With long black hair and expressive eyes, Park Slope author Paola Corso met me Saturday evening at the Community Bookstore on Seventh Avenue. Wearing a white down jacket and a fur cap, she led me to the children’s section in the back walking past a red velvet couch, a bed for two sleeping cats.
Sitting at a small table covered in books, she handed me a copy of her latest, Catina’s Haircut, which hit shelves in the fall.
“It’s a novel in stories,” she told me of the follow-up to her award winning Giovanna and the 86 Circles And Other Stories, also from University of Wisconsin Press.
The new book chronicles four generations of an Italian family from a town in southern Italy to Pittsburgh. The interlocking short stories are rooted in a family secret. Corso was always told that her great-grandparents were killed in a train wreck just after the World War I.
Years later on a trip to Italy, she was told by Italian cousins that her great grandparents were actually killed during a peasant uprising.
When she discovered this secret she wondered if she should investigate further to find out the true facts behind her great-grandparent’s death.
Instead, she decided to use her gift for fiction and tell the emotional truth of their lives through short stories.
“My grandfather was very private, very humble,” she told me. “He wanted to keep the facts of his parent’s working class politics mum because becoming an American, he was a hard working citizen of this country.”
Her grandparents immigrated to Pittsburgh, where Corso was born and raised. It wasn’t until she moved to Park Slope in the 1990’s with her husband, playwright Michael Winks, that she discovered the true subject matter of her imagination.
“Ever since I left Pittsburgh all I ever write about is Pittsburgh. Moving here nourished my appreciation of Italian-Americans.”
Corso does much of her writing on the subway to and from her job at Touro College. Also a writer–in-residence at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA Program, she favors the short story form and poetry because it suits a busy life with two young boys and two teaching jobs.
“I am very directed, very focused and I write in small nuggets,” she told me.
Currently Corso, who is a member of the Park Slope Food Co-op, is at work on “Another Gourmet Meal Shot to Hell,” a memoir about her mother, food and Italian American cooking, which she says will focus on what not to do in the kitchen.
I asked Corso why Park Slope is such a mecca for writers.
Corso cited its proximity to ethnic neighborhoods. She is a member of the Italian American Writers Association and is adamant about counteracting stereotypes about Italian-Americans.
“When Yusef Hawkins was killed in Bensonhurst the TV news showed Italians shouting racist slurs. What about the Italian intellectuals and writers?” she said.
In Brooklyn, Corso enjoys exploring the ethnic landscape. She recalled a recent walk near Stillwell Avenue. “You can always tell an Italian American’s house in Brooklyn by the yard. There are always tomatoes, basil, eggplants and shrines in their yard. But something else, too: nine times out of ten if there is a fig tree in the yard it’s going to be an Italian American’s.”
While Corso dreams of owning a house in Brooklyn with a fig tree in the yard, sometimes she thinks about moving back to Pittsburgh.
“Would you really move back?” I asked somewhat incredulously. Corso thought for a moment and shook her head.
“No, this is where my family feels at home,” she told me.
For Corso, her life in Brooklyn connects her with her immigrant family in Pittsburgh.
“Writing is about finding a home, a place where you feel comfortable. A location for one’s imagination,” she said.
“What makes me feel at home is when I am riding on the F or the Q Train and I make sure that I see the Statue of Liberty because that’s what my father saw when he arrived.”