Storytelling Should Never Be Confused with Sociology: The Millions Interviews John Domini

October 3, 2019 | 1 7 min read

John Domini’s stunning new novel, The Color Inside a Melon, concludes his trilogy set in Naples after a fictional earthquake. Risto, an immigrant from Somalia, investigates the brutal murder of a more recent African emigrant. As readers, we’re caught in a gripping mystery while submerged in a dream/nightmare Naples: its immigrants and its racism; its beauty and its bureaucracy. Domini’s language is as poetic and mythical as his vision is dark and disturbing. Domini’s characters come from many different cultures, and his novel is located in far-ranging locales. I had several questions for Domini about what inspired him and where his knowledge and experience ended and his imagination began.

The Millions: In the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 2017 you referred to your father as “un eroe delle Quattro Giornate di Napoli,” or “a hero of the Four Days of Naples,” referring to his experiences during WWII as Neapolitans rose up against Nazi occupation. Can you talk about your family history in Naples and how it led to your trilogy set there?

John Domini: The Repubblica headline indulged some journalistic hyperbole. That word wasn’t one I used, and as for my father, it would’ve set him shrieking with laughter—and outrage. He preferred not to talk about the Four Days at all. When he finally opened up about those guerrilla days, he was sick and soon to die, and what little he shared sounded nothing like heroism. Rather he revealed the chaos and desperation of teenagers fighting for their lives. These days, the anecdotes call to mind the catastrophe of contemporary Aleppo. My father came through an apocalypse; that’s how I see it: The world as he knew it was falling down around his ears. The complex feelings this generated, spurring him to the New World, to decades of secrecy, must’ve been part of my inspiration for Risto, my new novel’s protagonist in devastated Mogadishu. The survivor’s inner turbulence would be diagnosed as PTSD, in some flavor or other, and throughout The Color Inside a Melon any turn of thought may cause those flavors to once more flood my man’s mouth. A few times, to be sure, Risto gags on the taste.

coverBesides that, my father didn’t leave Naples until his 20s, and left behind, as you say, close family. This had a more practical impact, both for The Color Inside and all my Naples work. I grew up—well, the word “bicultural” sounds a tad hifalutin, I never heard it around the kitchen, but I suppose it fits. Among the evidence, there’s my grasp of pop’s native language, its rhythms if not its subtleties. As for those, the subtleties, I learned them later, in midlife, when I suffered bad breakdowns both personal and professional and, in effect, fled to Naples. That’s more hyperbole, to be sure. I always had a job and a rental in the States, and I learned a lot simply from reading. I discovered both Elena Ferrante and Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah) in Italian. Still, I first read them over in the Sirens’ City, where I’d impose on family and friends as long as I could and try to relocate. I’m writing about that period now, my renewal via Naples, a memoir of a kind. Before I could tackle that project, though, I first needed to clear my head of the vision I had at about age 40, on the ancient streets of the centro: the image of an eternal downtown, forever the same city yet forever changing, as yet another new world order flexes its muscles.

TM: The novel centers around the African community in Naples. How did you research that topic? Italy shares anti-immigrant politics with other Eastern and Western European countries but has received many more refugees than all of them save Greece, with many Africans making the dangerous boat journey from Libya to the island of Lampedusa. Can you also give us a general sense of how you see Italy’s response to the refugee crisis and how that may be represented by the lives of Risto, your protagonist, and your other African characters.

coverJD: Look, there it is again: the unchanging city, going through a fresh sea change! Naturally, my inspiration also has other sources, in particular my decades of devotion to Calvino’s Invisible Cities. But there’s no denying the impact of watching, throughout the 90s and the 2000s, the waves of immigration out of devastated regions in Africa. In parts of “the South,” as it’s known, if a warlord didn’t drive you out, global warming would ravage your farm. Your only option was “the North,” where the landings easiest to reach are in places like Lampedusa: the European South. Not that this made Italy more welcoming, alas; the Italian process of naturalization is one of the worst on the Continent. Myself, seeing the results, seeing Naples make grudging room for more and more illegals, here called clandestini— one major street market is now referred to as “Calcutta”— I realized I couldn’t abide the usual fiction of privileged Anglos in benighted Southern Italy. I couldn’t play Elizabeth Gilbert’s game, in which the old centro becomes a mere backdrop for her so-called fulfillment. My work, rather, needed to challenge assumptions of identity. What’s the North, really? Who can claim it? How do they do that, and thereafter maintain their holdings?

covercoverSo the loose trilogy that concludes with The Color Inside a Melon had to use different perspectives. In Earthquake I.D., I worked with Americans, their comfy assumptions knocked to bits on the first day in town; in A Tomb on the Periphery, with a native Neapolitan wrestling with core questions about how to live. So the African refugee protagonist of this one, in the terminology of old seagoing navigators, completes the necessary triangulation. And that took work, no question, achieving even a decent approximation of an orphaned Somali’s point of view. That took research, sure, like putting in days of interviews in a refugee camp. I went through more of the same with the city’s Immigrant Council, as well as with their lawyers and counselors. I read the papers and often visited that market I mentioned, “Calcutta.” Importantly, though, Risto has escaped Calcutta. Just as you say, he’s an immigrant success story, which I see now reflects my concern with identity in flux. The outsider, in this case, has broken in by way of the arts. Such work has always offered one of the best paths to acceptance; just look at what it’s meant for African Americans. And speaking of our own country, too, no answer for this question would be complete without acknowledging how much it meant to be exposed, throughout my life, to the multicultural mélange of larger American cities. If I’ve brought off a worthwhile portrait of a port city’s complexity, its peoples in flux (if I have…), that owes a great deal to the immigrant mix in which I grew up.

