Sunday, February 27, 2011

Guest Post: Author of When We Were Strangers - Pamela Schoenewaldt

When We Were Strangers: A Novel  When We Were Strangers  is a work of historical fiction which chronicles the emigration of Irma Vitale  from Italy to the United States.  Author Pamela Schoenewaldt expertly captures the struggle of immigrants and the experience of being caught between two worlds.  I was so invested in Irma's story! My review will be up shortly but in the meantime check out reviews here and here.  Pamela graciously agreed to guest post on my blog in conjunction with my Immigrant Stories Challenge.  

An Immigrant in Naples

My historical novel of immigration, When We Were Strangers, is set in the 1880s, when Irma Vitale leaves her mountain village in Southern Italy and comes to America. My “research” began in November, 1990, when I left Northern California to live in Naples, Italy with my fiancé, Maurizio, and felt the searing displacement that might have been Irma’s.

I’d been to Italy as a tourist on the customary circuit. Nothing of those sunny easy days prepared me for life in the center of Naples. I had worked in California as a freelance writer with some success. In Naples I could barely frame a sentence. Shopping, the gay experience of so American-in-Italy cinema, was complex. “You bombed this!” one man said accusingly, pointing to a church damaged by the Allies during World War II.

November was cold and rainy; our apartment unheated. We lived in coats. In the old quarters of Naples, roads are paved with basalt; buildings climbing overhead were dark with age, opening to slits of gray sky. No parks, trees or grass. I knew that in a walled medieval city, parks are an unreasonable luxury, yet I ached for California’s green.

“It’s a small apartment,” Maurizio had warned before I came to Naples. No kidding. We had a basso, two rooms on the ground floor of a vicoletto, an alley 10 feet wide, paved in the eternal basalt, in constant shadow. Our front room had one “window,” an opening to the vicoletto about 18 inches square, lined in black marble a foot deep. That would be our refrigerator. We parked Maurizio’s motorcycle inside for safety. Our hand-washed clothes dried with aching slowness here, for they would be stolen if hung outside. Our bedroom had no window. Frequent power failures left it pitch dark. But of all these inconveniences (soon over for we had moved by Spring), the worst was to feel so foreign, awkward and ignorant. After some social gaffe, like shaking hands on a frigid day with gloves on (uncouth) or using a formal rather than informal “you” or vice versa, I wanted to say, “In my country, I know the rules.”

Of course when I began the novel, I did formal research, studying ships, immigration patterns, Ellis Island and its predecessor, Castle Gardens. I read How the Other Half Lives (1890) by Jacob Riis, the classic (deeply racist) description of life in Manhattan’s foul East Side ghettos. I visited the Tenement Project and read Italian classics on life in the South. I used university and public library resources, government documents and online sources.

But to truly create Irma’s passage, I stripped away my immigrant advantages – education and a profession, money in the bank and a fiancé I adored – to imagine myself a young girl in an utterly strange land in which all that I knew and knew how to do was irrelevant. The experience was humbling; it was soul-changing, and it connected me forever to those who have been made strangers, those who ache for our welcome.

Pamela Schoenewaldt lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. She visited Opi, where her novel When We Were Strangers opens on cross-country skiing trips and was inspired by its solemn beauty, isolation and the reserved pride of its people. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy, and the U.S. Her play “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with My Mother) was produced at Teatro Cilea, Naples. Pamela Schoenewaldt taught writing at the University of Maryland, European Division, and at the University of Tennessee. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband, Maurizio Conti—a medical physicist, and their dog, Jesse—a philosopher. Visit her at her blog

As part of my Immigrant Stories Challenge, I will feature a post on the last day of each month which focuses on immigrant literature or the immigrant experience.  Pamela - thank you so much for sharing a little with us about your immigrant experience and how it influenced the creation of Irma!


  1. Sounds like an interesting story, I love this kind of book genre. Also read commendable reviews on B&N.. I'm putting this book in my wishlist =)

  2. Sounds very interesting - I love that she has her own personal experiences. I'm sure that adds depth to the story.

  3. That was absolutely fascinating--I have got to read "When We Were Strangers" now! I really liked how Pamela began her research in actuality by experiencing the emigrant takes such courage to live in another country and culture. I also found the reference by the Italian to the WWII bombing surprisingly harsh. Thanks for a great guest post--really enjoyed that!