Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gentle Reader...

...I hope you will read me and share your comments, wherever you are. I hope you will chime in with your ideas on what memoir-writing, writing in general, writing within a specific culture (not necessarily the North American one — I'm multicultural and fully bilingual), and culture in general, are about. 

I hope there will be gentle readers to this blog. 

The thought of having a blog had entered my mind many times and I'd always rejected it as "unnatural". Finally, a couple of weeks ago I went to the Willamette Writers Conference and pitched my book to an editor who advised me to have a blog. His was a gentle but decisive push, enough to march me over the threshold of my indecision. An indecision of a cultural nature — as most things with me are, as most things with most humans are.
I'm an Italian woman of a middle age and of the old school — the one that teaches that you will meet people if you just make yourself visible and available. This may still happen (or not) to a degree in the old country, but in the new world it's a whole other story. Scores of lonely people sit in coffee shops scouting their laptops for new friends to add to their Facebook page. 
A vision that still seems odd to me. 
And here we move already from writing to culture (my anthropologically-bent mind won't let me go any other way): in my country of  birth, people go to coffee shops to socialize and chat with friends, and they stay home if they need privacy. Here in North America, it seems that the opposite is true: people share houses more often than not, more often than not with others they have (or have ceased to have) not much in common with, so the only way to be alone and in peace is to sit in a public place. 

And so, gentle reader, I've already told you a bit about me, and here's more:

I am a writer of non-fiction currently working on a memoir project based on my mother's life and her death. She was mentally ill and though this kind of memoir is a dime a dozen these days, my mother was nothing like the glamorous, eccentric mad woman that most books or movies on this subject depict. It is a challenge to write about an "invisible woman" whose life would otherwise disappear, but it's a challenge I welcome as a needed antidote to the incessant and inane chatter of "celebrity" lives that permeates contemporary culture. 
I was conflicted about my mother all throughout her life. After she died, the pain of guilt (the guilt of not having been able to "save" her from her madness and from her horrible death) took over for a while. In the end, working through my grief, I came to the conclusion I needed to write this memoir as a memento, a tribute to a life that never amounted to much. 
My mother made my life hell with her madness but she was also a mirror held up to my own struggles with "normality", my rebellion against the life that Southern Italian culture required I live: to become a wife, mother, guardian of the house. So I ran away from my mother and from my own culture and I find myself today stranded as far away from my Mediterranean roots as I could possibly be — in Portland, Oregon (it feels a bit like being one of those medieval explorers who believed they'd fall off the edge of the world if they navigated too far).
Before alighting on these western shores, I lived in another North West, the Canadian one, in Vancouver BC. And before that, I made my home in the frozen wasteland of Buffalo, NY. And before that, I lived in England (mostly London) for fifteen years. Oh, and I forgot to mention five months spent in Munich between my hometown of Naples and moving to England... 

The word "home" means so little to me. And yet it means so much...

So now I'm trying to find my own home in writing, in my heart, and in my mind. 
Memory is like a shattered mirror that reflects back the past in fragments, in shards. 
I'm writing this memoir as a collection of such fragments, of shards of the shattered mirror that was my mother's life, and her life with me, and my life with her. 
Each of these stories is a different one, requiring a different view mirror.
There are poems in this story, there are tales about history and religion and politics in Italy, and in Naples. My city, for those who know it, is an unknowable entity. Many have tried to scrutinize it, analyze it, tell her story, but she remains mysterious and unyielding. There are fantastic tales about her, there are tall tales and there are nasty stories. The truth is a amalgam of all these nuances, and cannot be told in simple, black-and-white strokes.
And so is with the story of my mother's history.
An aside: one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, talks in one of his essays about language and culture that Italian is profoundly at odds with English, and uses the example of the word storia, which in Italian has a multiplicity of meanings: story; history; tale; dealings; romantic or sexual affair.

Gentle reader, qual' รจ la tua storia — what is your storia
How do you relate to the workings of memory; the writing of memoir; the writing life in general; the mirror that is mother; the loneliness of the long-distance life (with apologies to Alan Sillitoe)?

I'm curious to know. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it seems to benefit humans immensely. I've always liked to adopt literary quotes as life mottos, and this Dorothy Parker phrase has become my current motto:
"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity"


  1. I consider this search for story to be an essential part of the human journey on earth. I have certainly been trying to find my own story for as long as I can remember, and it was only when I discovered memoirs that I finally began to pull together some of the pieces. And then, the road continues! One of the first books I read about memoirs was by an academic trying to tell the story of her Italian American heritage, Louise DeSalvo. Keep this up. It's a journey, with many rewards along the way.

    Memory Writers Network

  2. Dear Jerry, I couldn't agree more that the impulse to storytelling is deep within the human psyche—perhaps one of the few truly unifying traits that cut across cultural and epochal differences.
    I, too, love DeSalvo's work, whose blog is on my list of interesting links.
    I have added yours too as it is rich with information for all of us interested in memoir.
    Thanks for commenting, let's keep the conversation going.