TM: Your novel brings us back to Risto’s early years, evoking a sophisticated European-seeming Mogadishu of the past and a more recent Alexandria, among other places? Again, I wondered how you may have used travel, research, and your imagination to render these very different eras and locales.

JD: Storytelling should never be confused with sociology, right? The compulsion generated by a long narrative, an extended reading experience, is rooted ultimately in empathy and wonder, not in learning. My Risto ought to set off shivers, tangled as he is in tricky reconstruction challenges, in knotty moral questions. In other words, I often conducted research simply by looking inwards. The man’s nearing 40, in fact his age surprises him at a couple of points, and so I made the arduous journey back into the caves of midlife. My father too figured in these investigations, inevitably. To look at him, you’d have said he’d done well in his New World, but as I pointed out earlier, he suffered lingering chills from across the Atlantic. Then too, considering the importance of Risto’s marriage, both for him as a man and for the story, I looked at the remarkable women surrounding me, partners, mothers, sisters, all wise to how the world works yet open to love and its adjustments.

But if Risto’s not simply a representative of a type, his type is part of the drama. He’s an endangered species, namely, the secular and cosmopolitan Afro-Arab. The Middle East and much of Africa, through much of the century just past, offered cultural hubs that rivaled Paris or Berlin. Beirut, as recently as the early 1970s, was synonymous with sophistication, not civil war. Alexandria—well, check the Quartet of Lawrence Durrell. Such places have suffered breakdowns too complex for any interview; the U.S. complicity in the tragedy goes back to the ‘50s, when we handed power to the Wahabbi Sauds. As for Mogadishu, it lies on major trade lines, and was one of the places celebrated as “the jewel in the Horn of Africa.” That lost dream stayed with Risto’s parents, it deluded them into coming back, but of course they weren’t alone in trying to salvage their Golden Age. Somalia too had its educated class, it progressive thinkers, some of them still with us. Nuruddin Farah’s novels may not always work, but they amount to an outcry for what might’ve been. See too the magnificent work of Elias Khoury and Khaled Khalifa, their villages and neighborhoods formerly humane, indeed enlightened, but now sheer hell.

TM: The scope and sweep of your Naples trilogy—told from many perspectives, from tourists to immigrants to natives—everything from race and immigration to natural disaster, murder, the threat of terrorism. How do you move on from such a vast and ambitious project? What is in the works for you? Further exploration of Naples? Returning home to use your writing to address our own addled country?

JD: As for scope and sweep…You know, as I grasped the shape and direction of The Color Inside, as I saw the centrality of solving the murder, I felt uncomfortable. No mere mystery plot could contain the vastness I had in mind, surely. Lo, I had been long in the wilderness. I’d wandered midlife wilderness and come back with a revelation.

Seriously, I’m satisfied with how this one crime winds up pointing to others, and in some cases to better dealings and doings. It looks to me as if I wrestled a sizeable chunk of the changing South and North into these texts, especially after the last novel’s run-throughs with so assiduous an editor as Michelle Dotter. If I’m right about that, if I’ve brought off roughly what I hoped to, then the memoir of my Naples rebirth seems the natural next project. That’s well along, I’d say; it may even have a title, The Archeology of a Good Ragù. Certainly it’s taught me things, like how reminiscence is an act of imagination, a creative effort, in which honesty demands, like these novels, multiple viewpoints.

What else? I’ve always got my reviewing and such, even now I’ve two or three deadlines hanging, and I guess I’ll never shake my sense that this work both helps define what I’m about and sustain a larger, much-loved community. Every now and then, too, it gifts me with a critical essay, a longer exploration and celebration of another talent; the latest case was Jenny Erpenbeck. As for something like fiction, actually I’ve been whacking my way through the jungle of a sort of historical drama, an exploration I’d never have suspected I’d investigate. It feels awfully strange, up-to-the-minute as well as historical, but it feels like a novel. Maybe this one can stand on its own.

has written two novels: the Kirkus-recommended Tyler’s Last and the Gival-prize winning The Cannibal of Guadalajara. His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Village Voice, The Iowa Review, Fiction, Bookforum and other journals. He is the fiction editor of The American, a magazine based in Rome, a contributing editor for Statorec, and frequently contributes to The Brooklyn Rail.