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Natrona Heights native fictionalizes the immigrant experience

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By Rege Behe
Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

With a few revisions and some judicious editing, Paola Corso's "Catina's Haircut" could have been a memoir. Many of the stories in the book are culled from real life, whether passed down by her family or by way of observation.

Instead, she cast the new book -- subtitled "A Novel in Stories" -- as fiction.

"These things I'm relaying, there are some truths, but there is a lot of fabrication," says Corso, who grew up in Natrona Heights and now lives in Brooklyn. "I wouldn't want to present it as anything but fiction, even though there are elements of truth to it. I like having that freedom to take something that is true and spin it into its own shape."

Corso's stories span a century, starting with the opening tale, "The Rise and Fall of Antonio Del Negro," set in San Procopio in the Italian province of Reggio Calabria in the late 1910s. The last story, "Mirage," returns to San Procopio in the present day. In between, Corso charts the story of a family that comes to Pittsburgh, establishes itself, but still has ties to its ancestral home.

The author admits she wasn't always a good listener when her family talked about its history.

"When I was younger, stories went through one ear and out the other," says Corso, who is a writer-in-residence at Western Connecticut State University. "But then came a point when I became very, very interested in my family background and heritage. I couldn't wait to find out about these stories."

Some of Corso's stories are linked to historic events. "Hell and High Water" is a retelling of the St. Patrick's Day flood that struck Pittsburgh in 1936 through the eyes of a young girl who has recently emigrated to America. "St. Odo's Curse" deals with a drought that devastated southern Italy early in the 20th century.

Other stories are a blend of personal history and observation. The title story came about when Corso saw a woman with hair that reached down past her knees. "Jesus in Bars" was sparked when Corso saw a statue of Jesus in a cage. From that starting point, she added details about a woman who takes a bus to the Strip District in search of live chickens.

"It definitely has this folklorish quality where you kind of have to go with it, see it for what it is," she says. "The good thing about magical realism is there's a slight chance it can happen. Maybe 99.9 percent of the time, it's not going to happen. But as long as there's a slight chance, then you want it to be believable."

Magical realism also plays a part in the stories that bookend "Catina's Haircut." Both touch upon the Fata Morgana, the legendary mirage that is said to appear in the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily. Most often taking the form of an island city, Fata Morgana is, according to Corso, a meteorological phenomenon that is also a matter of faith, especially for those Italians in dire circumstances.

"I guess for my characters, just believing and having faith in that possibility is important," she says. "As long as they had some hope they would persevere. ... But they come to realize their Fata Morgana, their dream in the sky, is not going to occur in that country. They have to immigrate and try to create that dream somewhere else."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Rich in history, Paola Corso's 'Catina's Haircut: A Novel in Stories' is an imaginative look at the Italian immigrant experience in America. Corso's small, vivid stories end up being writ large, alternately personal and universal.

• Rege Behe

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