Seeking Sicily an interview with John Keahey

Seeking Sicily

Sicily’s rich history, culture and literature are filled with endless stories, and so one writer or interpreter visiting here will never come up with a definitive interpretation, each experience will remain unique. Sicily has many faces and reflections, depending on where and when you visit and who you meet, it is impossible ever to finish exploring this multifaceted place.

Every book written about Sicily is so valuable as each author who writes about Sicily from a unique experience, and a personal point of view gives us a piece of the puzzle.

John Keahey’s contribution to the story, Seeking Sicily: a cultural journey through myth and reality in the heart of the Mediterranean (Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press. New York 2011) is a delicate, intimate, intellectual and extremely well-researched portrait of Sicily.

Keahey is an American journalist who has written extensively about Italy and explores many exciting elements of Sicilian culture, history and literature.

Unfortunately, Keahey is a foreigner working with an interpreter, and so there are the usual minor misconceptions, idealism and small superficial errors which will identify him as such.

Sicily is not a comfortable place to explore, at times it is isolated by its own geography, mentality, language, culture and landscape. It is difficult for foreigners to accepted into the community.

Even if Sicilians seem welcoming, they can still exclude outsiders out by switching into their dialect. The centre of local Sicilian communities is made up of an intricate web of relationships, language and interconnections which is virtually impenetrable for an outsider.

But, Keahey’s journalistic eye and sense of story are impeccable, through extensive and detailed interviews with many proud Sicilians he digs below the superficial mask to get to the heart of this place with insightful, rich and evocative insight.

Seeking Sicily offers readers a charmingly well-written introduction to the island. Thanks to a robust journalistic process Keahey sheds new light on the history, culture, literature and cuisine of the island.

In particular, the research into Sicilian writers like Leonardo Sciascia and Pirandello, the Mafia, the Spanish Inquisition, mythology and the many different conquerors of Sicily are engrossing and make Seeking Sicily a more than worthy addition to the library of work dedicated to and inspired by Sicily.

After reading Seeking Sicily, I was enthralled at how John Keahey was able to write so freshly and vividly about Sicily. It is surprising to see how Keahey was able to discover so many refreshing facets to Sicily. Many books about Sicily, can be quite repetitive when it comes to Sicilian history.

I was excited when I found a contact email, and John Keahey granted me an interview which I’m happy to share with you along with the great news that he is working on a new book about Sicily, which will be released later on this year.

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What is your particular connection to Sicily, how did you fall in love with the place?

I have a hard time defining this connection: As far as I know, I have no direct Italian/Sicilian ancestors, so blood isn’t an issue. All I can sense is that I spent two weeks in Sicily, in the Catania area, at a U.S. Naval Air Station (Sigonella) in 1986. Friends and I would drive into Catania (truly a remarkable, wonderful city!) for dinner each evening, and on the weekend I rented a car and drove to Sciacca, on the southern coast. En route, creating a small hill east of Agrigento, the Greek ruins strung along the Valley of the Temples suddenly appeared, and I knew I was in love with the place. The people, the food, and the culture cinched the deal. By 1990, I was making almost annual trips to Italy, for pleasure and my first two books, and Sicily kept creeping back into my mind. When I worked on my first Sicily book, I made four trips, and the connection was cemented.

What do you think makes Sicily such a special place?

As I hinted above, it’s the people, first and foremost, then the culture that I learned about from reading Sicilian authors (plus several viewings of Visconti’s The Leopard!) and by studying the history. The culture and the people are shaped by that history and by the reality that Sicilians have never been in control of their own political destinies. The last conqueror of the island is, in fact, the Italians. Northern Italy, not counting ancient Rome, has been in control since 1871, and the island’s people continue to under its wing.

Randazzo, Catania

How did you go about researching your book? What was the process from the initial idea?

My publisher Tom Dunne (St. Martin’s Press) and I agreed that the book would be made up of varying amounts of history, culture, literature, with some Sicilian food and food history tossed in. Anything else ­­ a plan of action, a travel itinerary around the island, which places I would visit ­­ went by the wayside. It’s an organic process, and how it grows is up to chance. I’ve learned to be flexible and allow a change of plans to take over. One example: I am crossing a street in Palermo en route to see something I had read about. I was struck by a thought as I glanced at a street sign, and turned right instead of left, ending up at the crumbling, ruined birthplace of the author of The Leopard. This chance manoeuvre led to the beginning of what became chapter one. I never made it to the place where I was originally headed.

What is the one place someone should visit or the one authentic Sicilian experience for anyone visiting Sicily. Tell us about it.

What is an “authentic” Sicilian experience? The impoverished peasant class, beholden for centuries to large landowners, disappeared shortly after World War II; widows almost never wear black once the funeral is over; women, once forbidden from venturing out of the house on their own, are as free as men ever were; the only carts pulled by mules and horses are just seen during festival parades and in tourist rides; streets once used by the occasional cart or wagon are now hopelessly jammed with automobiles; the thrilling tuna harvest off the south­ central coast is nowhere near what it used to be. And, fortunately, the Sicilian Mafia is deep underground; bodies no longer pile up in the streets of Palermo (in a 15­year period during the 1980s­90s, there was a thousand Mafia death in those streets). The mob is still there; tourists just never see it. The streets are alive with activity, day and night.

