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.

Seeking Sicily quote

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.

Sicily: A Literary guide for travellers

 

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Andrew and Suzanne Edwards are both accomplished writers and translators with a deep admiration for Sicily, their guide to the island is a detailed love letter to the history and culture of this place.

Together they trace an outline of Sicily through its rich literary history creating an intriguing portrait of this ancient place.

Not only do they take you on an exploration of the major cities of Sicily but they share fascinating travelogues by foreign visitors and writers together with insights from the immensely significant literary life of La Sicilia.

The range of experts quoted in this literary guide is impressive and includes everyone from Italo American writers like Theresa Maggio, native contemporary Palermitano writer Roberto Alajmo and British travellers completing Grand Tours of Europe in the nineteenth century. You will be amazed to see the diverse range of people drawn to the island through the centuries.

There is an enthralling collection of native Sicilians and foreigners who tell us about Sicily through this unique literary travel guide, the plethora of famous names include: Alexandre Dumas, Harold Acton, Leonardo Sciascia, Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Miller, Steinbeck, Carlo Levi, Lawrence Durrell, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, D.H Lawrence and Truman Capote.

If the real sense of a place is expressed through its writers, then Sicily is best seen through the words of visitors, travellers and native authors.

Sicily: a Literary guide for travellers takes you into Sicily’s real personality, with fascinating insights into the character, history and culture of this enigmatic island. And it’s also one hell of a reading list!

After hearing Andrew and Suzanne Edwards plans to explore the literary landscape of Spain, I contacted them for an email interview. I had to know more about this intellectual couple’s work.

Largest island

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

After working in Greece and having a strong connection to Spain, we have always been interested in Mediterranean cultures. Over the years, we have travelled extensively throughout Italy and, in 2007, finally made it to Sicily – it was a revelation, something akin to a homecoming. Sicily is the crossroads that makes sense of the Mediterranean and it was our good fortune to find a property in the historic town of Caccamo that we could call home for part of the year. Each visit has widened our Sicilian horizons and we are slowly peeling back the layers of history that make the island so fascinating.

What do you think makes Sicily such a special place?

From the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the glories of Norman Sicily, centuries of Spanish rule at the height of the Baroque, to the fading twilight of the Bourbons and conflicts over Italian unification, Sicily is unique. Every small town is a microcosm of this history.

The landscape, although affected by man, has a timeless quality and yields the three legendary elements of Mediterranean life – the olive, the grape and the fig, in addition to the glorious citrus fruits. This magnificent countryside and history have, however, left an inevitably complicated legacy that is still playing out in the issues faced by the island in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

It is no wonder that such a rich and complex past has provided the backdrop to a prodigious literary output.

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

Having established ourselves in Sicily, we, naturally, read authors associated with the island, such as Lampedusa, Sciascia, Camilleri and Bufalino. Rather than explore with the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, good as they are, we decided to go in search of the locations we had been reading about and discover the inspirations behind the books. It was a great experience that introduced us to many interesting people.

We combined this with reading the views of foreign writers such as Theresa Maggio, Tobias Jones and Alejandro Luque whose books on Sicily Andy has ended up translating. Back in the UK, we approached a publisher with the idea of a literary guide to the island that would enable others to experience Sicily in this manner.

Fortunately, our proposal was accepted and we were commissioned by Tauris Parke to write the book. Our research then took on greater depth as we travelled in the footsteps of over a hundred writers from five continents who had written on matters Sicilian.

The time span encompassed more than two thousand years of textual output. Initially daunted, we soon found that one writer opened the door to another and, once we had decided to make the book a circular tour, the structure and authors led the way. The majority, but not all of the research was undertaken in Sicily – we spent many a fascinating hour in London’s British Library.

The autostrada to Messina as seen from Taormina

What is the one place someone should visit or the one authentic Sicilian experience for anyone visiting Sicily?

Suzanne: To isolate just one place or experience is supremely difficulty; sometimes, a simple meal of fresh Sicilian seafood drizzled in a dressing of local olive oil, garlic and fresh lemon, washed down with a glass of Grillo whilst gazing out at the encompassing ocean is all that is needed to fill the senses and connect with the very essence of the island.

Or perhaps to visit a market and jostle with the locals and marvel at the vibrancy and freshness that the land and sea have to offer – Catania’s fish market is particularly notable.

However, there is nothing like visiting an author’s home to bring a particular era and personality to life. For this reason, I would recommend a visit to Lucio Piccolo’s former residence in Capo d’Orlando. Set back from the smart coastal town, the aristocratic poet and cousin of Lampedusa, shared this house with his brother, Casimiro, and sister, Giovanna.

Now a museum, the first floor captures the idiosyncrasies of the two brothers. The lounge, complete with piano, was divided in two with each of the brothers manifesting their quirks in the décor and arrangements. The library reflects their esoteric reading habits, whilst the family’s love of animals can be seen in the pet cemetery to one side of the landscaped garden.

Andy: I would have to say Piazza Marina in Palermo. The iconic square with the twisted Moreton Bay fig tree at its core contains so much hidden Sicilian history in all its light and shade. To one side of the piazza is the Palazzo Chiaramonte, also known as the Steri, which is now part of the University.

