the Big Read Rome held at JCU in 2009, which was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.
Guests were welcomed by Dean of Academic Affairs Carlos Dews, who thanked the many people responsible for the success of the Italy Reads Program. Appreciation was expressed to JCU President Franco Pavoncello and especially to Vice President Mary Merva who has firmly supported this program throughout the years. Dean Dews lauded the contributions of JCU librarians, faculty, staff, and the esteemed academics who have shared their expertise with the program over the years. Heartfelt appreciation was also expressed to the many Italian high school teachers who are, in fact, the foundation of the program. These dedicated professionals continually seek new ways to reach their students and stimulate them through the study of American literature, language, and culture.
A very special guest logged in from Florence, Italy: James Demby, the son of William Demby. He shared his excitement that his father’s work is being read by the many teachers and students participating in Italy Reads.
The Keynote Address
Professor Jenn Lindsay, who was the instructor of this year’s Professional Development Course for high school teachers held last spring, introduced Dr. Melanie Masterton Sherazi, an acclaimed expert on post World War II African American writers. Lindsay commented on how Masterton Sherazi’s work on Demby, an under-studied author both in the U.S. and Italy, includes consideration of the importance of his characters and their contemplation of their inner world and their social context. Demby’s writing set him apart from how other black writers in the U.S. were exploring this theme. He strived to discover the essence of himself and his characters. Masterton Sherazi, whose studies of Demby and his work address the parallels between the black experience in the U.S. and abroad, focused her keynote address on Demby’s life in and artistic connections to Italy during the 1950s.
Born into a large middle-class family in 1922, Demby first came to Italy as a soldier during WWII. He returned to Rome in 1947, preferring it as a “grittier alternative” for an artist compared to the more obvious choice that was Paris. He moved in with leftist artists and filmmakers in an apartment in the historic center was fully emersed in the artistic landscape of neorealist Rome. He wrote for Italian publications and collaborated with prominent Italian film directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and Camillo Mastrocinque. He also acted in several films. In 1953 he married Lucia “Tatina” Drudi, an Italian poet, screenwriter, novelist, literary translator, and literary agent, who was also his primary cultural interlocutor.
In contextualizing the novel and the author, Masterton Sherazi suggested the reader keep in mind the post-WWII period, the realities of a world that was beginning to recover from the Holocaust, Fascism, and Mussolini’s racial laws. The novel points to the danger of group thought and mob mentality.
Master Class for Teachers
On Wednesday, October 20, Dr. Masterton Sherazi led a Master Class for high school teachers on William Demby’s Beetlecreek. Thirty teachers from schools all over Italy were present. Masterton Sherazi opened the Master Class with a poem by Langston Hughes, a mentor to Demby, as a suggested opening frame for the classroom study of Demby’s Beetlecreek.
“Harlem” by Langston Hughes, 1951
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
A variety of didactic activities were suggested by Masterton Sherazi and a lively discussion followed about the literary, social, cultural, and historic aspects related to the study of this novel. Several teachers offered suggestions for relevant parallel texts, historical events, and teaching ideas. Of particular importance was guidance on preparing Italian students for racial terminology and content in the novel. These terms would have been considered appropriate at the time the novel was written but are now deemed offensive. The outmoded terms should be used only when framed by quotation marks.
Italy Reads and Professional Development for Teachers
The dynamic of this kind of informal discussion among colleagues including an expert in the selected novel and its author allows teachers to share their questions and in-class experiences while offering each other suggestions and support. This is a key aspect of Professional Development for Teachers with Italy Reads. If you are a teacher and are interested in reading Beetlecreek with your students, and if you would like to receive the link to the recording of this Master Class for Teachers and past Teacher Training Workshops, please write to [email protected].