The stories we hear as children have a huge impact on the early years of our adult life; those familial tales seep deep into our psyches influencing careers, successes, failures, and fears. We may choose a course simply to steer clear of or emulate origins that we have scarce memory of other than what we were told. This is one of the major motifs in my novel, Artista by the Sea and it is often what motivates my writing like an ancestral ghost tapping me on the shoulder whispering “Don’t forget about me.”
We all have them—stories that is. The one about great aunt Gertrude running naked through the jungle or Uncle Sidney dying during a battle. Stories of our parents and grandparents as children, stories of why we were to go to church or temple or to the mosque to pray. Stories of why women are supposed to be meek, or stoic, or love to shop (shopping to me is like being forced to eat liver—I loathe it). Why men are supposed to be unemotional, rational sexual beasts. Interesting enough as I was editing this piece the spell check put a red line under uncle as a misspelling as Uncle is supposed to be capitalized; yet aunt slid under the spelling radar—a small a would do! Couldn’t help tossing this in as it too reflects the mercurial stories of women and their roles in a misogynistic society.
Now I admit, I’m obsessed with my Italian lineage and I realize the reason. The cause is the loss of a language and cultural myths that should have survived the move to America. My Italian grandfather (I had a wonderful Irish one as well that I will save for another blog) unfortunately grew up in an era that disdained any semblance of diversity. He was barred from particular places purely because of his dark skin (that never did wrinkle) and Romanesque nose. Consequently, he learned to shun his own ethnicity. This had a powerful rippling effect on my mother, who never learned Italian and never embraced the beauty of her heritage. When I finally landed in Italy I sobbed (literally—ask my husband) at the thought of my grandfather. I wondered how he ever denied such a stunning place rich with history, art, food, and breath taking views. I suppose he never dared look back to what was left behind as he personified the stories America fed him.
What happens when a language drifts or becomes so diluted or forgotten (like Gaelic for example)? How does this impact the translation of the stories we hear? I am learning Italian, a lyrical language that was flushed down the family toilet over societal biases and a desire for sameness. I wonder what was not translated, blurred, misinterpreted. While writing Artista by the Sea I used the protagonist, Juliana, to explore these questions. But unlike my familial history, Juliana’s artistic grandmother, Alessandra, remains devoted to her language and her ties to the old country. An artist forced to leave Italia during the Fascist reign of Mussolini, Alessandra fled with only her daughter and a small suitcase, selling her art for a ticket to America. Her beloved Lucca would join them later. Years go by and she waits for her husband, but at the end of the war, Europe was in shambles. There was no internet to trace a person’s whereabouts. Only the stories and language, the word of mouth could do that. This all had an enormous impact on Juliana's quest to be like her grandmother, an artista by the sea.
Last week I had a reading of Artista that followed with a discussion about the tales we are told and the direction they steered us. It was an interactive discourse and I was thrilled when a Japanese woman shared an endearing account about story-time at her son’s pre-school. To reiterate, her son was concerned about her accent and asked her not to read. Parents were supposed to take turns and she was distraught that her son was embarrassed of her and feared the other children would make fun. The woman went to the teacher and explained the dilemma and was told to think about it. She found a perfect solution—a hilarious Japanese story about poop. “The kids loved it because the illustrations were funny" and her Japanese was flawless. An entertaining example of the sacredness of story.
Language and myths are trees rooted in time and like the stories we have heard can either shades us from the sun or knocks us over when a branch falls. They can control our lives or empower our resolve. As a writer, creating prose and narratives that stem from something I heard along the way reflects the magical influence story has; that power to recount history or culture via the eye of the storyteller. The good news is—we can always revise!
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.