The building, itself, with its arches and crenellations, represents the lordly power of the Chiaramonte who commissioned it. It then became the Spanish viceroys’ palace and a gaol. The lower floor contains the former inquisition prison that housed the supposedly heretical victims of the Holy Office, written about by Leonardo Sciascia. The walls, gradually rediscovered over the years, are daubed with some heart-breaking graffiti. In an adjoining room is the painting of the Vucciria market, painted by the twentieth-century artist, Renato Guttuso. It captures all the vibrancy and tension of the market, now sadly in decline at the reallocation.

Next to the Steri is the former Hotel de France, which once housed those Victorian and Belle Époque tourists keen to see the wonders of the island, including the likes of Freud. A small lane between the two buildings leads into Via Butera and the former residence of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, where he partially penned The Leopard.

Detail of Messina town hall

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

Sicily has inspired, not only novelists and poets but also essayists, ethnographers, cultural observers, classicists, cookery writers and theorists of varying stamps. It is precisely the elements that attract these diverse disciplines that continue to provide inspiration to those who have the desire to share their thoughts on paper.

Most aspects of human endeavour have found some corner of Sicily favourable to their expression – be that beneficial or detrimental to the island’s wider society. Sicily’s cultural heritage is not just a pretty backdrop, but an integral character in much literary output.

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

Andy: Hmm, there are so many, Pirandello, Consolo, Martoglio…! If I had to narrow it down, I would have to pick one poet and one novelist/short story writer. The poet would be Lucio Piccolo – I love his Baroque cadences and imagery, his poem conjuring the Sirocco wind being my favourite. He was a man from another era stuck in the twentieth century, but even the modernists recognised his talent. The other writer would be Gesualdo Bufalino, a man of prodigious lyrical ability from Comiso, who characterised his hometown as a ‘città teatro’, a town of theatrical capacity for life which he was able to capture in some of his writings.

Suzanne: I have to agree with Andy’s choices but, from a female perspective, I must add the writer, Maria Messina. Born in the nineteenth century, and championed by Giovanni Verga, she managed to bring a unique female voice to a literary landscape dominated by men. She shared with her readership the plight of women who often suffered in silence.

From the journeys in your book, which do you think is the most quintessential literary-inspired place to visit?

Suzanne has already mentioned Lucio Piccolo’s residence in Capo d’Orlando; it is perhaps not the most quintessential place though, as we have both alluded to the idiosyncratic nature of the location and the man. There are two locations that immediately spring to mind which vie for archetypical dominance.

The first, Taormina, was the playground for foreign writers to come and spend some weeks in warmer climes whilst waiting for the muse to descend. However, we would pick Agrigento and surroundings with its iconic Valley of the Temples, the Vigata- Porto Empedocle of Andrea Camilleri and the home of Luigi Pirandello in the aptly named suburb of Caos. Pirandello’s home maintains much of the man, including a faintly melancholic air enhanced by the fact that the cliff sidewalk leads to his tomb.

Duomo Messina Madonna

How is Sicily so different from the rest of Italy?

Sicily has so much in common with the ‘continent’, more perhaps than some Sicilians would care to admit; however, the narrow Straits of Messina do make a difference. There is a distinct island mentality – something, for better or worse, they share with the British. Waves of invaders have taken their toll and have given Sicilians a certain initial wariness when it comes to ‘the other’, be that ideas or people.

That’s not to say they don’t know how to enjoy themselves – witness feast days – but on first meeting, they don’t behave with the flamboyance of Neapolitans, for example; although times are changing and the world for Sicilians, as for us all, is becoming a much smaller place.

In terms of culture, Sicily is the original melting pot, more so than Rome. The common perception is that Romans made history, whereas Sicilians had history heaped upon them. We are not sure we believe this completely as some Roman legionnaires, Greek poets, Arabic viziers and Spanish grandees were islanders at heart and have all contributed to this melting pot of cultural distinction that is absent from many other corners of Italy. For example, the Arabs never really conquered the mainland and so their imprint is stronger on the island, notably in the food.

Port of Messina

Tell us about your next project.

We have been lucky enough to receive another commission for a literary guide and have just completed the first draft of Andalucía: A Literary Guide for Travellers which is due for publication in the autumn of 2016. It will follow the same structure as our Sicily book and will also feature over a hundred authors who lived in or wrote about the Spanish region.

Our thoughts are now turning to the next project and we have decided to take a look at the Byron/Shelley story from the perspective of John Polidori, Byron’s physician and uncle to Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. Contrary to cinematic portrayals, notably by Ken Russell, Polidori was not a snivelling, unattractive, little man but a younger, mirror-image of Byron. Unfortunately for Polidori, he was in awe of Byron’s talent and suffered in his shadow. Despite producing one of the first vampire novels (originally attributed to Byron) at the same time as Mary Shelley gave birth to Frankenstein, the doctor never had any true literary talent. He did, however, also leave a diary for posterity and it is this that we intend to follow by tracing the journey into exile he made with Lord Byron.

Next summer we will drive through Belgium, down the Rhine and into Switzerland stopping at the famous Villa Diodati. From there, we will track Polidori’s footsteps into Italy, all the way to his family villa which still exists.

We’ve also written the first few pages of a historical novel set in Messina during the time of Miguel de Cervantes – although it will probably never see the light of day!

Ceramics Santo Stefano

 

Sicily: A literary guide for travellers is available through Amazon, and the Book Depository

For more details about Andrew and Suzanne Edwards see their author page here.

Feel free to follow these two amazing writers on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Their new book Andalucia: a literary guide for travellers is also available from the Book Depository.

