Why Is Every­body Yelling?: Grow­ing Up in My Immi­grant Family

Maris­abi­na Russo

  • Review
By – March 16, 2022

In her new graph­ic mem­oir, the pro­lif­ic author and artist Maris­abi­na Rus­so exceeds expec­ta­tions of the pop­u­lar genre. Every page brings fresh insights into her com­pli­cat­ed fam­i­ly with humor, irony, and ambiva­lent love. Although the noise lev­el she alludes to in the title will be instant­ly famil­iar to any child or grand­child of immi­grants, there are no clichés here.

Rus­so offers a reminder of the dif­fer­ences in each indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence of the Holo­caust, as well as the long-reach­ing con­se­quences of trau­ma, in her lat­est work. Maris­abi­na lives with her Jew­ish refugee moth­er, a Catholic con­vert, in Queens, New York. Her Ital­ian father is absent, and two old­er half-broth­ers serve as a reminder of the war years when their own father was mur­dered by the Nazis. Marisabina’s pas­sage from child­hood to ado­les­cence is try­ing, as she strug­gles with parental expec­ta­tions and nav­i­gates the haz­ards of school and social acceptance.

As with many chil­dren, Marisabina’s par­tic­u­lar envi­ron­ment is both nor­mal and utter­ly frus­trat­ing, large­ly con­trolled by adults, who are them­selves not always in con­trol. Yet, as she grad­u­al­ly reveals her family’s past, read­ers become aware of the dis­so­nance between the ideals of post­war Amer­i­ca and the real­i­ty of her frac­tured life. She does not express self-pity, only the bewil­dered reac­tions of a sen­si­tive child as she comes to terms with her own identity.

Every pan­el of this mem­oir answers the ques­tion posed in its title. When her sto­ry begins, Maris­abi­na is a deeply reli­gious lit­tle girl, unhap­pi­ly aware that her fam­i­ly sees her mother’s con­ver­sion as a betray­al. Her grand­moth­er and aunt have sur­vived Auschwitz; their ordeal is nev­er explained, so her aunt’s num­ber tat­too remains a strange­ly dis­em­bod­ied symbol.

Fam­i­ly con­ver­sa­tions in Yid­dish are glossed with Eng­lish cap­tions, allow­ing the chaot­ic nature of fam­i­ly dis­cus­sions to emerge nat­u­ral­ly. The author cap­tures the inno­cence of her for­mer self, admit­ting, Despite the fact that my rel­a­tives spoke Yid­dish, ate her­ring, and drank seltzer, it nev­er occurred to me that I might actu­al­ly be Jew­ish.” Yid­dish shows up in Marisabina’s split con­scious­ness when she con­tem­plates becom­ing a nun to escape the fer­misht tum­mel” of her noisy family.

Sub­tly alter­nat­ing between child­hood and adult per­spec­tives, Rus­so cre­ates a dia­logue between Maris­abi­na and the read­er. Illus­tra­tions in pas­tel and bright col­ors por­tray char­ac­ters in real­is­tic detail while pre­serv­ing some of a child’s naïve inter­pre­ta­tion of the adult world. Black-and-white is used for flash­back scenes and sim­u­lat­ed pho­tos. By the end of the book, noth­ing is ful­ly resolved, but every­thing has gained clar­i­ty. Vis­it­ing the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, Maris­abi­na vis­cer­al­ly iden­ti­fies with Matisse’s paint­ing The Red Stu­dio,fore­shad­ow­ing her own pro­fes­sion­al future. Reli­gious­ly, there are many unan­swered ques­tions. Attend­ing a fam­i­ly seder for the first time, this Catholic-Jew­ish girl expe­ri­ences a spir­i­tu­al epiphany, as all the par­tic­i­pants moved in grace­ful syn­co­pa­tion.” At the same time, she excludes her­self from the col­lec­tive mem­o­ries they share. Russo’s graph­ic mem­oir at least part­ly restores those mem­o­ries to her­self, while also mak­ing them avail­able to for­tu­nate readers.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed graph­ic mem­oir­in­cludes a thought­ful epi­logue and a sec­tion of fam­i­ly photos.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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