So the experience today is one where history can be explored, the art of all eras appreciated, wonderful food unlike any elsewhere in Italy consumed, vistas of rolling hills and expansive vineyards abound, and most importantly, friendly people are found nearly everywhere. For example, I made four visits to a small, non­ tourist village in the south, wandering the few streets and speaking with just a handful of residents. By my second visit, several months later, some locals remembered me. By visits three and four, some even remembered my name and would stop by my table at the local restaurant for a conversation. I stay away from the heavily touristed villages with all their T­shirt shops and copycat restaurants with “tourist menus” and seek out the small places where local shops don’t even sell postcards. That, to me, is authentic Sicily.

Obviously, first­ time visitors need to spend time in some of those larger places. That’s where the art, the big museums, the reconstructed Greek ruins are, and they must be seen. I’ve been to the Palatine Chapel in Palermo three times and spent Easter Week in world­ famous Enna, so I’ve done my share of “touristing”. Now I want to seek out the hidden, the less well-known, the secret places.

Why do you think Sicily has inspired and continues to inspire writers?

I can only address what inspires me and why I keep going back. Perhaps it is the fatalism of the people who seem to do quite well living in the moment. While many, of course, speak Italian, most grew up in households where Sicilian, a separate language, was spoken. Sicilian has no future tense, and I speculate this is because Sicilians over three thousand years had no future to look forward to; it was always in the hands of outsiders. Plus they live in a place historically wracked by earthquakes, bloody Mafia control, and occasional catastrophic volcanic eruptions. They view Etna as a giver and a taker: Its lava ­enriched soil gives an incredible bounty ­­ almonds, wine, lemons, oranges ­­ but Etna can kill you in an instant. The sour with the sweet. All this has helped shape a unique Sicilian mindset that has intrigued generations of writers, both from within and without.

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Who is the one Sicilian writer who spoke to you most clearly?

There are many Sicilian writers with whom I did not get acquainted, at least not yet. But of the dozen or so I have read and written about, it has to be Leonardo Sciascia and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. If you only read those two, you would be on your way to a basic understanding of who Sicilians are. Of course, go back a few years and explore Luigi Pirandello and Giovanni Verga, and watch the Visconti films “The Leopard” and La terra trema.

How is Sicily so different from the rest of Italy?

Sicilians famously do not consider themselves Italian. The only time, perhaps ­­ and I say this flippantly, of course, ­­ that they claim to be Italians is when Italy is a finalist in World Cup Soccer. They are different for all the reasons I’ve mentioned ­­ 3,000 years of being ruled by at least 15 or so outsiders, the dangers of everyday life, etc. ­­ but also because of their awareness that those in the north of Italy only want them for their military service or their labour in automobile factories or as maids in their homes. Just recently, a northern Italian Member of Parliament said he considered that sending his home soccer team to play in Palermo was the same as sending it to Africa. Sicilians do not feel they are part of the peninsula. Rome lets Sicily’s roads deteriorate while pouring money into the north. Funds might be sent down for a project, but when the money runs out, work is stopped, often for years. One of my earliest memories while driving around eastern Sicily in the mid­1980s was highway off­ramps heading to nowhere, abandoned ends of bridges over highways with no middle span, unfinished apartment houses and factories, all left to rust and crumble. Sicilian oranges are left to rot unpicked while Rome strikes deal with Morocco to import oranges in exchange for North Africans buying Fiats made in the north of Italy. It’s complicated, and what I have cited here barely scratches the surface.

I know you are a real Italophile and have written extensively about Italy, please tell us more about the subjects of your books.

My first book, “A Sweet and Glorious Land: Revisiting the Ionian Sea”, is about southern Italy, particularly Naples, Calabria, Basilicata, and Puglia. Then came “Venice Against the Sea: A City Besieged”. It deals with Venice’s struggle with high water in the face of global climate change. My Sicily book was third (“Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean”). Fourth is “Hidden Tuscany: Discovering Art, Culture, and Memories in a Well ­Known Region’s Unknown Places”. The fourth deals with western Tuscany, which many travellers to Tuscany ignore while spending their time along the region’s east side.

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You mentioned you will be back in Sicily tell us a little more about your trip and next book.

The Sicily book, in particular, seems to have struck a chord with the travelling public (as well as a lot of the third­ and fourth ­generation Sicilian Americans!). That tells my publisher and me that interest in the island remains high. I have travelled through the same places many times ­­ for research and to take family and friends on visits there ­­ and I want now to find places visitors seldom if ever, get to. So book five will be an exploration of the island seeking out those places. I’ll miss a lot, to be sure, but I’ll also discover a lot as well. There is no title as yet. The release is tentatively scheduled for Spring/Summer 2018.

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Thanks so much to John Keahey for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers I thank you for writing it, as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily. 

For more information about John Keahey’s books and impressive book trailer for Seeking Sicily see his author page here.

The new book  Sicilian Splendors: Discovering the Secret Places that Speak to the Heart will be released this fall and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Seeking Sicily is available on Book Depository and Amazon.