my writing journey circling back to my ancestors

I’ve been thinking about the developmental links this writing course has created for me over the past two years. Taking courses in isolation from the whole makes the experience both random and consolidating, with space to explore the mosaics of writing in depth.

After completing Creative Non Fiction, we were asked to write a brief on a potential book in the making. I had no idea then, though memoir appealed. Eighteen months on, after studying authors’ styles and genres in depth, the pivoting theme is my Italian heritage and a curiosity for genealogy. All thanks to a current read – Alexandra Tidswell’s novel, Lewisville. Her story demonstrates that everyone’s stories can be told, well researched and imaginatively woven through fiction. Can’t wait to see where this path leads me…

It’s curious that I should be surprised at my goal affirmation, because the theme has been simmering in me for many years. I never knew my Nonno, as he died when I was very young, and he, not far past his fiftieth year. When my Nonna was alive, and I was in my twenties, I interviewed her about her life. These interviews were recorded onto four double-sided cassette tapes. Given the wisdom of age and experience, I would tackle this task differently now. For starters, no closed-ended questions, or questions I already knew the answers to. Copies of the tapes were stored in Wellington’s Alexander Turnbull Library. These tapes needed to be transcribed to provide any historical significance, so I took a course, led by oral historian, television and media personality of the time, Judith Fyfe. The transcription remains incomplete, but now a whole new story begs me to tell it.

I’m practising the beginnings of my historical novel-in-the-making in the Novel/Novella course, with a character from one of my short stories. Iris, my protagonist is from London, not Italy, and she ends up in Wellington, socially alienated from the ‘norms’ of society. It’s the story of a friendship between her as an old woman on the other side of the neighbourhood, meeting a young girl, and the impact this has for them both. Importantly, it demonstrates how an unlikely, shared common life experience can bring people together, to cross the divides that separate them.

I might even decide to morph this into the story of my ancestors yet…we will see.

In the late 1920s, my Nonno (grandfather) left the small volcanic island of Stromboli in southern Italy, alone, at age fourteen, to work for his uncle in Gisborne, New Zealand. He worked as a fisherman, eventually co-owning and running a restaurant and fresh fish shop. He grew these businesses and the Gisborne Fisheries, the latter which to this day still remains as a family-owned and run enterprise.

There’s a love story in here too. Nonno returned to Italy, aged twenty, to marry his sweetheart, (my Nonna-grandmother,) and bring her over to New Zealand to join him, only to be told that her father would not allow her to leave her family. She remained in Italy for another five years. It was one very long engagement, and World War Two was no excuse, as it hadn’t started by this stage. Nonno returned five years later to collect his bride.

Nonna returned to her home town only once during her nine decade lifetime, and she was widowed for four decades of it.

As I write, I see that there may be more parallel themes between both my novel in progress, and my Nonna’s personal story.

Meanwhile, I look forward to embarking on my new journey alongside both my grandparents, just as they did all those years ago.


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