By Daniela Enriquez
Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson is an original and fun book that, from the very first page, brings you to the heart of one of the most beautiful and peculiar Italian cities. As a Sicilian, I was afraid that inside I would find all of the stereotypes that are unfortunately too often linked with the South of Italy and Naples in particular. On the contrary, what we find are pages full of all the beauty and liveliness of a culture that only someone who experienced it firsthand could really love and understand. Wilson tells of her life-changing Neapolitan experience as it really happened, and brings the reader to the core of life in Naples. While going through this book, the reader experiences with all five senses – you can almost smell and taste the amazing food! – what it means to connect with a tradition in which family and food are the highest values. So relax on your couch, start from the first page and be ready to fall in love with Napoli!
You can find the book HERE!
A conversation with Katherine Wilson
DE: The events you talk about in your book happened in the 90s. Why did you decide to write this book, and why now?
KW: I’ve lived in Italy now for almost twenty years, and like many people who are bi-cultural I often feel like I have two identities. I wrote this book in part to stitch together those two identities, and also because I wanted to take American friends and family to Naples with me! To have them taste the unbelievable food, to experience the deep humanity of the Neapolitan people. There are so many wonderful aspects of Neapolitan culture that I wanted people to understand. On a deeper level, I felt the need to share how I was transformed by this city and this family, and how I was freed of many things that had kept me from enjoying my life in the US.
DE: The protagonists of your book are you, your husband and his family. But I would say the main character is the city of Naples. What makes this city so special and so different from other Italian cities? Do you think your initial perceptions of Italy, and Italians, would have been different if you lived in a different city?
KW: Absolutely. When I moved to Naples from Washington, I thought that I was moving to Italy. But the culture that I became immersed in, and the language I learned, belonged to a city that has been around for three thousand years – Italy as a country has been around only one hundred and fifty five. The cuisine, the traditions, even the worldview were Neapolitan. Now that we live in Rome, I tease my Neapolitan husband that life would be a lot easier if he had a translator: not just for the language, but to get the Romans’ sense of humor and ways of relating. I find myself explaining Neapolitan customs to friends from Bologna, or Florence. A Venetian friend of mine who read the book said that reading about Naples was like reading about a foreign country. Well, they were independent countries 300 years ago, and culturally they still are.
It frustrates me that Naples gets such a bad rap, both in Italy and abroad. It’s known for being dirty and dangerous, plagued by corruption and scandal. (Just think that when my book was translated in Italian, the editor told me that we had to change the title: no Italian would buy a book with the word Naples in the title!) Well that didn’t correspond to my experience. I found the most generous, warm-hearted people, I found a sensory paradise, I found a place where I was constantly laughing. People need to know that side of Naples, too.
DE: Paraphrasing the title of the book…what is the most important lesson you received “in food and famiglia”?
KW: Neapolitans’ traditions surrounding food are something to be learned from. Preparing and eating divine food in compagnia, without rushing, doesn’t just satisfy the body on a deep level. It reinforces relationship. We’re hard-wired to live in tribes, and to share nourishment. I think a lot of Americans have forgotten about that. Also, there is a priority in Italy given to simple, delicious ingredients that truly satisfy our bodies. Food is meant to nourish, to satisfy, and to enjoy. And in Naples, it certainly does!
DE: The book is full of personal experiences. Tell us one story that you still recall with a smile and one that…you didn’t write about in the book.
KW: One experience that I didn’t write about was the first time my in-laws came to the US. I had been under the wing of my Neapolitan mother-in-law for about two years, and then all of a sudden I found myself in the position of showing her the ropes in America. We’d be in line at a sandwich place, and she would push her way to the front, pissing off everyone and wreaking havoc. We went on a cruise, and she put her name down about eight times on the sign-up sheet for the treadmill in the gym, “just in case”. “Raffaella,” I had to tell her. “Da noi non si fa così!” I literally had to train her to respect rules and order in public places, and it was pretty funny. By the time they left, she’d learned!
DE: In a way, Naples healed you and improved your relationship with food. Can you talk about this change?
KW: Like a lot of young American women, when I moved to Italy I had an unhealthy relationship with food, and with my body and appetites. I thought food was to be controlled and not enjoyed, my body was to be judged, and my appetites were to be suppressed. That all changed in Naples. I found a culture that celebrated the carnale, where I could take joy in my body and appetites rather than judging them. (Not to mention taking joy in the divine food itself!) Many American readers have told me, “your book made me hungry… but a good hungry!” Well my Neapolitan family would say that hunger is always good. It means you’re alive.
DE: Are the ideal readers of your book Americans, Italians or both? Why?
KW: When I wrote the book, the ideal reader in my mind was American. I wanted Americans to read it and then book a flight to Naples! But a happy surprise with the publication has been that many of my most enthusiastic readers have been Italians. I think it’s always interesting to see your own culture from the point of view of a foreigner. And I’m thrilled to be told that it makes both Italians and Americans laugh – humor is a way to underline that despite all of our cultural differences and idiosyncrasies, we’re all the same.