One day while indulging in my guilty pleasure of reading the O Magazine, I came across this article, “Books You’ll Love in Our Biggest, Best, Summer Reading Issue Ever!” One book in particular caught my eye and I’m sure it won’t take you long to understand why. When I first saw the title of the book, Elizabeth Street, I thought it was about a person.
However, it didn’t take long before I realized this book by Laurie Fabiano is about a family and their journey to America in the early 1900s that landed them on Elizabeth Street in New York City. The lead character, Giovanna (what a great name!) asks on her journey to a foreign land, “What plans do you have for me…L’America?” The answer is given in this, Fabiano’s debut novel. Maria Laurino describes the book Elizabeth Street as “both a fascinating immigrant story and an intimate portrait of how a first-generation American—and the author’s own great-grandmother—outwits one of the most brutal crime organizations of the early 20th century.”
Laurie Fabiano spoke with me recently on the topic of (what else) names. Not only about Laurie’s names, but also those of the characters in her book and her family. Laurie is an author but she’s also been busy studying the genealogy of her family and their names. Needless to say there was much for the two of us to discuss. Grab a cappuccino, a biscotti (or two) and be ready to be dazzled by some wonderful Italian names!
Why did your parents pick the name Laurie?
My mom just liked the name. All the names around me are so meaningful but mine really isn’t. There’s no real Italian connection to it like the other names in my family.
What about your last name?
Fabiano is my dad’s name. It’s from southern Italy. Fabiano is not such a common name here in the States, but we finally went to the village where my grandparents are from, Trani, and it was a different story there. It seemed like everything was Fabiano. Piazza Fabiano. Fabiano Café.
I was doing genealogical research in Trani and my first stop was the cemetery. Right there in the middle of the cemetery there was this large mausoleum and the name on it was Fabiano. I was wondering if maybe this was someone from my family so I approached the caretaker and as we talked he asked to see my genealogy papers. He took one look and explained that my Fabiano family was not the one resting in this mausoleum but more than likely the one who worked for this family. That’s how workers got their name generations ago. In Italy it was not unlike how many American slaves got their names – peasants took the name of the family they worked for. Our guess is centuries ago my family worked for the Fabiano family.
Regardless, it was fun to see the name everywhere. When I would tell people that my name was Fabiano, they would definitely take notice. I named my daughter Siena which was my grandmother’s last name. On that same trip we went to the city of Siena and it was nice for her to be able to see that.
My daughter loves her name. I wish my name were significant in some way. Her middle name is Nicola, which is her great-grandfather’s first name.
Have you heard this quote by Bill Cosby: “Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry.” You’ve got this covered with your daughter’s name!
I haven’t heard that quote before, but it’s funny. I like to say, give your children a middle name so when you call them, they’ll know if you’re angry.
How do you pronounce your name? Is it LAH-ree or the more like the traditional Lori?
It’s pronounced like the traditional Lori. My middle name is Anna and my fondest memories from my childhood was hearing my dear grandfather call me Laurianna.
So it’s a traditional name with a unique spelling?
Not really. Laurie is a common name in the United Kingdom, although in the U.K. it is more often a man’s name. When I went to England I was a bit chagrined to find out that the word for truck is “lorry” – written differently but pronounced the same.
Did you ever have a nickname?
My brother and dad called me Louie. They still do today.
Is it a disappointment that the name doesn’t carry more family significance?
Yes. The name Laurie really has no family significance. My younger sister is Anna Marie, which is my grandmother’s and mom’s name. My brother is named for my father.
When I did genealogical research I realized the significance of the Italian tradition of naming sons after the father’s father. I was able to trace generations back and see the same thing over and over; sons named after their grandfathers. That tradition begins to disappear after the first generation of immigrants who came to America.
It sounds as if the research for the book and the research about your genealogy and names coincided nicely!
That’s true. In fact, after the book was published I even started getting emails from people saying “I think I’m you’re cousin.” And now more of the women in our family have named their daughters Siena.
So you’ve inspired people with Italian names for their children?
Yes, but what feels even better is that when I initially wrote the book it was for my immediate family. I wanted them to know their family history. But now the book is “owned” by a much larger extended family. I think family is so important. This book has meant a lot to me, but the opportunity to connect with family members previously unknown to me was definitely an unexpected bonus.
What do you think of Italian names?
They have such beautiful rhythm to them. So much significance. Some names are in reference to saints. Other names go back thousands of years, which make them all the more interesting.
Your book Elizabeth Street has some meaningful names in it. Can you describe more about that?
One of the interesting name stories from the book is when Giovanna, the lead character, marries Rocco. They had both been previously married and widowed and they both adored their first spouses. They agreed that if they had children the boy would be named after Giovanna’s deceased spouse, Nunzio, and if it were a girl she would be named after Rocco’s deceased spouse, Angelina. All goes along as planned when they have their first child, a daughter, and they named her Angelina. However, by the time they have their second child, a son, Angelina has been kidnapped and they are trying to get her back. As a testament to Giovanna’s faith, instead of naming her son Nunzio as she and Rocco agreed, she named him Anthony after the patron saint of missing people. She was praying to Anthony for the safe return her daughter.