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Syracuse: City of legends an interview with Jeremy Dummett

siracusa

Jeremy Dummett is a lover of history, a dedicated Italophile and a frequent visitor to Sicily. It was while on a trip to Syracuse in 2005 that the seeds of an idea were planted.

Dummett became interested in the history of ancient Siracusa, he discovered an immense amount of literature referring to this city and found no recent publications about this amazingly rich place in English, and so Syracuse: City of Legends (I.B Taurus, London 2010) was born.

The book offers us a wonderfully complete insight into ancient Greek Syracuse, with many exciting links to historical figures such as Socrates, Plato, Archimedes and Cicero.

The city of legends places Syracuse firmly in the timeline of history with exciting insights into Roman Sicily, the early Catholic church, the Byzantine and Arab periods and an intriguing look at Caravaggio’s connection to the city.

The book is divided into two parts, the first dedicated to the history of Syracuse and a second part which is a general guide to the city where Dummett gives us the benefit of his extensive knowledge as a frequent visitor.

Syracuse: City of legends is both an excellent general history of Sicily, a resource for anyone wanting to know more about this place from its origins to recent times and a general tourist guide for first-time visitors.

I recall visiting the Baroque city of Noto last year which is near Syracuse and asking around at many bookstores for a good general history book about this city, but I only managed to find one in Italian which was an architectural book about the project to rebuild the city after a major earthquake in 1693.

Dummett has also published another book about Palermo.

I did a brief email interview with him last year as he was launching his new book where we talked more about this work.

 

Jeremy Dummett quote

 

Tell us about your first book Syracuse: City of Legends.

It tells the story of Syracuse, from its foundation by Greeks in the eighth century BC up to modern times, combined with a survey of the monuments. It is the first historical guide to the city.

Why Syracuse? What brought you to this place for the subject of a book?

The book developed out of several visits to Sicily, staying in Syracuse. I could find no book that told the story of the city, which is filled with monuments from different eras. The atmosphere of the place struck my imagination. Back in London, I started research out of curiosity which led to a draft for the book.

And you now have a new book about Palermo, tell us about this new work and how the two places are similar or do they have different personalities?

My book on Palermo follows the same format, so it is another historical guide. The two cities could hardly be more different, geographically or historically. Syracuse was famous in antiquity, as one of the great Greek cities, equal in size to Athens. Palermo was famous in the Middle Ages when it took over from Syracuse as the leading city of Sicily. The Arabs made it their capital of the island in the ninth century AD. The modern cities have very different personalities. Syracuse is primarily a tourist destination. Palermo is the hectic capital of Sicily, the centre of government for the island, a commercial centre and university town, as well as a tourist destination.

What is the most fascinating element of Syracuse and Palermo you want to share with us?

Syracuse: an ancient Greek harbour city, built in golden sandstone. Later it was a centre for early Christianity. There are clear links to the ancient Greek civilisation in the cathedral, which was built around a Greek temple, in the archaeological museum and the Euryalus castle. The early Christians are remembered by the extensive catacombs.

Palermo: a medieval city of the Arabs and Normans, capital of the powerful kingdom of Sicily, which has retained a strong North African feel. Later it became the baroque city ruled by Spanish viceroys. Links to the Arab-Norman civilisation can be seen in the cathedral, the Palatine chapel, Monreale, the Zisa and the Martorana. The baroque style dominates the city, to be seen in churches, palaces and public squares.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by Sicily?

It offers a unique combination of attractions. As an island, it has stunning natural beauty, to which generations have added spectacular urban architecture. The history, monuments and literature are all of outstanding interest. It is very varied by region, with something for everyone. The combination of ancient ruins, sparkling beaches, unspoilt countryside and wonderful food is hard to beat. Not being overdeveloped means that a holiday in Sicily is still something of an adventure.

Sicily has such a complex history, how did you manage to navigate through its immense history? Tell us a bit about the Sicilian history you discovered.

I concentrated upon one city at a time, which makes the task more manageable. Most books on Sicily follow the format set in the eighteenth century by writers such as Goethe, which involve a tour around the island. By concentrating on one city, the history, though still complex, is continuous and easier to follow. Sicily has such great regional differences that you really need to look at each region, or city, in turn.

Symbol of Sicily

What’s your own personal link to Sicily, how have you found your way to this place?

Purely by visiting Sicily and becoming fascinated by it. Sicily and Italy, in general, is currently going through an economic and political decline, are you at all concerned about how this could affect historically important cities like Syracuse and Palermo, what is your opinion of the current situation.

The current economic crisis is very apparent and difficult to manage. On the plus side, it is concentrating minds on how to develop in the future. There is huge potential in both cities for increased cultural tourism.

Syracuse seems already to be reaping the benefits of increased numbers of visitors. In Palermo, improvements continue to be made to make the city more attractive to visitors. Central areas such as Piazza San Domenico are now free of traffic while La Cala, the old port, has a walkway around it with new bar-restaurants from which to view the yachts and fishing boats. A clear way forward is emerging from a very difficult period.

What would you like people to get out of your books, what was the reason behind them?

I would like readers to understand what these cities are about, their backgrounds, their stories and how they relate to the monuments to be seen today. No such books currently exist which was the reason for writing them.

You have an academic background tell us a little about your professional life.

See bio on my website.

Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?

Not yet! I am still working on the follow up to the launch of my Palermo book.

Thanks so much to Jeremy Dummett 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.

