For a long time, articles about Sicily were always accompanied by grim, black and white images of bloodied streets and cars that had been set on fire. People thought of Cosa Nostra as the only thing on the island. Their violent rule ruled over everything else. Some progress has been made in the fight against organized crime. Today, Sicilians who are more democratic are becoming more powerful, even though they face a lot of challenges. It’s important to them that culture and tourism be a part of the future they see. Since 2015, when Unesco named Palermo’s Arab-Norman buildings a site of Outstanding Universal Value, other institutions have been scrambling to make other less-known pieces of history more visible. It used to be that the baroque villas of Ragusa and Noto, which had been in decline for a long time, were being restored to their former glory. A lot of publishing houses and art galleries are hiring people to write anthologies of forgotten medieval and Renaissance writers, and chefs and restaurateurs are rebranding the island’s vegetable-rich cuisine to appeal to a growing number of vegans on the island.
My book, The Invention of Sicily, gives one way to see this rich culture. But it isn’t going to be the last word. Novelist Gesualdo Bufalino once said that Sicily isn’t “a homogeneous blob of race and customs,” but a place where “everything mixed, changing and contradictory.” This is how Bufalino described Sicily. With that in mind, I’ve chosen 10 books that show the island’s variety and leave the mafia in the background.
Terroni: All That Has Been Done to Ensure That the Italians of the South Became ‘Southerners’ by Pino Aprile
“Terroni,” which means “redneck” in English, is a term that people in the north of Italy came up with after World War II to separate themselves from their poorer, southern counterparts. There are a lot of things that surprise me about the way people use the slur in Tuscany: Here, Aprile traces anti-southern discrimination even further back to 1861, when Italy became a country. Italy, he says, isn’t really a country at all, but a colonial project that the Savoy monarchy in Turin came up with to pay off their war debts from fighting Austria. After all, this is an amazing piece of research and a great list of uncomfortable truths about how southern Italy got into trouble with its economy.
The Council of Egypt by Leonardo Sciascia
People know him best for his books about the mafia. Even though it’s only a few pages long, Adrienne Foulke has made this book into one of Sicilian literature’s best-kept secrets! If you think of it as a detective story from the 1800s, you’ll find a group of interesting people, including Spanish noblemen, Jacobin revolutionaries and forgers. Yet, it’s also a metaphor about how hard it is to tell fact from fiction in Sicily, and how history and legend blur together. There is a lot of cynical and loving humor in this book. Andrea Camilleri fans will love it.
Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti
Sicilian food is a lot more sharp and spicy than food from other parts of Italy. It’s more about extreme contrasts of flavor than thick, umami sauces. Simeti’s 1989 book is still the best English-language overview. This isn’t just a collection of recipes, though there are 100 of them. It’s an impressive work of scholarship that shows how the island has been blessed by centuries of mass migration.
Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati
In Sicilian literature, there are many books that make fun of the island’s patriarchal traditions. This one, translated by Patrick Creagh, is one of the best ones out of all of them. The story follows the adventures of the young playboy, but it turns out that, despite all his showboating, he can’t have sex with anyone. Brancati’s observations about male insecurity are very important, but the book is also very important as a political statement about how machismo has hurt Sicilian society.
Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories by Giovanni Verga
Italian realist Verga was born in Vizzini, a small village near the city of Catania, in 1840. He is the most well-known of the Italian realist artists. It was translated by GH McWilliam in 1999. It includes stories from Life in the Country and Little Novels of Sicily, which together show how 19th-century farmers lived. It doesn’t matter if Verga is talking about daily farm work, superstitious rituals, or revolts against landowners who are greedy. He talks to his subjects on an equal level like few other writers of his time did.
Idylls by Theocritus
It was part of Magna Graecia, which was the ancient Greek empire at that time. Syracuse, then the most important city on the island, was one of the world’s most powerful naval forces and a rival to Athens in terms of wealth and power. Sadly, very little literature from that time is still around. Theocritus’s Idylls are an exception to the rule. These pieces, which look at how humans interact with nature, how technology can be harmful, and how trees are cut down, are a great example of how we talk about the environment today.
The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa by David Gilmour
Lampedusa’s historical novel, The Leopard, is a classic of Italian literature for a good reason. Gilmour’s biography of its author, on the other hand, is just as important to read. He has never had this kind of access to private notebooks before, and he uses them to show how this introverted man has never been able to get rid of the ghosts of his aristocratic ancestors. In this book, Lampedusa’s life is put back into its sociopolitical context, but in a way that is always respectful to his memory and to the book’s main subject.
Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini
To get away from the “abstract furies” of modern life, this book is set during the rise of fascism. A man goes on a trip to Sicily to do this. There isn’t much of a story. The narrator drinks wine with a few friends and chats with some artists. His real concerns, on the other hand, are about life and religion. This powerful meditation on how to find meaning and live well when the world seems to be falling apart has been translated by Alane Salierno and is a great read.
The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194: The Normans in Sicily Volume II by John Julius Norwich
For a short time, between 1130 and 1194, Sicily was home to one of history’s most cosmopolitan projects. Because they were soldiers, the Norman De Hauteville family was able to get on the island. Once they were in charge, however, they led a tolerant, multicultural society that defied the violent sectarianism of the time. They had three official languages and a constitution that didn’t allow people to be discriminated against because of their religion, while the kings themselves commissioned great works of Islamic and Byzantine art. Norwich’s book is still the best English summary of Sicily’s golden age, and it’s a great story about how, in the midst of bigotry and fundamentalism, the island’s people learned to value each other’s differences.
Ciao Ousmane: The Hidden Exploitation of Italy’s Migrant Workers by Hsiao-Hung Pai
Senegalese man died in a gas explosion while harvesting olives in western Sicily in 2013. The title of this book refers to him. After the tragedy, Hsiao-Hung Pai spent months getting to know some of the fruit pickers. Her reportage shows how migrant workers are exploited on a daily basis while the authorities don’t even bother to look at what is going on. Activists, NGOs, and charities in the area have been calling for better living conditions for years now. Here, they explain why so far, their efforts haven’t worked out.