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Reconnecting with Ma by Setting Her Story to the Page

A Q&A with Marianne Leone

Marianne Leone and her mother Linda
Marianne Leone and her mother Linda. Photo credit: Marianne Leone

Marianne Leone is an acclaimed actor, best known for her recurring role on HBO’s hit show The Sopranos. She’s also an essayist, screenwriter, and author of her much-heralded memoir Jesse: A Mother’s Story. She’s written a new book, Ma Speaks Up: And a First-Generation Daughter Talks Back, which we just published this week.

In Ma Speaks Up, Leone tells the story of her larger-than-life Italian immigrant mother. Her mother grew up on a farm and then found her way to the United States under dark circumstances, having escaped a forced marriage to a much older man, and marries a good Italian boy. In her often hilarious and at times sobering portrait of her outspoken Ma, Leone also gives us an intimate account of growing up in an immigrant enclave outside of Boston. Life with Ma is equally packed with adventure, love, great cooking, mother-daughter tension, and above all, humor. Leone sat with Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman to talk about the inspiration behind writing the memoir, recording the audiobook version of it, and what we can learn from Ma during a time of overt hostility toward immigrants.

Christian Coleman: Tell us about what inspired you to write a book about your mother.

Marianne Leone: My mother was a singular, irrepressible individual. Her wake, held in the working class area of Newton where I grew up called “The Lake,” was like a celebrity’s, with people from all walks of life telling stories about her. I wanted to tell her story, too, and the idea for this memoir, like my first book, grew out of an essay I had written called “The Official Story.” My mother was an immigrant who had come to the States to escape fascism under Mussolini and an arranged marriage. With my mother, there was the “official story” of her emigration, and the real story that I didn’t learn until years later, which I told in the book. When you leave the country of your birth and settle an entire continent away, there is the heartbreak of loss, the excitement of new adventures, and the chance to become someone else, because no one knows the you that was a child from a village at the foot of the Appenines. And, as a more mundane answer, I just wanted to spend time with her, because I missed her.

CC: In the acknowledgments of Ma Speaks Up, you thank those who helped you decrypt your mother’s “sibylline messages” to shape them into a book that “both decodes and celebrates her.” What work went into putting her life story together in a narrative format?

ML: I have to thank Helene Atwan, my brilliant editor for that. I had originally written a lot of these chapters as a series of disparate essays. Helene, and my agent, Colleen Mohyde, had suggestions for creating a narrative that would flow more easily and with more of a narrative arc.

CC: Having written about your own motherhood in your first book Jesse, what was it like approaching the topic of your mother’s experiences raising a family?

ML: I think in reading my own manuscript over that I return again and again to the theme of empathy, and that my experience as a mother gave me insight into my own mother’s difficulties in raising me. The old cliché holds true, I guess. What fascinated me the most about mothering was the scientific truth of microchimerism, which I address in the chapter titled “Mother, Mother, Mother.” Microchimerism is the presence of your mother’s cells that remain with you in your body, along with the cells of your children that also remain. That link seems like science reflecting a philosophical and deeply emotional truth.

CC: Ma Speaks Up covers the years your mother raised you in the “Lake” neighborhood just outside Boston. How do you see your book contributing to or dialoguing with New England literature?

ML: Almost to a person, the Italian-Americans in the “Lake” came from the same little mountain town in Italy, San Donato Val di Comino. I think the immigrant story is the essential story of America, and the laborers and artisans that came from Italy made their contributions along with the others who came here from all over the globe. Specifically in our part of town, the other major immigrant group was the Irish, and they had the double advantage of coming before the Italians and coming with English as their first language. There was hostility between the two groups, to be sure, but there were a lot of intermarriages, too! When I think of Italian immigrants in New England, I think of Sacco and Vanzetti, of course, and of the Bread and Roses strike in the Lawrence mills, led by immigrants from many countries, including Italy. My great-aunt, who sponsored my mother when she came here, was an imaginative businesswoman who drove a bus with dresses for sale to the workers in those same mills! Lastly, I think the flintiness of the Yankee personality resonated, strangely enough, with the mountain folk of San Donato!

CC: There are many scenes of your mother’s outspoken personality in full dramatic display. Do you have any favorites, or are there any that stand out most to you now?

ML: I have to admit, I love the scene where my husband’s parents meet my mother for the first time and, after me begging her to contain herself, she ends up in an argument with Chris’ doctor father about euthanasia. The scene of my seven year old self begging her to go to church makes me laugh today though it was dire at the time, as I feared for her immortal soul since she chose to make pasta rather than go to church on Sundays. I like the moral dilemma it raised, since I wanted the pasta more than I really wanted her to go to church!

CC: You also recorded Ma Speaks Up as an audiobook, released at the same time. Were there always plans at the beginning for an audiobook?

ML: I think I remember Helene Atwan saying there would be an audiobook and suggesting that I record it, and my relief that I would, because my mother’s combined Italian/Boston accent would be tricky to achieve for someone who hadn’t heard her speak.

CC: Tell us what it was like working in the recording studio. Reading your text as an actor must require an altogether different frame of mind from telling Ma’s story as a writer.

ML: First of all, working with Anna Drummond, the sound engineer, was a complete delight. She was spectacularly competent with all those millions of sound waves, and she was a supportive audience. Yes, I’m an actor, but like everyone else on the planet, I hate the sound of my own voice. And yes, beyond the frame of mind, what exasperated me was the length of my sentences and learning where to pause and take a breath. When it’s in your head, it’s fine to ramble on and on, but after speaking some of those marathon phrases, I practically required an oxygen mask. I have a high metabolism and tend to rush things, and that applies to speech, also, so it took a while to find the right rhythm. And it meant a lot to me that my book resonated with someone as young as Anna, from a completely different background. 

CC: As you mentioned earlier, your mother came to America to escape the rise of Mussolini and fascism in Italy. Ma Speaks Up came out in time for an administration with a hostile attitude toward immigrants. How do you see your mother’s experiences resonating with what’s happening in our country now?

ML: I just finished an essay for Cognoscenti, the WBUR blog, about bullying, which was heralded as a good thing in a young man under fascism. It infuriates me to read about racists like Carl Paladino and Rudy Giuliani, who forget what it was like when Italian immigrants were the “other.” In 1891, eleven Sicilian immigrants were lynched by a mob in New Orleans. Southern Italians were not considered “white” during the mass emigrations at the turn of the last century. In my essay, I tell about my mother’s reaction when the Italian lady who had lived next door to us for over forty years sold her house and three generations of a Pakistani Muslim family moved in. My mother was delighted that there was a little girl the same age as her granddaughter and that they could be playmates, and she loved little girl’s older brother, who was the same age as my mother when she came here. She plied them with food and listened to his troubles and said, “I know what it’s like to feel strange and not know nobody.” The only thing she couldn’t understand was why they wouldn’t eat her meatballs and pork sausages! 


About Marianne Leone 

Marianne Leone is an actress, screenwriter and essayist. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Post Road, Bark Magazine, Coastal Living and WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog. Her memoir, Jesse: A Mother’s Story, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2010. Leone had a recurring role on HBO’s hit show, The Sopranos as Joanne Moltisanti, Christopher’s mother. She has also appeared in films by David O. Russell, Larry David, John Sayles, and Martin Scorsese. She is married to the award-winning actor Chris Cooper. Follow her on Twitter at @LeoneMarianne and visit her website.