Syracuse, City of Legends and his other book about Palermo is available on Amazon  and the Book Depository.

His new book Palermo, city of Kings: the heart of Sicily is also available on Amazon and the Book Depository.

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Trinàcria: A tale of Bourbon Sicily an interview with Anthony Di Renzo

Reading Trinacria

One of the most surprising discoveries on my journey to know and understand Sicily better has been Anthony Di Renzo’s book Trinàcria (Guernica, Toronto 2013) which eloquently evokes the spirit of Sicily.

Di Renzo gathers threads from Bourbon Sicily through the periods most vibrant characters and to bring their energy back to life. With the voice of the Marchesa of Scalea, he creates an eccentric aristocrat character filled with sarcasm, arrogance and shrewd observation.

Trinàcria begins as a Hollywood director is set to film a big budget historical film in Sicily, akin to Visconti’s cinematic masterpiece the Leopard in 1963. The director inadvertently reawakens the spirit of the cantankerous Marchesa who is quite peeved she is being used as the inspiration for cinema and consequently tells us her life’s story, revealing herself to be the Trinàcria of the title.

This tale from nineteenth-century Sicily is intriguingly dark, gothic and morbid as the movie director directly addresses the mummified remains of the long dead Sicilian noble deep in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.

The Marchesa’s eternal soul irreverently comments on the ironies of life in a rich monologue about life, death and human hypocrisy.

Following the memories of Trinàcria, we meet other key figures from this period including Garibaldi, the Neapolitan poet Leopardi and opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Di Renzo’s novella is a fantastic work dominated by the vivid energy of Sicilian history and is a must-read for anyone who wants to viscerally experience the spirit of Marchesa Zita Valanguerra Spinelli who is part of a genuinely a haunting literary experience.

Not content in merely reviewing this excellent book I pestered Anthony Di Renzo for an interview, which I am happy to share with you.

He answered my questions about the background to this beautiful book and a little bit about the fascinating Sicilian American academic who created it.

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Tell us about your book Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily.

In one sense, Trinàcria is a ghost story. Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, the Marchesa of Scalea, posthumously narrates the events of her life from the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. The book is literally a tale from the crypt, a bit of Sicilian Gothic fit for November, the Month of the Dead. In another sense, Trinàcria is a meditation on Sicilian history and politics. Most English and American readers think the book is only about the past. Most Sicilian readers, however, claim it is also about the present. The novel has much to say about globalization and neoliberal economic reform.

How on earth did you come across the Marchesa of Scalea?

The Marchesa is based on Alessandra Spadafora (1778-1851), the Duchess of Santa Rosalia, who was the mistress and eventually the wife of Benjamin Ingham, the Anglo Sicilian wine merchant. I first read about her in Princes Under the Volcano, Raleigh Trevelyan’s history of Sicily’s Marsala dynasties. A daguerreotype, taken when Donna Alessandra was a shrunken old gargoyle in bombazine, captivated me.

As I stared at the portrait, the old woman’s lips seemed to move. A hollow voice in my head whispered the opening to Giacomo Leopardi’s Chorus of the Dead: “Sola nel mondo eterna, a cui si volve/ Ogni creata cosa . . .” O Death, alone immortal on earth, unto whom every created thing must come, our disembodied natures now come. The rest of the novel followed from there.

But there is a more sinister backstory to your relationship with the Marchesa. Fill us in on what happened when you ignored her?

The Marchesa originally was a supporting character and an alternate narrator in a multigenerational novel called After the Fair is Over. She played Juno to the Aeneas of that book’s protagonist: her immigrant great-grandson, Attilio Tumeo, A powerful literary agent advised me to cut her story to make the manuscript more marketable. My wife, a student of Jungian psychology, warned against this. The Marchesa, she reminded me, represented the chthonic female energy of pagan Sicily. Did I really want to mess with that? I told her not to be so superstitious. I was the Sicilian, not she. Unless I played ball, I would never get a book contract.

Shortly after cutting the Marchesa, I was stricken with viral meningitis. For three months, my brain was on fire. I dreamt a jellyfish swam in my skull and stung me. When I described this to my mother, she exclaimed, “‘A medusa!” Medusa is the Sicilian word for jellyfish. Clearly, I had pissed off the Furies and vowed to make amends. After a long convalescence, marked by chronic migraines, I restored, revised, and expanded the Marchesa’s story until it became Trinàcria. This process took seven years. I hope the results please her as much as they please me.

But you still had problems finding a publisher for Trinàcria. Tell us about that.

Dozens of American editors rejected Trinàcria. Nobody, they declared, wanted to read about a Sicilian Marchesa, especially a dead one, unless she had written a cookbook.  Granted, Donna Zita made a mean pasta Bellini, but she was no Anna Tasca Lanza.  Unlike that other culinary Marchesa, she had never started a cooking school at Regaleali or served as a consultant for Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.’s Italian Classics line.

Do you think perhaps one of the problems for publishers was the subject of death and the afterlife? Was it too confronting? Why did publishers have such a problem with her?

Actually, novels with posthumous narrators, such as Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, are quite popular in America. Vampire and zombie fiction also sells well. But the Marchesa, a more frightening harpy, is a foreigner from an alien time. She represents the unappeasable and irredeemable past, everything secular commercial democracies had to demonize and destroy to justify their existence. Nobody wanted to stare that gorgon in the face for fear of turning into stone. 

Have you ever visited the Catacombs at Palermo? What are they really like? Did the dead really speak to you?