Was Rocco upset that Giovanna didn’t hold to their naming agreement?
It was her husband she would have named their son after so it was never an issue. That boy – Anthony – later received the nickname Cakie. Because he liked cake.
The characters in your book are based on your own family. Was Cakie a member of your family?
Yes, he was my uncle. I called him Uncle Cakie. He was quite a character. He was just such a wonderful person.
I really enjoyed reading about the characters in your book and listening to your description of them now. I feel the same when I describe my father and some of his friends of that generation. Even their way of speaking was so different. I wonder if globalization has taken away some of those endearing regional characteristics?
Definitely. We’re getting more and more homogenized. We’re all basically immigrants here in this country and yet with each new generation so much of this history becomes lost. The stories of individuals within the family — a lot of that gets lost. To the extent you can research your genealogy, it can help you learn so much more about where you come from.
In your book you do a sort of “tour of Elizabeth Street.” For those of us who have never been there, can you provide a brief description?
It is in lower east side of New York City. In the timeframe of the book, it’s probably the most densely populated street in New York City. It’s teaming with people. So many people were stuffed into the tenements. Elizabeth Street was home to many gruesome crimes — including numerous bombings — it eventually became the nexus of Black Hand activity. The Black Hand was basically the precursor to the mafia. This is why I decided to name the book Elizabeth Street.
Also, I named it Elizabeth Street in honor of my grandmother because it really is how her narratives always began. She would start her storytelling with, “We lived at 202 Elizabeth Street…” Although it took many years for her to open up. Her life story, the tragedies she went through, was not something she wanted to talk about.
Are there other place names in your book?
The other place name in the book is Scilla (pronounced sheela). It is the village in Calabria my family came from. The name “Scilla” comes from the ancient myth of Scylla. In the Illiad, Homer speaks of sailing through the strait of Messina and the danger of being eaten by the monster Syclla on the Calabrian coast or being caught in the whirlpools of the monster Charybdis on the Sicilian side. This is where the expression “between a rock and a hard place” comes from. In fact, I initially was going to name the book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.,” as it is the perfect metaphor for Italian immigration.
You recently had a family reunion with some of your cousins that you connected with after the book was published?
Yes, we had a family reunion in my hometown of Hoboken where around 70 Siena cousins, most of whom had never met, came together. It included first cousins that my mother hadn’t seen in 70 years. It was very emotional. It breathed life into the piece of paper called a family tree that I had been working on. I knew the gathering would be diverse and it was. It’s interesting you know, but instantly they became like family because you have all these shared characteristics. One cousin showed up with a trove of photographs. It was wonderful. I was seeing pictures of people I’d heard and written about but had never actually seen before.
You talk in the book about the voyage and entry into America through Ellis Island. Is it true that many immigrants had their names changed there?
When you begin writing a book, you come into it with it some preconceived notions. For example, I thought Ellis Island was an awful place. In reality, what I learned was that it wasn’t that bad. The concept of people having new names forced upon them was another preconceived notion. What I learned was a revelation. There’s a common belief that many names were changed at Ellis Island. However, very few names were actually changed at Ellis Island, if any at all. Most names got changed when children of immigrants went to school. When I started researching more — looking at things like birth and marriage certificates — is when I discovered this. The teachers couldn’t or didn’t want to pronounce all the different ethnic names. With Italian names they would take out a vowel here or there. Our family name, which was Siena, became Senna.
So these children of immigrants would come home and say to their parents, “My name isn’t Siena, it’s Senna.” How did the parents react to teachers changing the name of their children?
I think most of them were fine with it because the real desire was assimilation. By 1930, four and half millions Italians had come to America. Half of them went back. The ones who stayed wanted to assimilate.
How long did it take you to write Elizabeth Street?
It took forever to write this book because I had a very busy job and a family. It was written in stolen moments over a 10-year period.
Do you have a next book coming?
I have another book in the works, but I’m not actively working on it right now. I also have a career as a producer of events and strategic marketing for non-profit organizations so I’m fairly busy right now.
If you could change your name for just a day and no one would question it or think it was odd, what name would you pick?
That’s easy. I would change my name to Giovanna, after my great-grandmother.
Talking with Laurie Fabiano about her name, her family names, and the characters in this book was a most delightful discussion. It was particularly poignant talking with someone who has done research on her genealogy. Having a historical understanding about the names in your family can really shed a lot of light on the different strains of your own DNA. I think Laurie would agree with me in saying that if you don’t already know it, you should consider researching your family tree. Soon-to-be parents today scour modern name books for the right name for their unborn child. They might be surprised to learn of some uncommon and more meaningful names in their own family lineage.
There’s a reason why this book – Elizabeth Street – has been recommended by the likes of O Magazine and the New York Times. It’s a thoughtfully written book full of immensely interesting people; characters made even more appealing (if you ask me) by their charming and meaningful names. I hope you run out today and read it and then come back and join in on the discussion with me here or on the Elizabeth Street Facebook Page. I promise you, it will be time well-spent.