And on the table in front of her is the question rocketed into literary space last year by Italian American nonfiction writer (and occasional Elaine's habitue) Gay Talese in a meditative New York Times essay.
Where Are the Italian-American Novelists?
"When I saw that headline," recalls this fast-talking Pittsburgh native, who reads from her book at Borders' Center City store tonight at 7:30, "I said, 'Here I am!' "
An understandable reflex. Around the country, hands shot up from scores of Italian Americans - published authors and those who'd managed to string together several sentences at some stage in their careers. Yet Talese's query triggered a huge reaction mainly because of the explanations he attached.
Recalling his own dropping of a novel about his father four decades ago, Talese remarked that for Italian American writers of his generation, "Not to protect the privacy of your family from the potential exploitation of your prose would have been considered unpardonable. . . ."
The silence of the Italian Americans, he argued, was an extension of "the reticence of our forebears," their "legacy of lying low."
That, however, was just one factor. Finding a "conspicuous absence" of Italian Americans among the nation's leading novelists, Talese sought added reasons from Italian American writers in other genres.
English professor Fred Gardaphe cited a book business dominated by ''editors and publishers whose backgrounds are mostly Anglo-Saxon and Jewish." Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis pointed to a failure by Italian Americans to become the sort of educated book buyers and readers whose patronage publishers might seek. Academic theorist Frank Lentricchia suggested a pragmatic streak among Italian Americans that steered them away from academe's meager benefits.
Then Talese himself contributed a topper: that "the writer's life is a solitary one, and I believe solitude is a most unnatural condition for the village-dwelling people that the Italians essentially are. . . . "
For 37-year-old Anna Monardo, many years Talese's junior, a lot of the points rang true.
"The prohibition that Italians have within themselves to not talk about family," she says, "to not reveal secrets, to put a good face on things, to make la bella figura (a good appearance) is very, very true. But especially the thing about not revealing family secrets. I fought that a lot while I was writing. That was one reason it took me so long to do it. So I agree. I was glad to see it in words."
Still, her own thousands of words about family tension in The Courtyard of Dreams, like those of young contemporary Italian American fiction writers such as Jay Parini and Agnes Rossi, suggest that the instincts that ruled Talese's generation are fading fast.
You could get a sense of that at Monardo's own short-story workshop this spring at NYU. As Monardo counseled her students one evening to know their narrators, to make every detail count, to treat "dialogue like money" ("You've got to think about it before you spend it"), one aspiring writer listening hard was 28-year-old Elise Catera, a flutist contemplating some fiction about her own upbringing after her parents' divorce.
"It's true, I don't think of Italian Americans as writers," Catera remarked later, when asked about Talese's question. But confronted with his notion about the Italian instinct to protect the family, she replied feistily: ''I want to write about it. I want revenge."
Monardo's own route to her family novel testifies to a steadfast writerly commitment. Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, she read Anna Karenina when she was 12 "because her name was Anna and I wanted to get a glimpse of what my life might be like."
After the standard love affair with Jane Austen and a traditionalist education at St. Mary's College in Indiana, Monardo came to New York, still feeling "it was too scary to say I wanted to be a writer."
Like many before her, she found that stints in book and magazine publishing made fiction writing seem like something a person not already in an
anthology could do without paralyzing fear. Off she went to Columbia's fast- track MFA program in creative writing. Then came years of working on the novel while holding things together with a mix of journalism and teaching jobs: proofreading at Time, teaching English to Soviet and Iranian Jews, writing workshops in Staten Island and Queens.
She never felt she stuck out as an Italian American writer because her MFA class at Columbia included other Italian Americans. She does suspect a greater ''lack of solidarity among Italian American writers" than among some other ethnic groups, but she isn't sure.
In some ways, Monardo recognizes that she's more like Talese and his generation than her contemporaries in having grown up with a father who spoke English with an accent, often spoke Italian at home, and retained Old World formality.
But asked whether she's a stereotypical Italian American woman, she answers with a laugh, "I've had a life between my original family and I'm not married, I've never been married, and I don't have children."
In fact, like most fiction writers, she's always cared more about the personal stories she wanted to tell than about achieving any kind of ethnic milestone. Over the decade it took her to write A Courtyard of Dreams, she always thought, "I've got this story. I've got to tell this story."
The story centers on Giulia Di Cuore, teenage daughter of a mother and father both born in Italy. Giulia's mother dies of cancer when she's young, and she's raised in suburban Ohio by Nicola, her strict psychiatrist father. The regular presence of her grandmother, aunt and cousin contribute to the old-country feel.
When her father offers her a summer with the Calabrian relatives in Italy following high school graduation, Giulia quickly falls for handsome Luca, which creates its share of family friction when Nicola arrives in late summer.
Asked to sum up her book in a sentence or two, Monardo says, "It's about separation. An adolescent separating from a parent. Parents separating themselves from children. Immigrants separating themselves from the homeland."
Monardo's twist on the traditional immigration-novel plot is to move the action quickly back to the old country, forcing the assimilated protagonist to directly experience the old country's power. Because Nicola, like Monardo's own father, is an erudite professional with formal, rather street-tough, manners, the novel also avoids the cliched Italian Americans familiar from Moonstruck: incapable of emotions that fall short of slapstick.
Separation is also a good way to describe Monardo's efforts toward distancing herself from Giulia. Her mother, she notes, is still alive, her retired M.D. father is warmer and funnier than Nicola, she didn't have quite the passionate tryst that Giulia does with Luca. But those efforts are modest.
Anna Monardo, after all, also had precious experiences in Italy during the '70s that she wanted to preserve. Her father also quoted Dante at impromptu moments. She also wanted to explore the conflict of "living in one place and being tied to another."
A Courtyard of Dreams is not the kind of novel whose core idea popped up one day in workshop. It's a novel so merged with memory that you forget you're reading it for the first time.
"I spent a lot of time struggling with the questions of 'Should I live in Italy?' 'Am I Italian or American?' " Monardo says.
Like Giulia, she lived in Italy for a stretch, and feels the novel is about ''an American up against Italy."
"The facts of Giulia's life are not mine," she concludes. "The conflicts are."
Yet she acknowledges that "the tempestuous relationship with the father" reflects her own life: "I wasn't afraid to argue with him, which I think was sort of a shock. That idea - of the American daughter who confronts the father - is true. He wasn't prepared for that. There wasn't a vocabulary for it. There wasn't precedent for it."
Monardo, however, felt certain things had to be said. Another impulse, perhaps, that betrays the generation gap among Italian American writers.
With autumn here, readings scheduled in multiple cities and reviews rolling in (Mirabella magazine said "Monardo writes beautifully"), Monardo appears upbeat, her Italy fixation under control. She says she decided in her early 30s that she couldn't move there permanently because, partly for reasons of language, she would always have been living "a marginal life."
"I never feel more American than when I'm in Italy," she admits.
Later this fall, she'll head in the other direction, taking up a one-year appointment as a visiting writer at Eastern Washington State in Spokane. Asked if she feels fearful about leaving New York just when her book is finally out, she responds with an anti-glitz philosophy that seems as authentic as her Calabrian settings.
"There's always this feeling in New York that you're just, almost, in the loop. But for writers, the loop doesn't really exist. For fiction writers, where it happens is at home, alone."
All the same, the thought that her book might be translated into Italian, prompting a little promotional activity over there, does not leave her unmoved.
"That would be wonderful," she says. "I'd have to practice my Italian a bit."