My mother claims to have taken me to Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini, but mercifully, I have no memory of this early childhood trauma. Sicilian friends and relatives, however, have described the experience in gloating detail. All cultures enjoy haunted houses as a carnival attraction, but the Capuchin crypt surpasses anything in Disney World. The dioramas are more astonishing, not to mention more political. Individually, the mummies represent the vanity of a specific social class or profession; collectively, they symbolize jaded humanity’s awakening at the Last Judgment.

But one needn’t take a dark ride or a ghost train at an amusement park to contact the dead. One simply needs to be tuned to their frequency. When I was a boy, I was like Haley Joel in The Sixth Sense: I saw dead people all the time. My nickname was Antonio degli Spiriti. Now, these visitations rarely happen, which is for the best. Anglo-American culture tends to classify this phenomenon as schizophrenia. I just think of it as an alternative cell-phone plan.

Does dead frighten you?

Not at all. All Souls Day, il Giorno dei Morti, is one of my favourite Catholic feasts. It’s the living who scare the shit out of me. If you’ve ever washed C-Span or the Republican Presidential Primary Debates on Fox News, you know exactly what I mean.

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Speaking of ghosts, Sicily has so much fascinating history. How did you settle on the Bourbon period? Tell us a little about this phase in Sicily’s history.

The Bourbon period marked the transition from feudal to modern Sicily. Death throes and birth pangs simultaneously convulsed the region. It was a period of repressive reaction and violent revolution. Its paradoxes and contradictions have attracted such diverse Sicilian writers as Frederico de Roberto, Luigi Pirandello, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and Leonardo Sciascia. As a Sicilian American, however, I am more fascinated by the political oppression and economic corruption that eventually caused the Sicilian Diaspora.

How did you manage to balance the history and fictional elements in Trinàcria?

The novel’s theme provided the balance. Trinàcria confronts the problems of representation and the perils and seductions of memory. I’m reminded of that wonderful line in John Ford’s elegiac Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That is why the novel’s frame deals with a movie director’s attempt to shoot an epic about the Risorgimento in Palermo during the centennial of Garibaldi’s invasion. That director, of course, is based on Luchino Visconti.

Apart from the larger-than-life character of the Marchesa you also used some very significant historical characters. Tell us about your interpretations of Leopardi, Verdi, Garibaldi, Bellini, Benjamin Ingham and Joseph Whitaker. How much poetic license did you use?

Except for stage-managing encounters with fictional characters, I used little poetic license with the novel’s historical figures. Most of their dialogue is based on their own letters and journals or on contemporary newspapers and eyewitness accounts. Even the book’s most fantastic sequences—the sudden disappearance of the volcanic island of Ferdinandea, the grandiose speeches and surreal displays at the Great Exhibition—are historically accurate.    

What’s your own personal link to Sicily?

My maternal ancestors were petty Spanish aristocrats who settled in Bagheria in the early 18th century. My great-grandfather, Antonino Coffaro, moved to Villabate in the mid-19th century and studied horticulture at the University of Palermo. He supplied Garibaldi with food and ammo before the siege of Palermo and sold citrus to Ingham & Whitaker.

Do you visit Sicily often? What is your favourite Sicilian memory or experience?

I have not visited Sicily since I was a small boy. It would be too painful. All my relatives are dead or dispersed. Worse, Villabate, once the centre of the Conca d’Oro’s citrus industry, is now an industrial zone. But I have two vivid memories from those early years. The first is sitting in a tangerine orchard at dawn and luxuriating in the healing fragrance. At the time, I was quite sickly, and my mother practised this Sicilian form of aromatherapy to restore health. The second is eavesdropping on relatives and neighbours who had participated as extras in Visconti’s film adaptation of The Leopard. Some of their anecdotes appear in Trinàcria.

Tell us about any other books you are working on.

I am still working on After the Fair is Over, the story of Donna Zita’s great-grandson in America and am currently correcting the galleys for Dead Reckoning: Transatlantic Passages on Europe and America, a collection of lyric essays and prose poems about postmodernity and globalization co-written with Andrei Guruinau. State University of New York Press will publish next spring.

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You are also an academic. Tell us a little about your professional life.

I primarily teach business and technical writing at Ithaca College in Upstate New York. This is fitting for two reasons. First, I worked for several years as a publicist, copywriter, and medical writing before attending graduate school. Despite earning a masters and a doctorate respectively in British and American Literature, I still experience English as the language of public and private institutions and the marketplace. Sicilian remains my mother tongue, and my literary models tend to be Southern Italian and Latin American writers.

How difficult is it to publish literary fiction these days? Tell us about your experiences and strategies.

Commercial publishing rarely values literary fiction, particularly literary fiction that challenges readers and deviates from the conventions of Anglo-American realism. As Nat Sobel once told me, it would be almost impossible for a Gabriel Garcia Marquez to publish A Hundred Years of Solitude today. Ethnic writers are forced to network. Frank Polizzi, editor of Feile-Feste: The Literary Arts Journal of the Mediterranean Celtic Association, and Michael Mirolla, editor-in-chief of Guernica Editions, believed in Trinàcria, but the book never would have been published without help from Debra Santangelo, founder and president of Sicilian Connections, and Roberto Ragone, a consultant and fundraiser, or without the sponsorship of the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere

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You contribute to and help sustain such online publications as The Times of Sicily and L’Italo Americano. Tell us about these projects and how important they are to you.

As Ignazio Buttitta observes in Lingua e dialettu, Southern Italians and their descendants are playing for their lives on a disintegrating mandolin. Every day, another string breaks in the middle of a song. For all its rhetoric about diversity and multiculturalism, global capitalism systematically destroys local cultures and languages to facilitate universal consumption. If we don’t fight to preserve our heritage, nobody else will.

Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?

When I’m not writing or teaching, I sing English and Italian comic opera in regional music companies. This probably explains my work’s Rossinian brio and sarcasm. Trinàcria treats history and politics as an opera buffa. Unfortunately, the joke is on us.

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Thanks so much to Anthony Di Renzo for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers thank you for writing it as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily’s history and character.

Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily is available on Amazon and Book Depository.

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Conversations with Elio Vittorini and his critics

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Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily has been on my reading list for a while and I was delighted to find the original english translation in the Amazon Kindle store compete with an introduction from Ernest Hemingway so I immediately snapped it up.

However for some unknown reason it was never delivered and after several emails I never got any help or explanation why. Since my credit card was never debited for the purchase I simply dug out my Italian paperback version and I am eternally grateful I did.

Conversazione in Sicilia is such an enigmatic work, at times I loved it and lived the pleasure of this natural conversation between elderly mother and grown up child, between Sicily and Sicilian, yet other times I got lost in the complicated connections, the shorthand, repetition and long windedness of the dialogue confused me. These conversations, like many real ones are fleeting, flippant, mundane and they slip beyond our grip and understanding.

Silvestro is a lost and disillusioned Sicilian living in Milan who gets a letter from his father saying he has left his mother and so he clumsily journeys back down to the island guided by a mixture of nostalgia and indignation for life.

The journey of a long lost Sicilian son who has moved away from his beloved island for many years, retraces his steps back down to his Mediterranean home recalling the harsh desert landscape of the summers in his childhood near Syracuse. Silvestro finds his mother deep in winter hibernation entrenched in timeless Sicula habits, eating food gathered from the countryside, telling mundane personal and family stories, using the ancient dialect, she is a stoic aging Sicilian woman filled with pride, yet with the defeats of life accumulating before her.

Listening into the discussion is like hearing real Sicilians talking, few words are used, they are repeated often, at times there is latent anger or the energy of a forceful interrogation, yet the intonation and energy of the human spirit behind them gives them compelling meaning.

Reading Vittorini’s work in Italian turned out to be a blessing as I think this would be terribly difficult to translate, the cadences of the conversation could be easily lost and the historical context is also tantamount to the correct reading of Conversazione in Sicilia.

We are talking about Fascist Italy and Sicily, a period of great upheaval, Vittorini reflects the disillusionment of his generation, the intellectual wasteland created by the Fascist regime. Silvestro is a victim of ‘estranged furies,’ a sense of loss and slavery, life has lost its meaning, hence the return to his past in the hope of finding some piece of mind.

Elio Vittorini himself (1908-1966) was an influential voice in the Italian modernist school, Conversations is his best known work and he was jailed when it was published in 1941 for its subversive nature. Vittorini was born in Syracuse and moved often around Sicily with his father who worked on the railway. He often ran away from home, leaving Sicily permanently in 1924, eventually settling in Florence. Vittorini’s work began to be published in journals from 1927 and many of his novels and short stories were not published until after the second world war due to Fascist censorship. He learnt English and in 1939 moved to Milan, translating many english language writers works into Italian, including D.H Lawrence, E.A Poe, Faulkner, Galsworthy, Steinbeck and Defoe (some of which also had a profound influence on his own work.)

Peeling away the layers of Silvestro’s train journey down to Sicily in Conversations there are motifs of poetry which takes the reader into the memories of his personal past to witness the discrepancies between memory and real life. The protagonist’s Sicily lives very much in his own memory, a personal myth filled with romanticized memories from the Shakespearian quoting father, to the music of the crickets in the summer and the Zampogne Sicilian bagpipes played during the festive season.

The ambiguous nature of Vittorini’s Conversazione has created scores of interpretations of this book, which adds a wonderful element of depth to this work. Some critics see Silvestro as a mythological hero going through a journey of self discovery akin to Ulysses from Homer’s Odyssey, while others see it as a political work with anti fascist undertones and references to the Spanish civil war, there is also a wave of critics who say the work is echoes the works Vittorini was translating in the same period including Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence and Eliot.

What I experiences was a wonderfully concise piece of literature which captures the voice and spirit of a mystifying Sicily while commenting on the contradictions in the Italian society of the fascist period in Italy, like the Italy of today it can be confusing, mind boggling yet ultimately intriguing.

Vittorini has now become one of my Italian literature favorites together with Quasimodo, Pirandello, Verga and Tomasi di Lampedusa. I look forward to discovering evermore in this amazingly rich oeuvre…

 

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For more reading see Michael Dubdin’s review for The Guardian and Conversations in Sicily is Sicily is available through Amazon.

There is also this fine essay about Vittorini by Eric Darton on Frigatezine.

A journey to the Volcano with Venero Armanno

 

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Venero Armanno’s trio of Sicilian themed novels written by the son of Sicilian migrants is a powerful dedication to Sicily.
The volcano is a novel of emotion, passion and fire set in the shadowlands around Etna and tells us of the epic journey of Emilio Aquila. The book takes us back and forth from Sicily to Brisbane Australia through Emilio’s own precise and vivid memories.
Firehead is a wonderfully sensual, passionate story about Sicilian migrants to Australia and a young man’s obsession over the disappearance of his neighbour, the read headed Firehead of the title.
While The Black Mountain tells the story of a boy sold into slavery to work in the sulphur mines of 1940’s Caltanissetta, deep in the rugged almost savage centre of the island.
These Sicilian themed novels by Venero Armanno, are a homage to the Sicily of post world war two and a generation of migrants who dispersed themselves all around the world.
In the words of Armanno himself, each of these books are, in their own way, about family and love, the effects of the migrant experience on first and second generation migrants and the search for the self.
I was lucky to speak to Venero Armanno about his work and creative process.

 

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How would you describe your writing style and novels to someone who has never read your work?

Trying to describe my work is one of the hardest things to answer—I’m glad some critics will do it for me.

It would be far easier if I worked in something easily identifiable, such as genre fiction: “I’m a crime writer, and my books investigate the dark psyche of people in the underbelly of Chicago.” I’ve often wished I could say something as straightforward as that.

In reality, my books are probably a blend of literary and commercial fiction; they tend to be page-turners while having a fair amount of depth (one hopes). People say the books are sensual and emotional. I’ve written a lot about the migrant experience, however, that’s far from my only main theme. Mostly I’m interested in ideas of what it is to be alive, what it is to love, what it is to hope for better things…

 

Do you have a certain method when you are working on a novel? Is it mostly research and then creativity? For example, how did something like the Volcano come about?

This varies from novel to novel, so there’s no one set answer, though my overall answer would be my method is to write without thinking too much… grasp an idea and run with it, wherever it leads. Over-thinking stifles just about everything. You can’t be over-thinking very much if you force yourself to write 1000 words a day or so. In the end, you just have to let it all flow out.

With The Volcano, I had a basic idea, but it started out as a screenplay, which grew into a three-part epic. When I really looked at that roughly 600 pages of screenplay, about twenty pages were good. So I started again from scratch. Mostly I researched as I wrote. – that is, when I came to places where I needed more information, I went and found it. That research led to other things that could go into the book… there were multiple drafting, believe me.

Do you mind being labelled as an Italo-Australian writer? What does it actually mean to you and for your writing to be classified as such?

I don’t mind and I don’t think it makes any difference one way or the other. I doubt my readership is primarily Italo-Australian, or even particularly ethnic. I think more was made of this in the first part of my career… Around the early 1990s, I remember some newspaper articles equating my writing to Paul Keating’s view of a much more multi-cultural Australia, but that was a long time ago.

You also work in the screenplay genre, how does this fit in with being a novelist, does it influence your style?

No, they feel like two completely different worlds, to be honest. “A screenplay is a blueprint for a work of art that doesn’t yet exist.” – one of my favourite quotes about the form. A book is in itself the work of art (or whatever).  I really dislike the spare type of fiction prose that seems to emulate the form of screenwriting; my writing is a little more lush and sensual. People say I write like a European/Italian/Latino – and that’s how I like it. With screenplays we’re always thinking more visually and externally; with fiction, what I love is the ability to play with, and live in the interior world. So I don’t much see the two types of genres intersecting… at least not for me.

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What advice would you give to an unpublished novelist?

“If you aren’t writing, you’re not serious. What would you say to a kid who wants to play guitar in a band and be a rock star, but never bothers to pick up a guitar and learn/play?”

Then, ask yourself why you want to do this. If it’s for money and fame, go do something else. If it’s because you genuinely love books and have been a reader all your life, then fantastic – try to be the best writer you can. That means to write a lot, every day, damn the consequences and try not to be a people-pleaser. Aim for the middle to long-term, not the short-term. Even if you solely concentrate on short stories, be aware that the road is long and that positive vibes are few and far between. Can you go several years without someone giving you some affirmation that what you’re doing is worthwhile? Can you deal with failure after failure? Because that’s what it will be like. So you have to do this for yourself, and for the sheer joy of writing. The rest is totally secondary, or irrelevant.

 

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Give us a blurb about your most recent publication?

Okay, this is the official one:

‘Black Mountain is an eerie and compelling read … Like the best of fiction, it remains with you long after you have finished.’ Christos Tsiolkas

Beginning in the sulphur mines of Sicily over a century ago, Black Mountain takes you on a journey through time and back again.

When a boy sold into slavery finds the courage to escape his brutal life, he is saved by a mysterious stranger, who raises the boy as his own. Renamed Cesare Montenero after Sicily’s own ‘black mountain’, Mount Etna, the boy grows up to discover that his rescue was no accident, that his physical strength is unnatural, and that he has more in common with his saviour than he could have imagined. And when he meets the enigmatic Celeste, he suspects for the first time that he may not be alone.

Based on factual events and ranging through Italy, Paris and the rural fringes of coastal Australia, Black Mountain is a haunting exploration of what it means to be human.

 

What are you working on at this moment?

I’ve been redrafting a new book called CRYSTAL GIRL, and that work’s done for now (I think), so it’s off with publishers and agents. I’ve been working on something very different since then, a very large novel called WOLF HOUSE. Let’s just say it involves a girl with powers she doesn’t quite understand, a haunted house, Sicilian witches and, well, some very wolfish feelings… I am absolutely loving writing this book. In fact, right now it has gone off for a long run on its own; I feel like I’m just there for the ride.

 

How are you connected to Sicily? Do you visit Sicily often?

My family went back to live in Sicily for six months when I was at a very impressionable age (nine), so I’ve always felt very connected to the place. My parents, in Australia, lived a very Sicilian lifestyle too, if I can put it that way. So that increased the connection.  I don’t have a lot of families left there so I haven’t been back in a while, but I’m very keen to take my young family.

 

Tell us about your other ‘Sicilian’ themed books …

These would be The Lonely Hunter and its sequel Romeo of the Underworld, Firehead, and The Volcano.

Each of these, in their own way, is about family and love, the effects of the migrant experience on first and second generation migrants, and the search for the self.

 

Black Mountain is your most recently published novel, tell us more about this, how did you discover this amazing setting and story?

I first came across the history of small boys forced to work in the Sicilian sulphur mines, in unthinkable conditions, during my research into The Volcano. It was such a powerful history that I felt I should use it for a book on its own, and not in some other work. I also wanted a little more time to read and talk to anyone who might have had first or second-hand experience with this slavery. I’m glad I waited quite a few years before attempting Black Mountain – I have to say, I’m thrilled with how it turned out.

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Do you have a favourite Sicilian author/work?

I like the old stuff. Just recently I finished rereading some wonderful books: Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini; Little Novels of Sicily by Giovanni Verga; The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia; Night’s Eyes by Gesualdo Bufalino. Of course, you can’t go past Il Gattopardo! I also love Cesare Pavese, even though he’s not Sicilian. And my wife gave me a new, first-time novelist’s book On Earth As It Is In Heaven, by Davide Ennia (he’s from Palermo). It looks great.

But right now I’ve started reading a lot of Japanese literature…

Are you a blog reader at all? I know you have one but I get the impression you aren’t a fan.

Yeah, it’s a funny thing. Writers like being locked away in a room, then they’re expected to be public in some way. I like my privacy and I don’t need people to know what I think on an hour by hour basis! Or day by day, month by month, year by year…

My publishers encouraged me to develop my own blog site and Facebook page, so finally, I did. I think in three years I have managed to write two and a half blogs – honestly, I couldn’t care less. My energy should go into novels anyway. I’ve since updated my blog site so it just gives a bit of information for any reader that might be curious about my work. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, or even distant… I’m just not the type who needs to express blog-style thoughts. I have full novels to do that, after all.

I don’t follow blogs by people whose work I enjoy, either. There’s more fun in mystery. I come from that generation where you didn’t have access to artists and writers, and so (maybe) their work spoke more acutely.

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A million thanks to Venero Armanno for finding the time to answer my questions.

Armanno’s writing style is sensuous, lyric and heart-achingly beautiful to read. He has written numerous novels and is a respected and experienced academic.

Some of his other beautifully sensitive, sensual and evocative stories set in Australia with their heart well and truly in Sicily include My beautiful friend, Romeo of the Underworld and The lonely hunter.

His latest book Burning Down is a thrilling journey into the world of boxing and organised crime in Brisbane is also available through the Book Depository and has been nominated for the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards. Read more about this book on Armanno’s blog here

The Volcano  is available as an ebook on Amazon while The Black Mountain can be ordered from the Book Depository.

I reviewed Venero Armanno’s book the Volcano in detail for the Times of Sicily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Literary Islands: Vitaliano Brancati

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I stumbled upon Vitaliano Brancati quite by accident in a bookstore at Messina. I was attracted by the title of one his books, I discovered after he was quite a prolific novelist and later his most famous novel Il Bel Antonio was developed into a movie staring Marcello Mastroianni, which became a classic of Italian cinema.

Being an opera fan I liked the idea of a pseudo Don Giovanni being set in Sicily. Taking the novella home I discovered a rich caricature of the Sicilian male taken to strange extremes yet which has a core honesty that goes beyond any form of realism.

The main character, Giovanni Percolla is a master of the aristocratic Sicilian art of doing nothing, he sleeps a lot, chases after women with a voracious sexual appetite and lives at home with his two spinster sisters who spoil him terribly.

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Brancati has created a rich grotesque baroque caricature, Giovanni’s world is dysfunctional and his sisters are as absurd as our Sicilian Don Giovanni is. The sisters claim to be war widows as statically so many young men died during the war that one of them was bound to have been their husband if they had married.

Everything changes when Giovanni falls in love, gets married to Ninetta and he tries to get ahead in life by moving up North to Milan where he works more, sleeps less and adopts a bizarre routine of taking cold showers to develop strength and immunity.

The couple return to Sicily after failing to adapt to life in Northern Italy. Socially they have been rejected and ostracized by the northerners and the are demoralized by the literal and metaphorical coldness of the North.

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Giovanni suffers a physical and mental collapse due to the lack of sleep and returns to the opened arms of Sicily a pale, sickly and haggard shadow of himself.

Their return to the bosom of Sicily at first seems a defeat, yet after reviving himself with beautiful Sicilian slumber and sunshine he returns to a blessed routine of comfort.

Part cautionary tale, satire and caricature Don Giovanni in Sicily is masterfully written and is one of the most succinct, beautifully written Sicilian novellas I’ve ever read.

Browsing Amazon there is a translation of Don Giovanni in Sicily but it only has one review so I’m not sure of the quality of the translation. I suggest browsing around the likes of AbeBooks to see if there is another translation which looks better.

 

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(Images: Thanks to Google)